These days, I tend to find myself bemoaning my own easy distractedness. I took a little bit of a social media fast in the opening weeks of the year, and I resolved at the end of that experience to be more measured in my use of social media, but let’s be honest: I fell pretty quickly back into old habits. I guess it’s at least good that I’m aware of my backslide? Gotta start somewhere.
I certainly make the effort to get away from busyness and distraction through nature, as hard as that is at times. But I’m realizing that even that is not always enough. I was listening to a friend’s sermon recently about Jesus’ retreats into the wilderness, and he expressed how it isn’t that hard for him to be solitary or get away from distraction, yet the greater difficulty is often that of achieving internal silence. I couldn’t agree more, particularly as someone who tends to run hamster wheels in my head. How do we stop long enough to hear our own thoughts, and to let those settle down into stillness?
All this brings me to something else that occurred a few months ago. We lost Mary Oliver, one of America’s greatest living poets, on January 17th. While I haven’t spent as much time with her poetry as I’d like, I’ve spent enough to feel her impact on me. In her poetry I’ve found a kindred soul who wanted to walk in nature and write.
Mary Oliver’s writing has been somewhat ridiculed as less than sophisticated by some critics, but for me, the appeal of her work has always been its deceptively simple attentiveness to the small things around us in the natural world. I think she recognized this criticism and pushed back against it in poems like “Foolishness? No, It’s Not” (one of my favorites):
Sometimes I spend all day trying to count
the leaves on a single tree. To do this I
have to climb branch by branch and
write down the numbers in a little book.
So I suppose, from their point of view,
it’s reasonable that my friends say: what
foolishness! She’s got her head in the clouds
But it’s not. Of course I have to give up,
but by then I’m half crazy with the wonder
of it — the abundance of the leaves, the
quietness of the branches, the hopelessness
of my effort. And I am in that delicious
and important place, roaring with laughter,
full of earth-praise.
It would be easy to look at Oliver’s life as one of romantic abandon, endlessly wandering in and rhapsodizing about nature. But underlying her work is a discipline of attention. As her poem “Yes! No!” so simply states, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
I’m realizing that part of my distractedness and lack of internal stillness is this lack of paying attention, which, by the way, is not the same as “paying attention” to what’s happening on social media. I need to give myself time, not only to escape from distraction, but to observe and listen to my own inner life and the life happening around me. I’ve also realized that I need tools to help me practice this. Here are some of the ones that have been helping me.
Back in April, I bought a rosary, and I’ve found it helpful in focusing when I go for walks or pray. Just wrapping it around my wrist and fingering the cross while walking has been a way to bring my wandering thoughts back over and over.
I also had this image from artist Scott Erickson tattooed on my forearm just a few weeks ago as a reminder to bring my full heart and attention to each day. Speaking of Scott Erickson, I’ve previously written about the book he created with writer Justin McRoberts called Prayer. I’ve found the short, meaningful prayers and images in it very helpful in forcing me to stop and listen to my own life, motives, actions, etc.
Habits, Practices, and Rhythms
I think if we want to be more attentive in our lives, we have to create habits and practices and rhythms that foster this. I’ll be the first to admit that I am not all that great at doing this consistently. But some of the things I’ve already mentioned above have been ways I’ve tried to implement some rhythms in my life. Two things that are important for me and that I’m pretty good at are walks in nature and reading thoughtful, reflective books. One new habit I’ve incorporated is following people who are different than me (a white, middle class, cisgendered man) on Twitter so that I pay attention to what life is like for people outside of my own socioeconomic bubble.
I think the third important aspect to paying attention that I’ve found true in my own life is creating Sabbath, or rest. I’m actually writing this while sitting in a cottage on the water on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. My wife and I have made a habit of coming here most of the years we’ve been married, and you can read about some of those experiences here. We usually come right after I’m done teaching for the school year. There’s something about this island, with its rugged rocky coasts, pine trees, mountains, and the surrounding ocean that’s good for my soul. I feel a little slower and more in tune with nature, for at least the few days we’re here.
Maybe you can’t escape to an island (and frankly I get to do this maybe once a year), but can you create spaces of rest in your life that allow you to stop, slow down, and be attentive?
What I’ve realized in engaging these practices and rhythms and rests is that my attention has become a form of prayer, of communion with God. I grew up sometimes thinking that prayer was this strange one-sided conversation with a man in the sky where we just asked for things. As I’ve grown older I’ve realized that God is always speaking, in your heart, in the birdsong, in the ocean’s roar, in the quiet among the trees. We’re often just too busy to notice. May that be less and less so.
Chris currently teaches writing and literature to community college students in Massachusetts. He is the author of six books of poetry, and can probably be found reading a book, drinking chai, and wearing flannel. In 2018 he and his wife Jen co-founded The Poetry Pub, an online community for poets. He enjoys walking in the woods, hanging out in coffee shops, and poking around used bookstores.