Committing to Paying Attention

Swing Set in Summer

Swing Set in Summer

The prolific and much-lauded poet, Mary Oliver, whose writing resonates deeply with me, wrote, “Instructions for living a life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

Which is, for my money, pretty good advice, as good as any I’ve ever gotten on how to live. It’s also really hard to do, at least consistently. We get so wrapped up in existing, in surviving, that we forget to really live, to really pay attention, to be present and aware. Or at least I do.

In some ways, I think, that is what this blog is about. I want to try to pay better, more mindful, attention to what surrounds me. There is a lot of beauty out there in the world, and I want to remember to see and appreciate it. I want to be astonished. And as much as I can’t write even the first word on this electronic page if I let myself think that anyone might actually read it, I do want to tell about it, even if only to myself.

One of the ways I process just about anything is to write about it. It’s almost as though I can’t really know how I feel or what I think about something without writing about it first and then reading back to myself what I’ve written. In my teens and early twenties, I journaled incessantly. I wrote everything down. Everything. Periodically, I would destroy the journals or throw them away, because having them around was unsettling. When it is just you and your thoughts, recorded in pen and ink in a black speckled composition notebook, things can be pretty raw, pretty unfiltered. Which is the point, of course. It’s a tremendously effective outlet for powerful emotions. It’s just that all that truth and honesty and unfiltered raw emotion can be hard to go back and read later without cringing and wanting to crawl in a hole, or at least getting a little blushy.

Going back and reading old journals is a stark reminder that the voices we use to speak to the world and the voices we use to speak to ourselves are often very different. I remember when I was about thirteen, I accidentally stumbled upon the journal of one of the mothers I babysat for. It was an innocent mistake – the journal was a spiral bound notebook sitting out in plain view on the counter next to the phone. I was looking for a place to jot down a phone message, and there it was, and almost before I realized what I was doing, I had started to read it, and then couldn’t stop. I remember the ringing in my ears, the heat in my cheeks as though I’d been slapped. It was highly personal stuff, written by a woman in a considerable amount of pain, and it was information I never wanted, had no business knowing, but then, once I knew it, could never forget.

It was fear of something like this happening with one of my journals accidentally, or on purpose, falling into other hands, my naked thoughts out there for anyone to read, that spurred me to routinely purge the physical evidence of these thoughts from existence. I still journaled, almost obsessively, but just as obsessively I would go back later to destroy and eradicate the evidence. Not much from that era survived, but I am glad to have the little that did, even if it makes me blush to go back and read it. And who knows, I may find myself cringing ten years down the road at some of what I write about here. But I am going to keep trying to pay attention, to be astonished and aware, and to write it all down.


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