Recently presence has occupied my mind… the art of attention, that is. For it is an art, or at least a skill, to be thinking only about this instant and not letting your mind wander around in the past or the future. Few of us have mastered it, I’m convinced. Certainly not me.
One thing life has taught me: if you are interested, you never have to look for new interests. They come to you. … All you need to do is to be curious, receptive, eager for experience. And there’s one strange thing: when you are genuinely interested in one thing, it will always lead to something else.
– Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living (1960)
My son’s grandparents have met many famous people, largely through their work in the 1950s and 1960s with the Democratic party in Wyoming. One of the stories Ben’s grandfather tells is about meeting Eleanor Roosevelt. He said that she was not a pretty woman, but the minute she opened her mouth to speak, you completely forgot what she looked like — her voice was soft and sweet, and she paid complete attention to the person in front of her, as if there were no one else in the room. She wasn’t interested in impressing you with her presence… she was present for you.
Now, making allowances for his point of view (being brought up in an era where a woman’s looks were her primary asset — however, so did Eleanor), it still illustrates a remarkable person. How many of us give complete attention to not only the person in front of us, but also the task? How often do we stop to enjoy the beauty we see before us?
This is the view today outside the dining room window, near where I sit and write. Snow, sunshine, deck, birdhouse, trees. A beautiful composition in shades of brown and white, with a color pop from the birdhouse. Totally ordinary beauty that exists on its own… but gone until an appreciative eye shows up.
How much do we miss in this life? How much goes by without our seeing it? And how do we start catching what counts? We’re already cramming busy lives even more full.
I think these are good questions to be asking ourselves, especially during this crazy holiday season. Because until you slow yourself down, your life will continue to go by in a blur. Nobody else can help you pay attention. Nobody else can give you calm and quiet. And isn’t that the gift you really want?
I started this post five days ago, on a quiet Saturday morning. I am working on it again very early Thursday morning, snatching some time from sleep — which is elusive today, it seems. My life has gone from serene and orderly to more than a little hectic in the last six months. Time slips by without my presence; it takes more energy from me to pay attention. It’s easier to zone out when I am rushed, and so it takes longer to complete a post than I would like.
And while that may give me more time to think and compose in my head, it also symbolizes how life flows by us. If we are not present, it’s downstream before we know it. Everything is temporary — jobs, careers, relationships, family, homes, cars, possessions. We are temporary, when you think about it. So if we spend our time in the future, in a dream, in a TV show, rushing around, online, even in a book, we lose what is sitting in front of us, and that is all that is real.
I just spent a minute stroking Eddie, the long-haired tuxedo cat who likes to hang out on my computer. He is here every night, a reminder of what lives in front of me. Eddie does love me, but I know what really draws him — he loves the heat from the computer even more. Gotta be real about cat love; it’s pretty opportunistic.
The way we live our lives can be opportunistic as well, let’s admit it. We seize the moment to focus on making money, get through the “to-do” list, slip into work on time, grab a bite, or dash to the deadline. All of this focusing on the activity inside the buildings, inside our cars, inside our heads.
Yet all around us outside the buildings, cars, and yes, our heads, is the glory of God. Even in the dead of winter, there is the stark pristine beauty of snow, bare trees, blue sky, and a lone hawk lazily spinning. Walk in the woods and you see clear animal tracks, water captured in ice, and the earth resting up for the rush of spring. It doesn’t matter that humankind has largely retreated to home and hearth during the freezing cold, the Divine is still putting on a show, asking our attention to what truly matters… the home that sustains us all.
We don’t have to have a rigorous meditation practice, prayer rituals, or yoga poses. We don’t even have to go to church every week to worship the Divine where it is. All you have to do is open your eyes and see.
For God is everywhere you look. God is in your browned yard, the bare tree, the deer munching on the weeds, in the asphalt, the skyscraper, the frozen pond, the faces of your children and spouse. The Divine is in your workplace, the grocery store, on both the freeway and the country road you travel. The snowdrops poking through and the merry lights on houses both speak of the love that surrounds our beings.
I’m not sure we’re built to pay full attention to the present every moment. I’m not even sure we’re able to be fully aware most moments. But we can pull ourselves out of our heads periodically and look around us, taking in the glory of the world. We can remind ourselves that our personal universes are only a small part of the larger web around us. And we can breathe a prayer of thanks or amazement to the spirit that holds us.
For in the end, we will not remember the days we spent rushing from store to store. We will not remember the endless hours of striving for achievement in the workplace. What will stay with us forever will be the moments of astonishment at unexpected natural beauty, the first sight of a baby’s face, times when we are caught short by the sheer gorgeousness of life and pulled clear out of our heads to face the reality in front of us.
That is worship, that is what brings gratitude, that is how we know we are part of something far larger than ourselves. So just stop. Stop and stare. Take it in. Breathe. Be present, if only for the moment. It will flow by, just like all the others, but if you are lucky it will be stored and available for your smile later on. Amazing how that works.