quiet attention

I find the natural world fascinating, full of absurdly beautiful creatures, so rewarding to a patient observer.  Many years ago we lived in an apartment that had its share of domestic wildlife – squirrels and raccoons lived in the attic, mice in the walls.  Our kitchen was home to black ants. I tried to deter them in unsuccessful, non-toxic ways and would sweep them away or step on them when I saw them. One day I was cleaning up our round kitchen table and saw a black ant perched near the edge.  I had raised my hand to sweep it off when I realized that the ant was cleaning its face and antennae just like my cats.  It was stroking its antennae like a minature black panther.  This kinship with my beloved cats was astonishing to me, and I sat on a chair and watched the ant for at least five minutes.  Black, with a not-quite-glossy sheen, delicate legs and antennae, the ant was gorgeous.  In the days after,  I found myself watching the ants trundle around the countertops, gently shooing them out of the way, lifting them out of places I didn’t want them.  If they fell in the sink when I was doing the dishes I would fish them out and set them curled up on the counter; after a time, in which I was sure they were dead, they would stretch out and shake off the water, and wander off. I haven’t been able to hurt an ant since.

This memory came back after I saw this book trailer for Step Gently Out, a poem about paying attention to the world.  It feels like a message we need to hear over and over again.   Written by Helen Frost, with photos by Rick Leider, it reminds of all the wonders that exist in our backyards and urban spaces.  The creatures of this earth are marvellous.

Attentiveness: The Third Great Salvation

I just finished reading The Paper Garden:  Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72 by Toronto writer Molly Peacock.  Mrs. Delany, a member of high society in eighteenth century England, had a fascinating life, and at the end of it, created almost 1,000 cut paper mosaics of flowers.   This Flora Delanica resides today in the British Museum, a tribute to one woman’s artistry and delight in life.  One passage caught my eye:

Detail of passion flower

In gathering shells the young Mrs. Pendarves was preparing for her great work, though she couldn’t possibly have known that.  She was just watching; [gathering shells] trains the eye.  However stuck Mrs. Pendarves was, she could always watch for those mollusks. Robert Phelps, a biographer of Colette, said this about watching:  “Along with love and work, this is the third great salvation.  For whenever someone is seriously watching, a form of lost innocence is restored.  It will not last, but during those minutes his self-consciousness is relieved.”

Noticing keeps you alive.  When we say, “I felt so alive!” doesn’t it mean we were observing the ordinary world around us as if it were new?

While I am not so sure about watching as “salvation” or the return to “innocence”, I agree with the sentiment: attentiveness to the world offers a kind of spiritual nourishment.  In paying attention to the world we entrance our monkey minds, placing the focus on something beyond ourselves, opening ourselves to the whole.  Mrs. Delany clearly loved life, and, judging by the detail in some of her paper mosaics, knew it well.  Peacock suggests that her detailed observation, a scientific stance of watching, helped sustain her and bring her always back to a love of life, during the many losses and disappointments of a long life.  For myself, I find my backyard, with its trees, flowers, birds and squirrels, to be a continual source of replenishment.  It is a small urban space, but I am always astonished by how much life it contains! While I don’t have the patience to create the works of art that Mrs. Delany so meticulously made, when I really look at my garden, there is always something waiting to be seen, budding pear blossoms, parsley reviving after winter, soft feathers from a hawk kill, a copper coloured beetle.  I find myself so grateful for the life that lives there, and go back into the house, soothed.

From attention comes knowledge and understanding, and delight.  My sense of Unitarian Universalism is that we celebrate this detailed observation of the world.  We are curious people, concerned more with questions than answers.   In paying attention to where we are, in being open to the wonder of the world, we find spiritual renewal.