Tuesday, September 25, 2012

to attend

Autumn is acumen in

I walk about in it, in the crisp brown scent of dried-out leaves that calls to mind an especially good used bookstore. These leaves crunch beneath my boots and rain down on my head: gusts of wind from off the river compel the tall elms to send down their amber showers. It stopped me in my tracks yesterday: a blizzard of large lemony flakes, dancing around each other in the dappled glow of that tunnel-like street. 

I hear roofers' ringing nail guns, smell the gummy damp sharpness of new asphalt patches on the pavement. A few blocks away from home, two trees have dropped their myriad tiny green apples, which succumb to brown and perfume the air with a cidery wine edging over into vinegar. A bicycling woman with silvery white hair crossed an intersection ahead of me today, on a pedestrian walk sign, and was nearly hit by a tanklike black sport utility vehicle with a young woman at the wheel (perhaps she didn't see her red light?). The middle-aged woman paused on her bike to convey her opinion of the near-mishap with a single, elegant finger, then rode off into the leaf-bower. A while later a tiny toddler peered between porch rails and barked at me like a puppy. 

All this beauty, the Weepies croon, you may have to close your eyes. This line often comes to me as I walk through spectacularly lovely days. But no. My task is to pay attention. My task is to hold my eyes open. My task is to look up from the sidewalk and notice the burning red of a vine that climbs, often, in back alleys (is it sumac? I do not know its name). My task is to breathe and unplug myself and listen, watch, sniff the air, taste it on my tongue, extend a hand and finger the texture of a day or trunk or tendril. 


is a concept, a practice, that I study. I theorize it (writing at great length about "the ethics of readerly attention"). I seek to practice it (checking in each Friday with a post outlining sensory experiences). I am not always very good at it: distractions beckon to me, often against Wendell Berry's advice to "Live / a three-dimensioned life; / stay away from screens. / Stay away from anything / that obscures the place it is in."

Attention is also a tricky idea: attention can be a discipline, a force of the will. I learn to pay attention, as an activity. I choose to do it, to prioritize it. But there is also a certain passivity in attention, an opening of the self to outside stimuli, a welcoming stillness that allows one to notice, to experience, to be moved. (Simone Weil writes compellingly of the difference between "muscular effort" and this passivity in her essay "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.") Attention implies a mode of hospitality: I fling open the door of my body, my soul, and declare to the guest, Please, please, come in. Come in and teach me. This sort of hospitality, or passivity, is risky. It requires a certain form of trust. 

I Will Wait

"To attend" may be to pay attention; it may also mean to serve another (like an attendant) or take care of something (attending to a task); it may mean to be present (as when attending an event); and it may mean to wait. Again, when I sit at home and "attend my love's arrival," I am passive, holding still in hopes of the activity of an Other. 

I am not so good at waiting. I like to be active. I like to cross things off my to-do list. I like to think I am in charge of my life. 

But this humble passivity--this waiting openness to being affected by something or someone outside myself--strikes me as increasingly important. I find that I am not alone in succumbing to many distractions. I find that I am wearied by the shrill tone of much contemporary U.S. political rhetoric (I hear it loud and clear, even from Canada). I find that my own attempts to enter directly into political debates dissolve into frustration and anger: not the productive kind of anger, but the simmering, silencing kind. 

Are we paying attention to each other? Are we opening the doors of ourselves to the possibility of another vision of the world, another way? Are we risking the vulnerability of being affected--emotionally, intellectually, spiritually? 

And here I must weave in another strand, because as a person of faith I find, alongside Simone Weil, that attention functions not just in my experience of the world (its beauty and pains) and my relationships with other people (my ethics), but also in my relation to the Holy One. For this reason I think that one of the most inspiring of contemporary hymns is the (perhaps overplayed) Mumford and Sons anthem "I Will Wait." That repeated line--"I will wait, I will wait for you"--strikes me as precisely the paradoxical commitment we need to be making, avowing an activity ("I will") of passivity ("wait") toward those "yous" who so often surprise us,  blowing to bits our tidy summations of the world. 

Put otherwise, I will attend (to) you:
     you autumn, and your robust yet fragile glory,
     you human, with your singularly situated logic,
     you Creator, who in Jesus upset every expectation.

Perhaps as we grow deeper in the humility and wonder of attention toward the leaf-crunch and fading garden glow, we may also develop our capacity to listen--really listen--to another person. Perhaps as we learn to wait on another person, opening ourselves to the possibility of his or her wisdom or goodness, we may grow in that subtle and strangely still skill of recognizing the Spirit's activity in the world. Perhaps in pausing to gaze up at the dappled beauty of the couple-colored sky we may begin to more fully welcome into our lives the glory of the Most High. For Christ plays, I have read somewhere, in ten thousand places.

Do we taste and see it? Do we wait with bated breath? 


  1. you might consider checking out Sarah Bessey's blog (sarahbessey.com)--she's a Jesusy-feminist Canadian mama author with a background in ministry who loves Mumford and Sons...

    1. Oh, yes! I sometimes read her blog! Also, where is the Baking with Lucy post? I checked this morning for it!