The Love Letter of Time and Attention

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”  ~Mary Oliver


Fall is – hands down – my favorite time of year.  There are many reasons for this – the coziness of tea on a wet autumn day, the wildness of the air on a blustery autumn day, and of course those vibrant artistic color stains emerging more and more as the chlorophyll  drains from each autumn leaf.  These autumn leaves that change their dress and then surrender their place among the heights in dramatic swoons to the earth below have always fascinated me.  I am not sure if this kind of thing runs in the genes, but I recently found out that my great uncle is also a dedicated leaf-appreciator.  We can muse together over the beauty of a leaf for long moments at a time.  I say “moments” and not minutes, because it is a time span not measured in segments of existence, but in time given to loving attention to the intricate detail of each leaf’s unique beauty.

I bring him special ones I have found that week and he tells me what kind of leaves they are and compares them with his own collection.  For a leaf collector, a walk down the street is never an absent-minded affair.  Often I wonder what an odd figure I must cut as I walk in fits and starts often walking hunched over, head bobbing this way and that or halting altogether examining all the leaves that appear at my feet – each one vying for my attention.  I am not aware of the buildings that I am passing or the cars in the street or even the people walking nearby.  For the moment, the leaves have captured my complete attention and there is not much left over for anything else.

Such sustained attention is like composing a love letter.  It speaks of tender care, interest and connection.  But one cannot spend the whole day writing love letters.  Eventually, a very few leaves are carefully chosen and tucked away in my pockets and at last I lift my gaze and continue on my way.  The dwelling moment of attention is over, I hurry on to my next meeting that I am now running late for heedless of the scads of leaves left scurrying in my wake or crushed under my shoes.  It is time to return to the world of plans, errands, tasks, and scheduled meetings.

Mary Oliver speaks of sustained attention in her essay entitled, “Of Power and Time” in which she discusses the exponential dividends Time will yield to those who can resist the siren call of those flickering thoughts that continually have the potential to tempt and distract the poet or the artist from giving concentrated and loving attention to the act of creation.

As a writer, I also sympathize with this ongoing  difficulty of maintaining sustained attention for a single project at a time – especially in this digitalized frenetic world that I inhabit which prizes multitasking and productivity of output over genuine quality of creation.  It is sometimes hard to know how to set aside these constant cries for our attention that come from all quarters.

It is an age in which the popular modes of interaction increasingly cultivates an appetite for rapid successive input and distractions promoting the notion that any thought or concept that cannot be expressed in 140 characters or viewed in 15 seconds is too long and too boring to be expressed anyway.  The motivation for the artist to go against the grain can seem counter-intuitive.  Why spend so much time on one thing that most people will glance over among the hundreds of other interesting items – fragmenting their attention span into milliseconds.

However, the true artist knows that without sustain attention…patience…and focus nothing of great value, genius, or beauty will ever be born from their efforts.  When a society loses the ability to focus on any one thing for a sustained period of time, we lose our collective memory.  We have collective amnesia about who we are, what our purpose is, and where we are heading.  We lose our ability to follow complex arguments, interwoven themes in music, art, and literature, and extended arcs of tragedy or redemption in epic narratives.  We have no time for anticipating as the storyteller builds up to the climax anymore.  We have no time for lengthy pilgrimage journeys – only time for destinations.  We only have time for the punch line which, strangely enough, seems to have lost some of its ‘punch’.

Time is like Pizza Dough 

The temptation to just keep moving forward without much thought as to how you are engaging with the minutes given to you today is strong.  To choose a different way of relating to time as given moments that invite your full attention is not easy.  It takes practice and deliberate decisions to step back from the collective mad rush of continually being on-the-go with no clear idea of where we are going or how our habits of surface attention are shaping us as a people, as a society.

Mary Oliver describes this impulse she recognizes in herself, “It moves across the hours of the day as though the movement itself were the whole task.  Whether it gathers as it goes some branch of wisdom or delight, or nothing at all, is a matter with which it is hardly concerned.”

I have read many blogs and articles about how to “manage your time” to be successful in this or that endeavor.  This theme re-occurs under many guises with the assumption being that if we could only maximize our time organization somehow we will have finally entered into the “good life” or the “successful life”.  The advice generally given in such articles is fine as far as it goes – tips on how to budget your time, how to prioritize it and delegate it and divide it and expand it, etc, etc, etc…

It puts me in the mind of a man I once saw in a pizzeria making the dough thinner and thinner as he twirled it up in the air and it seemed to magically grow by his skillful manipulation. But actually, he still had the same amount of dough that he started with.  It is just thinner now – and can spread over a wider surface.

When you think about it, this is a lot like your time and attention.  You can choose to spread it thinly over a wide surface – barely touching which comes under your gaze with any engagement of the heart or you can choose to enter a moment deeply – applying “thick” attention to one story at a time, or one song, or one person, or even one small leaf…

Try it today.  Practice entering into one moment fully.  Put away all other distractions and give your heart’s undivided attention to one thing…and drink deeply.  You may discover there are rivers of delight waiting for you — right under your feet.

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