The Need to Pay Attention

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By Luci Shaw

A student in a lecture hall once asked me, “Don’t you get tired of noticing things?”

By way of answering her I quoted one of my favorite sayings from Annie Dillard, embodied in a brief essay she wrote (for Life magazine on, of all things, “The Meaning of Life”): “We are here to abet Creation and to witness it, to notice each thing, so each thing gets noticed . . . so that Creation need not play to an empty house.” Dillard also says, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “Beauty and Grace are performed whether or not we sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

We cannot consume a six-course dinner in one gulp. We must savor every bite one savory morsel at a time. We cannot take in the whole universe at once. Every day gives us new chances for small discoveries, ways to view some commonplace object from a fresh angle, to acknowledge what Duns Scotus called haeccity, the “this-ness,” the “is-ness,” of things, to recognize what we already know but still need to learn, to detect the extraordinary in the ordinary. A move in the direction of this kind of awareness is a move toward a fresh appreciation of our richly detailed universe—the Creator’s handiwork. The prime motivation for such an exercise is curiosity; the prime requisites are time and focused attentiveness.

During a two-and-a-half-week trip to the South Island of New Zealand, I wrote a journal entry during the days I spent in the sub-tropical rain forest of the west coast. Most of the time I was alone, with camera and journal, intentionally opening my mental pores, as it were, to sensations and impressions. I wrote: “True gratitude requires a concentrated awareness, a single eye, which is linked to recognition. Awareness, attentiveness is something we all need to learn, or re-learn, and to practice. Both these A-words are linked with our ability to see. The word attend comes from the Latin adtendere, literally ‘to lean towards,’ or ‘to lean into.’ I find a kind of exhilaration in small things when I take the time to dwell with them. My camera lens, with its zoom magnification, helps me to attend to what I might otherwise merely glance at and move on. It becomes my other eye. When I frame and focus I am also focusing my brain and my imagination.”

Here’s more of what I was noticing: “Here in the lushness of the rain forest I notice the microcosm of the moss gardens—minute, damp, velvet fronds like green sea anemones—small, low, unknown, unnamed greens. Green upon green upon green, lavish in its rich diversity and texture. Diminutive star-flowers scattered among the grasses. Tiny, uniformly polished and rounded stream-pebbles, in multiple shades of gray. The lacy, almost inky foliage of the New Zealand black birches.

“My slowing down, stopping, being still, listening, allows me to hear the microcosm speak—the world of negligible, unnoticed things. We don’t need to be world travelers or theologians or philosophers or environmentalists in order to see and hear the messages of heaven in the earthly creation. My magnifying lens is careful scrutiny.

“My pleasure in this was so intense that it brought its own species of frustration. My regret was, ‘So much rain forest; so little time.’ For us to have a working world that functions efficiently, in which natural processes interact to reproduce and control healthy life, would have seemed, to a human perspective, quite adequate. So why the profusion of life species? Why the rich complexity and intricacy? Why pattern, and the full spectrum of colors? The Creator, like all poets, is an experimenter, adding the grace of beauty, something non-essential in a pragmatic sense, but a clear reflection of what theologians call Grace. And each of us has a flash of that same esthetic impulse, which needs only a modicum of human cultivation and expression to make us appreciative of the idiosyncrasies and surprises around us, and send us off in our own creative directions.

“We tend to think of the Creator in terms of the infinitely huge—mountains, continents, oceans, galaxies, universes, light-years. As the Almighty is beyond gender and time, so is he beyond size, glimpsed, if we open our eyes, in the helical unfolding of a shell, the lace of veins in a leaf with sunlight behind it, or, as we penetrate deeper into physical realities, in the structures of subatomic particles, in the infinite unfolding of fractal patterns.” We see this concentration of limitlessness to limitation in the Incarnation, in Almighty God taking on a human body, a human life.”

Like a camera, a poem or a brief essay is a little lens through which we can examine at close range the “insignificant” details of the universe, a miniature window on the world. In such small works of art the writer is lending you, the reader, her eyes in hopes that your own eyes will be captivated by things you’ve never noticed before.

I am often asked, “How does a poem happen?” It’s a bit mysterious, but usually I find myself stirred by the sudden (and often inconvenient) arrival of an image, or an idea, or a resonant phrase, that will not leave me alone. I may be preparing a dinner for eight, or be shopping in the vegetable section of the supermarket, but this imperious idea will not be denied. It demands that I pay attention. Sometimes this begins when I read another poet’s evocative work. Or a word that seems to jump from the page. The spark of an image kindles my own imagination and I am off, like a runaway horse.

At this point I am not quite responsible for my own actions. Preoccupied, I may break an egg into the garbage disposal, or absent-mindedly put a pot of hot coffee in the refrigerator. I suppose this is what makes a poet a poet—that slender antenna of awareness that is always extended, combing the air for images, listening to the rhythms of language, watching, noticing when something quite ordinary achieves an extraordinary significance which calls out to be crafted into an art form.

Poetry is both an art and a craft. The polishing of the poem on the page, or the computer screen, often takes dozens of re-writes over months or years. A poem I wrote 25 years ago, which had lain unfinished, waiting like an embryo in my file cabinet, just recently came alive for me as I found an image and a phrase that allowed it to be completed.

The greenness of the world has always moved me—its fertility, its self-renewal. Summer holidays in Muskoka, Ontario, gave me experiences which I remember like dreams, drifting in a canoe along a lake shore, shadowed by firs and cedars, collecting the green velvet hillocks of moss on the boulders, bringing them back to our cottage and forming, with twigs and lichens and pebbles, a miniature landscape in a metal pie pan to keep the dream of green alive. Or camping on the shores of Georgian Bay. Or canoeing the Mary River and Mary Lake. It is the green age of youth and of those gentle islands and forests that reinforces the dream and that refreshes the mind’s fertility. My books of poetry—Listen to the Green, The Secret Trees, and Writing the River, and essays about spiritual growth in Water My Soul—extend the metaphors of green and growth.

Where I live now, in the Pacific Northwest, my study window opens onto a deep ravine guarded by cedars and banked with sword ferns, with a stream that sends its sound into my thoughts and my writing. I tell people, only half-jokingly, “I write best to the sound of running water!” The shore of any ocean has much the same effect on me—its limitlessness, the borders of air and land and water rubbing at each other, the random treasures to be found and collected along the tide lines—many of these end up in poems or essays. I catch myself saying, as I follow the edges of the incoming waves, and pick up a pebble here, a shell there, an aqua winking eye of sea glass, a knot of driftwood—“This is the state of happiness. This is my purest happiness.” And when a poem has become itself, when it feels complete and I know that further revision would only muddy it, I echo Dorothy Sayers who could say, on finishing a novel (or an essay, or a poem), “I feel like God on the Seventh Day!”

Luci Shaw ( is a celebrated poet and essayist, frequent speaker, and Writer in Residence at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.


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