“It’s a beautiful autumn day here,” my daughter said to me a week ago. She had telephoned as she walked from her apartment in Toronto’s Annex neighborhood to the university. I was sitting in my home office, bracing myself for another hot day, window shades closed and the fan running. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what she was seeing: the air crisp, the brilliant blush of vibrant color as the leaves turn from green to red and yellow, a day perfect for walking—not like the arid and drought stricken Southern California landscape where I now live.
“I miss autumn,” I replied, remembering a line from a French-Canadian film I’d seen so many years ago at the Toronto Film Festival, when one of the actors described autumn “as the other side of spring.”
Two days after her call, the calendar proclaimed the end of summer and the beginning of fall. “Not,” I grumbled, weary of the heat wave, “where I live.” But within days, the heat abated and as it did, the hint of autumn was in the air. True, it doesn’t wear as brilliant a coat as my former Canadian home, but as I stepped outside to walk my dog, an early morning routine, I felt my skin prickle. The early morning air had a slight chill. Where sunrise had been our companion just a week or two before, the mornings were now darker. Autumn, San Diego style, was making an entrance. All I had to do was pay attention.
In the autumn of 1968, Ted Kooser wrote in the preface to his book, Winter Morning Walks: One Hundred Postcards to Jim Harrison, “during my recovery from surgery and radiation for cancer, I began taking a two-mile walk each morning…hiking in the isolated country roads near where I live…During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing… One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day… I began pasting my morning poems on postcards and sending them to Jim…”
What struck me as I read Kooser’s poems was that he’d documented the reawakening of his spirit, his sensibilities as a poet, his awareness of and connection to the beauty of the natural world. Cancer, despite his recovery, plays a barely noticeable role in his poems. Rather, it’s what he notices as he walks that inspires each short poem.
I saw the season’s first bluebird
this morning, one month ahead
of its scheduled arrival. Lucky I am
to go off to my cancer appointment
having been given a bluebird, and,
for a lifetime, have been given
Paying attention, as writers like Kooser, Mary Oliver and Annie Dillard remind us, is about slowing down and being attentive to the present, to what’s right in front of our eyes, to discover the beauty, the meaning, and even the metaphors that inform our lives. As Anne Lamott observed, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.”
Mary Oliver’s poem, “Gratitude,” in which she poses—and answers—eight simple questions, is a lesson in paying attention. “What did you notice,” she asks and then responds:
“The dew snail;
the low-flying sparrow;
the bat, on the wind, in the dark…
What did you hear?
…the little bluebirds in their hot box;
the salty talk of the wren…
What did you admire?
The oaks, letting down their dark and hairy fruit;
the carrot, rising in its elongated waist…
What astonished you?
The swallows making their dip and turn over the water.
What would you like to see again?
My dog: her energy and exuberance, her willingness,
her language beyond all nimbleness of tongue…
What was most tender?
Queen Anne’s lace, with its parsnip root;
the everlasting in its bonnets of wool…
What was most wonderful?
…the sea lying back on its long athlete’s spine.
What did you think was happening?
…so the gods shake us from our sleep.
(From: What Do We Know: Poems, 2002)
Cancer–or any other serious illness or hardship–can keep us focused inward, on the crisis unfolding in our lives, on our bodies, on fear or all the potential and unwelcome possibilities of our illness. It’s like we’re wearing blinders, forgetting to look out at the world around us and see all that gives us pleasure or comfort, however small. Like Kooser’s short poems, add up those moments of noticing, of happiness or new insights, and they enlarge, helping us to feel more alive—shaken from our sleep—and grateful for those small, yet extraordinary moments of life that are available to us, only if we open our eyes and pay attention.
For today, I will memorize
the two trees now in end-of-summer light
and the drifts of wood asters as the yard slopes away toward
the black pond, blue
in the clouds that shine and float there, as if risen
from the bottom, unbidden…
The yard is a waiting room. I have my chair. You, yours…
(from “Solitudes,” by Margaret Gibson, in Broken Cup. © Louisiana State University Press, 2014.)
This week, take a walk, sit in your yard, or gaze out the window. Write about one thing you see, one single gift of nature, of autumn, that calls you to it. Pay attention. Let what you observe be your inspiration.
At a certain point you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountains, the world,
Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive.
You empty yourself and wait, listening.
–Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek