During a noon-hour rush on a steamy July day, two men were jockeying their way through the crowd on a New York City avenue. They practically shouted as they tried to hear one other above the din. One man, a native New Yorker, the other, a Native American from Oklahoma. The Native American stopped suddenly and said to his new friend, “Listen! Can you hear the crickets?
His friend was incredulous. “Are you kidding?” he laughed. “How could anyone hear a cricket in this bedlam!? You just think you hear a cricket.”
The Native American didn’t argue. They walked ahead twenty yards to where a large clay planter stood in front of a hotel, holding full-sized shrubbery. The Native American pointed toward the dead leaves at the base of the plants. To his amazement, the New Yorker saw crickets.
“You must have an extraordinary pair of ears!”
“No better than yours. It just depends on what you are listening for. Watch this.” The Native American reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of quarters. He threw them into the air. Heads turned at the sound of change hitting the pavement.
“You see. It all depends on what you are listening for.”
Or looking for, as the case may be…
I have written before about scotoma, which means selective blindness. We see what we want to see. In the story, one lesson is clear; we hear what we want to hear. (Although selective hearing may have its benefits. My father tells me he doesn’t mind his diminished hearing, because what he thinks people are saying is more entertaining than what they actually say.)
In the play Through the Garden Gate (based on my book Soul Gardening), English gardener LR Holmes introduces his neighbor, young Lucy, to the possibility of garden fairies.
Lucy: I was wondering, do you think fairies are becoming extinct? You know, like endangered species?
LR Holmes: Oh, no, no. People are just moving too fast to catch sight of them.
I’ve been in Anaheim, CA for the weekend, at the Religious Education Congress with 40,000 of my closest friends. I’m tired, in a good way, sated by conversations with old friends, connections with new friends, and the miracle of collective endeavors. I realized going into the weekend that I have been on edge, from fatigue that sprouts from the incessant cacophony of noise and news that confounds and demeans.
I miss my garden and I know why. My garden grounds me…
The philosopher Martin Heidegger speaks about “dasein”–being in the world. His reference is not to existence, but to the capacity to enter fully into life. One of the characteristics of a person who is dasein, is listening. American poet May Sarton would say it is being truly attentive. It is honoring–giving our attention, our care, our respect to–whatever the moment brings.
There is a Hopi (Native American) word “koyaanisqatsi.” It translates “life out of balance.” Of course, it doesn’t take a long, unpronounceable word to know the problem. But it helps to know that it’s been around awhile. Life’s obligations impact us all. They pinch, constrain and put blinders on us. It’s not that I don’t pay attention, it’s just that with my blinders, I don’t even notice.
“Living humanly will be its own reward,” Rabbi Harold Kushner reminds us. “The person who has discovered the pleasures of truly human living, the person whose life is rich in friendships and caring people, the person who enjoys daily the pleasures of good food and sunshine, will not need to wear herself out in pursuit of some other kind of success.”
Rediscovering wonder takes root in the soil of the simple sentence, “I never noticed that before.” I am welcoming, inviting life in, not allowing internal censors and judges to scrutinize, making certain that this moment passes muster. In moments of amazement, we render our internal scorekeeper mute. There is a good deal of conjecture about who merits this streak of luck and why. Some people get all the moments of astonishment. Or perhaps, like young Lucy, or the man in New York, they’ve allowed themselves to see, and to hear, and to notice.
Multi-tasking is considered a skill set or spiritual gift these days, but it demands a different neurological engagement, causing us to create mental imagery that drowns out the processing of real images, which the scientists call inattentional blindness.
In plain English: We sure do miss a lot of life when we’re not looking. Or listening. Or paying attention in any way…
In John’s Gospel, “I once was blind, but now I see.” Maybe we all begin there. To acknowledge our own blindness. To remove the cataracts from our souls, by letting go of what we expect to find before we begin the search. So, if you are up for it, I am going to give us an assignment. For one day (okay, for 1 hour), this week, let’s turn off our cell phone. And put away the lists or work or pile of papers that beckon.
There are those lucky days, when the sun illuminates the translucent “bat wing” ruby thorns of the rose sericea pteracantha, or a swallow-tail butterfly provides a cabaret while sipping at a wallflower, or a rainbow arches its back through the northern sky after a morning of fateful clouds have skittered and leapt, or daffodils flow, faithful and sanguine around the maple tree, or the summer sun stays in the sky well into evening, letting you sit on the back deck listening to crickets well past bedtime, or the candied scent of a bearded iris transports you back to a high school dance when the best looking girl in town really did want to drape her arms around your neck during all the slow numbers. Yes, there are those lucky days when public opinion means something only to pollsters and politicians, when you realize that the elastic jurisdiction of what “they think cannot find you here in this little corner of the globe, and you raise your head to the stars and shout to no one in particular, “if this isn’t nice, what is?”
“I don’t know about you, but I practice a disorganized religion,” Kurt Vonnegut wrote. “I belong to an unholy disorder. We call ourselves ‘Our Lady of Perpetual Astonishment.’”
Here’s how all of this affects me. I am too often, completely unconscious about the effect of this growing world of distractions (or interruptions or exhaustion or commotion). To complicate matters, we morph into our will-power mode; “Okay. I will just quit my addiction to distractions.”
As if. Remember, quitting only creates a vacuum to be filled by some other distraction.
Here’s the deal: it’s not about what is removed; it’s about what we choose to replace it. It’s about what we value. Plato reminded us, “What is honored will be cultivated.” Not what is spoken or believed or taught. What is honored.
The Native American honored listening, or attention without judgment. And when we pay attention, we create a fabric in our soul which absorbs daily miracles.
I’ll fly home tomorrow. A lot happens in a garden when you’re gone. I’m with May Sarton on this; I think I’ll spend the first part of the morning wandering and looking for miracles. How many will I see? It all depends…
Quotes for the week…
Instructions for life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. Mary Oliver
By means of a diversion, we can avoid our own company 24 hours a day. Pascal
POEMS AND PRAYERS
Living humanly will be its own reward. The person who has discovered the pleasures of truly human living, the person whose life is rich in friendships and caring people, the person who enjoys daily the pleasures of good food and sunshine, will not need to wear herself out in pursuit of some other kind of success. Rabbi Harold Kushner
‘Tis a Fearful Thing
’Tis a fearful thing
to love what death can touch.
A fearful thing
to love, to hope, to dream, to be –
And oh, to lose.
A thing for fools, this,
And a holy thing,
a holy thing
For your life has lived in me,
your laugh once lifted me,
your word was gift to me.
To remember this brings painful joy.
’Tis a human thing, love,
a holy thing, to love
what death has touched.
12th Century Jewish Poet
Our problem is not simply that we work too much,
the problem is that we are working for the wrong reward.
We are paid in the wrong currency.
Help us to expand our definition of wealth to include those things that grow only in time
–time to walk in the park, time to take a nap, time to play with children,
Time… to read a good book, to dance, to put our hands in the garden soil,
to cook playful meals with friends, to paint, to sing, to meditate,
to keep a journal without a need to edit, to savor and take delight.
(Adapted from Lynn Twist)