Wednesday, January 6, 2016
Chief among the things I craved when I retired from fulltime teaching was not to be in a hurry all the time. My first act of slowing down was to re-read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard, hoping to rekindle the same sense of awe I had felt the first time I read it. Little did I know the extent to which Dillard’s chapter 2 on “Seeing” would altar my way of being when it first inspired me to begin the intentional practice of sitting outside for an hour a day, noticing the earth around me.
Later I learned to call it “mindfulness,” but at the time, I thought of it as simple attention. I was a first grade teacher, afterall. I knew the importance of paying attention. I had made a career of teaching children to do just that.
Sitting outside to notice the earth reminded me of a first grade lesson I had taught often, for which I gave my students a 36-inch length of string with instructions to lay it in a circle on the grass, then to sit still and watch the space inside the ring, while I timed them for one silent minute. At the end of the minute, without talking, we returned to the classroom to write or draw what we had seen. The children’s observations never failed to wow me, their reflections every bit as profound as an adult’s, their expressions cuter.
Another thing. For 29 years, I had spent 30 minutes a day on a playground bench, watching children run and climb and discover new wonders of their world. I depended on the short daily respite, recognizing it as essential for student and teacher alike. Most people call it recess. I remember it as a kind of daily Sabbath. The calm that returned to the classroom after recess was palpable and nourishing. It was the quiet that comes after a time of mental freedom, after being out from under any form of direct instruction.
So it was against this backdrop of my teaching life that I re-read Annie Dillard’s words about seeing. One easy leap stretched my long established routine of daily outside recess into sitting for a full hour per day in the quiet of my own backyard—at the end of the hour to journal about the most significant thing observed. I called it “longsitting.” The opportunity for Sabbath this habit now offers me is a sacred gift I never could have anticipated.
Every sitting inspires a new question, a fresh perspective, or leaves me breathless in wonder. I have learned to expect the unexpected by its regularity, yet I continue to be surprised by it. Daily contrasts of the beauty and the brutality of nature make themselves vividly explicit in the finest detail, and lead me to raw enlightenments about life and death and the regenerating genius of the natural world.
Ordinary observations became extraordinary under scrutiny. The crazed antics of a baby squirrel in the grass while the mother watched nearby. The terrible anguish of a live mourning dove being torn apart by a broadwinged hawk in the driveway. The maniacal calls of a barred owl at dusk. The blind perseverance of a chewing caterpillar. The mighty struggle of a tufted titmouse that inexplicably fell to the ground at my feet. The avian acrobatics of a just-fledged family of white-breasted nuthatches. The pre-dawn murmurs of waking birds that gradually swell to a full-blown hallelujah chorus as the sun rises. Season-long nestwatches of house wrens or Carolina chickadees or bluebirds, from the first quiver and fluff mating routines, through the noble and patient care of their young, the clamor of nestlings, the breathtaking thrill of their moment of fledge, my fervent wishes for their safety. The mystery of dozens of varieties of mushrooms after a rainy few days. If their only job is to consume the decay on the earth, why their spectacular beauty? The dazzling black-eyed Susans in odd corners of the yard, planted by birds, not by me. The snatching of a meandering butterfly out of the air by a swift gray bird I could not identify. A pale crescent moon lingering in a pastel sky at 11:00 a.m. The tattered wing of a tiger swallowtail, and the history it suggests. The frenzy of a mob of protective bluejays chasing off a red-shouldered hawk. The first chilly morning, signaling a change of season. The curiosity of why pine needles sparkle when hanging in the sunlight, yet look and feel dull and sticky and non-reflective in the hand. The fall of one leaf on the only ride of its life that spawned large and small questions of life and death and decay and new growth. The lessons of the cherry blossom, the pinetree, the earthworm, the ant, the breeze, the lightning storm. The luxury of fearlessness afforded a hummingbird by its power of ZOOM when it hovered just inches from my face for an eye-to-eye inspection. The frightening but thrilling approach of any wild creature, come to investigate the mysterious longsitting human.
On the wings of encounters like these comes the gift of Sabbath, in exchange for the simple act of paying attention. dkm
“The secret of seeing is a pearl of great price . . . But although the pearl can be found, it cannot be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: Although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and a total surprise. . . I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam . . . The secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff . . .”
~from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard