Sunday, January 30, 2011

Paying Attention: Next Generation

     There was a child went forth every day,
     And the first object he looked upon and received with wonder or pity or love or dread, 
     that object  he became,
     And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day… 
     or for many years 
     or stretching cycles of years.

     The early lilacs became part of this child,
     And grass, and white and red morning glories, and white and red clover, 
     and the song of the phoebe-bird,
     And the March-born lambs, and the sow's pink-faint litter, and the mare's foal, 
     and the cow's calf, 
     and the noisy brood of the barnyard or by the mire of the pond-side… 
     and the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there… 
     and the beautiful curious liquid… and the water-plants with their graceful flat heads… 
     all became part of him.   (Walt Whitman ) 

I’m realizing that for me, any discipline I think of shapes itself in my mind in terms of those who demonstrated it for me, and those I want to share it with. There’s a generational aspect to this: we’re shaped by those before us, and we’re called to pass on what’s of value to the generations following us.

I’m deeply thankful for my grandmother’s example of attention to nature. Squirrel antics, bird calls, unfamiliar wildflowers, strange cloud formations: she treated the small occasions of nature like personal treasures. I can remember going to visit when she was in her seventies and eighties. She’d have things to show, treasures to share: a new groundcover she discovered, creeping its way under her shed. Or a baby maple tree, discovered growing along the road, potted and ready for a trip to a friend’s back yard.

Warm ripe tomatoes, eaten off the vine. A glass of iced tea under the lilacs to celebrate their fullest bloom. Those gifts of attention stay with me, and shape the way I view the world. I remember the afternoon, back in the sixties, when she pulled her Chevy convertible to the side of the road, to stop and see where the mockingbird was: she hadn’t heard one since her childhood in Oklahoma. And there it was, on a telephone line, singing its unmistakable song. I still think of her whenever I see, or hear, a mockingbird.

I’ve done my best to share that attention with our kids. They accuse me of dragging the family to “squirrel  museums,” and laugh that I signed them up for “nature tots.” I confess to both accusations. Now there’s another generation to pay attention to, and with. We prowl through Black Rock Preserve, searching for fossils, or poke sticks in the Black Rock pond, looking for fish. We visit the butterflies in the Springton Manor butterfly house, borrow nets to search for sulphurs and skippers, then head off to the fields to greet the goats and sheep.

Apple picking at the nearest orchard has been part of our family tradition since our children were small: wealth on a tree, followed by cider, cider doughnuts, and a baby pumpkin or two. Our own scraggly tomato vines prompt conversation about seeds, time, things we can control and things we can’t, the pleasure of a ripe tomato, the waste of picking one that’s not. A new Saturn peach tree surprised us last summer with a small harvest of perfect little peaches, ,and little Ellie surprised us by devouring her first peach in three quick bites.

My grandmother also taught me to attend to need: to look beyond myself and see the pain of others. There was nothing easy about her life, and yet I don’t remember hearing her complain. Instead, I remember her calling attention to, and insisting on kindness toward, those in need around us. Skippy – a boy older than us, but challenged in ways we didn’t understand – was always welcome in our yard. And if he invited us to his house, a block away, to see his monkey, or swim in his pool, a glance from Grandma would quiet our objections.

A multitude of pets helped me learn to pay attention. So did younger cousins. Children who have nothing to care for, no smaller living things to attend to, can miss the joy of empathy. Learning to make a cat purr, taking time to tame a parakeet, facing my own fear of the dark to go out at night to reassure an anxious duck, entertaining cousins while the grownups talked on and on: those were skills of attention I’m thankful to have learned.

And so I look for ways to pass those skills on to others. The parakeet and duck are incidental, but the ability to see what pleases another creature, and then provide it, seems essential.  The ability to see what’s needed in a situation, then finding a way to offer it, doesn’t come naturally. It comes through the trial and error of caring for a smaller sibling, friend, or cousin, the afternoons spent cutting and pasting to make a card or gift or other offering for someone sick, or sad, or lonely. It comes from helping to plan and prepare for a party or celebration, thinking about what might please the guests, then feeling good when everyone has fun.

Books are another way to learn to pay attention. Owl Moon was a favorite: a gentle book about looking for owls on a cold winter night. Miss Rumphius was another: about learning to see beauty, then finding a way to share it. The Alphie books, by Shirley Hughes, prompted conversation about what it means to be a friend, and how good it is to offer a hand, or a toy, or a kind word, just when it’s needed.

My husband grew up with a tradition of bed-time questions, and I learned a similar practice of reflection at a camp where I worked: What did you learn today? What was a thing of beauty? What are you thankful for? Quiet conversations at bedtime can prompt attention throughout the day. There are always new things to be learned, new beauty to celebrate, gifts to be thankful for, if we take time to pay attention.

Just a few minutes ago, the little girl next door rang the bell, selling Girl Scout cookies. She reminded me of my years as a Girl Scout leader, and set me thinking about how much I’ve relied on programmatic involvement as an avenue for engagement with the next generations. My grandmother was never a Girl Scout leader, camp counselor, youth leader. Yet, even in her eighties, she had young friends: the girls down the street she met on her walks, the children, and grandchildren, of people she’d led to Christ. In paying attention to nature, and to others, she was also attentive to openings God gave her, to share that attention, and to befriend those much younger.

It’s easy to focus our attention on those closest to us: our children, their children. Yet, I’m fairly sure their attention is enlarged by our own larger attention.  As I include them in reaching out beyond them, they reach beyond my own reach, until we have widening ripples, moving outward, with a deepening understanding of God’s love and grace, for us and the whole world around us.

   I tremble with gratitude 
   for my children and their children
   who take pleasure in one another.
   At our dinners together, the dead
   enter and pass among us
   in living love and in memory.
   And so the young are taught.  
                       (Wendell Berry)

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