“There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation.”
– Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird is a collection of rigorously honest and entertaining essays by Anne Lamott about the writing life in which she reflects upon her own experiences in order to offer advice for others trying to find their own voice. Among so many other elements, she emphasizes observation as an essential life skill which requires compassion and empathy, both for oneself and for others. When we are looking, really actively looking and observing, then we are overriding our tendency towards interpreting, coloring and distorting the objects of our perception. It’s through this kind of focus that we can begin to get closer to the truth of what’s in front of us, as writers and as people. Lamott is reinforcing a very Zen perspective in reminding us that the attention itself is the prize.
It is relatively easy to look tenderly and with recognition at a child, especially your own child and especially when he is being cute or funny, even if he is hurting your feelings. And it’s relatively easy to look tenderly at, say, a chipmunk and even to see it with some clarity, to see that real life is right there at your feet, or at least right there in that low branch, to recognize this living breathing animal with its own agenda, to hear its sharp, high-pitched chirps, and yet not get all caught up in its cuteness. I don’t want to sound too Cosmica Rama here, but in those moments, you see that you and the chipmunk are alike, are a part of a whole. I think we would see this more often if we didn’t have our conscious minds. The conscious mind seems to block that feeling of oneness so we can function efficiently, maneuver in the world a little bit better, get our taxes done on time. But it’s even possible to have this feeling when you see—really see—a police officer, when you look right at him and you see that he’s a living breathing person who like everyone else is suffering like a son of a bitch, and you don’t see him with a transparency over him of all the images of violence and chaos and danger that cops represent. You accept him as an equal.
Obviously, it’s harder by far to look at yourself with this same sense of compassionate detachment. Practice helps. As with exercise, you may be sore the first few days, but then you will get a little bit better at it every day. I am learning slowly to bring my crazy pinball-machine mind back to this place of friendly detachment toward myself, so I can look out at the world and see all those other things with respect. Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence. Because if I don’t learn to do this, I think I’ll keep getting things wrong.
“If you start to look around, you will start to see. When what we see catches us off guard, and when we write it as realistically and openly as possible, it offers hope.”
I honestly think in order to be a writer, you have to learn to be reverent. If not, why are you writing? Why are you here?
Let’s think of reverence as awe, as presence in and openness to the world. The alternative is that we stultify, we shut down. Think of those times when you’ve read prose or poetry that is presented in such a way that you have a fleeting sense of being startled by beauty or insight, by a glimpse into someone’s soul. All of a sudden everything seems to fit together or at least to have some meaning for a moment. This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of—please forgive me—wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds.
There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness, a sign that God is implicit in all of creation. Or maybe you are not predisposed to see the world sacramentally, to see everything as an outward and visible sign of inward, invisible grace. This does not mean that you are worthless Philistine scum. Anyone who wants to can be surprised by the beauty or pain of the natural world, of the human mind and heart, and can try to capture just that— the details, the nuance, what is.
“To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass.”
If you start to look around, you will start to see. When what we see catches us off guard, and when we write it as realistically and openly as possible, it offers hope. You look around and say, Wow, there’s that same mockingbird; there’s that woman in the red hat again. The woman in the red hat is about hope because she’s in it up to her neck, too, yet every day she puts on that crazy red hat and walks to town. One of these images might show up dimly in the lower right quadrant of the imaginary Polaroid you took; you didn’t even know at first that it was part of the landscape, and here it turns out to evoke something so deep in you that you can’t put your finger on it. Here is one sentence by Gary Snyder:
Ripples on the surface of the water—
were silver salmon passing under—different
from the ripples caused by breezes
Those words, less than twenty of them, make ripples clear and bright, distinct again. I have a tape of a Tibetan nun singing a mantra of compassion over and over for an hour, eight words over and over, and every line feels different, feels cared about, and experienced as she is singing. You never once have the sense that she is glancing down at her watch, thinking, “Jesus Christ, it’s only been fifteen minutes.” Forty-five minutes later she is still singing each line distinctly, word by word, until the last word is sung.
Mostly things are not that way, that simple and pure, with so much focus given to each syllable of life as life sings itself. But that kind of attention is the prize. To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind, the mind that so frequently has its head up its own ass—seeing things in such a narrow and darkly narcissistic way that it presents a colorectal theology, offering hope to no one.
From – Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life