A few weeks ago, I was reading Mary Oliver’s poetry collection, Red Bird.  In it she offers this short poem which she calls Instructions for Living a Life.  It reads, in total…

Pay attention.  Be astonished.  Tell about it.

How very simple, I thought.  Could it really all boil down to just this?  Could a purposeful, meaningful life be had simply by following this modest formula?  Eyes closed, deep breath, I thought about her words, one phrase at a time.

Pay attention. How many times have we heard these two words?  Usually they are uttered by someone in authority, in a stern voice,  as if there will be consequences if ignored.  But now I was thinking of them differently…

At the end of last year, a dear uncle  – the last family member of his generation – passed away.  During the beautiful celebration of his long and well lived life, in conversation with his son (also Ed),  I commended my cousin for his unwavering devotion to his father.  My uncle was a member of the greatest generation and fought battles in both France and Germany.  His son relived those experiences with him, by taking him back to all the villages where he had spent time as a very young soldier protecting and defending our country and our allies.  Father and son spent time tracking down people and places that still filled much of my uncle’s soon to fade memories.

This was a once in a lifetime experience for both of them for sure.  But it wasn’t out of character for my cousin to do this.  He was always there for his Dad – never using the many physical miles that separated them as an excuse not to be ever-present in his life.  At the memorial service, I commended him for his unwavering presence in his Dad’s life.  A humble man, my cousin shunned the praise.  His response – “All I did was to pay attention”.

Now I remembered this conversation and realized that this enduring act of presence that he offered his father was exactly what Mary Oliver had in mind when she penned those words.  He was present.  He listened.  He noticed.  He respected. He paid attention.

What at first seemed so very simple, now became not quite so.  Can I follow my relative’s lead and be in the moment without trying to change or influence the circumstance?  Can I take notice, appreciate, embrace and even, let go, without needing to assess?  For me, not simple at all.

Next, Mary Oliver suggests we “Be Astonished”.

Here again, on the surface, it seems advice easily followed.  But as I thought more about it, I realized that even this would initially take conscious effort on my part.  I also immediately realized how closely tied this second directive is to the first.

A few years back, I attended a retreat facilitated by Paula D’Arcy, author and lecturer.  At one point during those retreat days, she offered a bit of advice on, of all things I now recall, being attentive.  Paula made the suggestion that, when something grabs our attention – a sunset, a baby, a piece of art, a sound – that, rather than merely noticing it, she suggests that we ‘behold” the experience.  The act of beholding, she says, requires much greater energy and focus.  When we behold, we embrace, we appreciate, we feel, we absorb.  We are, as Mary Oliver suggests, astonished.

So many times since that retreat I have found myself beholding – beholding things that I had way too often taken for granted are now being seen with much greater appreciation and awe.

The last bit of advice in Mary Oliver’s poem is “Tell About It”.  And this, hopefully, is what we are attempting to do here on this blog.  “Once upon a time…” is a phrase we’ve heard since childhood.  Stories are a huge part of our past and our present.  Just because you are here on this blog, we can assume you are a reader of stories. But aren’t we also story writers as we move through our lives – writers of our own stories, day by day?  Alone, we own the rights to our unique story. No one else can or should attempt to tell it.

As an introvert, I don’t readily offer up stories about my life experiences.  Often,  I feel my tale is  irrelevant, uninteresting, boring.  But I realize now that our stories are what help us make connections.  They link us to each other.  And because you’re here, , starting this blog with me, we can already say we have some things in common. Telling our stories to each other helps us connect and thereby, we make sense of it all.  Our past makes us who we are today.  Our experiences, same or different, have brought us to this common place today.  When we come together here at “Minding Our Lives“, let us commit to paying attention to each others’ stories and to being ever-astonished by them.

I am so very grateful to Mary Oliver for sharing her amazing insights with the world!

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