The Universal Notebook: Paying attention

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Yesterday morning, when I sat down at the computer, I looked out the window and saw a nuthatch asleep on the bird feeder, its beak resting on the plastic cylinder of black oil sunflower seeds, eyes wide open, motionless as chickadees came and went.

I watched it for a while before going outside to check on it, because it is so rare to have a live bird remain so still. When I did step outside, it flew off, startled, to start a new day.

Paying attention to the natural world is getting harder and harder to do. In a certain sense, I’m afraid we all suffer from attention deficit disorder, so distracted are we in our plugged-in, multi-tasking lives. And it’s not just the frenetic pace. I’m beginning to think it’s all the technology as well. I spend so much time online writing, e-mailing, researching, staring at and into the electronic glow of the computer screen that I sometimes find it hard to focus my eyes when I switch to reading the more stable platform of a newspaper, magazine or book. I won’t be getting a Kindle any time soon.

Somehow, the bright seduction of our everyday lives seems to be blinding us to the wonders of the phenomenal world. The other night, for example, Carolyn and I drove out to the edge of town looking for the Northern Lights, but, had they been on display as advertised, the halo of light pollution from shopping centers would have dimmed their celestial dance.

But when we sat out in lawn chairs a few nights later to watch the Perseid meteor shower, it wasn’t the lack of darkness that hampered my viewing. The town has unplugged the street light in front of our house as a cost-saving measure, so with the house lights all turned off the backyard sky was clear and black and filled with stars. My problem was that I didn’t know where or how to look.

Staring up into the night sky, I found my eyes darting nervously. I could not rest my eyes on the heavens. I could focus on one star or a constellation of stars, but the harder I watched for the little zips of shooting stars the more frustrating it became. I could not comfortably take in the vastness of the universe.

Paying attention has become a problem, but I only notice it when I try to remain still or when stillness is imposed upon me. Earlier this summer, for example, I agreed to pose for a bunch of artist friends who hold a weekly drawing group. I thought it would be easy. It wasn’t. Try sitting perfectly still for 20 minutes at a time over the course of three hours. During the first 20 minutes, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do it all. I couldn’t figure out where to look, how to focus not only my eyes but my racing mind. And keeping my mouth shut for 20 minutes at a time, remaining quiet as well as still, was almost more than I could bear.

Posing did get easier the longer I did it however. By the end of the life drawing session I was actually quite relaxed, having somehow surrendered myself to the gaze of others.

Most meditation practices teach that, in order to quiet our busy minds, we have to learn to stop what we are doing and focus our attention on one thing at a time – our breathing perhaps or the silent drone of a mantra. But I’ve never been much good at meditating. Too self-conscious, too aware of what I’m doing to actually do it well I’m afraid.

As my own faculties are deteriorating with age, my new grandson Jackson’s are just developing, the world being recreated within him every moment, as it is with every newborn.

When Hannah and Chris brought Jackson to Maine for the first time last weekend, I watched him lying there helplessly on his back on a blanket in the yard, saw his obvious delight in the wind and the sunlight playing through the trees, and I was forced to conclude that he was far more comfortable in the natural world at 6 weeks than I am at 61 years.

Maybe that’s because he’s just taking it all in, paying attention without worrying about what it all means.

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Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Yarmouth. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.