Monday, December 13, 2010

12 Days Till Christmas: On Plums, Dogs, Paying Attention

I can't believe it's been months since I last blogged! I'd like to say that it was because my life was full to bursting with dazzling adventures, social whirl, glamorous night life, but the reality is I have been tentatively feeling my way here in NJ. Slowly, slowly. Inch by inch. Appreciating tiny things: the crystal clear view of the sky and its constellations from my huge backyard (Geminid showers 3 AM this morning; setting my alarm!); Doris, the talkative 75 year old crossing guard who loves Rosie and wants to "introduce her to other dogs in the neighborhood;" singing the "12 Days of Christmas" with mom as we set up the Fagan family tree; glorious MOMA and Matisse with his rapturous dancing nudes on a blue background.

But, I've also been reading a LOT--and as often happens when I read a LOT, synapses start firing and throwing off sparks and ideas in a new book will flint and flame and send off other sparks until there's a veritable firework fountain in my head. And what I've been paying most attention to lately (though I've never felt less focused in my life) is, ironically, the act of paying attention, or more precisely, what it is that captures my focus and what that might say about my life.

On Plums and Dogs and Paying Attention
Winifred Gallagher's book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life engaged my own frequently divided, scattered, and diffused attention immediately in her first two paragraphs:

Five years ago, a common enough crisis plunged me into the study of the nature of experience. More important, this study led me to cutting-edge scientific research and a psychological version of what physicists call a "grand unified theory"...: your life--who you are, what you think, feel and do, what you love--is the sum of what you focus on.
That your experience largely depends upon the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to or ignore is not an imaginative notion, but a psychological fact. When you focus on a STOP sign or a sonnet, a waft of perfume or a stock market tip, your brain registers that "target" which enables it to affect your behavior. In contrast, the things you don't attend to in a sense don't exist, at least for you. All day long you are selectively paying attention to something, and much more often than you may suspect, you can take charge of this process to good effect. Indeed, your ability to focus on this and suppress that is the key to controlling your experience and ultimately, your well-being.

I'm a big fan of books exploring neuroscience and behavioral science, but this book has also deeply resonated with me for many reasons right now. 1.) I've been struggling to find my focus since my move. 2.)As a poet, I've known that this conscious act of paying specific attention to the world--for instance, in my one chapbook, the shadowy, nuanced environment of alleyways--has deeply shaped my work 3.) And I've often encouraged my students (as many poetry teachers do) with Zen exercises and "object" exercises to help them sharpen their focus, and tune into the details of their world. And what they choose to write about, to turn their focus to: the drunk man swearing on the 61-C bus or their grandmother's engraved silver hairbrush lying in a cardboard box begins to help them understand what it is they value. What you pay attention to as a writer is what you ask your reader to pay attention to: hey, folks, look at this. this matters

But Gallagher takes it even further: she proposes that we should be aware of (and even consciously control) what we choose to focus on because where we choose to focus our attention will become the story of our life. (Today's attention: Rosie's laughing face. Poetry. Thick-skinned Oranges in a crate. Wind cold as spoons. Deer spooked in the neighbor's yard at dawn. Pre-med Kate and her brilliant analysis of Lynda Hull's poem "Waitress." broken windshield wiper squealing back and forth as I drive the Garden State Parkway in the morning rain. Woven Irish blanket color of the winter earth. Student Dan's startling "confession" to me that he's missed so many classes because he's become addicted to meth. Shoe stuck in mud. Construction workers pouring gravel over the fence at my feet. The skin of a hard-boiled egg. an old lover on the phone who fears he's getting old. lemon and butter and brown sugar from the hot oven. Text from a friend: "Hey gf. I miss u so much!" Mom carrying her guitar, home from singing at the local hospice. And thus my attention and thus, my day.)
All of this makes me think of William Carlos Williams whom I often think about, especially since I've been back in NJ and working up in north Jersey, not too far from where he wrote his poems. That wonderful line "so much depends upon..." the weight of urgency in those words, the implicit value placed on whatever will follow-- in this case, red wheelbarrow, white chickens, rainwater glaze. Maybe not the expected list of what we think our lives depend upon; our lists differ depending on our own gaze and where it lands, metaphorically and literally. During this Christmas season, Williams' plum poems loop in my mind:

This is Just to Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

To A Poor Old Woman

munching a plum on
the street a paper bag
of them in her hand

They taste good to her
They taste good
to her. They taste
good to her

You can see it by
the way she gives herself
to the one half
sucked out in her hand

a solace of ripe plums
seeming to fill the air
They taste good to her
When I need a reminder about how to effectively focus my attention or about why the small of this world matters, these poems serve me well. "This is Just to Say" is a note for us to stumble upon taped to the refrigerator door. A sweet false apology. A piece of fruit. You're half asleep in your pajamas.

The poem stays clean lined, brief, spare, elegant, full of white space where the whimsy, humor, affection seeps out. It's a poem that doesn't distract us with metaphor, long lines, punctuation. This is no Internet with its overwhelming pile-up of stories, ads, FB, email, weather, maps, info-glut. I can taste this one filched plum: the slight shiver of the cold, slightly sour skin on my tongue, against my lips, the sweet flesh, juice on my chin. The speaker isn't sorry and neither am I. I have been invited, simply placed in a moment of such quiet clarity. I love Williams' for sharing his focus on the local that is so local, it's in your kitchen, the refrigerator door's ajar.

In the second plum poem, the speaker has paused in his day to pay attention "To a Poor Old Woman," and it is that choice, that act of attention that transforms him! He shifts from being initially distant, a mere passer-by and witness to a homeless woman eating on the streets to a human being who has come into communion with a stranger "a solace of ripe plums/seeming to fill the air..." between them. He, too, is a plum eater; it's a small recognition, but a connection nonetheless. He recognizes the pure relish and joy the old woman takes in the act of eating perhaps the only food she's eaten in days: "...They taste/good to her.//You can see it by/the way she gives herself/to the one half/sucked out in her hand..." But as he stands there, all focus on this woman, something changes in him. He no longer just relates to the deliciousness of eating a ripe, sweet, juicy plum, but becomes empathetic to another. In essence, he can "feel" on some level what she feels and it leads him to a gentle observation: "Comforted/ a solace of ripe plums..." In his focused awareness, something beautiful arises: he silently cheers this woman on, he wants her to relish and take comfort from this delicious fruit in her hand. This, too, is what intense focus might bring about.
In this fractured, hybrid, bits and bytes life, we all need to find a way to tune in more fully to that which makes us more
fully alive. For me, one of my guides in this is my dog, Rosie. I am not sure I would have successfully navigated some of the last years I've had without my Australian Shepherd with the "vanilla-fudge swirl" fur coat by my side. Rosie's immediate vibrant alertness and intensity (talk about focus!) at the sight of a tennis ball or the stick in my hand places me squarely in the immediate present. This is all there is. All that matters. Playing. Running in the cold. or Rain. or Snow. So much depends upon... I'll end my musings on the importance of paying attention with this quote from Mark Doty's beautiful memoir Dog Years (which I'm re-reading for the 3rd time.) He eloquently talks about his dogs Beau and Arden and how they helped him to keep wanting to live after he lost his lover and partner, Wally:

Walking is an affirmation of physical life. We're in the world, we're breathing, we're together. I move in a straight line, more or less, along the paths, and sometimes the dogs are right in front of me or beside me, but more often, they are threading around the path, padding in the woods or thickets or marsh on either side of me. I begin to conceive of us as one extended consciousness, reaching out in different directions, sensing, our bodies making a braided trail but our awareness overlapping. That helps, just now, when a self seems fragile, erasable. With the two of them, I'm joined to something else, perception expanded, not just stuck there in the world in my own bereft, perishable, limited body.

Have a happy Tuesday, all of you! And thanks, Sam, for your encouragement to re-blog today. xoxo


  1. Oh Sharon, on such a discombobulated morning of a reemerging headcold, a missing school bus, and a war of wills, I sat for a moment in the diminishing echoes with my coffee and read your post. I heard the dryer chattering in the basement and the clock telling me to pack my work things. Your words helped me breathe again. Thank you for helping me to remember.

  2. Sharon, this was lovely. I'm abstracted from the world right now, lists in my head and papers in front of me, a nasty headcold hovering over me. Your post was a welcome reminder to focus on the smell of Matthias's hair and the gentle hum of the Christmas lights, the lingering hint of dark chocolate in the air from yesterday's cocoa.

  3. So lovely to hear from you all! Love the feedback--thanks so much. Naomi and Teri--I love your lists of what you turned your attention to--beautiful!!! and happy belated birthday, Teri--I hope it was a great one.

  4. hey sharon. great column You are a freakin genius!

  5. Dear Sharon;

    Just read your blog of 12-13. Wonderful! I too enjoy Williams. But more than that, I enjoy your "moment sketches" "...the skin of a hard boiled egg..." I've become involved in doing mindful meditation exercises. I've found that I am becoming able to herd the monkeys in my head into a singularity and thus seeing more than I have for a long time. The other day I was at a traffic light and noticed a hawk high on a light standard. Behind him, a rainbow painted a glorious arc across the sky. I had to stop and write the following:

    The hawk perched high atop
    the light standard
    the magnificence
    of a rainbow spread
    against the early
    January morning,
    a peaceful harbinger
    of hope.

    Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Hope the new year brings you lots of happiness, health, laughter, and music.