On Paying Attention

When I was 11 years old – just on the precipice of young adulthood – I became fascinated by both the immense capacity and frustrating limitations of my own memory. I remember reflecting back on my childhood and wondering why some of my memories were vivid enough to smell and taste, while others were vague and pale like smoke – utterly irretrievable no matter how hard I grasped at them.

I remember feeling a sense of tragedy and despair about these lost memories and forgotten moments. They seemed to me like paintings stolen from a gallery: images that belonged to me but that I could never again gaze upon.   

So, at 11 years old, I created my own little memory experiment. Inside my mind, I built an imaginary filing cabinet. Whenever I noticed something striking – something I wanted to remember forever – I would take a mental picture and consciously store it away in my mind’s filing cabinet where I could retrieve it again whenever I wanted.

I guess my experiment worked because I still have those mental images today – nearly 20 years later.

One of them is of a crisp-orange October day:

It has been one month since two jets slammed into the twin towers, and I sit in the back seat of my mother’s car dressed in black. We are driving home from the funeral of a 16-year-old boy who was killed in car crash. We pause at a stop light. Wind gusts through a clump of nearby trees sending thousands of golden leaves into the intersection, where they dance around our car, floating and spinning, suspended in midair like thousands of glowing human souls. And I wonder at a God who creates such beautiful things in world so darkened by death.

I take a mental picture.

Another of my pictures is of wintertime:

I pull our old wooden sled up our street, heading home after a long day of sledding. The sun sits purple-gray on the horizon, and heaps of shoveled snow glisten like the inside of a purple geode. The street lamps flicker on, and I realize I am late for dinner. I know I’ll be scolded for being out after dark, so I slow my pace – putting off the inevitable – and I drink in the cold, quiet solitude of a winter’s walk.

I take a mental picture.

I have dozens of remembered snapshots from that year – tinsel in Christmas candlelight, pencil races down rain gutters, flower crowns in my best friend’s hair, warm mud between bare toes.

But somewhere along the path to grown-up land, I misplaced my mental camera, or it broke, or my filing cabinet got full – because I stopped paying attention to such details. I stopped noticing.

I stopped storing up my mental pictures.

Instead, I began hurrying (and worrying) through life’s motions. After all, there were exams and papers and practice and obligations and interviews and jobs and checklists and dates and appointments and schedules and …

Whoosh —

How life passes us by.  

A few months ago, some friends and I formed a women’s bible study. On a whim we started reading Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts together. In the book, Voskamp argues that living life in this distracted way – that is, always worrying about the next obligation or the next potential failure – leads to a life of discontentment and a kind of zombie-like existence. She writes,

It’s the life in between, the days of walking lifeless, the years calloused and simply going through the hollow motions, the self-protecting by self-distracting, the body never waking, that’s lost all capacity to fully feel – this is the life in between that makes us the wild walking dead.

Voskamp’s remedy? To start actively paying attention to the gifts God heaps up around us. In doing so, we grow in fellowship with God our Creator and experience both contentment and joy that lasts. She challenges herself (and her readers) to create a list of 1,000 gifts – to record a life of surplus instead of deficit. Her list begins like this:

  • Morning shadows across old floors
  • Jam piled high on the toast
  • Cry of blue jay from high in the spruce
  • Leafy life scent of the florist shop
  • The creak of her old knees
  • Wind flying cold wild in hair

At first, my friends and I chuckled and rolled our eyes at Voskamp’s list: How silly and little these gifts are! Who is thankful for creaky old knees? But then we challenged each other to make up our own collective gift-list using our five senses.

“The smell of spring rain,” one of us said.

“The taste of this wine,” said another.

“The sound of laughter.”

And on we went, actively fighting our discontentment with gifts made tangible simply by our effort to notice them.

Slowly, I’m learning to notice again: The sound of fresh coffee dripping, the earthy-sweet smell behind my dog’s ears when he snuggles close, the way light glows soft through white curtains, the sound of thunder rolling. These snapshots remind me of a Creator who gives gifts heaped up like golden leaves, like mounds of glistening snow – if only we have the eyes to see.

Photo by Bianca Gonçalves from Pexels

4 thoughts on “On Paying Attention

  1. This is beautiful! One of my new favorites! Life does goes by fast. It’s up to us to slow it down and take in all the sweet moments.


  2. Love this Jo!
    It was shared by a friend on Facebook so I clicked it to read and saw it was yours! You have a real gift with words and I feel honored to know you personally. Thanks for sharing these truths. 🙂


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