it’s not familiar terrain. not a channel to which i am often tuned. not among my minimal daily requirements.
fact is, i’m not often bushed. not even tired, particularly.
most days, i rocket-bolt out of bed. spend the day pinging from R to Z to Q — often curlicue-ing around the Q — then ponging back to B, C, and maybe W for the end-of-day denouement.
what i mean is: tired, the state of being, is not notched in my gear shift. i was born with my eyes wide open, i’m told (for i’ve little first-hand recollection thereof). and nowadays i’m married to a fellow who thinks one of the funniest things about me (and, yes, his list is long) is that i can’t stand to sleep with the shades drawn. i might miss, say, the first tumbling snowflake. or the pit-a-pat of plopping rain. might not be tickled awake by the first shard of dawn’s light.
full-throttle is my natural gear. and it’s where i’ve been hovering for the last few weeks, as the tick-tock toward my sweet boy’s turn on the bimah (that’s hebrew for altar) drew closer and closer. why, there were flowers to plop onto tables, and argyle socks to pull from the drawer. there were old friends flying in for a few nights’ rest under our eaves. and whole flocks of butterflies to chase from my little guy’s tummy. i was lucky if i’d get an hour or three of big ZZZs before bolting awake. and then i’d just lie there, drumming up worries, till finally i’d surrender and haul myself out from under the sheets.
no wonder me and the sweet boy above have assumed a similar posture: sprawled out and weary. pretty much unable to flinch even a muscle.
took me a few nights to dial down the rev in my engines. didn’t catch a full night’s sleep till just last night. meaning it’s been close to a month since i snoozed more than just a few hours. meaning my days have stretched on and endlessly on, running on fumes, my tank teetering precipitously toward E for empty.
i’ve been craving dark green leafies. and considering frying up liver and onions (far as i got in that department, was the consideration and swift dismissal). i wondered if red blood cells might be in order, a booster pack infused via least nettlesome route.
fear not, i’ll right this old teetering ship. i’ll find my mo-jo again. all it’ll take is a few slow turns of the globe. a few nights curled under the sheets. i’ll be good as new in no time.
which makes it excellent timing that just this week the latest issue of northwestern university’s alumni magazine is spilling out of mailboxes across the planet. back on the very last page, under the heading, “purple prose,” a pun on the school color more than a diss on the exaggerated writing, there spill a few words, all penned by me.
while i practice my deep-breathing exercises and shop for those dark leafy greens, i thought i’d leave you with yet another essay on the art of paying attention, and why it so matters.
without further ado, from the pages of northwestern magazine, curl up and consider this:
STOP, LOOK AND LISTEN
By Barbara Mahany
It was in the murky shadows of an auditorium, on a wintry Sunday morning when I might have wished I’d stayed under the covers, that I noticed the man down the row who raised his hand to add to the voices talking about God and death and the fathomless unknown.
Because I know this man to be wise, and not one to speak unless there’s something worth saying, and because I know this man buried his wife when their two little children were barely old enough to go to school, I listened. Because the man speaks in a rasp — sounds like chunks of gravel chafing against each other deep in his throat — it took determined listening.
This is what I heard, unspooled in one unbroken tendril: “When my son asked why people die, I said, ‘Because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.’ ”
And suddenly I knew I’d heard the words of a prophet there in the shadows on a Sunday morning. And, suddenly, I was so deeply grateful I’d climbed out from under the covers.
I couldn’t stop thinking of what he said — “… we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”
Nor could I stop thinking that he’d first spoken those words to a young boy who’d lost his too-young mother, a boy who would no longer climb into her lap, feel her arms wrap around him, a boy who’d had no choice in absorbing the astringent truth of his father’s lesson: Our days are limited, pay attention to how you live.
I’ve been a disciple of paying attention for years. I’d known — because my own father died, too young at 52, before I had a chance to say goodbye — that our days are numbered. But it was in the way that raspy voice framed those two truths into a single conditional equation, that it stirred me as never before.
In fact, it was the very gift of paying attention — of not turning to my so-called smartphone during yet another Sunday morning’s conversation at the synagogue — that allowed me to take in the words of the wise man a few seats to the east of where I’d plopped with my paper cup of cardboard-box coffee.
It’s become more urgent than ever, this practice of paying attention, especially in this world so terminally distracted by Attention Deficit of the Worst Disorder.
It’s the only way I know — short of climbing behind the monastery walls — to slow the mad-dashing, to quiet the incessant noise, to breathe in and out deeply. To awake to the sacred that surrounds us, that lifts us out of the meaninglessness that numbs us, that corners us into thinking there’s no sin in “killing a few hours.”
We have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.
Here’s how I try to stitch holiness into the quotidian hours of the everyday: I set my alarm an hour earlier than I need to be roused. I tiptoe down the stairs and out into my garden. I quiet my soul. I might catch a sliver of moon. Or the first shards of sunlight. I drink in the birdsong. I crouch down low, take in the poetry of the morning’s dew, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it, illumines the dawn.
It’s that first hour that fine-tunes my soul for the day. And it’s a rhythm, a depth, I try to hold onto, no matter what the day hurls my way.
It’s become what’s aptly called “a practice.” Practice for slowing my deep inner clock. Practice for opening all of my pores — each of the sensory channels, those vessels that draw in the holy — for the countless moments of grace that might otherwise escape me. Practice as in something I try again and again, hoping one of these days I might get it right.
Nearly every world religion, or any mindfulness for that matter, insists on the wisdom of looping back at regular intervals, hitting the pause, blocking out chatter and tuning in to the still, small voice that you might only hear if you’re quiet. Truly quiet. And paying exquisite attention to the whispers all around. The ones that remind us of our own small place on the globe. And our too-short stay here.
The ones who, in the murky shadow of a Sunday morning, might call out from the darkness, and utter the few short words that, months later, urge us — still — to deeper and deeper attention:
“We have a limited number of days,” spoke the father to his motherless son. “So how we live matters.”
And we listened.
Barbara Mahany ’82 MS is a longtime Chicago journalist. Her first book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press), will be published in October.
dear chair friends, how do you re-juice your tank when it’s drained to near empty?
p.s. photo above is young T shortly after stepping down from the bimah, and his chanting of the Torah. fairly certain he was lifted by angels up there, for he soared to heights neither he nor i had ever imagined.