Instructions for Living a Life

Instructions for Living a Life

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.

-Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver (1935-2019) fully lived her life according to those instructions.  She was a philosophizing , theological poet who made the ordinary extraordinary. She paid attention to the smallest of creatures to the expansiveness of the world. 

Pay attention is some I try to do, sometimes better than other times. I can be easily distracted, which in some ways can be a plus. Most often, though, my distractions are mostly in my head, pondering the muchness of what’s going on in the world around me – over most of which I have little or no control.  When paying attention is good, it is seeing something in nature or in others, that makes me smile. The is a small rabbit in my yard that holds very still pretending we don’t see each other.  All the while I’m talking to her telling her “Good Morning!.”  Come to think of it, I haven’t noticed her lately as I’ve hurried off to whatever it is I need to do. It is also important to pay attention to events that are troubling and do what I can to address issues of injustice that harms others, the world, and myself. Paying attention is a both / and.

Being astonished is something children do well. The children from the child care center next door often take walks on the Scarritt Bennett campus.  They explore the wonders of nature and are delighted when they discover the beautiful intricacies of a leaf the has fallen on the ground. Simple pleasures.  Childlike wonder and joy is something adults often brush away when there are “more important” tasks at hand than being astonished.

Tell about it. What do I spend my time talking about?  Ouch. All too often the words from my mouth are critical about what is or is not going right according to my perception. The state of the world to the state of my own little part in the world can become frustrating and depressing – if that is what I choose it to be. It is all in how we look at things, turn them over and over in our minds and spit them out. Read James chapter 3 about the power of the tongue.

A friend gave me a little blank notebook with Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life” embossed on the cover. I use it to write down things that astonish me from the beauty of the world and the simple acts of kindness of a friend or stranger.  I try to remember to pay attention to the things of life that are most important and not get caught up in the minutia of troubles.  I try to slow down and be astonished at the wonder and beauty of the world.  I also am clear that there are times I need to be astonished at the injustices and cruelty so I can work toward healing and rectifying wrongs as best I can. And, I try to find ways to tell good news that brings smiles and hope. Or in certain conversations, try to bring in information and rational concern about troubling events that can be addressed and work toward reconciliation.

These instructions for life are important. They speak of awareness and response that can be vital to creating a more healthy and just world. I keep trying to be intentional in practicing these three aspects of being present.