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Silhouette of a person staring up, in wonder, at a starry sky

Instructions for Living a Life

The poetry of Mary Oliver speaks volumes to my soul. One of her short pieces provides a motto by which I try to live. Short, simple and to the point:

Instructions for living a life.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Pay Attention. How often I go through my day so intent on getting things done that I mindlessly check off the “To-Dos” without seeing what’s happening around me. I miss opportunities to be in meaningful conversations—“Sorry, too busy.” I miss the possibilities of seeing the wonder and beauty of God’s creation in even the tiniest of things. I’ve spent way too much time doing that I’ve forgotten the joy of simply being present to each moment. To be honest, simply being present to each moment takes time, intention and energy. It’s not always that simple. As a society driven to achieve, it is hard to simply be. Yet, when I can do that, which is an advantage young children and older adults have over “productive working adults,” I experience a deep joy.

Be astonished. Hang out with a toddler just learning to walk or, better yet, learning to run in awkward strides, often sitting down abruptly only to be astonished at all there is to see from a very short vantage point. Watch as they are delighted by the simplest discoveries such as a leaf, a ladybug, a rock. What utter joy to spend time with a young child still in the process of discovering the world! No fear, no expectations, just present to the moment. Kairos time: God’s moment when time stands still in vibrant colors and aliveness.

Tell about it. This one is tricky as an adult. When we experience those “God moments,” those places and experiences where heaven and earth kiss, it is hard to convey the wonder and awe to another. Yet in the telling we imprint that touch of the Divine on our soul. And when we chose to open ourselves to those moments in which we pay attention, allow ourselves to be astonished—and then tell about it with a sense of wonder—we come the closest to fully living life as we are meant to live.

I invite you to try to follow Oliver’s instructions for a day and see what happens. Let me know what you discover.

Happy summer days,

Rev. Dr. Donna Patterson

Rev. Dr. Donna Patterson serves as Anam Cara Chaplain in Residence for Scarritt Bennett Center and directs the Center’s Soul Work program.