Pay Attention

I recently ran into a Mary Oliver quote that struck a deep chord:

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

(excerpt from Sometimes by Mary Oliver)

I know that people who engage in magical thinking would believe that the quote appeared because I needed to read it at that particular time. Actually, I suspect that I simply noticed it because I needed to read it. (I’m familiar with the poem and had read over those words many times before.) And so the words, Pay attention, have been reverberating in my mind for days now.

I tend to waste a lot of time doing things that ‘pass the time.’ I spend an inordinate amount of time on the internet, and in the evening I collapse on the couch to watch a movie or series. Those of my readers with a full-time job or who are raising young children (or both) are probably snorting, ‘At least she has time to waste!’ I think, however, that busy people tend to spend time ‘passing time’ as well.

At the same time, the older we get, the faster time speeds by. This fascinating article deals with this phenomenon. The best way to make sure your life lasts long is not to add more years to it, but to make the most of each hour/day/year you have. And, while reading that, what immediately came to mind is the fact that ‘making the most of it’ is not about running around and doing things, but simply about paying attention.

Maybe this is why I felt the need to simplify my blog to the theme Postcards from the Garden, these past few months. The hours I spend paying attention to what is happening in the garden feel like valuable time, not time wasted. In my way, I was following Mary Oliver’s prescription: paying attention, feeling astonished, and relating this in the blog.

And astonishment doesn’t have to only pertain to remarkable sightings and experiences. Photographing our ubiquitous geese in beautiful light is just as rewarding to me as photographing our iconic sea-eagle. Of course I love traveling and photographing tigers in India or waterfalls in New Zealand. But a deer silently appearing out of the morning mist in the Biesbosch is also an enchanting sight.

It’s good to keep in mind that, even though this may sound like a Sunday sermon, when I write about something like this, my words are directed towards myself as much as towards my readers. By ‘telling about it,’ I’m giving words to fleeting impressions and thoughts that will further crystallize in my own mind and work their magic on me. And that is the only type of magical thinking I indulge in these days.


  1. Thanks for the great reminder, Madeleine. Of course, I love Mary Oliver (and I have to get over the fact that there will be no more “new” Oliver poems). And as you demonstrate, her poems are inexhaustible. Returning to something like “Wild Geese” for the uppy-umpth time recently, it resonated anew.

    And that, too, is about paying attention. As we get older (us?) it is a gift to have time to “waste,” it’s true. And even better to have time well spend, quietly paying attention.

    Thanks as always.


  2. ‘…busy people tend to spend time ‘passing time’ as well.’
    It is worth reading your post just for that little gem. Being a busy person, I am always conscious of how I use the time I have left. At the same time, ignoring quantum mechanics and remembering never to argue with Stephen Hawking, just because I do not understand what time is. Nice post. Jim

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