On Attention and Empathy
Awareness of small things
A few months ago my husband brought home a box of books from an estate sale he’d taken the boys to. There was one book in the box he said was just for me—something he’d thrown in because it caught his eye and he thought I’d like it. He’s more apt to buy tools than books, but the box was full of Oregon history and that had piqued his interest. The book he’d added for me was a collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
The hard copy poetry book had a hideous dust jacket on it, which I don’t understand. Books are almost always classically beautiful on their own, without the quickly outdated dust covers publishers decide to add. I usually remove the cover and throw it away. The only exception I can think of is Eugene Peterson’s As Kingfisher’s Catch Fire. That book has a beautiful dust jacket that I think I’d still love in ten years, had my dog not literally eaten it and the book it was protecting—chewed a whole corner right off, ripped and defaced so many good words—in a fit of Vizsla separation anxiety.
I will never forget that she chewed Peterson’s book on the very day he passed into his great reward. I heard he had died, and then I came home to find my living room strewn with his work. Does that mean anything?
A friend posted a picture of a squirrel on Instagram and I commented on his intricate little feet. “You have an admirable awareness of the little things,” she said, and I just loved that phrase. I am sometimes consumed with little things, overpowered by them, unable to see the big picture because of them. Still, I believe there is something to be said for finding the smallest tiniest little bit of a thing to enjoy, because those things are always available. The world is full of the overlooked.
Does it mean anything that a book by a beloved author was the one my dog chose to destroy, on the very day of his death? Does it mean anything that I found a letter from a friend in a basket while looking for something for my husband, just moments after I thought about writing to that friend because we hadn’t talked in over a year? Does it mean anything that the psalm I read in the morning is the psalm a friend texts me later in the day and the psalm the Sunday message centers around?
Do all these small things mean anything?
(I’m not talking about Google-coincidences, which are just annoying and creepy. We were discussing the explorer Marco Polo in class the other day when my phone began to ping with notifications from an app I’d forgotten I even had…called Marco Polo. Google has no subtlety.)
I wrote last week about a conversation with my dad and took a picture of my tobacco scented candle to go along with it, gathering in some things from my desk to make a nice flat-lay for the photo. On top of my book stack sat the poetry book Tim had picked for me, minus the gaudy 1960’s dust jacket. The hardcover is that warm mustard-yellow color I’d love to wear but am not brave enough to, and I pulled it into the picture because it matched the candle and my mug. I didn’t pay any attention to the black line illustration on the cover. I took a few pictures, chose the best one, posted it to the blog and my Instagram, and carried on with my day.
Later a friend commented, “That book cover! Are those Indian Pipe?” If they were Indian Pipe, it would mean something—I don’t know what. I don’t know why coincidences line up as they do. I don’t know what possible benefit could be had by randomly placing a picture of a book with an illustration of a plant called Indian Pipe in a post about a tobacco scented candle and how my dad and I shared in the memory of my grandpa and his tobacco pipe; how that was the last conversation we ever had; how God adds something tangible to my memory. I don’t know what it means, only that I can choose an admirable awareness of the small things and conclude that it does mean something.
There are facets of faith that would compel me to see signs in everything. I am not there, straining to make sense of every twinge. I don’t need God to fit every piece into the puzzle in order to find meaning in life, and I feel okay with some ambiguity. I’m good with subtlety; in fact, I prefer it. What I don’t prefer and won’t give in to is a cold slab of facts and a distant God-who-only-acted-in-the-past, who doesn’t have time for the dots on a ladybug or the tightly tendoned toes of a squirrel’s foot.
Oswald Chambers said, “The things that make God dear to us are not so much His great big blessings as the tiny things, because they show His amazing intimacy with us; He knows every detail of our individual lives.” I think God has an admirable awareness of the small things, big as He is. I think it all does mean something, even if I don’t know what.
This morning I looked up the plant again so I could include a link for you, and there was this quote, alongside a copy of the same poetry book sitting on my desk:
America’s eminent poet, Emily Dickinson, called the Indian pipe “the preferred flower of life.” In a letter to Mabel Todd, she confides, “I still cherish the clutch with which I bore it from the ground when a wondering child, an unearthly booty, and maturity only enhances the mystery, never decreases it.”
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Two Paths || The Cultivating Project