the ability to pay attention

David Foster Wallace seems to have been an author of intense focus. I don’t know that I have the intestinal fortitude to read one of his books, Proustian in length and depth that they are, but in a recent review by Jonathan Raban in the NYRB (May 12, 2011), he quoted something that reminded me of mindfulness meditation and all those other practices that help one go deeper.

“Ability to pay attention. It turns out that bliss – a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (tax returns, televised golf), and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Constant bliss in every atom.”

I’m not sure about this.  It’s not a new thought. Poor Mr. Wallace found life intolerable and removed himself from it – so perhaps the boredom won out, or the colours were too bright in the end. Still, I think that the bliss he describes is possible, without the agony of boredom beforehand.
I can’t say I’ve ever been that bored. Even watching televised golf can intrigue me. But I do try to pay attention, and perhaps this is the key thing, more so than the boredom. Perhaps the ability to look at a thing so closely, as through a macro lens, gives us the ability to really see it in its glory. Photographers, like my friend Gerry Fraiberg, know this. They spot the soul, the brightness of the thing. Artists capture it, potters pot it, writers write it. The sharper we pay attention, the more we see and the bigger bliss punch we get. When we get it right, there is no feeling like it. It IS  like going from black and white to colour, like stepping through that doorway into Oz.

As Dorothy Parker put it: “The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity.” Wallace seems an intensely curious man.  It’s sad that he wasn’t able to explore that curiosity without losing himself in the process. Perhaps the world was just too full of interesting things to be borne. It IS full. And time is short. How I wish I could explore it all, myself. Instead, I must rely on authors such as Wallace and Raban and artists and others to share  their findings with me.

Today the rain is splattering in choral mumblings against my window.  The dog sighs in his sleep, dreaming of runs on sunny beaches. Dora, the parrotlet, meditatively chews her seed husks, wishing for that tropical environment her genes know but have never experienced. My Cousin Grace’s clock is ticking loudly, slightly off true, limping a bit in its old age. Put them together and it is a harmony of a rainy day, of solitude, of the opportunity to explore new ideas, stretch curiosity. Or escape into it and get soaking, soaking wet.

Perhaps a wee bit of both is in order. Followed by some tea and dry socks. Ah.  Coming in from the rain. Is there anything better?

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1 thought on “the ability to pay attention

  1. Joss

    what a beautiful post. i was with you every step of the way. Enjoy your tea and dry socks. I’m going to pour a cup here and journal.
    walk in beauty.


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