Attention Deficit: Following Instructions

I'm a fan of clear directions.

Whether it's how to take the backroad detour that doesn't appear on any GPS or how to get candle wax off a table cloth, I admire precision. I don't do well with ambiguity, with words like "might" or "could." I want to follow the steps and get to the finish, the destination, the wax-free length of pristine linen folded neatly back in the drawer.

So when I first read the poet Mary Oliver's "Instructions for Living a Life," I felt like cheering. Pay attention, she wrote. Be astonished. Tell about it.

It's only six words, just three simple steps. I know how to do that, I thought. I'm already doing that. There's a chance that I may actually be on the right track. For one heady second, I thought I had the answers.

Then again, maybe not. Paying attention suggests being present, right here and right now. It means showing up for the green and gold stillness of a September morning, marking the subtle shift of light from dazzling to mellow as the days grow shorter. But it also means listening to the wandering anecdote of an elderly relative, the plaintive whine of a small child. It means pushing back the heavy curtains of self to let someone else in. Paying attention means knowing about hard things, like Syria and Newtown, and counting the human cost instead of switching the channel to a Downton Abbey rerun.

To be astonished, you must also go outside yourself, adjust the focus, zero in on the telling detail. I look at old photographs, sepia-toned images of the past. Sometimes a face stands out, a look I recognize, even framed by 19th century curls or a flapper's cloche. It's an expression in a woman's eyes, the lift of a chin. Here's how it was. Here's how it's always been, even here, in 1863, or 1908, or 1925.

I look at the moving pictures outside my office window, college students passing in the early fall sunshine. They wear fewer clothes than the people in the antique photos, and they chatter endlessly into electronic devices. Mostly I tune them out, see them as part of the landscape. But every so often, scanning their faces, I'm astonished to see that timeless look again. Some things never change, the searching, the struggle, the longing to connect.

Telling about it takes time and energy and another giant leap away from self. Whether you sing it or paint it or write it or dance it, whether you just grab someone's arm and say, look at this, listen to this, there is an element of generosity involved. There is also an element of risk. Not everyone will like your story, astonishing as it may be to you. Not everyone will get it. Some days, that seems like reason enough to hit the mute button, clam up, go back inside.

So much for the three simple steps.

Oliver's instructions are contained in a longer poem, called "Sometimes." A later stanza is a prayer. God, rest in my heart and fortify me, take away my hunger for answers.

It's a prayer that gives me pause, at least the second part. My own petitions are more direct and less exalted. Please make clear the answers. Spell them out. Post them in large, neon letters. It's dim here, and my vision is faulty.

I read the "Instructions" again, elegant in their simplicity. I try to imagine a day when I will follow them to the letter, and see instead the cut corners, the patched-together half measures. Will I learn to embrace ambiguity, detach from certainty?

I might. I could.