Paying Attention

by | Mar 27, 2022

Zen pretty much comes down to three things — everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.  —Jane Hirshfield

Here’s the good news: I’m paying attention more these days. My movements have become deliberate, more conscious, and slower. Yes, almost everything takes twice as long – brushing my hair, taking a dish from a kitchen cabinet, dressing. But my posture has improved, and when I begin to hunch over the keyboard, I quickly stop myself, sit up straight, squeeze my shoulder blades together, then begin again. I’m careful to pick up my feet on brisk walks, and I look forward to running again soon.

The not so good news: It took a fractured humerus to get me to slow down to this deliberate and conscious way of being in the world. It was one of those accidents that occurred when everything was fine – until it wasn’t. I was walking a dirt path with friends around a lake, savoring the last few minutes with my favorite four-year-old before she headed home to Florida with her parents. I stooped to talk with her. When I got up and resumed my walk toward our cars, I tripped over a raised manhole cover and landed flat on my chest and stomach, unable to move my left arm. My ribs hurt when I breathed. My pride hurt almost as bad. But I managed to keep my head and face above the dirt. It happened quickly, as these things often do.

I am lucky. The pain, the discomfort, the inconvenience are temporary. The fracture does not require surgery, only an awkward sling for four weeks. No heavy lifting, no pushing, pulling or running.

It could have been a lot worse. The fall could have been a life-changing event. Still, it is a reminder of how quickly things can change, the importance of each moment. I would like to say that I accepted my injury with the Zen attitude that I espoused at the beginning of this post. But the truth is that I was irritated and impatient about this setback to the days that I had planned. The pain was both annoying and, well, painful. I come to grace and acceptance only after a fair amount of struggle. Somehow, I keep trying to learn the lessons of being in the moment, paying attention.

When the cherry trees’ blossoms around the Tidal Basin in DC reached their peak last week, their beauty became another reminder of how transient our lives are, how ephemeral the beauty. When I lived in Annapolis, I always looked forward to the trees’ blossoming. I admit to a certain smugness, knowing that I could make the short drive into DC to experience that beauty at its peak. Now, a trip to that area requires advance planning. But even advance planning is no guarantee that our plans will become reality – one of the Covid pandemic’s lessons, and a lesson from my walk around the lake.

So, for the last five weeks I have made an effort to remain in the moment, to appreciate and celebrate the transient beauty of dandelions and cherry blossoms alike. Even as I remain more conscious of my movements, I feel the old impatience tugging me back to my more active life. I’ve reached that point in my healing where I need to be careful about pushing too much, reinjuring the break. Since I have a high threshold for pain, my default tends to be, “no pain, no gain.” These days, I try to remember the yoga teacher who was fond of saying, “if it hurts, it’s not yoga.” I also try to remember the wisdom in the words of Jane Hirshfield, poet and Zen Buddhist: “everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.”

Paying attention means finding delight in the small moments, acknowledging the changes and the interconnectedness. I don’t remember falling. I do remember the troubled look in the child’s blue eyes.

I remember once a doe leaping across a trail so close to my friend and me that we felt her breath. I remember my friend’s hand on my shoulder, how we froze, looked at each other for confirmation that we had seen the same thing. I remember that we continued our walk more slowly, speaking in whispers. I do not remember what we talked about.

This poem by Czeslaw Milosz has stayed with me for almost 25 years since I first heard it during a two-week writing workshop in Spoleto, Italy.

by Czeslaw Milosz

Translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Lillian Vallee

We were riding through frozen fields in a wagon at dawn.
A red wing rose in the darkness.

And suddenly a hare ran across the road.
One of us pointed to it with his hand.

That was long ago. Today neither of them is alive,
Not the hare, nor the man who made the gesture.

O my love, where are they, where are they going.
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

Wilno, 1936

from The Collected Poems 1931-1987, The Ecco Press, 1988

After reading and discussing this poem and several others, the workshop group in Spoleto visited a cemetery. We were asked to sit and write by a tombstone that we felt drawn to, to write about the person buried there, imagine a life. We were also given an assignment to begin a poem with “where are they.” What moments, what gestures do you wonder about?


  1. Bill Griffin

    Thank you, Pat, for the imagery, the beautiful poem and . . . the news. May your better arm have compassion on its healing sister. And may I imagine over and over the breath of the doe.

    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Thanks, Bill. The fracture is healing, all is well. The encounter with the doe, many years ago, still feels magical.

  2. nancy dillingham

    Pat, perhaps a complement to Milosz’s poem:

    “The Crows Know”

    In need of respite and rest
    she walks the dark-edged woods
    wary of the morrow

    Startled by the whoosh of wings
    she looks up and spies in a tree
    a bit of scarlet
    wound into a crow’s nest

    Her minds leaps into memory
    A window opens . . .

    Her hair down
    billowing against the pillow
    unadorned yet lit by light . . .

    and just in her sight
    dark-winged sorrow sits
    unwinding the long red ribbon
    of joy

    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      This is beautiful, Nancy, especially “dark-winged sorrow.” Thank you for sharing!

  3. Sam Barbee

    We should all slow down down and find comfort in the small things.

    Milosz is one of my fav’s. I met him at the NCPS International Poetry Festival in the 80’s. He was there with Joseph Brodsky, A fascinating pair.

    Both said so much in their poems, paid attention to each word.

    • Pat Riviere-Seel

      Oh, lucky, you, Sam, to hear Milosz and Brodsky. Whatever happened to the NCPS International Poetry Festival? In the 80s I had little time for poetry – I was making a living chasing down politicians and writing daily newspaper stories.


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