The funny thing about the first few days of a New Year is that I catch myself looking forward quite often. There’s nothing wrong with looking forward, just as there’s nothing wrong with looking back towards where you’ve been, as long as you’re grounded in the present. One of the things I love about Mary Oliver poems is her focus on the things in daily life that you might miss if you’re not paying attention. Shell fragments on the beach become a story in a poem that makes me think of a walk on the beach in a different way. The poet, teaching us how to see:
“I go down to the edge of the sea.
How everything shines in the morning light!
The cusp of the whelk,
the broken cupboard of the clam,
the opened, blue mussels,
moon snails, pale pink and barnacle scarred—
and nothing at all whole or shut, but tattered, split,
dropped by the gulls onto the gray rocks and all the
It’s like a schoolhouse
of little words,
thousands of words.
First you figure out what each one means by itself,
the jingle, the periwinkle, the scallop
full of moonlight.
Then you begin, slowly, to read the whole story.”
– Mary Oliver, Breakage
The other day while leaving Cape Cod I was so caught up in getting things packed up to get to work that I missed an opportunity to go to the dump. Now don’t get me wrong, going to the dump in and of itself is not my favorite activity. But going to the dump with my favorite Navy pilot, well, that’s a different story. But I was so focused on checking boxes and getting tasks done that I let him go off to bring the trash to the transfer station on his own, missing the chance to spend 30 minutes talking about nothing and everything. Moments like that are available if you pay attention, and slip away when you don’t. I’ll regret the lost opportunity, and have already forgotten what was so important for me to get done that I passed it up.
We’re all a work in progress, sometimes things just fall into place and we’re focused on the things that matter most, and sometimes we’re looking the wrong way when the magic moment happens. All we can do is keep chipping away at it, one small bit at a time. I know I’m a much better human than I was ten years ago, and better still than I was twenty years ago. Incremental progress isn’t as stunning as immediate transformation, but the Ebenezer Scrooge kind of overnight transformation isn’t the way most change happens.
“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become.” – James Clear
So I keep taking action, one step forward and sometimes two steps back. But in general I see incremental improvement. Learn from the mistakes, change our action next time if lucky enough to be offered a similar opportunity in the future. Do those things now that matter most. That starts with getting out of your own head and paying attention. Begin, slowly, to read the whole story.