Paying Attention: What Flutters In Winter
Living in L’Arche has taught me about paying attention. Paying attention to the things on the periphery, to the outside-edges of reality. Paying attention to the things we’re often too busy to see.
One of the vignettes in my forthcoming book is about Miguel*, a core member (a person with special needs who is at the center/core of community life) at L’Arche. I was sharing time on morning routine, helping him with his shower, dressing, medications and breakfast. Miguel is in a wheelchair, and he’s almost completely dependent on others for assistance. Assistants at L’Arche help him dress and bathe every day. Thus caring for Miguel is an incredibly intimate practice.
Even given his extensive needs, Miguel is one of the most gifted people I’ve ever met. He has the gift of presence—just being with him is enough to calm a harried mind. He has the gift of humor—he’s been known to let loose with a roaring fart and laugh so contagiously that everyone joins him. And he has the gift of paying attention: he can spend hours playing with blocks or folding magazines, and radiate contentment in doing so. These are simple things, and they give him delight.
Miguel sees what the rest of us usually miss. To wit:
“…I stand next to Miguel’s desk later that week. It’s compassion that I have to summon again, because Miguel’s not moving as quickly as I’d like. At first, I’m frustrated. But then I see: he’s gazing with wonder at two sparrows that have flown into the holly-bush just outside his window. I follow his line of sight, and for once I don’t try to turn his attention back to the pills and the medicine cup in his hand. For once, I forget about the task at hand and consider twirling instead…the twirling of tiny wings, the dance of birds in the bush. Light streams in. And I feel like even though the world in all its misery and unfulfilled hope rushes by, the same as ever…we are different, Miguel and I. We take pause. We see life flutter in winter.”
When people ask me why I came to L’Arche, I don’t immediately think of doing ‘a year of service.’ I think about what I learned in the daily practice of caring for a specific person, of letting him interrupt my agenda and show me what he saw. I think about birds fluttering outside Miguel’s window; about how, for a moment, I understood more clearly the beauty and magnitude behind Jesus’s words: “You are worth more than many sparrows.”
We are worth more than sparrows, and yet we have forgotten how to dance. We have forgotten to watch the ballet before our eyes.
Let’s take this one step further: if people like Miguel are on the periphery of modern society … if they are ‘the least of these’ that Jesus talked about, isn’t it possible that we need to sit with them awhile? To learn what they know, to see what they see? Is it possible that we are less when they are not included?
I’d answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions. I’d answer ‘yes’ not out of obligation, but out of need. I need a person who simply appreciates that which is beautiful, without commentary. Someone whose slight smile tells me more than many words. Someone like Miguel.
So I ask: what is it that calls out for your attention today? Is it all the items on your to-do list, important though they may be? Or is it something smaller, something simpler, something like looking out the window into your own yard and really seeing what that single frame holds?
Please share this post with people who have taught you to pay attention.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.