I smell the ocean on the warm breeze flowing steadily past the skin on my face and arms, which are slightly sticky from the drying salt water. The sun is headed down but the days are long and it will be hours before it sets. There is a seagull walking past, eyeing the abandoned beach blanket next to mine, likely considering if I pose a threat to her pillage of my neighbor’s lunch. Children fly toward the shore on boogie boards and frothy waves. It is summer in San Diego.
When I sit down to write, this is often how I start. I ground myself to what is in front of me, under me, around me and above me. My journal is full of descriptions of the plants, insects and animals in my backyard. It’s a way for me to shut off the constant flow of chatter in my mind and connect to the deeper things. So today, it’s the sand and the wooshing border of this vast ocean, the click of wooden paddles on balls, and the delighted screams of playing children, that will guide me to connection.
A couple of years ago I went back to the property that was purchased by my Great Grandma and Grandpa Whipple. It was a one acre lot in Quartzsite, Arizona, a town known for its bustling snowbird community and annual rock show. Quartzsite is the epitome of an Arizona desert with looming saguaro cacti and prickles on every living thing protruding from the earth. I was there in February but in the summer it bakes like an oven.
My great-grandparents were snowbirds. They started heading south to escape the Idaho winters when my Grandpa Whipple was there to tend to the farm in their place. At first they wandered like nomads through southern Utah, Arizona, Nevada and into Mexico with a travel trailer and a pickup truck. As they went, they collected shells, rocks, and fragments of iron wood which they turned into beautiful pieces of art. When they finally settled into Quartzsite they put a single-wide trailer on their acre lot, complete with miniature blush-pink appliances.
That trailer has since been replaced, but I visited it once when I was about ten years old. I remember my grandpa giving Grandma a pat on the bum as he squeezed behind her in the tiny kitchen, and smiling, as he said that was one of the good things about the small kitchen. I couldn’t go back there without remembering the quiet, peace of that place, when my grandparents wintered there.
My mom and dad were there to retrieve any wanted objects from the property before listing it to sell. We found a diary my great-grandma, Ruby, had kept one year as the moved around in the travel trailer. It was filled with short entries about the weather and the plants and the little chores they had done, like baking bread or giving my great-grandpa a haircut. It conveyed a sense of the rhythm of their life.
It reminded me of the visits I had with my grandparents, both my mom’s parents and my dad’s parents, on their farms in Idaho. We took joy in the land, the yards around their homes and the fields with cultivated crops. We admired the roses, even bigger than last year, and the trees with promising blossoms or ripening fruit. And were the pie cherries on? Or had the birds got to them already? And Grandma had rearranged the flowerbeds, with this one raised up on a little berm and that one reduced in a way that made everything slightly more suited to her vision. We talked about the rain and the cows and the frost and freeze. My grandparents were farmers and that connected them to the land in a way that I will never fully know. But I may carry something in my blood, in my bones, that I inherited from them, and that is attention.
“One of the great misconceptions about the artistic life is that it entails great swaths of aimlessness. The truth is the creative life involves great swaths of attention. Attention is a way to connect and survive,” Julia Cameron writes. Cameron and I have this in common, grandmothers who wrote letters and kept diaries and spoke of the “series of small miracles” unfolding in everyday life, in nature.
Camron writes, “My grandmother was gone before I learned the lesson her letters were teaching: survival lies in sanity, and sanity lies in paying attention….The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.”
Attention is how I got through the harrowing pain of my divorce. I wandered the neighborhood, watching the passion vine blossom before turning to fruit. I watched the morning doves nest and hatch and fly away. I saw the cactus bloom an incredible white starburst. I felt the quality of the air shift as the seasons passed. My son, before my eyes, began to speak full sentences and run and climb and race pieces of chalk, like cars, on the cement in front of our apartment. I was preoccupied a lot. My brain was a savage landscape of fear and anxieties, so it became necessary for me to find an escape in the world in front of me.
The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way
“The reward for attention is always healing. It may begin as the healing of a particular pain—the lost lover, the sickly child, the shattered dream. But what is healed finally, is the pain that underlies all pain: the pain that we are all, as Rilke phrases it, ‘unutterably alone.’ More than anything else, attention is an act of connection,” Camron says.
My Grandma Hurst’s fifth child, Brent, was born with a heart defect. He was not supposed to live two days, but he lived 18 years. After Brent passed away, Grandma Hurst took up painting. She started taking oil painting classes. She worked in chalk pastels, water color, and ceramics. She is one of the most prolific artists I know. We, all of her children and grandchildren, have her art in our homes and her basement is filled with canvases that have to be rotated because, even among all of us, there is not enough space to display her enormous collection.
In the last five years, I have come to see Grandma Hurst’s art as an enormous labor of feeling. I have never had to endure losing a child, but I have known heartache and I can imagine that art became for her what writing has become for me: a way to confront and process and heal the the things that cannot be worked out in any other way.
Pain is the place where so much art is born because pain demands our attention. The physical pain I endured with my first laparotomy was so intense that I laid, with closed eyes, focused only on each breath. Even speech was too much of a distraction. When I gave birth to my son, the last hour of labor I was told not to push because I was not yet dilated, yet every ounce of my flesh wanted me to push that baby out that very second, and to hold that back required every bit of the presence and focus I possessed.
Physical pain gives you something to hold onto but emotional pain has brought me to a similar place. I have crumpled to the floor, but once the wave passes I am left to feel my cheek against the hardwood, sticky with tears. I am left with the physicality of the present moment. When I see a bougainvillea I think of the hours I spent, lying in the hammock looking up at fuchsia petals backed by twilight sky, wondering how I would make it through the next minute, next hour, next day…what would save me from my suffering?
And it has mostly been art, the product of paying attention to the flashing fragments that make moonlight appear ductile, as Richard Adams must have when he described it so beautifully. Noticing the ache in my chest, the wonder of the sticky anemone closing around my finger, the beauty of the tracks chalk race cars leave on the sidewalk, the beauty wrought by my own hand.
Attention is conduit to aliveness. Please, please, please pay attention.