While I’d like to pay close attention to my surroundings year round, I find it easiest to do so in summer. A covered patio, sunny days and warm evenings give me the means and opportunity to commit the crime of doing nothing but staring into the spaces before me. The garden with its flowers, hummingbirds, butterflies, and songbirds gives me a motive.
Today my inspiration for paying attention comes from The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Bailey was downed by a “mysterious viral or bacterial pathogen,” which immobilized her for several years until she experienced a partial recovery. While she was bedridden, a friend dropped off a pot of violets and a snail. Although at first underwhelmed by this gift in a shell, Bailey began to pay attention to it. There wasn’t much else she could do. In time she began to hear it chew. She saw that it was a hearty eater and eventually learned that Portobello mushrooms were its favorite food. She watched it pull itself into its shell and glide across the soil, and discovered where it preferred to settle in for sleep. At one point she said, “My life became as solitary as my snail’s.” She started ordering tomes from the library covering snail history, evolution, reproduction, geography– everything from the number of snail’s teeth (2,640 in her snail’s mouth) to its systems for defending itself against predators.
At the end of a year, Bailey set her snail free. It had completed its work in helping keep her mind occupied, serving as an inspiration to learn something new, and providing her with companionship during a long period of recuperation. The moments in which she gave her full attention to the snail were moments in which she could ignore her own misery.
This fits with the research of ‘Winifred Gallagher,” author of Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, who says, “Much of the quality of your life depends not on fame or fortune, beauty or brains—or on what happens to happen to you—but on what you choose to pay attention to.” None of us wants to experience a debilitating illness as a means to get us to pay attention. I’m hopeful that spending the summer on my patio will help me understand the outdoor world around me in comfort.