End Notes: Pay Attention
by Andy Dreitcer ’79
January 11, 2011
The setting of this story is beautiful, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever experienced.
It was in our dining/living room—the main room in the manse that I’d designed and helped build for the church where my wife and I were co-pastors. It was about 10:30 at night. The room was dark, except for candles. The antique oak furniture and dark wood floors glowed in warm light. A recording of Ella Fitzgerald’s torch songs was playing; Ella’s rich voice and music surrounded us like the scent of roses from the bouquets placed around the room. Darkness, candlelight, music, roses. Beautiful. And my daugh-ters were there—Hannah, 15 years old, and Monica, 13—also both beautiful.
My wife, Wendy, was there too, but not in the usual way we think of as “being there.”
In the place where our dining room table normally stood was a bed, a hospital bed. On the bed lay my wife—or rather my wife’s body. Her life in this beautiful place had ended a few minutes before.
After 10 months of fighting brain cancer, and after 10 days in a coma, she had breathed her last breath.
And now we were bathing and dressing her—Hannah and Monica and I, with Ella’s voice and the roses and the candlelight. The girls had chosen a dress for her a few days before. Rose-scented water had been prepared for this moment. Hannah is sponging and drying her mother’s body. Monica is making sure the ribbon meant to close her mother’s jaw was the proper color and attractively tied. We put the dress on her. Hannah, the dancer, places her ballet slippers on her mother’s feet. Monica, the musician, attaches a piece of jewelry, her tiny gold saxophone, to her mother’s dress. We laugh some and weep a little and sing along with Ella and admire our handiwork on the body of this woman who had filled our lives.
There have been other turning points in my life in which it seemed I experienced deep truths. The time at the Taize community in France in my 20s during a weeklong silent retreat when I had a sense of warm light and thought, Finally, there is a God. It’s about time. Or the time in my 30s when working three jobs and studying and caring for babies meant no time for silence—including the sleeping kind—and I discovered that rocking an infant was the only place that seemed to bring God’s light to me.
But this experience of terrible beauty in my 40s is the most important. It has set the tone, established my touchstone, for the truths I teach myself—whenever I remember to teach myself those truths, which is not often enough. As I begin my 50s, those truths consist largely of what I learned from the experiences distilled in that terrible, beautiful evening three-and-a-half years ago. And those can be distilled into one simple lesson: Pay Attention.
Pay attention to the nature of your experience—the flavor of it, its warp and weave, its textures and colors and movements. Pay attention to how you respond to what life brings you: the thoughts that come to you, the images, the emotions, the physical sensations, the assumptions and motivations, stomach gurgles and clenched jaws, wonderings and wishings, musings and memories, beliefs and biases. All those many movements are the canvas and palette and paintbrushes of the Spirit’s lifelong conversation with us. It is through those movements, those dynamics of, in, and with our bodies, that all our information about life, the world, others, and ourselves comes to us.
There is no other way. Our embodied beings are the medium for the message. Even a direct shot from the mouth of God would reach our consciousness only through these movements. So paying attention to them is a good strategy if you’re at all interested in tracing and following the Spirit’s invitation in your life.
I used to believe that if I paid close attention to those movements, worked to track the Spirit through the tangled undergrowth of my neuropsychological physiology, I would get closer and closer to an experience composed of One Thing. That One Thing, I believed, would be a sort of singularity—one emotion unsullied by others, or one single idea of myself or only one intention or just one longing—without all the other babbling voices I constantly hear. And I believed that this One Thing was what we humans were finally supposed to experience when we encountered more fully that Mystery I call God.
Which brings me back to that terrible, beautiful evening I described in my story. For in that evening I stopped believing in the necessity of an experience of only One Thing. Here, after all, was perhaps the most intense and Spirit-infused experience of my life—the veil between heaven and earth was very thin, as the Celts would say—and the experience I had was not a simple, unitary thing.
It was a complex union of opposing emotions and thoughts and longings.
It was all beauty and it was all horror.
It was complete presence and it was complete absence.
It was my daughters full of their futures and my wife with only a past. I watched a horrible form of dying in a lovely room I knew intimately—and I was inside a womb watching a birth into a place I couldn’t reach. I was soaking in grief and I was flooded with relief.
It was all death and it was all life.
As I look back at this terribly beautiful night, I realize that it was the formative experience of a sense of Eternal Mystery and life that has gradually grown and been confirmed in the years since then.
In fact, in the years since that night, astonishing things have happened to expand my sense of that experience. I got to know a wonderful woman named Steffani. We became best friends and more. We married and live in what must be the loveliest little house in the world. I cannot imagine a better marriage, a better life with another person. (People tell me that will change after a couple of years.
I don’t believe them.) Not only that, but Monica and Hannah are thriving—and occasionally grieving as part of their thriving.
I have never been more at peace, more settled, more joyful, more content.
So every day I try to remember to give myself a little lecture. I say, “Pay attention. Look around. Savor what you have been given. You might not get another chance. So many people don’t. Give thanks for one thing in this moment. The color of that tree. The ability to read. The taste of this cookie. Work you love. Astonishing daughters. The chance to share your most intimate self with the most wonderful woman in the world. The fact that you have been blessed to live life with your daughters beyond their 13th and 15th years. The rare reality that your daughters love their stepmother very much—and she them (in spite of all the fairy tales to the contrary).”
I know that whatever difficulty I have had in my life pales in comparison to the lives of most of the world. I can barely even begin to imagine what those lives might be like. So daily I remind myself to pay attention to what this good life brings me. I don’t find that easy. Far from it. It is a training exercise. It is practice for living—in the grand traditions of asceticism (which means “training” or “practice”—in the way of athletes). But this small move—the effort to notice the experience of each moment, the move to notice it and name it and consider it (even to enter into it, with God’s presence) and not allow it to control me—this small move, done over and over, contains in it all the potential to change the world.
Some time ago my daughter Hannah told Steffani, her very new stepmother at that time, of a dream she’d had—a nightmare, in fact. In the dream Hannah had come to realize that her mother was still alive—that she had just gone away for a time and was coming back. Hannah, in the dream, was ecstatic. But then horrified. Because in the dream she saw that this meant that Steffani could not be a part of her life anymore. Hannah so desperately wanted her mother back. And she couldn’t stand the thought of Steffani leaving. As Hannah talked with Steffani about the dream, Hannah reflected on the tragic fact that the deep joy she had found with Steffani had come at the inconceivable expense of her mother’s horrible death.
This is the kind of thing that hits us when we pay attention. It is not easy, but I believe it lies at the heart of what it means to be alive: the reality that any moment of deep love, divine presence, probably bumps up against some touch of great pain. Or the fact that intense joy may come only because of a horrible sorrow. Or the realization that blessings in my corner of the world correspond with sufferings in some other part of the world. Water always seems to be changing to wine, and wine to vinegar. The crucifixion and the resurrection together. Not in any particular order. Sometimes collapsed into the same thick moment. The ecstasy made all the brighter in the company of agony. The agony made all the deeper in the company of ecstasy. And the hope that in the midst of all of that I will be free to live my life as an expression of God’s love.
It’s true: Within me and within the life of the world there is such a mass of entangled, complicated turnings and twistings and shoutings and moanings and laughs and songs and wonderings and longings and aches and pains and joys. Much of the time it isn’t pretty. But that’s what I have to work with. That’s what the Spirit has to work with. So I keep reminding myself to pay attention—and trying to trust that “all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well.”
Andy Dreitcer ’79 is associate professor of spirituality, director of spiritual formation, and co-director of the Center for Engaged Compassion at Claremont School of Theology. He lives with his wife, Steffani, and daughters, Hannah and Monica, in Fairfax, CA. Read more at www.triptykos.com
“Pay Attention” was edited from a “Last Lecture” delivered to students at the Claremont School of Theology.