The virtue of attention

One of my favorite poems -- " Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver -- begins with the lines,

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
        love what it loves.

I believe this, mostly. What we do matters, but we have worth independent of our actions. We should value ourselves for who we innately are, reflections of the Infinity from Which we come. But what might it mean to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves? And could that choice -- to notice and savor the world around me -- be a kind of "being good," despite Oliver's framing?

Lately I've been thinking about small, unorthodox mitzvot: not big ones like giving tzedakah or visiting the sick, but the little acts that register as virtuous in my mind though most people might not see them so. For instance, eating raspberries in summer.

How is this a mitzvah? Because raspberries are one of the glories of summertime, and in eating them I reawaken my sense of wonder at the season and its bounty. Raspberries grow wild at the edges of our yard, and when I pick them and scatter them atop my bowl of cereal I am saying to the Universe, "Thank you. I'm awake here, I'm noticing, so keep the good stuff coming."

By the same token, going for walks in the forest is virtuous. It gets me away from my desk and my overinflated sense of the importance of my responsibilities, and reminds me there's more to life than to-do lists. There's trees, and ferns, and tiny speckled frogs that blend in with last autumn's washed-out leaves, and conversation with friends who visit from afar, and each of these is important and deserves my attention.

Attention: that's the core of it. I want to be a person who pays attention. I want to mark the exquisite song of the birds -- I think they are wood thrushes -- that sing morning and evening outside our home. I want to notice the wrinkle of skin on a slightly too-ripe peach. I want to take advantage of what's before me, as though ignoring abundance were tantamount to rejecting it. In a way, that's the philosophy behind the practice of saying brachot; every time we bless a taste or a sight or an experience, we remind ourselves to take notice.

A bracha for today: You abound in blessings, Source of all that is. How good it is to open my eyes to all that You bestow on our world.

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