‘Pay attention. Be astonished’ in the New Year

By Joanne Peterson | Jan 08, 2014

So here we are, launched into 2014. I still haven’t gotten my Christmas decorations into my storage unit or thank-you notes written or gifts put away.  I look at my new calendar and see meetings, classes and activities already scheduled into February and March, but I haven’t yet come to terms with the fact that the old year is finished.

Perhaps that is because I did not finish all that I anticipated doing. No matter.  Probably most everyone would say that.  A year ends. A new one begins.  Ready or not.

Poet Mary Oliver, who almost always says something wise, does not disappoint when she writes, “Instructions for life: Pay attention. Be astonished.”  Perhaps I’ll focus on those words for the year ahead.

My mother was good at paying attention and also at being astonished. She noticed details, remembered preferences, pleased friends and family with small, personalized attentions. She took joy in nature, frequently calling my attention to a bee buzzing in a flower, the mix of pastels tinting a sunset, an early robin making a first appearance on the lawn.

“Look at those elegant clouds!” she’d say, gazing upward. Or “Imagine how old those oak trees are! Think of all that’s gone on around them for a hundred years!”

My mother liked New Year’s Day. She liked the fresh start, the putting away of the old year and the beginning of the new one. On New Year’s Day, she took the decorations off the big Christmas tree, which my father then dragged through the house and out the back door, leaving a trail of crisping needles across the living room, through the dining room and out across the back porch.  She followed him with a broom.

After un-trimming the tree and boxing up the Christmas décor for my father to store in the attic, my mother applied herself to writing thank-you notes. Beginning when I was quite young, she urged me to sit next to her at the dining table on January 1st, accomplishing the same task.

I remember some childish clown-motif notecards—which she probably gave me for Christmas.  Her address book lay on the table between us. If I interrupted her to ask for help spelling a word, she patiently helped me. For her notes, my mother used a Parker pen. I used a yellow pencil, which I chewed on, frowning.

“Dear Uncle Gene. Thank you for the black and white stuffed bear. I like pandas. I slept with him last night but he has no name yet.”  “Dear Grandma, thank you for the red and white pajamas. I am happy that you sew pajamas for me every Christmas.”  “Dear Aunt Lenore, Thank you for the horse book. I will keep it forever until I get a horse.”

My mother would appreciate Mary Oliver’s words:  “Pay attention. Be astonished.”  She’d also like me to put away the decorations, write the thank-yous and get on with 2014. I guess I’d better do that.

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