In Defense of Paying Attention
This winter is one where the falls of Minnehaha creek have frozen, and on a sun-filled Sunday in January, my fiancé and I slipped and dangled on hand rails, past the don’t enter signs, down the ice-packed steps to the river. The unexpected thaw swarmed the park with tourists, joggers, parents gripping the taut arms of bundled and unsteady toddlers. I was there because of too many days inside my apartment, hiding from an all-too-familiar Minnesota winter, bent over my last semester of undergrad homework. We were all in need of stretched muscles, some tart air in our lungs.
I tend to spend a lot of time in my own head anyway, but the cold-induced hibernation makes it worse. With less to distract from myself, no smell of wet earth or motivation to venture out further than my Shakespeare class, the world feels smaller and the problems of me all the more overwhelming. I need the day’s sun-softened breeze to keep me awake to the life still quietly stirring on without me, even in frozen ground. How often do I forget that it’s there? Walking faster than I needed to, I was pulling Riley after me to the river, swallowing down all the air I could carry.
At the clearing where gallons of water break and the creek resumes, we jumped the fences posted around the pool and joined the crowded basin. The falls were frozen in time—chilled into a single instant. Its cliff ledge was sheeted in blue-pillared walls of ice, a rocky rim of speared stalactites. Surrounding trees and brush were steamed white with frost. Groups of people had arms slung around shoulders for pictures, some were sliding down divots of ice, all just trying to keep their balance. The awkwardness was the great equalizer, and no one was above fighting to remain on their feet. Most of us didn’t. A stranger offered her mittened hand as I stepped from one ledge to the next, and I took it because we are all rather clumsy and helpless, and the scene was more comfortable because of it.
A few feet away from me stood three teenage girls holding iPhones like mirrors, sucking in cheeks and baring tongues for the camera, and I wondered at how familiar it now seemed. I watched them rather obviously, but they were too preoccupied to notice me or anything else. They stood for a string of selfies until they found a new part of the waterfall to stand in front of and move on. By that time, their Snapchat and Instagram followers had seen more of Minnehaha than they did. But this is what we do. It’s what I’ve been doing all winter. We turn away from things deserving attention, only to better stare ourselves in the face. We imprint our expressions, our bodies, our beings on things and sights that aren’t lacking anything without us because we look for satisfaction in making the image of self as prominent as it can be. And yet, even as we pump ourselves full of sights and experiences, we gaze around disappointed, recognizing nothing but us in everything we see.
When I looked to the waterfall itself, the concentrated mass of river perpetually plunging in its singular, unvarying form, it towered pristine as glass. I stood at the foot of its foam, the billowing and spray of its impact locked in marble mounds. Crawling up and over them for a closer view, they were knobby as popcorn balls. Above me rested a fierce and sleeping energy—a rampage of motion suspended over my flimsy skull. I could see the water still tunneling through beneath the ice, flashing and shadowing, falling as gentle and hushed as a never-ending breath. I was stroking a slumbering beast, and all I could do was wonder at not being devoured. In my wet mittens and jeans, my frizzy hair knotted on my neck, I didn’t feel powerful for my conquering but only better reminded of my feebleness. In my most sincere smallness, there was not anxiety. There was quiet.
I’ve spent so much time trying to cultivate a self out of the beautiful and remarkable things I see, hoping to reflect it or make art of it or make others envious of it. I let my own desire for importance and influence eclipse everything shimmering in my line of sight, and often I don’t realize how deeply I crave moments that are so obviously not about me until I’m in the middle of them. When my self-consciousness is removed and I’m entirely present to a thing I’m not seeking to benefit from. This is the best peace I know. And I think our richest inner selves result from simply letting the splendor of the world yank us out of us. That is the work of paying attention.
From my perch on Minnehaha Falls, I climbed through a hole like the knot of a tree, behind the falls into caves of rock and ice, the inside ledge chandeliered with icicles, the light through its walls glowing blues I’ve never seen. A small boy holding his father’s hand gaped around and said, “I could spend hours here,” and I knew that few things could be as valuable as that. With my back to the cool of the cave wall, toes stiff in my boots, I stared into the drip-drip-dripping and flicker of ice like light and did not think about my deadlines or anything outside that space. Nothing roared or surged or crashed. I chose to imitate the language of winter, and be still.