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Loving Attention, Spring, Commonplace Books

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Loving Attention

There's this scene in Greta Gerwig's funny and moving coming-of-age film Lady Bird that I can't stop thinking about.

It's not the one, early in the film, when the eponymous Lady Bird throws herself out the passenger side of a moving car to escape a frustrating conversation with her highly opinionated, overbearing (and yet profoundly loving) mother.

No, the scene I have in mind is much quieter, a conversation lacking the hilarious drama of that earlier scene, but packed with significance—both for Lady Bird and for us as viewers.

In this scene, Lady Bird is speaking with Sister Sarah Joan, the guidance counselor at her all-girl, Catholic high school. Desiring to leave her hometown of Sacramento as far behind as possible, Lady Bird has applied to college in NYC. In a discussion about her college application essay, Sister Sarah Joan notices that, despite her professed loathing for the place, Lady Bird writes with a special kind of care.

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Lady Bird: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Lady Bird: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well it comes across as love.
Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

I think we—like Lady Bird—tend to overlook this essential link between love and attention. And I think this is because, speaking very generally, we tend to reduce love to something that we feel, i.e., to something that happens to us, while we tend to reduce attention to something that we will, i.e., as something that we accomplish.

But what if attention were, instead, the secret heart of love—and vice versa?

What makes love and attention "the same thing", as Sister Sarah Joan says, is that both have a way of blurring our usual distinctions between active and passive, between what I do and what happens to me.

To understand this, consider how Simone Weil (one of my favorite thinkers) describes attention as an essentially negative effort.

Weil contrasts paying attention with the furrowed, sweaty activity that often passes for attention, but which we might better call will power. In contrast with physical effort—furrowing the brows, holding the breath, stiffening the muscles—paying attention consists in a clearing effort, a patient making-ready that might appear to the observer like passivity, but that is in fact a very active cultivation of receptivity.

Attention, according to Weil, is a concentrated dilation of the mind and soul. It is a waiting, poised and ready, to participate in whatever will unfold.

We could describe attention, then, as a kind of active receptivity.

It is precisely this characteristic of attention, this participatory openness, which crosses and criss-crosses our usual way of distinguishing between "feeling" and "doing".

And it is here that we discover the link between attention and love. Because attention, like love, is a focusing of desire. And desire, in turn, depends upon the delight that we experience when we encounter something beautiful and good, something which causes us to say "Yes!" with all that we are.

Notice that we do not cause the good that comes to us when we experience delight, but we do affirm it: our love is not just a feeling, but is a response that actively wills what we have been given.

The mind and the heart, then, are not such separate faculties as we often presume.

We can see this if we consider the attention that is involved in genuine learning. Weil writes:

[T]he intelligence can only be led by desire. For there to be desire, there must be pleasure and joy in the work. The intelligence only grows and bears fruit in joy. The joy of learning is as indispensable in study as breathing is in running.”

The necessary and sufficient condition for attention is love: as our love intensifies, so does our attention.

To pay attention is to receive and appropriate inwardly what is given outwardly.

So too, to love it to weave together activity and receptivity.

Love, like attention, is a response which "lets the good be," so to speak, while also actively participating in a "yes" to this good.


Nothing is so beautiful as Spring –
   When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
   Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
   The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
   The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
   A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden. – Have, get, before it cloy,
   Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
   Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

"Spring", by Gerard Manley Hopkins
Poems and Prose, 1953

Cultural Event

Commonplace Books

The other day I was reading an essay by literary critic Dwight Garner (adapted from the preface to his book Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany).

The essay begins with an explanation of Garner's practice of keeping a "commonplace book", an intimate menagerie of quotations and turns of phrase gathered from years of reading.

Here is how Garner describes the practice of "commonplacing":

For nearly four decades, I’ve kept what’s known as a commonplace book. It’s where I write down favorite sentences from novels, stories, poems and songs, from plays and movies, from overheard conversations. Lines that made me sit up in my seat; lines that jolted me awake.
I began keeping my commonplace book in the 1980s, when I was in high school. In the 1990s, when I was working as the arts editor for an alternative weekly newspaper in Vermont, I typed the whole thing into a long computer file. I’ve moved it from desktops to laptops and now onto my iPhone, too. Into it I’ve poured verbal delicacies, “the blast of a trumpet,” as Emerson put it, and bits of scavenged wisdom from my life as a reader. Yea, for I am an underliner, a destroyer of books, and maybe you are, too.

That last line reminds me that I need to devote a future newsletter to the art of underlining and annotating (if you don't read with a pencil in your hand, you're not reading!)...

Like Garner, I've been keeping a commonplace book for just about as long as I have been reading. To do so is an act of attention, one that invites the ideas and language of others to take up residence in your soul. There's a astonishing alchemy that takes place through the medium of a commonplace book: the thoughts and language of the human tradition, carefully curated and distilled, mingle with your own experience and reflection, and thereby become transmuted in marvelous and unexpected ways.

There's no set way to keep a commonplace book. The artist and author Austin Kleon keeps his like a diary, adding one memorable quote a day. Ryan Holiday, contemporary popularizer of Stoicism (another subject for a future newsletter), uses index cards and shoe boxes. You could use a fancy pen and notebook, a running text document on your computer, a note on your phone.

However you do it, you should start a commonplace book today. It will change your reading, your writing, and your thinking—and so, little by little, inexorably, inevitably, it will change your life.