I went day by day at my poem for a Month—at the end of which time the other day I found my Brain so over-wrought that I had neither rhyme nor reason in it—so was obliged to give up for a few days. — John Keats, May 16, 1817
Keats says it best: when the task feels overbearing, give it up for a few days—or a few months—and come back to it later. Now it is later. So, here we are.
I selected Keats’ passage from his letter to his publishers asking for more time (an epistolatory genre I’m all too familiar with) because it summarizes my own excuse for neglecting this letter.
But the part of his note that I actually adore is Keats’ description of his own diligence—the taxing task of attending to a specific project. Day by day, for a month, he protests, he slogged away at shaping words that eluded him. Poetry is not manual labor, but it is a labor of attention. And labors of attention are their own sort of exhaustion.
Writing, says Kate DiCamillo, is seeing. It is paying attention. For the past semester, two projects claimed the bulk of my attention: one was the project of graduate school, of honing the craft of writing and reporting. Both skills are simply the art of paying attention—looking at the people you write about, asking them questions, trying to see them from many different angles and lights, and then paying close attention to the words you put on a page. Writing is truly just staring at words, rearranging them, examining their meanings backward and forward, until you are nearly sick of them. But at the end of your task of attention, you have—ideally—edited out everything you do not mean to say. What you have carved on the page is, hopefully, precisely what you are trying to communicate.
My second project was a babysitting job. Annie was not the first baby I have cared for, nor will she be the last. But perhaps it was simply because she was the baby who claimed my attention so entirely during a year in which I was practicing the art of paying attention in my writing that she emphasized to me how creating anything—a piece of art, an essay, a relationship—is simply learning to pay attention.
As someone (not unlike our dear J. Keats!) who spends hours in my own head, wandering through corridors of thoughts, ideas, and my own interpretation of events, I find that I am too often not paying attention to who or what I claim to be paying attention to—instead of listening to Mass, I’m thinking through my to-do list, instead of seeing the person across from me, I’m fussing over how my hair looks or if what I just said was really idiotic. I can wander through an entire day paying attention to no one or nothing. I can go hours without seeing anything outside of myself.
But spending a day with Annie meant spending time paying very close attention to a child who was paying attention to me—imitating what I would do, following where my attention would focus (my phone), and learning her own humanity by watching the humans around her closely. I would say taking care of Annie made me a better writer, but I also could say that being a better writer meant that I was better at caring for Anniel—I think what is most true is that love given away in the gift of attention bears fruit as more attention and love to give away—to a friend, a stranger or a sentence.
I cannot control whether or not I am talented, says Kate DiCamillo, but I can pay attention. I can make an effort to see. Each time you look at the world and the people in it closely, imaginatively, the effort changes you. The world, under the microscope of your attention, opens up like a beautiful, strange flower and gives itself back to you in ways you could never imagine.
May the world around you give itself back to the gift of your attention in new, strange, and beautiful ways today.
Affectionately (and attentively) yours,
Keats in the Sheets
“There is no greater Sin after the 7 deadly than to flatter oneself into an idea of being a great Poet”— to Benjamin Robert Haydon, May 1817
— From the Blog—
I’ve been a part of Catholic Artist Connection in various ways for the past three years, and I’ve been delighted to serve as executive director starting in May to usher this small collective into a very strange new year in which everything is “opening back up” — whatever that means—and the world is “returning to normal”—whatever that looks like. I’ve started writing monthly reflections in the newsletter, and here is my first—from June. It’s inspired very heavily by Francis Goodings’ truly marvelous essay on mushrooms in the London Review of Books.
Were I a poet I would tell
you in pretty four line verse
Of June, and her belongings
Of Sky and Grass
Of hill and dale
And Sun and Moon
All in the bonny month of
To me, the first truly warm, sunny mornings of spring-turning-into summer always means pulling a volume of Dickinson’s poetry off the shelf to read outside in the grass and trees. Although Dickinson’s trim lines watercolor her scenes with the light brushes of her eponymous dashes, her scant poetry still captures the lush abundance of nature in its summer glory.
Summer naturally makes me reflect on abundance. Nature, writes Annie Dillard, is profligate. Dillard, like Dickinson, is a keen observer of nature, and her close study of the natural world fuels her art. The more I read Dickinson and Dillard, the more I am convinced that the order of the world is abundance rather than scarcity. Nature’s creativity is always inspiring and sometimes shocking.
In the Brazilian rainforest, the fungus Ophiocordyceps unilateralis grows on the forest floor and waits for the canopy-dwelling ants to descend from their trees. The fungi spores attach to the ant’s body and drill through its exoskeleton to its interior cavity. The fungus takes over the ant’s central nervous system, essentially turning the small critter into a zombie. Then, the fungus mysteriously propels the ant, with machine-like precision, through a sequence of events that ensures its survival. The ant attaches itself to a leaf exactly 25 centimeters above the forest floor at precisely the right moment of the day for the sun to hit at the right temperature. From this perfect perch, the mushroom expels its spores back into the soil, continuing the cycle anew.
Spooky? Perhaps. Inventive? Indubitably.
Read the full post here.
Keats in the Streets
“I am however young, writing at random—straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness” to George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819
—Sweet Unrest stylings out in the world—
This summer, I am giving my attention to Religion News Service, where I’ve joined the team as a summer intern.
Even though the newsroom is Zoom and the water cooler is Slack, I love working in a daily news environment. And I quietly hero-worship each of the reporters and editors who are my colleagues.
The first enterprise feature I reported tells the story of an archeological dig on a former Jesuit plantation that included descendants of the people who were enslaved there.
You can read the story here.
I’ve also been doing some freelance writing for the Grotto Network—for my first piece with them I took the opportunity to reflect on the habits of being that journalism encourages. Namely, asking questions.
You can read the essay here.
“The Literary world I know nothing about” to George & Georgiana Keats, Feb 1819
—Highlights from the Good Reads shelf—
One thing that has suffered from a lack of attention: my reading. I have read no books of late, and my brain is starving.
But I am thumbing through Robert Ellsberg’s Dorothy Day: Selected Writings diligently each morning.
Discovering Dorothy Day is discovering a kindred spirit. The world is always so evil and to choose to love in the face of it is always so divine.
Mr. Brown’s Bylines
“Brown, who is always one’s friend in a disaster, applied a leech to the eyelid, and there is no inflammation this morning though the ball hit me on the sight.” to George & Georgiana Keats, May 1819
—Pieces from good friends, and from writers whose words have been a friend to me—
Catharine Smith, ‘We need help’: sewage crisis hits majority-Black town in New York, The Guardian
Cat and I spent most of the semester working together on a radio show and an investigative project, and her work ethic and hawk-like editorial eyes were a serious asset to all of my work. She is one of the most persistent reporters I have ever met and she’s a phenomenal writer. Her two-part series in the Guardian on sewage crises in small, majority-Black towns throughout America is infuriating and mesmerizing. Cat can make even sh*t fascinating to read about.
The sewer lines in Linda McNeil’s neighborhood got so clogged during the pandemic that she had to use a 16-gallon wet vac to suck up her own toilet waste and tub water. As Covid cases surged in the fall and winter, McNeil, 68, wheeled the wet vac outside every day and emptied the contents down an opening in the manhole cover at the top of her driveway.
The smell in her home burned her eyes and made her cough. She couldn’t sleep through the night.
“I’d have nightmares that they were gonna condemn my house,” she said.
Read the full article here.
Will Brewbaker, Manna, Image
I love this poem of Will’s because it reminds me of the moment I stand up from my bench each morning. The moment right after leaving time spent with God, time that is simple and easy to enter into the complex negotiations of living.
Every morning this gathering.
This scraping of the what-is-
this? from the dew-cramped
grass. And every morning
the choice. How much.
Whether or not to.
Read or listen to the full poem here.
I have said it so many times this summer, and I am sure I will repeat it over and over again—time is moving too fast.
It reminds me of Steinbeck’s refrain from East of Eden, chapter 12—the urgent desire to leave behind a stretch of painful years, and the nostalgia for when time felt simple:
Where did all the good stones go, and all the simplicity?
Let’s get it over and the door closed shut on it! Let’s close it like a book and go on reading! New chapter, new life. A man will have clean hands once we get the lid slammed shut on that stinking century. It’s a fair thing ahead. There’s no rot on this clean new hundred years. It’s not stacked, and any bastard who deals seconds from this new deck of years–why, we’ll crucify him head down over a privy.
Oh, but strawberries will never taste so good again and the thighs of women have lost their clutch!
Here’s to strawberry season, while it lasts.