Pay Attention to Your Surroundings and Live a Life of Astonishment

The other day I stood on a street corner beside a man I didn't know, the two of us watching the sky. At first there was nothing but pale blue. Then, in a snap as sudden as a magician's unveiling, a shimmering white veil appeared. Its surface caught the sun, producing not glare but the subtlest glint of sheen and sparkle. Just as my eyes registered this apparition, it disappeared. I waited a few hopeful heartbeats. The invisible hand produced the veil again, snow-white and as unspoiled as a child's dream.

Several more times the flock of birds wheeled as one, white undersides catching the sun, and then they flew behind a rise of hills and were gone.

It was quite beautiful, so beautiful as to be a miracle, but these are not things you say to a stranger.

So I said, "Pretty astonishing."

The man looked at me as if I was something he had just stepped in.

"So what?" he said. "They're only birds. It's just what they do," and then he walked away.

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Ours was a brief encounter, happily, no doubt, for the both of us, but it was not the only encounter I've had like this. I have seen people dismiss all manner of astonishing things. It is true, one cannot continuously stand stock still and slack-jawed staring at the sky, although one of the men I admire most spent a lot of time doing just that. Life requires some measure of practicality, for there are wages to earn and bills to pay and errands to run. But to also dismiss the miracles around us seems a shame.

Don't get me wrong. In this matter I have been as guilty as most, blind to the miracles around me and jaded, too. Once I went diving in Kauai. Before one of the dives, a short swim off the beach at a place called Koloa Landing, our dive guide gave us a breathless run down of all the astonishing things we might see. Be sure, she effused, to look closely; we would have so many wonders to notch in our dive logs.

Frankly, the conditions didn't look too appealing. There had been a lot of rain, and beneath overcast skies the waters of Koloa Landing were a tea-with-cream brown. When our dive guide and her enthusiasm were out of earshot, another diver turned to me.

"We'll be lucky to see our hand," he said.

"If I do," I told him, "I'm putting it in my log book."

Pie in both our faces. Over two dives, we saw two snowflake morays, a mustache conger eel, a blue dragon nudibranch, a devil scorpionfish, one flying gurnard, and three yellow frogfish. You don't have to know what they are; you only have to know that these are creatures as lovely and bizarre as any hallucinogenic dream. And looks aren't everything. Frogfish resemble a malformed piece of clay and they swim like drunks at closing time. But do not dismiss the humble frogfish, for they are the fastest vertebrate predator on the planet. Wedged in a fissure of rock, dangling the long lure that extends from just above its mouth, the frogfish draws its curious prey near, and sucks it up in roughly one-sixth of a second.

Whenever I start to dismiss something as mundane and commonplace, I think of my friend the frogfish and pay very close attention again.

Albert Einstein said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle."

Another great man saw something my street corner companion did not.


Lovely, isn't it? It's the opening of a poem called "Grackles Goodbye" by Robert Penn Warren, a man who, unlike me, knew exactly what kind of bird he was watching. Grackles, you may know, are about as common looking a bird as you'll find. They are also aggressive and loud and eat pretty much anything; farmers and yard tillers hate them because of their voracious appetite for seeds and grain.

But Warren saw the miracle of their annual migration and, beneath that surface, the mark of seasons passing. He saw something else, too. Paying close attention to this world was, Warren once said, "a way of existing meaningfully as much of your time as possible. And that's never much."

Warren watched the grackles' migration very closely. But I suppose you could also say it's just what birds do.

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