Day 6: Be astonished


Novelist Alice McDermott made a rare appearance before an audience last night at the Parker Metal Building in Baltimore. She was interviewed by Jay Perman, the president of the University of Maryland,Baltimore, which sponsored the event, and she was acutely intelligent, articulate, and personable. I have been in Perman's seat as an onstage interlocutor, and McDermott was everything you could ask for in a guest.

She made a number of incisive observations, but I wrote down only one:

As human beings, we have access to astonishment, if only we pay enough attention.

She put me in mind of Mary Oliver, who wrote:

To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.

Which led me back to this, from Marilynne Robinson:

This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.

And back to Mary Oliver:

Ten times a day something happens to me like this—some strengthening throb of amazement—some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest, and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

There is no improving on that.

Day 4: Garbage in...

We are positively encouraged to create for ourselves minds we would want to live with. I had teachers articulate that to me: "You have to live with your ind your whole life." You build your mind, so make it into something you want to live with.

Four years ago, Wyatt Mason wrote a brilliant profile of Marilynne Robinson for The New York Times Magazine. The above is one of several penetrating observations made by Robinson in the course of their conversations.

Annie Dillard wrote, of writers:

He is careful of what he reads, for that is what he will write. He is careful of what he learns, because that is what he will know.

What mind have I built for my life? The brain remains plastic throughout our lifespans, so I am still building it, more mindful now of what I put into it and sorry for how much time I have spent taking in crap. Especially crap reading. To build an optimal mind, I think we must make the careful consideration of input habitual. No easy task as William James observed:

The acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.

Hoo boy.