All the feels

Attention without feeling is only a report. ~ Mary Oliver


Mary Oliver has a knack for delivering large ideas in a small, economical word packets. I was inspired to return to Oliver’s work recently when I read a post on the expansively cross-disciplinary blog Brain Pickings. I find the quote above encouraging because, while Sidewalk Zendo is a chronicle of my attempts to pay attention to my life, it’s never been my intention to deliver a dispassionate inventory of the sights, sounds, smells, and experiences. Plus, it’s good to know I’m on the same wavelength as a writer I admire.

Reflecting on Oliver’s observation about attention, however, when putting words to page (or, more accurately, pixels to screen) for this blog I have a tendency to focus on the wonder, delight, beauty, and humor I see in the natural world. This may, inadvertently, give readers the sense that I am way more optimistic, centered, serene, and…well, evolved, than is actually the case.

Truth is, lots of feelings come up on these twice-daily walks with Dash, both positive and negative, often within the span of a few minutes.  For example…

I may start our stroll with gratitude for warm sunshine, cool shade, and a soft breeze to keep the gnats and mosquitoes away…

or joy at the bubbling, liquid notes pouring from a house wren’s throat (hey, I’m actually paying attention! I’m getting pretty good at this mindfulness stuff)…



then I’m distracted by a flash of anger when a cyclist who, headphones on and in the zone, doesn’t have the common courtesy to call out “on your left!” as a warning that he’s coming up fast and silent from behind.



Or I might be filled with hope for my fellow humans at the sight of resolute runner who smiles and pauses her workout to help an elderly neighbor with a walker retrieve sunglasses from the pavement so he won’t have to bend down and risk a fall…

only to round a bend in the path and have acid-green envy wash over me at the sight of someone younger, prettier, in better shape, probably all three, not to mention (I become more sure of this with every wretched passing second) smarter, spiritually evolved — in short, a more exemplary being than me in every imaginable way.


Another day I might be in a state of calm timelessness as I stop to investigate some natural feature, like a patch of small yellow flowers… could they be the same sour wood sorrel blossoms I used to nibble on as a kid?…


then, five minutes later, noticing the time and trying to hurry, I become impatient with my curious canine because he’s not cooperating, in fact he’s clearly stalling, trying to make this outing last as long as possible, even though some of us have, you know, a JOB, and yes, I realize Dash doesn’t know this, or maybe he does know and doesn’t care, but does he really have to stop and smell every single STUPID LEAF WE PASS?!!

Mary Oliver tells me it’s okay to feel ALL the feels, not just the spiritually preferable ones. “You do not have to be good,” she reassures…

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on.

My first spiritual mentor taught me there are actually only two emotions: love and fear. We use a lot of different words to avoid admitting what we’re really feeling, Corina explained, but shine a searchlight into your heart and if what you see isn’t love, it’s fear. Skeptical scientist that I am, I’ve spent the past three decades testing her assertion, observing others and reflecting on my own behavior. I’ve yet to prove her wrong.

[Thanks to the following photographers for making their work available through the Creative Commons license: Troy B. Thompson, Dustin Gaffke, Simon Blackley, and Ted.© 2017 Sidewalk Zendo. Reprints welcomed with written permission from the author.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s