On Paying Attention

Yesterday marked exactly two years since I arrived in the United States. Two years of being away from my family and close friends. Can you believe it? I can still remember those early weeks of feeling so scared, alone, and confused about nearly everything. It is a part of the foreigner’s plight that I wish people often acknowledged—this grave sense of not knowing: not knowing the people, the culture, not knowing what you’re missing and for me, the everyday things like directions to places, foods, societal norms etc. There were so many things I had to learn and unlearn; subsequently, so many times I failed at doing something.

There’s a slight shame to it that I’ve endured over the years and even more, this frightening sense of vigilance and self-consciousness that one builds over time in another’s land, often an unhomely place. You are always on guard, always alert, never forgetful of the fact that you don’t belong and that someone might see your alienation and point it out first. And so there’s this mission of erasure, this settled quietness that falls over you. You’re not small, but you make yourself small. You’re not fearful, but you find reasons to be afraid. You’re not helpless, but your eyes scan every room and you realize your own desperation—the unspoken need to cling to something, to reach out and hold any hand that would dare come close.

No one sees the radical changes happening because it is within you, a foreigner, at the center of what seems like a world that is at the same time too kind and too cruel, too full and too empty, too real and sturdy and yet, it collapses and collapses. And there, underneath the ruins, you don’t know how but you’re alive, alive, alive.

It is a miracle that I am here—an utter miracle.

I am awakened to life as it is—planned and unpredictable, good and bad, joyful and sorrowful. I see also the nothingness and the slow passing of time when I sit on my bed in my new apartment. I shock myself when I admit out loud, “Here I am in another part of town, a new state, with its new people. I have to do this all over again.” And immediately I remind myself of my choices, of the power of perspective. And so I decide I would be the person who lights a candle than curse the dark.

While it is not always the easiest thing to do, I shall act towards optimism, I shall move towards hope.

I push myself to say hello and say yes to coffee dates. I use Google maps to go everywhere and I laugh at myself when I miss a turn or miscalculate how far I thought I would be walking. I ask all the silly questions and stop myself from apologizing. I don’t stop the one I love from getting on a plane to visit because for so long I’ve pushed away meaningful gifts because of my fear of the cost. But now I say, “Yes, please come. I cannot wait to see a face I know and love. I haven’t been hugged in two weeks. Come, hold me, please.” Now, I am less hesitant to accept the love given me. I want to be enthusiastic about the treasure that is thoughtfulness, I want to be fully aware of the beauty taking place when someone chooses to put me first.

I want to celebrate being seen and loved.

When I feel the need to run and hide, I fight back and find the nearest post office and grab a handful of postcards to send to loved ones. I forget how many of them are out there, how much love I have to give. I write my truth, I bury no feelings—I admit how much I’ve missed them, how I cannot wait to see them again, how beautiful Lincoln is, and how lonely it is too. I describe the buildings, the people, the colors I see. I am amazed by my witnessing. I say to Lila, I see a squirrel everyday I walk to campus. I write to Susan, There are SO MANY TREES!!!

As I pour out my heart, I am reminded of the goodness & beauty of friendships and I am more content than ever. I talk myself out of any creeping anxiety by looking at all that abounds to me, all that I am. The state of one’s mind is altered, the posture of one’s heart is transformed. The circumstances are still the same, but my response to it is different and it is one that lightens my heart and affords me the precious gift of presence.

While I have no idea what is coming my way, I shall strive to be true to myself and to Whom I belong. To resist internalizing the world’s condemnation. To not make of myself an exile but rather, give in to the warmth and support of community. To embody a gracefulness that teaches me to make room for others as I would myself, to offer patience, to let the soft animal of my body love what it loves.* To confront the terror of sitting with myself and holding myself accountable for when I slip and kindness is not the first thing I turn to. And in Mary Oliver’s words, to pay attention for it is “our endless and proper work” as artists. To that, I will add praise, wonder, and gratitude for what we find.

Even as I get ready to teach for the first time tomorrow, after months of fine-tuning and obsessing over my syllabi, the truth is I’m very nervous about it all. BUT- I want to lead myself, with all these uncertainties in hand, to the source of my life. My God and Father and most intimate Friend. I can’t help but ponder over the many shapes of His Hands and all the ways He’s held and put me together again and again. Hands that are mighty enough to lift me to unimaginable heights. Hands of remembrance that have me engraved in its palms, a promise of permanence. Hands that laid the foundation of the earth on which I walk—they uphold & guide my feet, they set me down in green pastures, beside still waters. Surely, they can keep me.

The most beautiful hands that touch and heal and mend. It is these same hands that hold me day after day and will continue to do so. In everything I do, I believe these hands will see me through. I must run to them. I must throw myself in their embrace. I must take on its tenderness, its care. I must look to my God and my God alone. In a world that is wildly unsure and often times breathtakingly beautiful, I hope I can live such that, despite all things high and low, He has my attention—my full attention.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

MAry oliver

*From Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese

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