From Mary Oliver's poem Yes! No! comes this line:
To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.
All week that line has been chanting itself inside my skull.
My sister dropped by to bring me some books; I was in bed with a cold when I picked up The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, she of the wondrous Moomintrolls.
Written later in life, after the death of her sculptor-mother, The Summer Book is set over a period of several summers on a tiny and remote Finnish island. Sophia, a young child whose mother has also only recently died, and Sophia's grandmother, wise and unsentimental, are the main characters in a episodic book that relies not on plot but on a deep observation.
Oliver would recognise Jansson's 'proper work' as she creates for us a world where grief is observed and described and we see how the novel's natural world echoes, amplifies, mirrors and transforms that grief and how it ultimately insists on the right of the living to go on living and to pay attention.
To pay attention is to do more than notice. Paying attention is active, a tax we pay on life, a work we shape.
Mary Oliver's poem can be found here.
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