Attention on Eternity
“Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity.” So wrote the late poet Mary Oliver. It was the kind of high-minded statement we might expect of a poet, except I don’t think she meant it that way at all. We normally think of eternity as the hereafter or as some faraway realm beyond time and space. But I think what Oliver was getting at was more nearly the opposite. We need to pay attention to what is happening right here and right now, not to our thoughts about what happened before or what might happen in the future. When we give our attention wholly to what is happening in the present moment, there is no past or future.
The word “eternity” comes from a Latin root meaning “without beginning or end.” We have a tough time conceiving of such a thing, so we assume that if it exists at all, it must be located somewhere outside our own experience. We have trouble conceiving of it because time is literally embedded in the grammar of our thoughts. We can’t think about anything without placing it in past, present or future. Of these three, the present moment is the most elusive, a fleeting stop between past and future. We can’t even lay hold of it before it has slipped through our grasp into the past. And yet it is all tangibly that we have. The past exists only in memory; the future is nothing more than expectation. Both are mere thoughts.
Oliver didn’t say she had to keep her thoughts on eternity, because eternity can never be contained by any thought. It can be apprehended only by paying absolute attention to what is happening right now. As the philosopher George Santayana once expressed it, "The essence of nowness runs like fire along the fuse of time." Nowness – the present moment – has no duration by definition and yet it goes on forever, without beginning or end. It is the essence of eternity ·
Poets like Mary Oliver find truth not in lofty things but in small things – in the words of William Blake,
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
Photographers like me are similarly focused on what is immediately at hand. We are miniaturists, selecting from the vast dome of the world the small rectangle of light that will become our image. If we are lucky, that small thing we capture on film or on a computer disk will illuminate the truth. “By doing something half a centimeter high, you are more likely to get a sense of the universe than if you try to do the whole sky,” said the sculptor Alberto Giacometti.
In recent years I have been coming back from my daily walks with wildflowers I have picked by the side of the road. I photograph them indoors against a black backdrop under a single cone of white light. I use a macro lens that allows me to get close, real close, sometimes only inches from my subject. I now understand what the painter Georgia O’Keeffe meant when she said she painted flowers big so people would have to take the time to look at them. I admit I was one of those who rarely took the time to look at them. I can’t even name half the flowers I bring back from my walks and have to look them up. But once I get in really close, I am astonished by their intricate beauty. God is indeed in the details.
Attention is the key. “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” said the Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil. She was speaking here not of prayers you recite but contemplative prayer, which is wordless. “Attention consists in suspending thought, in leaving it available, empty and subject to penetration by the object,” she wrote. She added that “thought must remain empty, awaiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that will penetrate it.” For a photographer, that is precisely the moment when you snap the picture.
Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays, 2016