Fall 2014

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Purple Prose
Illustration by Richard Mia

Stop, Look and Listen

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Barbara Mahany ’82 MS is a longtime Chicago journalist. Her first book, Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press), will be published in October.

If you slow down long enough to pay attention to life’s little moments, you could discover what really matters.
by Barbara Mahany

It was in the murky shadows of an auditorium, on a wintry Sunday morning when I might have wished I’d stayed under the covers, that I noticed the man down the row who raised his hand to add to the voices talking about God and death and the fathomless unknown.

Because I know this man to be wise, and not one to speak unless there’s something worth saying, and because I know this man buried his wife when their two little children were barely old enough to go to school, I listened. Because the man speaks in a rasp — sounds like chunks of gravel chafing against each other deep in his throat — it took determined listening.

This is what I heard, unspooled in one unbroken tendril: “When my son asked why people die, I said, ‘Because it means we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.’ ”

And suddenly I knew I’d heard the words of a prophet there in the shadows on a Sunday morning. And, suddenly, I was so deeply grateful I’d climbed out from under the covers.

I couldn’t stop thinking of what he said — “… we have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.”

Nor could I stop thinking that he’d first spoken those words to a young boy who’d lost his too-young mother, a boy who would no longer climb into her lap, feel her arms wrap around him, a boy who’d had no choice in absorbing the astringent truth of his father’s lesson: Our days are limited, pay attention to how you live.

I’ve been a disciple of paying attention for years. I’d known — because my own father died, too young at 52, before I had a chance to say goodbye — that our days are numbered. But it was in the way that raspy voice framed those two truths into a single conditional equation, that it stirred me as never before.

In fact, it was the very gift of paying attention — of not turning to my so-called smartphone during yet another Sunday morning’s conversation at the synagogue — that allowed me to take in the words of the wise man a few seats to the east of where I’d plopped with my paper cup of cardboard-box coffee.

It’s become more urgent than ever, this practice of paying attention, especially in this world so terminally distracted by Attention Deficit of the Worst Disorder.

It’s the only way I know — short of climbing behind the monastery walls — to slow the mad-dashing, to quiet the incessant noise, to breathe in and out deeply. To awake to the sacred that surrounds us, that lifts us out of the meaninglessness that numbs us, that corners us into thinking there’s no sin in “killing a few hours.”

We have a limited number of days, so how we live matters.

Here’s how I try to stitch holiness into the quotidian hours of the everyday: I set my alarm an hour earlier than I need to be roused. I tiptoe down the stairs and out into my garden. I quiet my soul. I might catch a sliver of moon. Or the first shards of sunlight. I drink in the birdsong. I crouch down low, take in the poetry of the morning’s dew, the glass-beaded luminescence that captures the slant of the sun, refracts it, refines it, illumines the dawn.

It’s that first hour that fine-tunes my soul for the day. And it’s a rhythm, a depth, I try to hold onto, no matter what the day hurls my way.

It’s become what’s aptly called “a practice.” Practice for slowing my deep inner clock. Practice for opening all of my pores — each of the sensory channels, those vessels that draw in the holy — for the countless moments of grace that might otherwise escape me. Practice as in something I try again and again, hoping one of these days I might get it right.

Nearly every world religion, or any mindfulness for that matter, insists on the wisdom of looping back at regular intervals, hitting the pause, blocking out chatter and tuning in to the still, small voice that you might only hear if you’re quiet. Truly quiet. And paying exquisite attention to the whispers all around. The ones that remind us of our own small place on the globe. And our too-short stay here.

The ones who, in the murky shadow of a Sunday morning, might call out from the darkness, and utter the few short words that, months later, urge us — still — to deeper and deeper attention:

“We have a limited number of days,” spoke the father to his motherless son. “So how we live matters.”

And we listened.