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The Art of Paying Attention

A coworker brought me a Peace Lily this morning. At least, I guessed it was a Peace Lily, based on the two remaining leaves that were curling crisply around a swiftly browning stalk. She was despondent. “I tried everything but it’s dying. I heard you’re the plant lady. Can you save it?” she asked me urgently.

“What did you do, put it in the window?” She nodded slowly, looking guilty without knowing why. I stuck my finger into the soil, which was dense and wet. “These guys don’t like direct light,” I told her. Never mind baking it the oven of a West-facing window. “And you need different soil.”

I took out my first aid kit and we went to work on the plant in ER mode. I knew we’d save the Lily; it just needed a little attention.

Welcome to the Jungle

My office workstation is known by various names: The Jungle, The Greenhouse, The Plant Spa. Coworkers come to me frequently with their lost causes. Sometimes they’re too ashamed to admit responsibility. The abandoned plant appears on my desk overnight like an infant on the steps of an orphanage, a note tucked into its pot: “Please take care of me!”

I have a small landscape of cacti that I rescued from the garbage. They recovered so beautifully that the original owner confessed — and asked for them back. At today’s count, over twenty potted plants are threatening to overtake my desk, their dark green leaves shiny and well-nourished.

Ironically, I used to be a Certified Plant Killer®.

Plants would sprout legs and run screaming from the room whenever they saw me. My friend Shea would come over and rescue them at the last second with water. “I like to let them get within an inch of their lives before watering them. Then they appreciate me,” I explained.

Shea has a green thumb. Heck — he’s got a green hand, wrist, arm and shoulder. I told him in exasperation, “I never know when to water or not, when to fertilize. I just don’t know what they need.”

“They’re telling you,” he said sagely. “You just have to pay attention.”

This was news to me. I was so busy forcing my will upon these potted creatures — overwatering, underwatering, broiling them in the sun and starving them to death. I never realized they were trying to tell me what they needed.

I slowed down and started paying attention.

Instead of watering all of my plants with 32oz. on odd Fridays, I checked the soil with my finger every few days. I looked carefully at the leaves, noting the depth of color and how upright they stood. I noticed when the plants were leaning toward the light and when their leaf tips were browning. I pruned out the dead parts. Sometimes I even talked to them.

Plants have this whole secret language I never knew about. If I look at them daily, just acknowledge them, I get to know what they looked like healthy. A Peace Lily can go from sprightly to flat overnight. But soggy soil will kill it, too. So you have to keep an eye on it, and just as the soil begins to dry out and the leaves recline an inch, you water it thoroughly and drain it well. Then turn it 90 degrees so it doesn’t grow lopsided.

It’s not rocket science. But it requires paying attention.

Life in the Greenhouse

My Greenhouse is a microcosm of life. I’ve realized that dreams are just like Peace Lilies. If you look at them daily with a loving eye, you begin to notice instinctually whether they’re robust or slipping away. Your relationships are the same: they require gentle daily attention. Friendships need to be fed regularly.

Pretty much anything – alive or inert – thrives with attention. And it doesn’t take much. A few minutes of nourishing your partner encourages them to flourish and grow. A small daily effort of pruning your life helps it bloom.

Journaling is the fertilizer. The more often you journal, the easier it is to prune your life when it’s indicated, or feed your dreams when they begin to pale.

Try it yourself. Pick one thing to pay attention to. One person, one project, one facet of your life. Give it daily care and feeding, just a few minutes. Write about it in your journal. Nothing big. Just noticing the details. Getting familiar with it. Day by day, noting the changes, the evolution, the growth.

Whether it’s your body, a loved one, or a creative project, it will thrive under your care as you learn the subtle art of paying attention.

It’s telling you what it needs. You just have to listen.

3 comments

  1. I liked this article! I spend so much time running around, I don’t always listen or pay attention to what’s right in front of me. Thanks for the reminder. (And my plants thank you too).

  2. I bought a beautiful peace lily back in Jan…..it has now officially died this week…*sigh*….and now I understand why with your writings….too much water one day *sigh again* I always considered myself with a green thumb but alas the green thumb has obviously died too *another sigh*. I do better with my journaling *yippee*

  3. I can’t wait to come back and read more. Your writing is so inspirational.