Loyalties of attention and noticing differently

(An important and relevant note, brought to our attention after publishing, is this call from the Audobon Society to remove bird feeders due to a currently spreading affliction on birds)

The bird-feeder in the yard is my icon of late. It’s tall and mesh and holds a quite significant amount of sunflower seeds. How do such tiny birds go through all of that food so quickly? I keep asking, unsatisfied or at least, unsettled by the answer. A single seed by seed, they pluck them out with the tiniest beaks and carry them away. This is so much of their day. Gently arriving. Meeting the needs of their body. Feeding the ones with whom they share home. Surviving as they know how. I know there is the cat watching, too, from not far away. I watch the birds fight with each other. I see the way some bully. All life is precarious.

They are teaching me, slowly and over time. A constellation of things, only some yet identifiable. Like, honoring the magic of slow, daily, ordinary tasks of living. The stuff that doesn’t make a splash, but makes an impact. Like, the power of consistency. Like, the importance of remembering all the worlds unfolding in between and outside of the places our attention is directed by powers and principalities. Life between the cracks, in the fissures, on the edges of a gaze shaped by dominance.

I’m not much of a meditator in the traditional sense. And while once upon a time, I journaled my prayers daily, the practice – for now at least – feels too attached to my former belief system – a god I no longer worship.

Simone Weil claims that “absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” The whole soul will follow, she said, “little by little.” Attention – a holy resource. And oof, do powers and systems know it. Our attention is fought for relentlessly. Billboards, algorithms, headlines, powerful people. Look here, not there. See this, not that. Feel this way, for a moment. Keep it moving. Our attention is wasted, stolen, exploited, distracted – turned against ourselves and our neighbors for the sake of profit.

Mary Oliver believed that “attention is the beginning of devotion.” You can feel this truth in the way she wrote about a particular grasshopper, a blade of grass, her lover humming unexpectedly, the way her bodysoul responded to this or that. Her own practice, lives and miles away, deepened and enlivened and expanded my own relationship with the Sacred and creaturely things, through her writings. From her and others, I have learned to be more careful about who I invite to change me. From whom I learn. To whom I offer my attention and hope to receive in return. She has been one of many who have taught me how to practice devotion, to pray again, to a different kind of god. More dispersed. More everywhere. And yet, made invisible.

Bayo Akomolafe speaks of the need to slow down in order to “notice that other things are being done in the moment.” We must work to cultivate “the art of noticing the invisible – of noticing the pathologized and excluded – noticing the stabilized.”

He asks, “What are we going to be alive to going forward? What are we going to start to notice? What is actually knocking and inviting us to play with them? What monsters and ghosts through invisible qualities are inviting us to be still – to press our faces forward and linger with them just a while longer than we’re used to? What are the forms of activism we can commit our limbs and hands and bodies to that are not entirely about victory? …Sometimes when we win we’ve lost…What other forms of games can we play?

The space for doing something different is available…”

To notice differently enables doing differently. Prayer shapes enactment. Prayer, attention intentionally placed, on birds, yes, but people too. On beloveds, communities, histories, lands and ideas – it reveals other ways, other feelings, other possibilities intentionally or accidentally made and kept invisible.

That different might be our future, pray, pray, pray.


Rev. M Barclay - a white nonbinary trans and queer person with a decidedly asymmetrical haircut is wearing a dark blue floral shirt and stands under a tree limb with white flowers.
Rev. M Barclay (they/them) is the Director of enfleshed. They are learning and unlearning their way through life in the great company of books, poets, theology, queers, activists, Spirit, and creaturely encounters. M’s work – past and present – is an ever-unfolding journey into the places where delight, struggle, healing, spirituality, and collectivity meet. This has included hospital chaplaincy, working with youth, organizing faith leaders for reproductive justice, over a decade of LGBTQIA advocacy in the church, and other forms of justice work within and outside of Christian-adjacent communities.

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