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Before the World Blooms

Updated: Mar 14

By Payton Hoegh


Last week, I found myself on a cold, lumpy bed in the emergency room with my chest and back covered with sticky little electrodes and a too-tight finger cuff monitoring the movement of my heart. It had been years since I had seen a doctor, and that evening I nervously repeated the same joke to my wife and every caregiver in the hospital: “There’s no illness that can’t be cured with a lot of water, some sun, a run, or a slow walk in the garden.”

Of course, that’s less of a joke and more a laughable lie. But it's very often what I tell myself and what, in part, brought me to that moment.


Gray branch with new orange buds beginning to bloom.

Laying in that bed and reflecting on this circumstance upon returning home, I was surprised that my body had failed me, unable to hold illness at bay. I spent the days of rest recommended by my doctor thinking about how wellness is my norm, health more of a baseline expectation than a gift, the least I could expect for dutifully taking on the usually beautiful task of living. As I struggled to sit still and listen not only to medical instruction but also to the graceful pleading of my own body, I felt a growing awareness of an insistent irony. I heard my own voice inviting attention to the rhythms of the wilder world, encouraging stillness, quiet, and deep listening. 

 

I heard echoes of my own instruction for others to go slow and to open eyes, ears, and heart to the wisdom of nature. 

 

Surely, I thought, I have been listening closely! I’ve been leading meditations, mindful hikes and guided experiences of purposeful connection and care. I’ve taken walks and smiled at the little gifts and joys encountered on runs and regular wanderings. 

 

“But,” a voice in my mind offered, “what good is listening if nothing is fully heard? What gift is wisdom if only received, never embodied?” I thought of a seed planted but insufficiently nourished, an unwatered sapling failing to take root.

 

green grassy plants and magenta flowers

There is so much value in simple acts of attention and acknowledgment. Just an expression of recognition, appreciation, and gratitude is a powerful act. Yet, with chagrin, I began to consider not only my pattern of practice but the quality of presence and consistency in application that I had been offering these essential elements of health and wholeness. More is available to us—and perhaps required of us—in order to fully engage with the gifts and wisdom we receive through any wellness or spiritual practice. 

 

It took a bit of pain, an X-ray, EKG, and evening in the emergency room to remind me of that fact.


Leading up to my emergency room visit, as I all too often do, I had fallen for the trap of doing everything. Of holding in precarious balance more than I could healthily bear, acknowledging the invitation of ecological rhythm calling me to rest, to self-tending, pruning, and prioritizing, but failing—even refusing—to meaningfully apply this wisdom.

 

I saw and appreciated the patterns of the natural world. But, despite knowing better, I was certain that I stood apart from all else. While the wilder world responded to winter's gray appeal and waited patiently for the season's turn, I demanded perpetual bloom. No email went unanswered, meeting unscheduled, task postponed. In so many ways, I was examining nature closely, reflecting on lessons it could teach, engaging meditation and mindful practice, but paying increasingly passing attention to how learnings must be lived. 

 

As one of my most valued teachers, Belden Lane, would frame it, “Plagued by a highly diffused attention, we give ourselves to everything lightly. That is our poverty. In saying yes to everything, we attend to nothing.”


lilacs beginning to bloom

In the days after my hospital visit, trying to ease my anxious body and my mind's insistence that there was so much that needed my attention - that I couldn’t just do...nothing - I looked out the window and appreciated the way the winter rains have turned the landscape of Southern California a vibrant green. Grasses and shrubs on the hill outside my home swayed with each touch of wind. Some lavender, with its silvery sheen, lent pops of purple to the hillside. Others maintained their winter shade. Some lilacs with leathery leaves showed small buds of periwinkle. But not all. Autumn sage burst with petals of fiery red and orange. More often, the flora held fast to shades of green, brown, or gray. Patient, knowing somehow from signs within and without that, even as the vernal equinox approaches and spring creeps close, the time for rest is not yet over. 

 

Drinking water and breathing as deeply as my inflamed lungs would allow, finally drawing my mind and soul to the depths of reflection and attention, I took a walk in the garden. I got close to the skeletal branches of pomegranate trees, ashen at a distance and seemingly dead alongside an elderberry in full animated color. I placed my fingers on the tree’s thin branches and took note of each shiny burgundy bud holding in a tight wintry embrace a blossom. I gave thanks for every one.

 

Emily Dickinson wrote in a short poem, “Nothing is the force that renovates the world.” 

 

When we think that constant motion, incessant growth, interminable productivity are right and necessary, nature reminds us that sometimes what looks and feels like nothing, like a bud or bare earth, holds in pallid stillness the essence of everything that makes life beautiful.


As we prepare to welcome the spring, let's hold fast to the lessons of winter even as we enjoy the world in bloom.

 


 

Our conditioning as members of a consumer society prevents us from abandoning hope that, with sufficient planning, we might yet be able to see and do everything. To move slowly and deliberately through the world, attending to one thing at a time, strikes us as radically subversive... We cringe from the idea of relinquishing, in any moment, all but one of the infinite possibilities offered us by our culture. Plagued by a highly diffused attention, we give ourselves to everything lightly. That is our poverty. In saying yes to everything, we attend to nothing.

-Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality


 

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I wish you a speedy recovery, even though your reflection was about living at a slower pace. I recently read something by Simone Weil that aligns with your themes. She emphasized the central importance of attention for our spiritual practices. It's obvious of course, but I find that one word so helpful. Not least because it is just one word and I find that when spiritual instructions become too elaborate, I lose the thread.

I also listened to a recording of Thomas Merton's in which he emphasized that the path of Christian faith ultimately is about releasing our cares. The insight that God has things in hand is what makes this really possible. Again, obvious enough for those who have…

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Thank you, Markus, for this response and your well wishes! Rich insight that, indeed, fits so well with what I hoped to convey in this reflection.


Weil has also been hugely influential in my spiritual journey. Beyond the striking power of her personal story, in her writings, she speaks beautifully about our distinct need for "rootedness." On attention, her offerings in Gravity and Grace always move me: "Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer."

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Oh, Payton Payton Payton. What a beautiful soul you are.

This story is worthy of your grace.

It's funny, I wasn't feeling too well this morning, so I am sitting in the garden watching the daffodils pop open. Yes, spring is on its way, but we know, living in the Midwest, that winter is still on the prowl.

I have shared your post on "visions"I hope you don't mind. I know a lot of people will be grateful.

I have had a few medical emergencies over the years, and I am just so grateful that my connection with nature has helped me to recover. We are strong, and the natural world will heal. Thanks Payton, Hope to see you soon.

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Thank you so much for this response and your kindness, Daniel. I'm glad that we have time in the garden to help us be well. Thanks for sharing with the Visions community!

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