The Gifts of Attention


diego oussywillow stick

We’ve have nothing but endless grey days lately- no sunshine, no rain, no big bursts of color or new life. It seemed the spring was somehow on hold. Now that was a silly thought. I just needed to pay closer attention. And as the morning unfolded, a series of beautiful and unexpected gifts emerged from the grey.

My dear friend Kadek joined us in the forest in Abadit’s absence. If I had to describe Kadek in in a word, it would have to be “grace.” Yes, indeed. Kadek graced us with her gentle, intelligent, loving, good-humored presence. The kids took to her immediately.

Not having been in the forest with the kids quite as often as I, Kadek has a very sensitive “safety alarm,” especially when it comes to sticks. As a recovering over-protective, not to mention, American, mother, I greatly appreciate this. Stick safety is a major theme for forest kids and most kids learn pretty readily how to handle a stick with care. Alumnus forest kid, Jemima, who is now 5 going on 6 and visiting for the day, told us all about it. “Never hit anyone with a stick. Never put a stick near anybody’s face. Always point the stick down at the ground. Never run or climb with a stick in your hand.”

Now Dani, who was also with us today, is much younger than Jemima and rarely comes to the forest with us. It was clear he had a little catching up to do in the area of stick safety. Kadek made him her own special project that morning. Dani found the biggest, coolest stick in the whole forest. It looked like an enormous pair of deer antlers as he proudly held it aloft.

Every child needs stick safety reminders now and then, especially when in the throes of am exciting episode of fantasy play or a moment of conflict. On any given day, I am reciting my stick mantra: “Watch Out,” “Be Careful!” “Hey!” “Easy does it,” the occasional, ” What in the world are you doing with that stick!!” and finally, “Ok, that’s it. Hand over the stick.”

These are all ways of simply asking the children to pay attention.

Attention. That is what we practice in the forest. All of our play and our investigations are, in the end, about paying attention. We pay attention with our eyes, our ears, our touch, our bodies, even our faculties of taste and smell. And as the children develop, their blossoming intellects begin to take part more and more. And in so doing, we learn about our world and ourselves, and each other. We learn the fundamentally important life skill of risk assessment, step by step, moment by moment, as we simply pay attention. I am learning this as well, every single day.

For instance, the farmer had just trimmed some trees and left an enormous mountain of branches on the side of the path. Stick heaven for a four-year-old! Certainly, there is a potential danger to playing in such a pile of sticks, but rather than me forbid it, we paid attention and practiced our risk assessment skills. I watched closely as Rohan climbed aboard, what I’m told later, is an airplane.

A few kids followed. Instinctively they knew they ought to sit at the back of the plane where there is little chance of getting a sharp stick in the eye. As one child began to make his way forward, I simply invited him to notice all the sharp pointy sticks. He came to his own conclusion that it is safer to stay closer to the back. Don’t worry, if necessary, I would swoop in like a mother eagle and pluck the little bird from harm’s way. Yes, there are many times when it is better to learn from someone else’s experiences, rather than suffer any real damage. In such cases, out comes one of my many cautionary tales. Some true, some fictional, I can come up with a story for every occasion. “Did I ever tell you the story about the little boy who… ” (fill in the blank)

Now, had I seen this tanglement of tree limbs as nothing but a potential hazard and forbidden the kids access, look at what we would have missed! On the far side, buried underneath, was a slew of the plumpest, most gorgeous pussy willows you ever saw. We collected them greedily, Kadek and I included. We negotiated the spoils so everyone had enough to take home. Thank you Kadek for sharing with me! We studied these wonderful pussy willows closely, marvelling at the animal-like quality of the fur and paying attention to the softness against our cheeks. Just like my dear old cat, Ned.

The noticing continued as Spring served up some more unexpected fun. The snow came early this winter and stayed, beautifully preserving fall’s deep blanket of leaves. The day was dry and the leaves were ankle deep. Why not enjoy them just as we did last fall.

What began as simply an urge to pile and play with the crispy airy leaves, evolved into a most interesting game/ritual/ exercise in.. you guessed it… paying attention.

One by one the kids buried each other in the dry leaves, leaving only their faces exposed. There was a small learning curve in terms of “leaf safety,” as Rohan will attest to as he got a handful in the face. We managed that particular risk, as Kadek demonstrates, by carefully shielding our friends’ faces, as we gently placed, rather than threw, the leaves. Remember to leave plenty of breathing room!

Good Night Millie, Good Night Millie,
Good Night, Millie,
We’ll see you in the morning.

And quiet as mice, (who are not, actually all that quiet) we watched each child sleep. We waited patiently to see when they would choose to wake up. True to form, Lukas policed us all with more than one well-place “ssshhhh!” Simon was nearly imperceptible in the leaves and remained still longer than I ever thought possible. And Esme, with her companions Piggy and Lion, the mittens, bore witness to the entire proceeding.

A morning well spent.

As we returned to the farm, I noticed Diego negotiating the gifts he had received from the forest that day: the strength of a big noble staff and the tenderness of a handful of pussy willows. Gifts to last a lifetime.

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