January's lesson: Pay attention to life, not lifestyle


Now that it's over, the thing I remember most about January is this: It went by in a blur.

There were so many things, great and small, in January competing for our attention. The terrible events in Somalia, Bosnia and Iraq. The crime rate here at home. The ever-ballooning deficit. The deaths of Thurgood Marshall and of Audrey Hepburn, Dizzy Gillespie, Rudolph Nureyev. Keeping up with the Clinton Cabinet. The Zoe problem. The Hillary factor. Inaugural balls. Christmas bills.

And, of course, the unthinkable: the demise of the Sears catalog.

January, in other words, was a lot like your typical pile-up in a rear-end collision: Just one event crashing into another. Without any warning.

Now the month is over. And I suddenly realize something important: That I blew it. I blew the entire month of January.

Looking back I see that 31 days of my life have come and gone, and, try as I might, I don't really remember any of them. Not, at least, in any meaningful way.

Instead, when I think of January, all that comes to mind is work and grocery shopping and getting estimates on the leaking roof and trying to find out if there are termites in my garage.

The truth is, I got so caught up in the hectic pace of my day-to-day life -- or "lifestyle" as it's now called -- that I can't remember if it snowed in January and whether my closest friend just left on a trip or returned from one.

Worst of all, it occurs to me that so immersed was I in my lifestyle this past month that I only remembered a son's birthday in the nick of time.

You'd think that almost forgetting a son's birthday would send a message, wouldn't you? The message being, one assumes, to think about looking a bit more carefully at the life -- I mean, lifestyle -- you're living.

But oddly enough it wasn't the close call with the son's birthday that forced me to look at January and realize that I had blown it.

It was seeing the daffodils.

It was coming home from work on a Friday, bone-tired, and seeing in the afternoon's fading light the bright green shoots in my garden. Without thinking, I dropped my briefcase and got down on my knees to examine them. There were clumps of dirt riding the tops of the green shoots -- visible reminders of the force with which they had erupted through the hard earth of winter.

Signs of life, I thought, studying the slightly thickened tips that hinted of yellow. Not signs of lifestyle, but genuine signs of life. Suddenly, I felt lighter. The air seemed more buoyant, more supportive, somehow.

Then one thing led to another -- as things always do if we allow the time for it -- and pretty soon I was noticing my cat Max.

Old and thin now, Max was obviously enjoying the late-day sun of a surprisingly mild January day. I studied him.

Lying on the grass, his long, tiger-striped tail curved around his body, he looked almost young again. The beautiful symmetry of his curved body and tail disguised his boniness, disguised the fact that in Max the signs of life are waning.

But not on this day. On this day, he was stirred to action by the sight of a squirrel. His mouth twitched and strange sounds growled deep in his throat as he watched the squirrel jump from tree branch to tree branch. His green eyes glittered in the sun.

I guess I've seen Max do this a thousand times: line up his target in those emerald eyes of his. But never before had I felt the urgent need to commit to memory these signs of life in Max.

Watching, I saw a cardinal fly by: a red arrow piercing the thin blueness of the sky. Max was not distracted.

From the corner of my eye I saw my briefcase, up-ended in the winter grass where I had dropped it. Signs of lifestyle, I thought. It looked strange -- my briefcase with all its important papers. It looked as if a tiny alien spaceship had landed in my garden.

The cat is on his way out, I thought; the daffodils on their way in.

We are all coming and going, I thought. Saying hello and goodbye.

The world is turning even as I stand here, I thought. And we are all coming from or heading toward infinity.

The cat, the squirrel, the cardinal, the daffodil. And me.

But unlike me they know nothing of infinity or ambition or lifestyle. They know only that they are drawn to the sun, to the hunt, to the tree, to the sky.

Drawn, in other words, to all the signs that point to life.

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