Mary Oliver said attention is the beginning of devotion.
pocket observatory is a place where we can pay attention.
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This is not a newsletter. This is an observatory.
Historically, observatories have been built by, and made available to, men from a certain class with a certain expertise. These men got to decide which parts of existence were worthy of observation. They mostly looked up. They wrote the records and drew the conclusions.
In many ways, we are living in the reality created by their measures.
Today, there are all kinds of observatories observing all kinds of things. There are still observatories in clear high places, with telescopes pointed towards the stars. But there are also observatories in the ground, underwater and up in space. They are used to observe the changing winds, the rising tides, the shifting plates, the melting rocks and the dying stars.
The people in these observatories make records of what they see, hear and detect. One observation on its own is a curiosity. But enough observations, from enough people, over enough years can help map a corner of existence.
I am a fan of these observatories! And we need more of them.
We continue to treat great swathes of the universe as unworthy of formal observation. For example. My country will spend billions of dollars on a telescope meant to collect light from the beginning of the universe. But it cannot be bothered to implement paid parental leave. The observation of the first few months of a child’s life is not considered as important as the observation of a star.
Or what about the community organizer running a mutual aid pantry out of her garage? Isn’t she observing too? Taking note of the changing tides of need and abundance in her community? Trying to measure the distance between one and the other? Isn’t her garage an observatory? Isn’t every bit of food given and received just part of a study in humanity? Why aren’t we pay that organizer for her observance?
If my country set aside the crass logic of the market, we could fund observance of the stars and the everyday. It’s a shame it will not.
I do not have billions of dollars to fund everyday observation for all the observant people. I cannot even fund my own observance. But I do have a skirt pocket big enough to hold a pencil, a little pad of paper and a phone. I carry my instruments of observation with me.
A pocket observatory can be built by anyone, to observe anything that matters. And everything is matter. Or can be. Or has been. And I think, maybe, pocket observatories can also be pocket dimensions. They can hold and keep whatever we put in them.
I use my pocket observatory to collect the light of dead stars from today’s trending topics. Detect atomic insights in kitchen breadcrumbs. Listen for the cultural frequencies that move through all of us. Every piece of writing and bit of audio is a single imprecise measure.
Sometimes I write about about very hard things. This is not a place without confusion or despair. How could it be, when it’s about being?
Together, we’ll map new corners of existence.
As I share my observations, my readers help me make sense of them. Often by sharing their own observations, from their own careful watching. Sometimes I wonder if we’ll be able to work together to map new corners of existence. I hope that happens.
My conclusions will sometimes be wrong. And they will always be incomplete. But this space is more concerned with the measure of all things than the mapping of them.
I’ve built this place to help me become aware of the frequencies that exist beyond the known spectrum. I do not want to learn how to harness them to propel me. I do not want focus them into a single point that burns. I simply hope to learn to recognize their hum. And I wonder, a little, if I could ever learn to hum along.
Observation is part of the scientific method. We have to notice before we can seek. It’s also the word we use to describe the performance of a rite. Observation helps believers heed what they cannot hear.
I am not a scientist. I am not religious. But I am observant.
I suppose, if this were an observatory like the ones built in Ancient Greece, it would have a statue of Mary Oliver at its center.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Mary Oliver, Poem 133: The Summer Day
Mary Oliver said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”
Devotion comes from the “Latin votum "a promise to a god, solemn pledge, dedication; that which is promised; a wish, desire, longing, prayer.” . De- means completely in this context. To be devoted is to be comprehensively promised.
I think I am closest to almost understanding my existence when I find myself in a state I describe as “homesick for a home I don’t know.” I use the word “homesick” because it’s a feeling that comes from a deep place I can’t name. An urgent longing that has always been equally met by the pull of home.
This feeling of almost understanding is like that, but deeper and less knowable. It happens when I am paying attention, to little things and big things too. It’s a recognition I can’t quite recognize. There’s a sense that some of of the particles that make me up have a charge that pulls them towards a state or a place or a something that knows them.
And there is the slightest sensation that if I could just get the rest of my particles to rotate the right way, my whole self would be transported or transmuted or something. And when I am paying attention, when I am really, really paying attention, sometimes I have this sense that a particle or two has turned. Perhaps forever, perhaps not.
Do I ever think I’ll be able to fully turn to whatever it is that pulls me? No. Not really. But each tiny rotation feels like proof of a promise, of which I am just one part. What is on the other side of this promise? I don’t know. But it feels like love.
Whatever it is, I want to devote myself to it. I have a feeling that if I do, I’ll end up devoting myself to everything and everyone else promised to it. Which is everything and everyone.
Here is what you can expect from this place. (It’s not a newsletter, remember?)
You will get a piece of writing from me when I observe something that I think is worth your attention. Sometimes that will mean three emails a week. Sometimes that will mean one a week. Sometimes the observation will be an essay. Sometimes it will be a sentence. The observations will arrive on different days each week and at different times.
I will send you a voicemail every Thursday. Sometimes I will be responding to voicemails left by pocket observatory members. Sometimes I will be leaving a voicemail of my own.
There are three ways to join my pocket observatory.
Observatories are not scalable businesses. They can’t be, because they are not made to extract or produce. So observatories have always needed funding from governments and patrons. This observatory is no different. And so far, as I mentioned above, the government isn’t very interested in funding my kind of everyday observance. So I rely on your financial support to keep working.
I am incredibly grateful to the people who take my work seriously enough to make it a line item in their budget. Without you, I could not do the work of my life.
Become a pocket observatory guest - gratis
Each guest receives my observations and the weekly voicemail. I am really grateful to be in your inbox. I know that your attention is precious.
Readers can make a donation to pocket observatory whenever they wish to support my work. The donations can be made through my Venmo, PayPal or Ko-Fi.
Become a pocket observatory member - $5 a month or $50 a year
Members receive unlimited admission to The Observatorium, a place where our community is building a knowledge base of observation. The Observatorium is also home to live events, discussion threads and exclusive content from me.
Members are also able to leave me voicemails. I respond to member voicemails several times each month.
Members are able to comment on the pieces I post.
And, of course, every observatory has an archive. pocket observatory members have full access.
Become a patron of the pocket - $300 and up
Patronage has always made art and science possible. Thank you for taking my work so seriously. I take you seriously too.
When you become a Patron of the pocket, you become part of my advisory board. I go to you with questions about the direction of the newsletter, upcoming topics and possible new features.
Need to get in touch? Email me at email@example.com