Back in the late 1990s, when I was still in Rome and had just started doing some freelance writing for this newspaper, the editor at the time, David Scott, sent me a little book called “The Bottom of the Harbor.”
I’ve read it half a dozen times since, and just the other night I started it again. It is a collection of articles from The New Yorker of the 1940s and ’50s by a legendary journalist named Joseph Mitchell.
He has a remarkable eye for detail, a way of finding the interesting in the ordinary, and an ability to transport you deep into the tale he tells.
For writers like me, there’s a lot to be learned at Mitchell’s knee.
But this time I’m finding Mitchell has broader lessons to teach. In sharp contrast to our modern daily life, riddled with cell phone calls, e-mail chimes, urgency and haste, Mitchell slips some waxpaper-wrapped sandwiches in his pocket and heads out to observe, listen and learn.
Here’s how he starts one of his stories: “Every now and then, seeking to rid my mind of thoughts of death and doom, I get up early and go down to the Fulton Fish Market. ... The smokey riverbank dawn, the racket the fishmongers make, the seaweedy smell, and the sight of this plentifulness always give me a feeling of well-being, and sometimes they elate me.”
Elsewhere he talks about hiking into a swamp to look for wildflowers and birds, and spending an hour looking through binoculars at a woodpecker tearing the bark off the top of a dead tree — later describing it as one of the most spectacular events he ever witnessed.
I find it difficult to imagine having an hour alone to spend watching a bird pulling on bark. While I still have young children at home, it very likely won’t happen.
But that’s not the point. While Mitchell doesn’t talk about such experiences in explicitly religious terms, there’s something about that patient listening and watching that reminds me of the sort of prayer we should be practicing on a daily basis, and which Lent gives another opportunity to cultivate.
Sure, Mitchell lived in different times with fewer media distractions. Maybe it was easier to slow down and observe. Some of our older readers could probably weigh in on whether that’s really true.
Either way, it is a reminder that we need to make a conscious effort to quiet ourselves so we can hear God — whether he speaks to us when we’re deep in a swamp or on our knees in front of the tabernacle.
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Thanks to all of you who wrote or called to point out my mistake in this space in the Jan. 31 issue. In my haste, I referred to Our Lady of Perpetual Hope, when, of course, she is Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
As always, I look forward to hearing from you at at firstname.lastname@example.org.