#21: Simone Weil and Attention

A return to themes previously discussed

Long-time subscribers to the newsletter will remember that my very first letter was about Simone Weil and attention and prayer. Since I wrote that letter, I’ve graduated from Divinity school, learned to actually translate Latin (which was a schoolboyish abstraction when I wrote that first letter), moved halfway across the country, written some 20 newsletters and most of a book, gotten engaged, etc. What hasn’t happened is me, falling out of love with Simone Weil, or her remarkable essay, Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God. The essay is short enough, and bears reading, but I’ll summarize it for you anyways:

The same kind of attention a schoolchild turns to a tricky Latin translation or a mathematical proof is the same kind of unfocused, often unrewarding attention that ought to be turned towards God in prayer, and the same kind of prayer, in turn, that we ought to turn to the suffering other—a kind of negative capability that leaves you open to the encounter but not straining towards it or pulling away, or even bringing much ego or preconception into it.

I think about this essay all the time because it seems to me to be the only way to survive this world.

Every morning I wake up, and I log onto my computer for work, and I copy paste a dozen or so links on how utterly broken and destructive our immigration system is into an email and send it to a hundred people that are extremely busy helping one person through this system at a time, and I write a little press release about an unjust policy, or I format something on the website, or scroll through thousands of pages of FOIA requested detention center inspection reports to make them legible for journalists, or do any of the other ten thousand tasks that are a part of modern office work, and the whole time, I am, you know, paying attention to detail, and toggling over to look at the HTML to ensure the formatting isn’t weird, and CTRL+I and CTRL+U-ing things to ensure that they’re legible, and getting frustrated when I accidentally erase my own work or slightly resentful of having emails in my inbox, or whatever, and the whole time any or all of this is going on, there’s this knowledge of all of the injustice in the world which I have very carefully copy-and-pasted into an email earlier that day just screaming and howling on the other side of the screen, and it usually feels like the only thing I can really do about it is be like, wow, the URL formatter is really not cooperating today, what a drag.

The only thing that can get you through a day like that is the knowledge that this attention, carefully paid to email and HTML formatting and like, writing good Tweets, is the same kind of attention, unwavering and daily and not performative, just like, showing up and doing the work every single goddamn day even when you don’t get to feel like a hero—it’s the same kind of attention that might someday make things different, the kind of attention that might make a difference if you are suffering, maybe. Weil speaks, in the essay, of experimental certainties: at it’s most basic, “if you build it, they will come.” If you continue to pay attention, work towards it to the best of your ability, remain present, change will come.

A little while ago, I wrote a limited-edition letter on St. Oscar Romero, since deleted from the archives, that argued that a good portion of his saintliness was due to him showing up and doing his entire exact job as archbishop of his community, day after day: calling for peace, reading the names of the dead, grieving with families, praying for the future—I think this is also a bit of the point that Weil is making. Your life prepares you for prayer, prepares you for compassion, you just have to notice it.

This feeling, that only attention can get us through, has only gotten more acute since the pandemic started. We don’t live in the times of the individual hero—we haven’t for a while, but the pandemic has made me (and I think a lot of us) feel the limits of my own extremely fragile body and extremely conditional helpfulness harder than usual.

Weil makes a point, towards the end of the essay, to remind us that the suffering Other is not actually so other:

The love of our neighbour in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: “What are you going through?” It is a recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specimen from the social category labelled “unfortunate,” but as a man, exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.

Affliction has been more broadly distributed lately, and being present to it, willing to really listen to the answer to “What are you going through?” is a challenge heightened by volume, heightened by the awareness it could strike us next. It’s a lot easier to believe it won’t, to hide away from it, pretend like nothing is happening so long as we aren’t individually affected by an illness or a layoff.

The pandemic, as I’ve written in a thousand press releases at this point, has done nothing more than underscore how interconnected our fates are—my survival is bound up in yours, my health in yours, the economics of my wallet in yours. And so it seems absolutely imperative now, even more obvious, the ways that our attention should turn outwards, the ways that we should embed ourselves more fully in the land around us, in our communities, in the spaces around us.

I have gotten a great deal of joy and pleasure in the nature around my apartment, the way spring has come anyways, bringing with it magnolia blooms, and a woodpecker on the tree two houses down, and dozens of curious little robins, tilting their heads and hopping, the ways that even though I move through my days in relative isolation, there is still a thrumming world out there. I’ve joined my neighborhood’s mutual aid network and collaborated to meet needs coronavirus specific and otherwise, have sent gifts, bought stamps, spent time on zoom calls with friends that I rarely had time to see before all this.

So far, I’ve been lucky—my partner and I still have jobs, no one we know, even a step or two out, has gotten seriously ill, all our needs are met and we are finding ways to be kind to each other daily—but it feels like a matter of time before our world is irrevocably changed, like perhaps it already has been but we can’t pinpoint how. It has felt critical to pay attention to these days and their strange texture, to ensuring thanks are given for any of the small kindnesses we do for each other, that the world does for us, to attend to blue skies and warmer weather and buds on trees and our sleepy little dog, because our attention is pulled by headlines now, and will be wrenched by grief both small and large later.

It is an experimental certainty that the magnolia trees matter, that the blue sky can lift your spirits, that a phone call can sometimes work to fill some loneliness. It is an experimental certainty that the way you spend these days is just that: the way you are spending your difficult days. Not one of us signed up for this, not one of us was prepared, but here we are. “School Studies” is an essay about attention, but it is also an essay about habits, and the slow, painstaking way they are built up over time, and an experimental certainty is an experiment that has been carried out so many times that it becomes certain. If you make yourself the space to pay attention, you will become good at it. If you make the space to pay attention to everyone, make the space for everyone to have their needs met and to survive, if we make the space to care for one another, a different future is possible.

We can build up the structures now that carry us through to the other side, day by day, certain that someday, we’ll return to the kind of normal that allows us to be in the same room as everyone we love.

For further reading:

  • Simone Weil, Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies With a View to the Love of God. The essay itself, excerpted from Waiting for God.

  • Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. I read this book earlier this year and haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, particularly in Times Like These—I think Odell’s ideas of real community and placedness and groundedness are something that a lot of people in my life have been gesturing towards, or thinking around the edges of, and I’ve not stopped thinking about it for months now. If you’re building a reading list from this, I’d also throw in the classic, Robin Wall Kimmerers’ Braiding Sweetgrass, Weather, by Jenny Offil and I think Terry Tempest Williams’ The Hour of Land. I want to also throw “Paradise” by John Prine on here, largely because he’s a constant voice around my house, and greatly mourned by us, and because the song fits.

  • Haley E.D. Houseman, The Morning Report. My friend Haley’s newsletter, about her morning rambles with her dog in Northern Massachusetts, the nature she sees, and her gorgeous mind—she’s a master at attending.

  • Scott Berniato, “That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief.” This made the rounds the other week, but if you haven’t read it, it’s useful.

    As always, if you like this newsletter, please feel free to forward it to a friend, share it on Twitter, or talk it up!


    Here’s where else to find me on the internet (and in your homes) these days:

  • My previous newsletter, on Julian Norwich and social distancing, was partially republished on Monasteries of the Heart, a lovely site full of Benedictine writings for contemporary seekers. This really brings me a boatload of joy.

  • My first chapbook, Declaration, is available for purchase, direct from me! My lovely publisher has gone to Europe and mailed me a stack of booklets, I would like to do my bit to support the U.S. Postal Service and mail them to you! You can read an interview I did about Declaration here, to decide if you want to read it, and if the answer is yes, please send me $8 and your mailing address, via Venmo (@Alejandra-Oliva) or PayPal, or reply to this email w/ mailing address and follow up elsewhere. If you add an extra $5, I’ll throw in my chapbook that’s found poems from Simone Weil’s essay on the Lord’s Prayer, and I’ll be donating 75% of proceeds from both books to the Greater Chicago Food Depository.

  • Finally, some professional news: I’m really excited to announce that I’ve got a literary agent! Dana Murphy, of The Book Group, will be helping to put my baby manuscript into the hands of editors—the book is about translation, and immigration, and being bilingual, and if you’ve been reading this newsletter for a minute, you probably have a pretty good idea of what’s in store.

  • You can also always find me (and a full archive of this newsletter) at my website: olivalejandra.com

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