The Virtue of Paying Attention: Dragonflies

By Cindy Crosby

Published in the Summer 2009 issue of Flourish magazine

So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur. Living on the senses requires an easily triggered sense of marvel, a little extra energy, and most people are lazy about life. Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death.
– Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

Prayer is a disciplined dedication to paying attention.
– John H. Westerhof III and John D. Dusden, The Spiritual Life

Last night I dreamed of dragonflies, gliding through the haze of my nocturnal imagination with their tensile-strength wings, their titanium lightness of being. When I walk the prairie this morning, thoughts of their fragile-strong bodies catching the currents still drift around the edges of my subconscious. How they slice the air with a delicate crispness. The paths they carve through the tallgrass. I think and think of them and almost overlook the reality under my feet.

So much that we miss with our heads in the clouds. So much that we miss in this world.

I see him when I stumble and look down at the mown path to regain my footing. A budded compass plant stalk has been broken and flung at a crazy angle across the trail. The dragonfly is alone. Motionless. Clutching a hairy green want that bleeds the resinous sap of the Silphiums, a sticky gelatinous ooze.

Twelve-spotted skimmer. Libellula pulchella. The devil’s darning needle. Four wings, dotted with bluish white and bittersweet chocolate, provide a tenuous balance. My shadow falls across his plump chassis, slick coffee-colored armor patched with brown velvet, and I’m sure the shade I cast causes the air around him to cool abruptly. He remains unmoved.

Overhead, his kin float through the grassy fields: half-banded topers glint copper; green clearwings hover like helicopters; damselflies dotted with electric blue neon could light up a marquee. They circle me—a human insect-control tower anchored in a three-foot-wide mown stubble runway through the tallgrass. Touch down briefly on starry campion, then lift. Rise, circle, buzz me, and zip off for places unknown.

Oh you surges of electricity, crackling through the air! Thunder and lightning. Steel wisps strung on translucent zephyrs.

Crouching, moving tentatively. I know to touch him might be to do harm, yet I can’t help myself. My fingers move of their own volition, stretching slowly, stopping short of one tissued wing, then gently touching the tip. I feel nothing. Transparent, otherworldly. Gossamer ghost. Or only some manifestation of my own wild imaginings? The wing tip bends a fraction, so I know I’m making contact, although my skin can’t register sensitivity to something this ethereal.

How do you touch the untouchable? How do you make contact with things not of this world?

Kneeling, knees greening. Marveling at this armored body’s intricate structure, plated with loose hinges that give him his gymnastic ability to ply the air, drop down to splatter circles in Willoway Brook, tantalize the kingbird with his crunchy morseled appeal.

When I die, I want to know I have paid attention. To have read creation’s journal from cover to cover, and not skimmed the pages. Spent my summer days counting dragonflies, following them across the brook, learning their zig-zag pathways by heart. Made contact with something bigger than myself.

I start to stroke his body, but his ferocious dignity stops me. Respectfully, I brush off my fingertips and scramble to my feet, moving a step back and allowing the sunshine to spill into the void my shadow leaves on the path I back down the trail until he is swallowed up by the prairie dock’s elephant-ear leaves, the rough-laced leaves of compass plants, immersed in tallgrass.

I would surround myself with dragonflies. At home, I dig a shallow pond in my backyard, fill it with water from the hose. Let its muddy bottom cycle through algae—lime, brown, lime, brown. Soon, green duckweed floats on the surface. Arrowhead plants I import take root and multiply with a fecundity that keeps me busy on weekends, pulling them out like dandelions. My lone swamp iris expands in circumference until it’s bigger than a bushel basket.

Frogs show up, birds sip and splash, and, at last, the dragonflies arrive. Drawn by water;
wooed, perhaps, by the little prairie-grass patch I baby along at the corner of the yard. Build it and they will come.

Isn’t this what prayer is? Paying attention? Making room for what will come?

These days there’s a rock on the banks of Willoway Brook where I while away the hours. Eventually I blend into the scenery, and the dragonflies go about their business, aerial insect crosses moving at a blur, attending to urgent dragonfly matters as they follow the water’s gently curving course.

The more I learn, the more opens up. The more I pay attention, the more I find to pay attention to.

A damselfly lands on the stone beside me. We both rest, soaking up sunshine and letting the breeze cool us off. A beetle crawls over the rocks, detouring around us, and a minuscule pale water bug skips across the water’s surface in fits and starts.

I don’t know their names. I don’t know their habits. But the doors to my soul are ajar, and I want to learn, looking up each of their names and repeating them to myself until I have made each one my own. Created a scrapbook of remembered moments to feed my soul, to pull out when winter covers the landscape with ice and snow.

I’m anticipating whatever shows up.

I want to pay attention.

I don’t want to miss anything in this world.

Excerpted from By Willoway Brook: Exploring the Landscape of Prayer, Paraclete Press, 2003.

Cindy Crosby is the author of five books and a contributor to the books Creation Care and A Life of Prayer. Her work appears in such publications as Backpacker, Christianity Today, Books & Culture, Publishers Weekly, The Christian Century, and Chicago Wilderness. A former National Parks Artist-in-Residence, she enjoys dragonfly monitoring, kayaking, and prairie restoration near her home in Glen Ellyn, IL.


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