October 5, 2010

Pay Attention to What You Don't See

The author working on his observing skills
In the course of a typical day we make thousands of decisions, some relatively important, some certainly not. Our brains process tens of thousands of visual images. If we are like most people, very little of all this registers. Habit takes over and we go through a typical day largely on autopilot.

That equals missed opportunities. We live in an amazing world that can startle, stimulate,  energize, and provoke if we only pay a little more attention. Certainly you have heard the expression to live in the moment. If you slow down and open yourself to new experiences and new thoughts your life will be richer. You will see your world from a new perspective.

Last year I took a creative writing class for a few months. One of the exercises was to spend time observing something at our home and write a detailed description. I picked a portion of our backyard. While writing this assignment I noticed things I had never seen before. I noticed colors and textures that had completely escaped me. We have lived in this house for ten years but I had never seen the yard with this clarity. By simply paying close attention I found a new appreciation for my environment. To give you some sense for what I'm talking about here is a portion of that writing exercise:

In the far corner of the yard the bougainvillea has lost many of its bright red blooms.The leaves that remain are a mix of dark green and faded yellows with brown streaks.Top branches poke through the latticework of the Ramada, still reaching toward the life-giving warmth of the sun.

That desire to grow ever higher becomes a yearly lesson in limits.The exposed branches are defenseless against the sudden cold of a desert winter night.The flowers highest above the ground appear to be burned in a hot fire, rather than stung by the freezing blast of the wind. Lifeless blooms drop toward the earth, covering furniture and tabletops. Some leaves still cling desperately to the branches, but they are only delaying the inevitable. With color and vitality gone, death has already claimed them but they just won’t let go.

 Partly sheltered by the Ramada’s thin, brown, ceiling slats the remainder of the bush presents a resolute face. Reddish-pink flowers grip undamaged limbs. Leaves pretend the season has not changed; they are unchanged. By remaining content to dwell closer to the earth, this part of the bush survives intact.

Four sturdy brown posts, as thick as my thighs, disappear into the rocky, unforgiving ground. Their job is simple: keep the wooden slats that form a porous roof and support a fan from falling to the ground. For three years they have done their job, though the brown stain is no longer quite as dark and constant as it once was. Vertical cracks appear here and there in the wood, giving silent testimony to the stress the elements put on even the strongest-looking structures.

At the base of two of the posts clay pots sit on spindly metal legs with a ceramic tiled top. Succulents rest in the pots now, their colors only a pale copy of what will come with warmer weather. The outside of each pot is streaked with a washed out white film. Minerals must hide in the clear water gushing from a hose until heat and time allow them to become visible.

Flagstone pavers lie in the Ramada’s shade, strips of dirt and sand keeping each a separate rock island. Spent flower blossoms, twigs, and a lone, pale, green weed clutter the surface of most, waiting for the next strong wind to propel them to another temporary resting place.

The last two posts are starkly bare. No pots, no cacti, no flowers interrupt the eye’s journey from the top of the post to the bottom. Do they somehow feel ignored or unloved? Streaks of a light brown sappy substance on both could be mistaken for tears.

Four white, metal and plastic lawn chairs huddle at the round crinkle-topped table just outside the Ramada’s shade. Abandoned for the winter, the whole ensemble sits unused and unneeded. Thick cushions, striped blue, tan, and white invite anyone to sit. But, the dirt and decay of the off-season litter each one, making the likelihood of a visitor remote. The faded yellow umbrella is collapsed upon itself. A crank handle juts from the pole, idle. When warm weather returns it will spin nearly every day so the umbrella can open its panels and bathe the table top in shade. But for today, nothing.

The chairs and table legs rest in puddles of grime and dust on a light gray rounded piece of concrete that extends from the side of the house. Here and there paint has peeled away to expose the material underneath. A yearly ritual of scraping and repainting the exposed surfaces doesn’t last. Each spring the process is repeated.

Close by a two-person bench, rarely used, sits on four sturdy iron legs, waiting. Its streaked, dirty cushion has faded from whatever it once was to a non-descript gray. The stained wooden back and front edge are splintered and worn from too much heat and cold, too much wet and dry. Like someone considered past his prime but demanding his due, the bench remains convinced of its usefulness. Physical decay and worn-out cushions beg to differ.

If you are a writing instructor, be kind. The class was not hesitant to point out some of the shortcomings in this exercise. The point of my including it is to suggest you consider something like this in your daily life. It doesn't have to be written. It could be photographs, or a video. You could sketch or paint or draw something. You could sit quietly and make notes of the various sounds you hear over a 15-20 minute period. Or, you could simply sit and observe closely. The point is we live in a world that is overflowing with activity and sights and sounds, but we usually ignore most of it. My challenge to you is to take a little while and experience what you have been missing .

Please share some of your experience in the comment section. I would really appreciate reading what you learned from doing so.

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  1. I'm no writing instructor, but your rendering is wonderful. Great writing. The kind of writing I strive for!

  2. Thanks, Syd. I enjoyed the project even if it did take at least a dozen re-writes!

  3. Another great post! Something I am learning in tai chi class is that life isn't about how quickly you arrive at the next thing. What life is about is slowly savoring each moment.

    Typically, we all get wrapped up in rushing around, accomplishing the next thing on our to-do list, or worrying about the past or future, rather than focusing on the moment.

    In tai chi class, if I don't focus, I do find myself doing a motion quickly, to "get through it." Last week our instructor told us that tai chi isn't about how many of something you can do. The object is to move slowly so we can meditatively take in each tiny detail along the way so we learn to see what life is really about.

  4. "Life isn't how quickly you arrive at the next thing" is a great way of summing up this approach. Life isn't meant to be a race. It is experienced more fully as a stroll. Focus on right now because it will not be repeated.

    Thanks, Joan. I may have to check out tai chi. It sounds like a very positive experience.

  5. I love this idea and this exercise. Your writing is beautiful too.

    I do try to slow down, tune into my environment, and be in the present moment. As you point out, when I do, I notice so much more and really bask in all the sights and sounds. It's so nourishing.

    I'm so glad you are encouraging us to simply take time to observe and be.

  6. I schedule this "quiet down" exercise about once every 2 months. Sometimes it will take place in the backyard or at a nearby park. I have done it at a local shopping mall. By observing the colors and sounds and different human interactions in that setting I sharpen my observation skills. Only one rule at the mall: observe but don't buy anything!

    Have a great day, Sandra.

  7. I think slowing down is the largest challenge for me.

    Thanks for sharing.

  8. There is a fine line between slowing down and becoming complacent. I haven't quite figured out where that point is yet. So, I just keep running at close to full speed.

    I notice you have just started a blog. It looks like today is your first post. Good luck and let me know how you are doing!

  9. Thank you for pointing me to this entry, Bob. I especially like your lawn chairs -- my parents' were always rather sad affairs in the fall, too. I'm not even close to retirement, but I love the slow pace of my life that allows so much richness of detail. My jackdaw mind collects scents, textures, patterns, words, and rhythms. Occasionally it recycles them into something creative. A few nights ago, I had a dream in which I saw a fantastic design carved on a bowl. In the dream, I was disappointed that someone else thought of it first, but once I awoke, I realized I had no scruples against copying off my own unconscious.

  10. When you produce that bowl take a picture and I'll post it here!

    I'm glad you enjoyed this post, Jennifer. It was fun to concentrate on a scene that had become all too commonplace.