What follows is a personal exploration in noticing. It’s my experience of learning how to pay better attention on a trip to New Mexico. But if you want a more direct “how to” in really seeing what you’re likely missing and knowing which details to look for, start here.
Now, on with my story.
As my flight to Santa Fe, New Mexico awaited take off, I flicked on my Kindle. Work had to wait until the magic 10,000 foot elevation that signaled that I could pull out my laptop. Until then, I glanced through the myriad titles on my Kindle. One caught my attention. Wired to Create. I vaguely recalled the book and was surprised to see I’d previously read almost half of it. Perhaps I’d remember more if I picked up where I left off.
Within minutes, the authors were reminding me of the value of paying attention (rather ironic since I couldn’t remember anything I’d previously read in this book). They explained how essential truly seeing things is to the creative process. As I read the words, I realized something both profound and rather sad.
It hit me that not only had I stopped noticing. I’d stopped noticing that I’d stopped noticing. In the busyness of daily business, I’d ceased to value the pause. The look. The curiosity of seeing something for the first time or as if for the first time.
And so, although on a trip for business, I decided to be intentional. I would strive to see, to appreciate. Here are just a few of the things that I beheld in new ways.
When you look at a cloud, what do you really see there? I don’t mean just the child’s ability to discern circus animals, a car driving through a donut or other fanciful imaginings. What exactly are you seeing in a cloud? Shape? Texture? Color? Proximity? Size? Variation? Familiarity? Why is it shaped the way it is? Is it a cirrus, cumulus or stratus cloud? Do you even know the difference (I had to look them up)? How can what makes up that cloud be the same thing we drink in a glass or that sinks ocean liners? Clouds are wonders, truly. But too often for me they don’t even register.
I sat through my meetings in Santa Fe looking out on a wet day. I seem to endure weather rather than notice it. But in a town that gets 350 sunny days a year, beholding downpours throughout the day got my attention. Then, as we wrapped up our meetings, the sun came out. So my colleagues and I headed out for a stroll around town before dinner. Near Santa Fe’s cathedral, I noticed something that rarely registers: moisture on the road. In any other place, this might be commonplace. But here in Santa Fe, that wet street was a thing of beauty, particularly in the late afternoon light. I even paid attention to the manhole cover, as well as the more obvious colonnade and the uneven lines of its roof. An ordinary scene made profoundly beautiful not just by the weather, but by my seeing the weather in the scene.
I wanted to take a photo of the Loretto Chapel just because…well, I think because I was in tourist mode and felt it was something I should photograph. I’d been there before and had seen the famed spiral staircase built by an itinerant carpenter in a manner that defies logic as to how it can stand without support. All that initially occupied my thinking. But then I noticed the human element. A wedding. And in the doorway, the newlyweds having wedding photos shot. A whole story right before me that so easily could have been lost in the focus on the architecture itself.
I rarely pay attention to or name the shapes of things. Yet, in learning to draw, that’s exactly what I must do. If I were to draw this building, a gallery in Santa Fe, I wouldn’t think, “Door. Gateway. Fence. Window.” Those labels evoke stereotypes of what a door, fence, window, etc. should be. Thus, I’m more likely to draw the stereotype than the actual scene before me. But if I put aside the labels and see what is there, I behold mostly squares and rectangles, with a trapazoid or two thrown in their due to the slope of the street. I see what is there, not what I think is there.
I looked down an alley. This row of cow skulls being sold alongside other Southwestern decor items grabbed my attention. When did you last see a row of dead cow heads hanging on the wall (at pretty prices as well)? But what I really noticed was the size of the eye socket. Cows have big eyes.
Yes, I’ve noticed that fall is here. Yes, I’ve even commented to my wife at home that the leaves are changing. But no, I haven’t bothered to appreciate the beauty of this season until a few bright trees framed Santa Fe’s cathedral nicely. It wasn’t just the leaves I noticed. The overall light of this evening in this place at this time of year. All that registered in a way I rarely allow in part, I believe, because I was not at home. Travel helps us perceive exactly what we see at home but in new ways.
The entire intent of a window display is to get us to notice. But as an avid non-shopper, a store’s arrangement of goods barely gets a glance from me. But here in Santa Fe, now in the evening, the stores were closed. And when I ceased to think about them as stores and more as repositories of items that warranted my attention, I discovered a world of curiosities. Including a very well-to-do angel.
It’s so easy for me to think that I don’t have the time to notice everything around me. But let me reframe that. Maybe I don’t have the time NOT to notice. Life is too short not to appreciate the fullness of it all around me. Autopilot works really well for getting us through each day. Habits help. Routines make us efficient. But just getting through the day isn’t enough, is it?
Try this. Don’t worry about suddenly having to pay attention to everything around you. Just tell yourself that you will notice one new thing each day. One thing you’ve never really seen before or that maybe you’ve beheld, but never truly seen. One thing. That’s it. Then try it again tomorrow and the next day.
Now stop looking at this screen and go take a look at a world that is just waiting to be seen.
To aid you in this, get a copy of my free Guide to Seeing the Right Details by Asking the Right Questions. It will help you focus on the details that matter to you so you don’t get overwhelmed by everything new you see on a trip. If you want practical, hands-on tips and techniques for learning to see in a new way, get this guide.