THE BLOG

The Art of Noticing

08/08/2012 09:08 am ET | Updated Oct 08, 2012

As a whole, we take everything for granted. If encountered frequently enough, people and tasks seem to become mundane and uninteresting. The walk to and from school becomes just another routine trudge. Your grandparents' crankiness and need to talk about their past becomes a nuisance, something you are forced to listen to in order to maintain familial decorum. Your classmates and friends become people that you think you know well or, at least, well enough so you can interact with them according to the context of everyday situations. Your life, and everything in your life, seems to be relatively well-known. Yet, life is not like that at all. In fact, life is a wondrous, mysterious thing. Your life is something remarkable, with new things to be discovered every day, every hour, every second and every minute. Life is so interesting! I loathe, absolutely loathe, when I see my classmates, colleagues, or friends tweet or talk about how bored they are. How can one be utterly bored in this life? To appreciate this life, one must learn the art of noticing. Noticing is a skill that, at first, requires effort. You have to have the patience to look a second time or a third time or a fourth time or a millionth time. It never ends because there is always something to catch your attention. And it is okay to falter, to become frustrated and stop noticing for a while. One must remember, however, to always come back and notice. I am no life coach or psychological consultant; I am just a teenage girl with a certain outlook on life -- this life is too intricately rich to not notice.

Not too long ago, I stumbled upon a blog titled "Walking to Listen" by a Mr. Andrew Forsthoefel, a 23-year-old noticing connoisseur. Andrew decided to start walking across the United States with one motive: to listen. Although Andrew is not the only person to begin this feat, his goal -- the goal of listening -- struck me as unheard of. In describing the reason for his walk, he writes, "I'm walking the country to listen. There's no such thing as the Average Joe, no such thing as a boring, uninteresting, unexceptional life. This walk is to honor that. Life is fast, and I've found it's easy to confuse the miraculous for the mundane, so I'm slowing down, way down, in order to give my full presence to the extraordinary that infuses each moment and resides in every one of us." And so, he walks and he meets people, really truly meets them, and he learns their stories. He learns to see the beauty everywhere he crosses because there is beauty in even the shabbiest places and people. Therefore, he notices.

As I was walking to school a couple of months ago, I noticed -- there goes that verb again -- a fire escape on the side of a building. I had been walking this route for almost two and a half years and I had never really noticed that fire escape. Its worn appearance shot down the possibility of it being newly built. Usually, when I walk to and from school, I walk with my eyes looking straight ahead with some thought always stewing in my mind. At this point, you might be marveling at the fact I made it to school at all without being hit by a car, or worse, kidnapped. Or maybe you're thinking, "Huh, this laddie is not very observant, is she now?" Now you might be wondering why I think you would use the world "laddie" to describe me, as if you were a stereotypical Scotchman. After that day, I was mesmerized. How could I be so unobservant and unaware of my surroundings? This was not a sudden life-changing moment. Usually, when people talk about a significant moment in their lives, they describe it in a way that implies they were new people afterwards when, in reality, it takes a while for the change to sink in. I started to practice the art of noticing by and by. I practice it today and, let me tell you, it is hard but satisfying work.

I suppose I should disclose some of the highlights of my noticing adventure. First, let me address the walks to and from school. These walks are no longer a blur. I am finally acknowledging the bustle around me -- the busy hospital workers with cups of coffee in their hands, the squirrels chasing each other on the pavement, the mechanic bopping his head to some music. I have always known these elements were there, but I never really noticed them. I wonder about the lives of those hospital employees and I try to see the world through their eyes when I can. I think about the lives of those squirrels, which seem so simple but I know are not. I mentally jot down the fact the mechanic likes to listen to salsa. These details seem so inconspicuous, but they expand my breadth of perception.

I echo Andrew's belief: No person, no life is uninteresting. There is always something to learn about someone and some place. When was the last time you ever sat down to talk with your parents? It doesn't sound like a very fun thing to do, I'm sure. But, if you prod them long enough, you will find that they have a plethora of stories you have never heard. I sat down to talk with my parents with no particular topic in mind. My mother told me how she spent her days after her high school graduation. I had heard stories similar to it before, but she disclosed new information because she saw I was willing to listen, to notice. What about your grandparents? Talk to them and see what you learn. Explore. Start a conversation with someone as you wait for the bus. I am not encouraging (at least not outright) the idea of talking to strangers. But, a polite "Hello. How are you?" can make a world of difference. From that greeting, I learned a lot about a sweet old woman on her way to a doctor's appointment. Her son is a graphic designer for a company; even though she originally wanted him to pursue a non-artistic profession, she is now glad because he is happy and successful. We swapped thoughts. I told her about my aspirations and she told me how homesick she was for her home country, Colombia -- it was just us, complete strangers, talking aimlessly. What about your friend? There is always something brewing behind every one of his smiles and scowls. We should take the time to learn and care for our friends; in friendships, there should be no such thing as the action of "ignoring." A person is a hole in the ground with infinite depth. You can never truly know a person because there is always something left to know. Correspondingly, you can never truly know yourself because you will be learning new things about yourself well into the day you die. And that is why our life is so spectacular! In life, there is always something to enjoy.

From this post, you might surmise I am a happy, go-lucky person. You know, that really annoying individual who always seems to have a goofy smile on their face for no particular reason? You might even want to punch that individual in the face sometimes just because you find it so annoying (figuratively speaking of course because you are not a violent person, right?). I am not that person. I can be just as moody as him and her. Then, who am I to preach? I honestly can't answer that question. All I know is this: I try to notice and appreciate, and that is what separates what Andrew calls a "life-seizer" from a life-releaser (yes, I just made the latter up to accommodate Andrew's term, but as corny as it sounds, you get the point). I'm not talking about YOLO. I'm talking about carpe diem or "seize the day." I am talking about deleting every single tweet, Facebook post and blog post on the Internet that professes bouts of boredom and complete disrespect for this life. It's normal to sometimes feel disgusted at life; I am not asking you to ignore life's misfortunes. The trials of life are, after all, a part of life. I am merely asking that we appreciate more than we complain, that we notice more than we peruse. I want to go outside and shout this out at the top of my lungs. I look at how frustrated people become, how much complaining goes on instead of thanking, and I just want to shake someone.

Regardless of the cards we are dealt, we all have the choice to make the most out of our lives and the lives of those surrounding us. I just think impatience at life should be discarded. Maybe your local YMCA should start a class about the art of noticing. When that day comes, I think you should sign up. But, until then, try to practice on your own. Go on; look for that fire escape you never knew was there. You might just become a noticing expert, and then, who needs that YMCA class?

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