The Fragile Art of Noticing

Some of the things we have in our lives, we have because we noticed them. I did the sketches in this post because, years ago, I noticed some houses in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

A sermon I once heard said what qualified Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt was that he noticed the burning bush, then followed up by turning aside to look at it. At the time, I thought this was not terribly remarkable, but it stuck with me. And the question I began to ask myself became: what do I notice? What makes me turn aside (and must its first words be “50% Off”?)

Things in our world are tuned to a volume level of Scream so their sponsors know they’ll grab our fleeting attention. They have to be, for the shows and stuff and sound-bite ideas to which they are attached need all the help they can get. How many times did I tune in to a TV show or go to a movie based on the trailer’s jumbled confabulation of thrilling moments, only to realize as the credits rolled that the trailer had been the best part of the feature?

It got my attention, albeit by brute force.

But the larger reality is, I allowed it to get my attention. It all comes back to that thorny issue of free will. No matter how much of a hero’s or victim’s role I may assume as I walk through my life, I still choose what I pay my attention to. The old joke about the mom who tells her son “we’re too broke to pay attention” is never true.

I’m doing an adult coloring book largely because I’m finally noticing that a lot of people who know me well have suggested it. Its subject matter, “The Storybook Neighborhood,” results from something I noticed six years ago while walking my dog. This porch:

I noticed it. The colors, the plants, the buoyant hopeful exuberance of a very ordinary porch in a slightly shabby neighborhood. It got me thinking, and I began an ongoing Facebook feature called The Storybook Neighborhood. It had a nice although minor impact on my corner of Ft. Wayne, Indiana.

Some things I’ve noticed:

  • book covers. You can too judge a book by them!
  • patterns in curtains, clothing. Yesterday I complimented a woman at McDonald’s on the pattern of her skirt, and enjoyed a nice moment of connection.
  • a fleeting smile on the face of someone who was being hurtful. Had I paid attention, I might have avoided some pain.
  • a word from God in the form of a thought, flitting across my mind, that I know darn well was not a thought of mine, and that carries ineffable kindness. These moments when we hear His still, small voice can be easy to miss, for He seldom shouts.
  • a hummingbird rose from our morning glories and sat, motionless, on the power line for almost twenty seconds. Not long enough or close enough for a photograph, but plenty of time for wonder and amazement.

The trick about noticing is the next step: pondering. Maybe that’s what people who “meditate” mean, so maybe I’m not as bad at it as I’ve always thought, because although I don’t meditate, I do ponder.

And the next step after that is tricky, too: let’s call it “the next step after pondering,” because I hate calling it “action,” because if I call it action I probably won’t do it. Self-help books that exhort action freeze me in my tracks. Anyhow, after I ponder something, I often have an idea. And then sometimes I do the things the idea entails. And maybe that’s action.

But none of it happens if we don’t notice. Our noticing is unique to us, as individual as our place in the world. I am the only person who noticed that 7AM hummingbird. A tiny wonder put on by the world for my benefit, and noticing is my job, my part in the play. Noticing demands a response, be it ever so tiny — some praise, some pondering, a drawing or a song. We have art because the artist noticed something.

Let’s all of us notice what falls to us to notice today.

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