The Art of Noticing (the world and everything)

Notice blue skies, white clouds, shimmering water, stillness in the breeze, the sound of water against the oar.

When working too hard gets in the way of what we value . . .

These days of my sabbatical have given me back the gift of time–unplanned, unstructured time. And with this time my mind has had the chance to let go of producing, accomplishing, and making things happen. I am driven to do good as if time is running out. And to be honest, more than I would like to admit, I do feel like time is running out on me. I am a child of three generations of Alzheimers patients–first my granddaddy, then my mom, and now my eldest sister all suffered, and like the rest my sister will ultimately die from complications from this disease. It is hereditary. My mind constantly asks, “will I be next?”

The fear of what might happen to my mind fuels the urgency I feel to do more, and to do it quickly. My ministry work, my gifts, my trade is all built upon my ability to think critically, to write creatively, and to express verbally these deep spiritual connections between scripture and the world around us. But what if I loose these gifts to a cognitive disease that has no cure? Alzheimers is a disease that steals away your mind–and there is no predicting what parts of your mind it will take. These questions drive my quiet desperation for accomplishment. The sabbatical time forces me to stop and notice even my desire to do good can be the obstacle to my goals to enjoy the life I have. And yet, I must begin to come to terms with my future, whatever it may hold for good or for ill. Noticing the discomfort of uncertainty is another aspect of life we all face. We do not know what the future will hold. What will we do with the time we have?

Slowing down, gives me time to notice the world around me.

As my sabbatical has given me the gift of time, I can begin to slow my heart rate down. My breath slows, my eyes widen, my desires lessen, and I begin to see even more of the world around me. With each breath comes a deeper appreciation of life itself–the white clouds against a blue sky over the waters of the lake become a moment of holy stillness. The weed of Queen Anne’s Lace isn’t a garden intruder, but a gift of symmetrical beauty. Have you ever noticed that the flowers spiral outward in a display of mathematical precision? Noticing is a gift of time. Noticing is a result of living without pressure. The Art of Noticing (the world and everything) unfolds when one isn’t forced to pay attention to the economy of important things. What the world considers as valuable and important has everything to do with what and how much we produce. Our value is tied to our production. Our importance is linked to our accomplishments. What if nothing is important today? What if the most important thing today is to notice that nothing is important–and my value isn’t tied to the economic machinery of accomplishment? Noticing nothing is most important.

The pattern of the Queen Anne’s Lace flower are only evident when we have time to notice.

What I value most is family. My family life was not ideal. It was filled with trauma and violence, and to some extent, neglect. It has taken me many years to grow and heal from those childhood experiences. The beauty of all that hard work is the negative legacies of that family trauma will not be passed on as an unwelcome inheritance to my children. I vowed it would stop with me, and by God’s grace it has. What I value is family. I cherish my family, but I adore the chance to support and empower other families too. As a minister, this makes sense. But the irony is, while we encourage family time with our congregations, taking time with our own families is so much harder. I have used some of this sabbatical to spend quality time with my family and with my husband.

Mural chasing in Chicago lead us to a playful ‘dip and kiss”. This photo is now our daughter’s favorite.

We are learning to play together again. Play is a gift of time also. It is difficult to play when you feel pressed to get the next thing done. It is hard to bring unabashed joy to your relationships when you are focused on all the work that is left undone. Our to-do lists often steal our sense of joy. Can we set those lists aside to create time to play? What if play is another form of noticing? Can you take time to rekindle play in your life? I have gone canoeing. I have gone bike riding. I have gone hiking. I have taken time to paint really bad paintings. And I have painted a couple that resemble something beautiful. Painting is another form of noticing. It can also be an avenue of trying too hard to accomplish the perfect painting–resulting in over working the colors. Not waiting for the paint to dry is a problem. Trying to force an outcome can happen with painting, gardening, cooking, and even when we are trying too hard with our family relationships. Where in your life are you trying too hard right now?

The children on my block come out every afternoon to play. Sometimes up to eight children at a time between the ages of 4 and 11 years old leave their homes, jump on their three-wheeled scooters, and ride up and down the sidewalk. They sing. They talk. They play. Yesterday one boy asked an older girl who could read what a sign said. “What does it say? Read it to me,” he implored her. She read the name of the street sign. I invited them over to see that the pole actually had two signs on it. One in each direction of the streets that they often played on. Fascinated, they listened. The girl’s mom was on her afternoon exercise and paused. She stopped and listed to me too. We all noticed the street sign. When is the last time you noticed the world around you enough to explain it to a child?

Psalm 150 begins with, “Praise God in their sanctuary,” and ends with “Let everything that has breath paise the Lord.” God’s sanctuary is this wonderful world given to us, and with our every breath we can praise God and all the creation with it. Noticing this world, caring for our families, listening to a child, kissing our lover, these are all ways of praising God with every breath. I love my family. This sabbatical I am taking time to more than love them. I am taking time to notice them.

My family experiencing joy together at the White House in D.C. during my sabbatical.

4 thoughts on “The Art of Noticing (the world and everything)

  1. carolynbrandeen

    May Sarton (1912-1995) says it well:
    Now I Become Myself
    Now I become myself. It’s taken
    Time, many years and places;
    I have been dissolved and shaken,
    Worn other people’s faces,
    Run madly, as if Time were there,
    Terribly old, crying a warning,
    “Hurry, you will be dead before—“
    (What? Before you reach the morning?
    Or the end of the poem is clear?
    Or love safe in the walled city?)
    Now to stand still, to be here,
    Feel my own weight and density!
    The black shadow on the paper
    Is my hand; the shadow of a word
    As thought shapes the shaper
    Falls heavy on the page, is heard.
    All fuses now, falls into place
    From wish to action, word to silence,
    My work, my love, my time, my face
    Gathered into one intense
    Gesture of growing like a plant.
    As slowly as the ripening fruit
    Fertile, detached, and always spent,
    Falls but does not exhaust the root,
    So all the poem is, can give,
    Grows in me to become the song,
    Made so and rooted so by love.
    Now there is time and Time is young.
    O, in this single hour I love
    All of myself and do not move.
    I, the pursued, who madly ran,
    Stand still, stand still, and stop the sun!

  2. This is really well put, Tanya. It was hard to fathom the joy of doing nothing when I was working every day. Now that I am retired, every day is getting something done or reading a book or tending to the plants on the deck.

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