The benefits of noticing

Noticing cloudsAs 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.

Clouds

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.

Weather

Notice weatherI sat through my meetings in Santa Fe looking at 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. But 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.

Noticing peopleThe human element

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.

Geometry

Noticing geometryI 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.

The unusual

Noticing the unusualI 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.

Seasons

Noticing seasonsYes, 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.

Window displays

Noticing windowsThe 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.

Final thoughts

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.

 

The aftermath of a hard trip

The aftermath of a hard trip: crabsLast week’s business trip to the Midwest was a hard trip. A marathon of meetings and then post-meeting follow-up making for 16-17 hour workdays in a time zone enough hours from normal to make sleep intermittent at best. It was a week where fatigue accumulates like pooled water after a storm and all your reserves start looking for reserves before you’re even half way through.

The aftermath of a hard trip - Seattle buildings

Looking up in and around the Market has its rewards

I got home Friday evening, spent time with my family and then melted into bed. I awoke the next morning on East Coast time (my body being no respecter of clocks): earlier than I wanted but thankful for the opportunity to wrap up some remaining work. Then, at 7:30 a.m., I drove back to the airport though not this time as a traveler. I was there to drop my son off for his flight back to college.

After that, I wanted to go home. Go back to bed. Relax. Get away from travel. But something compelled me to head in a different direction.

Place Pigalle and Pigeons

I rarely look out the back side of the Market, but if you do, this is what you might see

So, on a very foggy Saturday morning I drove instead to downtown Seattle. I needed a new roller bag. I wasn’t the only one who’d had a hard trip: my old, faithful 14-year-old piece of luggage longed for retirement. The retractable pull handle had given out as I boarded my outbound flight. The handle now extended like credit to someone who never pays their bills. In addition, the bag’s rollers barely lived up to their name. They made getting through the airport as quick and graceful as walking a cat on a leash.

The aftermath of a hard trip: salmonBut it was barely 8:00 a.m. and stores didn’t open till 10:00 a.m. What to do? Play tourist. Don’t ask me why, but despite my fatigue I headed up to one of the city’s biggest visitor destinations, Pike Place Market.

Normally, if I go to the Market, I do so to buy something or take photos or show it off to a visiting friend. But this day I was too tired to do anything more than wander. The place I was in mentally and emotionally allowed me to see the place I was in physically in a new way. To take in the Market on its own terms, not mine.

And that made all the difference.

The aftermath of a hard trip: cauliflowerI enjoyed the Market in a way I never have before. I noticed details like these odd cauliflower spike balls or the the merged scents of the place as if I’d never experienced the Market before. I was simply content to be there with none of the usual travel expectations and as a result, I discovered something new.

The aftermath of a hard trip: TulipsAfter a really long, hard trip, I experienced a gift: a reminder of why I love to travel. My road-weary fatigue allowed me to let go of the litany of usual tasks and attitudes I normally carry with me when I explore somewhere. Like how a hot shower relaxes you to be able to focus on a single thought, my exhaustion quieted down all the usual voices that tell me I need to somehow take advantage of visiting a place. To capture it all. Note it. Make sense of it.

Instead, I simply enjoyed it. Nothing more, nothing less. It was one of the best travel experiences I’ve had lately in part because it was never intended to be a travel experience. I was able to be present to that place because another place, a difficult trip, had broken me open to be open.

The aftermath of a hard trip: Dried flowersFriday night I was grumbling about a hard trip and a hard week.

Saturday morning, I was immeasurably grateful for both.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a nice place to visit but…

Frozen Fountain New York

What follows are photos I’ve taken on various trips to NY at various times of the year. Some are things you’d see as a tourist and some are less so…

New York is a nice place to visit but…

View from the High Line

View from the High Line

I love New York.

Usually for about a day.

I get to New York every two years or so for business. And each time, whenever I arrive, I’m like a little kid. I scan the skyline for outlines of familiar landmarks. I get caught up in all the things I could do here if I only had more time. I even, if I’m arriving at night by cab, look up to the warm lights of windowed brownstones and wonder what the people who live there are doing.

Playing chess in the park

Playing chess in the park

Once there, I usually sit through long days of meetings and, in most cases, enjoy a nice dinner with the client or with colleagues. And then I’m left with the after hours, the time when the stores (except for the tourist shops) and museums are closed. It’s too late to see much but too early for the nightlife of New York to kick in (as if my work-worn body and mind could remain awake that late anyway). So what do I do? I wander.

Store Display

Store Display

That first night of wandering is magical. Even familiar places like Times Square seem so full of life that I think, “What a great place to live.” And then, if I’m there for more than one day, I find that that same magic wears quickly. The next evening, Times Square is just another over-commercialized tourist trap.

Times Square

Times Square

It’s not just New York. Many locations are fun at first, but if you spend much time there, they lose their charm. They are a nice place to visit, until they aren’t. I’m sure that if I lived there, I’d discover new interests not available to the typical tourist. But I have no intention of finding that out. Instead, I treat New York like so many other places and leave thinking, “Nice place to visit, but I’m glad I don’t live there.”

Cloisters Entry

The Cloisters is one of my favorite places in NYC

But what if I did?

Instead of burning out on a place by exhausting all the tourist activities, here’s a new approach I’m going to try and I invite you to explore as well. If you’re in a location that feels stale because the touristic novelty has worn off, ask yourself this: What would I do if I lived here?

The Cloisters

I like the Cloisters (a museum of medieval art in north Manhattan) because it is such a peacefully different place.

It’s an intriguing question. On first thought, I start checking off all the things that a local can do that I can’t: meet with friends, take care of daily routines, visit special places I’ve only discovered by being a place for a long time. But then I think, “Okay, how do I translate those into something that I, as a traveler, might partake in?”

NY at Night

NY at Night

Some of this takes advance planning like asking friends for contacts in the city you’re visiting. Having a local guide can completely change both your experience of a place and how you think about it.

Central Park Singer

Musician in Central Park

Others simply require a bit of ingenuity and effort. You may not be able to take care of routine issues, but then why would you on a trip? Instead, what about hobbies or other interests? Find stores, museums, sporting venues, places to run, festivals or other events that align with your interests. A little effort goes a long way.

Finally, in terms of the “special places” simply ask around. Go online or ask friends or acquaintances. Ask the bartender in your hotel bar for his favorite hangout. Ask a work colleague about some undiscovered gem. Ask the concierge not for the best restaurant but the one he’d take a friend to from out of town or where she might go to on a first date. Simply asking the right questions can uncover a wealth of options.

30 Rock

30 Rockefeller Plaza

So next time you think, “It’s a nice place to visit, but…” think again. Think about if you did live there. And that can open up a completely new way to see what has become old and familiar.

 

 

How to travel like a beginner…even if you’re not one – Part 1

Latte: How to travel like a beginner

The next time you eat or drink something familiar, try and imagine what it would be like doing so for the first time.

I’m about to board an airplane for the first time in almost four months. I haven’t gone for this long being grounded in over four years.

At first, I thought I would go stir crazy or miss airline travel. That never happened. Perhaps it is because I look to travel for novelty and adventure and day-to-day life has kindly been supplying more of both than I either anticipated or, in some cases, relished. But in less than 48 hours, I will once again be plane-bound.

This gives me an opportunity — a boost really — to try something I’ve been wanting to share with you for some time. The concept of “beginner’s mind” or Shoshin in Japanese derives from Zen Buddhism and is often associated with the book by Shunryu Suzuki where he states the famous line, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” But “beginner’s mind,” like the quote itself, extends far beyond it’s Zen roots and can be applicable to all of us today.

At its heart is the idea of approaching anything, particularly a subject or skill which you have already mastered, with the openness, excitement and receptivity of a beginner. Beginner’s mind is less about memory — remembering back to your first experience with something — and more about confronting that now familiar experience as if it were completely new to you.

You can try this with any familiar object or experience. Take, for instance the act of tasting your favorite food or drink. Let’s say it’s a cup of coffee. The next time you sip a cup of coffee, consciously engage the experience. What are you really tasting? What is it like? Do you taste the bitterness (assuming you haven’t overloaded the drink with sweeteners)? Can you recall how you first reacted to that bitter taste? It likely wasn’t pleasant. So can you now consciously try and imagine what this sip would be like if you’d never tasted coffee before? Feel the liquid warmth. Be aware of how you swallow. Try to describe the aroma to yourself.

You may be wary of the Zen roots or think the whole notion is New Agey, silly or too esoteric. But try it. Because just the act of trying it will reveal how much we have lost our ability to experience the wonder that daily surrounds us. We have become so familiar with the marvels of technology and of nature that we blithely march through our days unaware of all the experiences that would blow our minds if we encountered them all in one day as a complete beginner.

I plan to do my best to approach air travel like a beginner this week. Likely, work pressures and habits will kick in and the best intentions will yield few results. But who knows?

To be continued…