Pay Attention

When you’re a writer, you notice things. 

If you follow me on twitter, you might notice my daily observations that start with that phrase. All sorts of weird, beautiful things happen, when you’re paying attention. The smell of cologne that lingers in the doorway outside a cafe. The way a passerby whistles to the birds and the birds whistle back. You see the fellow carrying the toothbrush in his backpack, and the other fellow carrying a tank of gasoline and a chainsaw. You notice when someone in a SUV passes their joint to a guy driving in a convertible. You notice when the group of shirtless dudes run by, and you catch sight of the women who check them out as they pass.

Running is usually one of my favorite times to keep a lookout for things, mostly because making observations is a good way to distract myself from the brutal discomfort of cardiovascular exercise. But also, when you follow the same route, your feet pound the same rhythm, your mind wanders into the same thoughts, and it’s easy to notice the subtle differences around you: when cars pass with their windows rolled down, you can smell their freshly cleaned interiors. You hear clips of conversations: about parties people are planning or already went to, or renovations they want to do. You pass by renovations and see the increments of completion: walkways that are jackhammered, then laid out with brick, then sealed with cement. Running through the Arboretum this time of year is especially awe-inspiring, as dull brown soil and bare branches quietly make way for fresh grass and tiny buds and lusciously, sweet-smelling magnolia blossoms.

Today, I was heading back up the Jamaicaway, when I noticed something.

An elderly woman in a long, navy coat, toppled over, barely on the sidewalk, as cars rushed out of the rotary, mere inches away from where she fell. I broke into a sprint, stopping traffic to get to her. Two construction workers also rushed over. Some cars passed by, like nothing happened at all, but others got ready to pull over. Someone shouted to see if we needed to call 9-11.

The woman was more embarrassed than hurt, and was very appreciative as the construction workers and I helped her back up, and lent our hands to help her back to her house, which was just across the J-way.

We got her settled inside, with the paper, and called her son, who said he would be home soon. I cleaned the small cut on her ankle, and fixed her socks. She told me she was 90 years old, and her son would be selling her house in not too long.

The construction workers and I left her with a cold drink and a newspaper. I’ve already forgotten their names. As I ran home, I realized I was still holding on to the paper towel that I had used to clean her cut. I chucked it into a trash can by the pond.

This unexpected event reminded me of an exercise that we used to do when I was studying Theatre at BAA. My classmates, our teachers, and I would stand in a circle, and would try to count as high as we could. Maybe you’ve participated in this activity too–it’s really good, for team building. Everyone gets quiet, and you wait, paying attention, for when it’s your turn to speak the next number.

Sometimes you speak over someone else, and you start back at zero.

Sometimes you get it just right, or even say two numbers in a row.

Sometimes, you don’t need to say anything at all.

When it’s your turn, you know. But in the meantime, just pay attention.

“How does a person create a song? A lot of it is being open… to encounter and to… be in touch with the miraculous.”–Joni Mitchell