The art of noticing

I owe Alexis Smith a debt of gratitude.

She’ll never know it – and, in fact, probably has no recollection of ever knowing me – but it’s true, nonetheless. Alexis was the cool girl in the poetry class I took my last semester of college – the girl who really looked like a poet (whatever that means) and wrote poems about Miles Davis or icicles in language that was confusing to mere mortals but sounded brilliant anyway. The “About me” section of her Facebook profile read “Well, I really like light.”

Wait, I thought – what does that even mean? Light, to me, seemed like such a … well, obvious thing that I didn’t understand why anyone would describe themself by their affection for it. I chalked it up to artistic pretense and dismissed it – but didn’t forget.

Sometime later I was driving home from work, and, as I rounded a gentle bend in the road, suddenly everything was awash in that late-afternoon radiance that photographers know as “golden hour.”

Oh, I thought, unable to take my eyes off of everything held in that glow (while a tiny part of my brain was also trying to safely navigate along a city street parked closely with cars). Oh, now I understand what Alexis meant.

Remembering this scenario now, I find it hard to believe that, regardless of how many splendid Kansas sunsets I had seen, I had never before consciously noticed the character and quality, the many moods and varieties that light can have. Yet, in the 12 years since that initial moment of revelation, I have learned to see so many things in the world around me that I had never realized were there.

At this point perhaps you are thinking, OK, this is fine and dandy, but what does all this talk about light have to do with wonder? And then what does that have to do with photography? Or poetry? Or anything else?

To introduce that topic, let’s jump into the middle of one of my favorite novels, Manalive, by G.K. Chesterton. As we enter the scene, Emerson Eames, warden of Brakespeare College at Cambridge University, is perched on a gargoyled flying buttress on the outside of the college building while one of his students, the colossal Innocent Smith, is threatening to shoot him with a pistol.

“As he spoke the sun rose. It seemed to put colour into everything, with the rapidity of a lightning artist. A fleet of little clouds sailing across the sky changed from pigeon-gray to pink. All over the little academic town the tops of different buildings took on different tints; here the sun would pick out the green enamel on a pinnacle, there the scarlet tiles of a villa; here the copper ornament on some artistic shop, and there the sea-blue slates of some old and steep church roof. All these coloured crests seemed to have something oddly individual and significant about them, like crests of famous knights pointed out in a pageant or a battlefield; they each arrested the eye, especially the rolling eye of Emerson Eames as he looked round on the morning and accepted it as his last. Through a narrow chink between a black timber tavern and a big gray college he could see a clock with gilt hands, which the sunshine set on fire. He stared at it as though hypnotized; and suddenly the clock began to strike, as if in personal reply. As if at a signal, clock after clock took up the cry. All the churches awoke like chickens at cock-crow. The birds were already noisy in the trees behind the college. The sun rose, gathering glory that seemed too full for the deep skies to hold, and deep enough for the thirst of the gods. Just round the corner of the college, and visible from his crazy perch, were the brightest specks on that bright landscape, the villas with the spotted blinds, which he had made his text that night. He wondered for the first time what people lived in them.” – The Eye of Death; Or, The Murder Charge, Manalive, G.K. Chesterton

It’s really quite a story, so I won’t spoil it for you by telling you many more details out of context. The point of the passage, though, is that it’s not until Eames is in very real danger of dying – whether by Innocent Smith’s pistol or from falling off the gargoyle – that his eyes are opened to take in the extraordinary beauty all around him. It’s only then, when his mind has been jerked out of the rut of pessimism and cynicism, that he’s able to notice details like the shift of the sky from pigeon-gray to pink, or the colors and ornaments on individual buildings. It is from this place of noticing that he finally begins to wonder.

But then, not many of us are going to find ourselves perched on an ancient flying buttress while somebody on the other end threatens to shoot us for our own good. What about us and our ordinary lives?

Well, let’s pop into the middle of another of my favorite books, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, by N.D. Wilson.

“Some day, even in slow, suburban stories, there will come a death scene.
But why would any Christian claim that God has stopped talking? Did He speak the world into existence? Does matter exist apart from Him? Is it still here? Are you still here? Then He is still speaking.
Step outside your front door and look at today’s stage. Speak. God will reply. He will speak to you. He gave you senses. Use them. He will parade His art. He will give you a scene, a setting for the day. He will give you conflict to overcome, opportunities for your character to grow or fail.
But do not expect Him to speak in English. And do not expect Him to stay on whatever topic you might choose. His attention is everywhere and no story should be easy, as every reader knows.
You are on your porch. Look at the blue sky.
God, am I going to get this sale today? The commission would pay for a boat.
Look at this squirrel, He says. Do you understand it? Do you know what it means? What does it tell you about me? Watch its tail snap. You’re the only one watching. You and I are alone in the audience, sharing this scene. What does it remind you of?
I need this sale.
There’s an ant on your shoe. It’s a good ant. Last spring it turned the tide in the great Sidewalk Crack War of D Street. One of its grandfathers traveled half a mile with Lewis and Clark. Did you know that today it dies? That you are its death?” – Breathing Characters, Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World, N.D. Wilson

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve repeated the phrase “Look at this squirrel” to myself since the first time I read Wilson’s book. For most of us, squirrels are a pretty common sight – maybe even an annoying one if they keep thieving your tomatoes in the summertime. When was the last time you stopped what you were doing to look – really look – at a squirrel? When you did stop, what did you see?

As long as I’m mentioning debts, I owe a lot to G.K. Chesterton and N.D. Wilson for the way their writing has reminded to me stop merely seeing and start actually noticing the world around me, and then responding in awe and gratitude to the amazing God Who orchestrates all of it.

There are so many voices, sights, thoughts competing for our attention, though – good things as well as those that will sicken our souls. What do we do when we don’t feel wonder-filled to begin with?

During the summer I asked some folks on Instagram what wonder meant to them or what they did to ignite wonder in their hearts when it was wearing thin. My friend Kristen, who is an amazing photographer, artist and celebrator of everyday beauties, described wonder as a kind of muscle – that perhaps, the more we exercise our sense of wonder, the more capacity we have to wonder. I think that’s a brilliant description, and one that rings true in my experience.

For me, wonder flows from paying attention to the world around me, whatever or wherever that happens to be at the moment. Paying attention to what is outside and beyond myself is necessary to get my eyes off me and onto the world God made, and then on to Himself.

I’ve had the chance to see and photograph some undeniably spectacular things – the sun setting over the sea in Scotland, the red ribbon of a road winding across the wild Wyoming landscape, German cathedrals and Neolithic burial mounds, paper lanterns at a dusk market in Taiwan. All of these sparked wonder and appreciation in my heart, but they’re hardly the kind of thing I see around me all the time. I can’t go back to them for my daily set of “wonder exercises.”

But I can walk around my neighborhood. I can explore my own backyard. In fact, forcing myself to slow down and really pay attention to the details of familiar landscapes like my backyard or a favorite park has allowed me to bear witness to small moments of quiet beauty that probably otherwise would have gone unnoticed (by mere mortals, that is).

There’s a good-sized park with a nice walking trail a couple of blocks from my house, and, aside from my backyard, it serves as my primary year-round grounds for “wonder hunting.” I’ve walked this park in almost every weather other than in the midst of a thunder storm or when the sidewalks are completely covered with ice, and I’ve gotten to know which trees bud out first in the spring, which summer wildflowers bloom where, when the pine sap runs out of the thousand woodpecker holes on each tree trunk to harden into drips that look like candle wax, where the best spots are for autumn acorn-hunting. I usually only take my phone camera on these expeditions because the goal is to exercise my walking muscles, too, and not just my wonder muscles, but sometimes if I see something particularly beautiful, I’ll come back later with my real camera and shoot it properly.

There’s so much that a phone camera can’t capture, though – the way the sunlight looked through leaves chewed to lace by tiny insects, the first glimmer of frost on November leaves, the almost surreal starkness of the noon summer sun beating down from a bright blue sky onto bright green grass. But, having slowed to watch the light, or to smell the roses, to get eye to eye with the wooly worm caterpillar crawling across the path, or to stare at the green-tinged patch of fur on the back of a sociable squirrel, I treasure up the moment of beauty, and thank God for it.

Lancia Smith, a photographer and writer I greatly admire, has said that photographers “write with light.” I love that description because it really is true – photography always tells a story about something, and the character or quality of the light sets the mood for everything. As an example, here’s a quick walk through a year in the life of the park by my house. These photos aren’t the best quality because I shot them all on my phone, but they do at least capture the way the light changes throughout the day, in different weathers and different seasons.

I mostly think about wonder muscles and the art of noticing when it comes to nature or the outdoors, but it’s entirely relevant to people, too – after all, God made each of us, too! Watching little children experience the world around them is an excellent way to be wonder-filled. And what stories the crows-feet and laugh lines in older faces can tell! Victor Hugo is reputed to have said “When grace is joined with wrinkles, it is adorable. There is an unspeakable dawn in happy old age.” I just love that image of grace-filled wrinkles.

For every moment of beauty I see and actually notice, though, I know I’ve missed countless others. What amazes me is that God knows the ribs and striations on every blade of grass in that park, sees each of the miniscule insects sheltering in that green expanse, traces each individual root down into the soil and sorts out the complex tangle hidden from our view. God holds the fullness of the whole creation in His hands and knows each microscopic detail of it intimately, treasuring and appreciating more secret, beautiful moments than any of us will ever have breaths. That is really what enlarges my heart with wonder and praise – the realization of just how very vast this particular world of ours is, in all its broken splendor, and how very small I am in comparison – and that God attends to every detail of my life with infinite love and care.

I’ll close with a poem I wrote a few weeks ago when I was talking a walk through the park around sunset.

when westward bends the light
catching magic in its clasp
and golden spills the evening air
upon the glowing grass
when green with fire and red with flame
the autumn leaves are cast
look for me, look for me
i’ll come to thee at last

This is adapted from a photography exhibit and artist talk I did as part of Mid-America Nazarene University library’s rotating series of art installations. The Art of Noticing is on view at Mabee Library at MNU through November.