A Call to Observe

LookI keep a notebook in my purse for when I encounter something really lovely. I like to write those things down. Be it a song lyric or a line in a book or just a thought about a line in a book that I might one day write. I like to keep a record of them all. And look back through them on days when loveliness seems like a myth.

The inspiration for the notebook is some mix between my favorite childhood movie, Harriet the Spy, and one of my favorite authors, Anne Lammot. Both believe in the power of writing things down. And both, perhaps, for the sake of kindling child-like curiosity and the beauty of observation.

“There is ecstasy in paying attention. You can get into a kind of Wordsworthian openness to the world, where you see in everything the essence of holiness.” – Anne Lammot

I used to keep these thoughts and lines on the notes app on my phone. But then my phone was stolen off a Starbucks table my junior year of college and I felt like someone had a piece of my soul out there. So now I write in a little black notebook, the smallest kind Moleskin makes, and hope no one ever steals my purse.

Each day we get to choose whether we want to live actively or passively. Whether we want to be awake and see and smell and taste what’s going on around us, or just to float through the low-hanging clouds of average, normal lives.

Observing things, writing them down and taking them in and keeping them close for the moments in which breathing is just a little harder than usual, feels like choosing the former. And I like that. In fact, I need it. Passivity in my soul looks a lot like apathy – which looks a lot like depression.

The problem, however, is that it’s very hard to observe things in this way and not be affected by them. Observation lends itself to conclusions and shapes the way we draw them. You become vulnerable to the world. Malleable, if only a little, to the beauty and the terror over which you have no control. Observation makes you think. And often, if we’re honest, we don’t want to think. We don’t like to be faced with the realities of a broken, struggling world. It’s so much easier just to pick an outfit for the day and a song for the commute and a restaurant for dinner, rinse, repeat.

I used to think it was lame to actually like things. Maybe I watched too much Daria in high school but I somehow came to believe that it was much more fashionable to be critical or cynical or even aloof than to show any sign of positive emotion. Even the things I liked were about things that were negative. Melodramatic music, dark (even Russian) literature, sad and twisty movies.

It wasn’t until much later in life (though to date it is still a struggle) that I could express. albeit sheepishly, the enjoyment of anything pleasant. To say how beautiful something was. To be kind and encouraging and ernest. To want to share the loveliness of something, its poignancy or elegance, without some uninspired quip to curb the fear of sounding cheesy.

Maria Popova, a Bulgarian writer that I’m mildly obsessed with, said recently, “critical thinking without hope is cynicism, but hope without critical thinking is naivety.”

And she nailed it.

It’s easy to be a cynic. Even easier to be numb. But to see and to think and to hope – especially in that order, especially out loud – is a feat both difficult and worthy.

We have to be actively awake to observe. We have to observe to think critically. And we have to think critically to offer hope. I believe this to be part of the role we play as humans – existing with and around billions of other humans with their own fears and struggles and heartaches. We must become students of knowledge and beauty. Catalysts of wonder and awe. To see in everything the essence of some holiness and to steward its hope accordingly.

“I have felt a presence that disturbs me with the joy of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime of something far more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and the round ocean, and the living air, and the blue sky, and in the mind of man…”  William Wordsworth

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