Noticing: Awareness As a Form Of Prayer
Have you heard the story of the Maine farmer, sitting quietly for a long time overlooking fields and valleys in the evening sunset? When he was asked, "What are you doing?" his answer was short and to the point. "Noticin'."

I did some noticin' of my own last Thursday night. A member of our European summer travel group invited the Rochester contingent to attend a photography show at the Kodak Camera Club where she had entered several pictures taken on our trip.

The pictures, grouped in beginner, advanced and expert classes, were placed in a lighted box for viewing by three judges and interested observers. Each picture was evaluated numerically and prizes were awarded in each of the three categories. But what fascinated me was the commentary of the judges as they explained their choices.

A picture must be more than a documentary; it should present a vision. It must tell a story and draw the viewer into the story. It must grasp you immediately and then tease you into further inquiry.

Notice the grace of the hands, the contrast in the shadows, the mystery of mist rising from a lake. On they went, indicating what struck them about the pictures they viewed. While I disagreed with them quite often, I saw more and more what they were saying. They had developed the artist's eye and noticed far more in a single picture than I had ever imagined there could be.

I thought of my own 200-plus pictures taken on our trip in The Czech Republic and Austria. While amazingly every one came out crisp and clear, there was not a one I would dare enter in this competition. I had documented a trip, not told a story. I had not really paid full attention to what I experienced.

My evening at Kodak Park underscored a story told by physicist Victor Weisskopf. He was invited to deliver a series of lectures at the University of Arizona at Tucson. Weisskopf was delighted to accept because it would give him a chance to visit the Kitts Peak Astronomical Observatory with its powerful telescope.

When he was told that could not be arranged since the telescope was constantly in use for photography and other research activities, he said he would not be able to come. Within days the invitation was extended again, and permission granted for the observatory visit.

Weisskopf described his time with the telescope, how the stars and the Milky Way glistened intensely and seemed almost close enough to touch. He even observed Saturn and a number of galaxies with his own eyes, seeing details he had only seen in photographs before.

Then he wrote, "As I looked at all that, I realized that the room had begun to fill with people, and one-by-one they too peeked into the telescope. I was told that these were astronomers attached to the observatory, but they had never before had the opportunity of looking directly at the objects of their investigations. They had never had direct contact." Or, as I would put it, they had not before noticed the stars.

This story reminded me of the Zen quatrain,

"Lightning flashes,
sparks shower.
In one blink of your eyes
you have missed seeing."

I wonder in my six decades plus on this planet how many times I have not noticed; how many times I have looked through my camera lens and missed the story to get the picture; how many times that I, like the Kitt's Peak astronomers, have missed seeing.

I am blessed by living in one of the most beautiful areas on earth; I work amidst persons of unending charm and fascination. And yet, while I confess I have never really been bored with life, there are occasions when I repeat my routines and hardly notice what it is I am doing. I close the cottage and begin the church year; I prepare a weekly order of service, write yet another sermon. There are times when I think - here I go again - doing what I have done time and time again, thinking one time is not different from another.

In the movie Smoke Auggie Wren, manager of a cigar store at the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue in Brooklyn, takes a picture of the same store every morning at exactly 8 o'clock no matter what the weather. He has 4000 consecutive daily photographs of his corner all labeled by date and mounted in albums. He calls it his "life's work."

One day he shows the photos to Paul, a blocked writer who is mourning the death of his wife, a victim of random street violence. Paul doesn't know what to say about the photos; he admits he has never seen anything like them. Flipping page after page of the albums, he observes with some amazement, "They're all the same."

Auggie watches him, then replies: "You'll never get it if you don't slow down, my friend." Then Auggie explains how each one is different from every other. The differences are in the details - the way clothing styles change, the weather, the way the light hits the street, the pedestrian patterns that change. "It's just one little part of the world but things take place there too just like everywhere else." And when Paul really looks carefully at the by now remarkably unique photographs, he notes a detail in one of them that makes all the difference in the world to him.

Does the world in which you live bore you? How would you answer the questions from a magazine ad I found this week? Over a beautiful baby's face looking out in open-eyed innocence in wonder at the day were two questions: "Has the world become less interesting? Or have you?"

I have puzzled over those questions. Clearly the world has not become less interesting. As crazy as it often is - it is not the least bit uninteresting or boring. The problem may be that I have become a bit boring - that I have just become jaded, a tad cynical perhaps.

Fortunately the world continually jars me from my spiritual complacency. The stars can do it. I have a thing about the stars - and so do photography judges. One of the prize-winners in the Kodak Park competition was of the Hale-Bopp comet with Cayuga Lake in the foreground. Another was a time exposure of a lunar eclipse over a desert sand dune. They reminded me that when I look at the stars with my relatively unseeing eyes, I am looking back in time for millions of years.

Flying back from Europe this summer I was barely enduring the long trip when I happened to glance out the window and saw - Greenland. There it was! It was a panoramic view of ice-capped mountains, deep cut fjords, tiny enclaves of people, a scattering of white dot boats on a brilliantly blue sea. I almost forgot that all this while I was waiting in line for the ever-occupied rest room.

Earlier this summer I bought a pair of goggles to keep the water out of my eyes during my daily swims. Normally, I splash along through the water, knowing it is good for my health; but with the goggles there was a new dimension. I kept my eyes open for a change and was able to see so clearly the teeming life at the bottom of the lake. In a sense I took the scenic route. What a difference!

Perhaps the great difference between people - spiritually speaking - is simply the number of things they notice in a given cubic yard of earth or water.

Then this week I read an intriguing account of the music in everyday life. The author, a musician, woke one day and suddenly listened to the ordinary sounds around him. His alarm went off at B natural; the refrigerator chimed in at B-flat (a fact confirmed for me by a musical friend); this musician's microwave chipped in with the resolute drone of an E. The teakettle whistle was an unmistakable A, while the subway train's weary whine was an F. The elevator bleep in his office building was C-sharp. The security code which he entered for admittance was C. He found a triad in the combination of heater, computer and telephone dial tone. He concluded this tour of ordinary sounds with these words, "If there's a lesson in all of this, it's that you should listen to what you hear - and, if necessary, go out and get a new refrigerator."

Charles Darwin in the 19th century wrote, "It is bothersome to be raptured at every turn in the road."6 And Albert Camus in the 20th century wrote, "On certain mornings, as we turn a corner, an exquisite dew falls on our heart and then vanishes. But the freshness lingers, and this, always, is what the heart needs. The earth must have risen in just such a light the morning the world was born."7 That is the way I feel sometimes when I take time to notice.

But noticing does not stop there. Generally what we do notice has to do with the natural world. Nature is revelation. Where I have my trouble is in noticing people - these bits of nature with consciousness. We humans are not outside observers of nature - we are in it - part of it. While I can read the wonder in a sunset, I have greater difficult reading human hurt in the person next to me. We are - I am - so often indifferent to the person next door. We don't do well noticing, at least I don't.

In Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman's wife Linda, knowing the despair in her husband, says, "I don't say he's a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must be finally paid to such a person....."

And later, Willy painfully says, "You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away - a man is not a piece of fruit! Now pay attention."

This kind of noticing, this kind of attention is akin to prayer. We Unitarian Universalists are not noted for our prayer life. Perhaps that is because we define it too narrowly. Perhaps we think only of the connection between worldly worshipper and otherworldly deity. Perhaps we do not think of the aware individual connecting with the ultimate nature of things which I call God - at least when I am pressed.

And so I give you fair warning: "Unless (you) are blind to beauty, deaf to the call of righteous battle, incapable of prolonged reflection, a stranger to the poignancies of joy and sorrow, incapable of wonder, (you) are in perpetual danger of falling into worship."

And falling into worship is a distinct danger if we are prepared to notice this reality in which we live and move and have our being. We religionists are often challenged as not understanding "the real world." By that, of course, our detractors mean the world of getting and spending, the routines that mark our days, the nitty-gritty business of making a living. To be sure, that is a significant part of the world in which we live. But it is also true that the real world is that in which the Maine farmer lived when he was just "noticin'," And who is to say which is the real world?

There are times when I notice this real world that I almost burst into tears at the beauty of it all. I don't often let the romantic in me get too far out of hand, but I confess there are times when I really notice that I am alive that I simply don't want life to end. I want to live in its embrace forever. Since in my more rational moments I know I cannot, I must be content to notice it completely while I may.

Poet Linda Paston knew this when she wrote "for M: December 18:"

"At the waning of the century,
with the weather warming
and even the seasons losing their way
listen to me.
It is time to sit still,
to tilt your face to the light
and catch the notes of music
which sweeten the tonguelike snowflakes
as they fall and melt
this bare December morning.

Your mouth was shaped for lullaby or hymn,
and your refusal to sing
bewilders whole octaves of air.
Enough abstinence.
Each day that ends is gone,
not a leaf is left
and soon enough it will be time
to sleep under the sway
of all that silence."

The world is happening. Life is happening. Don't miss it!

Richard Gilbert
September 21, 1997