Ever since our January trip to California, we’ve been talking about returning to the west coast for a longer stay. We think we might like to live there. At first, we were talking about the Bay Area. As I’ve said, many times, I want to live in a place where there are cafes, museums, and shops all accessible by foot or on public transportation. How lovely it would be, for example, to walk home, filled with good food, after a meal at our favorite neighborhood restaurant.
But we also want nature to be within reach (I’m not giving up the car just yet) — and it has to be a place we can comfortably afford. For all of those reasons, we set our sites on a mini-sabbatical in Portland, Oregon, with possible side trips to Seattle, British Columbia, and San Francisco. And, we wanted to drive because if we were to gain any sense at all of what daily life would be like in a new place, then we couldn’t leave behind someone who is an integral part of that daily life.
After months of talking and planning, things fell into place at the end of July. We had a place to stay in Portland, and after much looking and financial strategizing, we also had a van that would reliably transport us there—and back—and that could serve as Paul’s work vehicle upon our return.
And so, on August 21, we set out, stopping in Michigan that first weekend for a family wedding.
After we left Michigan, my mind, which had been focused on wedding-related logistics, suddenly sat up and took notice. The clouds overhead and endless sky when we hit Minnesota were an ongoing source of fascination.
Once we’d arrived at our first stop in Portland, just sitting on the front porch was entertaining. There were kids going by on bikes and skateboards, older people walking their dogs, and Karina found the parade of neighborhood cats, who would sun themselves under our car, especially riveting.
Our daily walk through the park at the end of the street, toward a dog park that bordered the Willamette River felt special.
There were also dinners out at places right in the neighborhood, and several cups of coffee at cafes with outdoor seating where our four-footed companion was the subject of much admiration. Karina lost some of her shyness on this trip.
But what I love most about traveling—and what I miss now that we have returned—was that I took the time to notice my surroundings and activities. The small, daily routines, like making my morning tea in an unfamiliar kitchen, were more satisfying because of that.
I gave things my full attention in a way I do not when I’m at home. In fact, just the other morning, I found myself dashing from the kitchen to my computer, and then back, first when my tea water boiled, and then again when a timer went off. Now that I am ensconced in familiar surroundings, I seem to have switched over to autopilot as automatically as I switched to full awareness while traveling.
Then last week I heard part of an interview with Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard. The topic was mindfulness, which the announcer defined as “the simple act of noticing new things.” And, according to Langer,
When you notice new things, you come to notice that you didn’t know what you thought you did, as well as you did. Everything is always changing. By noticing new things about the familiar, it becomes interesting again.
This mind-set, she went on to say, was good for fighting more than just boredom, it can also impact our health** and enable us to view in a new way someone whose behavior troubles us.
In fact, a few years ago, an advisor gave me similar advice, suggesting that I just sit back and “observe” someone who had become a source of distress. As Langer notes in this interview, when I adopted the observer’s mind-set, I realized what was really driving this person, and soon exchanged my upset for empathy.
Learning to “observe” so that you can respond, rather than react, to other people is another whole conversation. To learn more about that, you can listen to the entire interview here.
Right now, I want to tackle the bit about noticing. Before we left for the trip in late August, boredom with our local scenery had taken root. I felt as though I was seeing the same old things over and over again. When we returned in early October, many things did seem new. New England was in the middle of a gorgeous autumn, which no matter how jaded you are, is pretty hard to overlook.
For example, I noticed these coppery leaves while with a friend who was gathering leaves for her son’s after-school project. Adopting a child’s point of view definitely helps adults view their surroundings with fresh eyes.
Now that it’s getting colder and darker, I will have to work especially hard to cloak myself in the observer’s mind-set I wore so mindlessly during our travels. So far, the extra effort seems to be working.
While the clouds here don’t hang suspended mid-sky as they do out west, they have their own beauty when hovering over a local farmer’s fields.
And this circle of farm machinery provides a whimsical contrast to the straight-edged fields beyond.
There were many things I sensed and felt during our six weeks away that can’t and won’t be contained in my snapshots. There’s that light-as-air feeling I got when the daily cares and worries of home faded from my consciousness as we racked up the miles; the friendly, welcoming attitude of the people we met in Portland; the rush of memories I felt when I dove into the frigid waters of a lake in British Columbia; and the satisfaction of an intense hunger quenched by a warming bowl of Pho eaten in a Vietnamese restaurant off the beaten track in Iowa on a dreary, windswept day.
These experiences are worth noticing. They are worth holding on to. And they are worth adding to. On a chilly afternoon a few days after we’d returned home, I sat in my kitchen and watched my two fellow travelers carefully take note of our back yard under a darkening sky. There was love in their looking and noticing, just as there was in mine.
**Coincidentally, (or perhaps not) Langer was the focus of an article in this past Sunday’s New York Times Magazine about using a mindful mind-set to offset aging and possibly illness. To read an interesting analysis of that piece, read D.A. Wolf’s take on it in Daily Plate of Crazy.