The+Power+of+Paying+Attention


Photo by Elena Gaillard
Reflection by Michael Somers

From the time I was young, I’ve noticed things like hair styles, clothes, facial expressions, behaviors. When those things change, I see it. New blouses, new shoes, new bangs, a frown instead of a smile–you name it, I usually notice it.

Often times, when I point out something I see, someone will ask, "How did you know?” I respond, "Because I pay attention."

I believe in paying attention to the world around me, in the power of paying attention.

I come by this attention to detail honestly. I grew up in a family of farmers, both sides of the family. I grew up surrounded by wheat, soybean, and corn fields. My Grandpa Bohil always had an eye to the sky, interpreting the cumulous and cirrus and their various colors. He would notice milkweed barely an inch above soil across a field. He knew when the soybeans got the color of brown paper bags it was time to harvest. He knew when the wheat rustled like scratchy dry skin it was time to harvest that. Farming is about noticing, about paying attention.

My mother and grandmother sewed everything from curtains to clothes. Before my sister entered kindergarten, my mother made all of my clothes, except socks and underwear. Her pattern work so precise, her seam work so exact. Fittings were exercises in detail; if anything was wrong that she could not fix well, she would scrap the project and start over. My Aunt Becky knit socks and sweaters. The patterns looked like a foreign language to me, but they were road maps she followed religiously. She was known to unravel an entire project to nothing if she noticed a dropped stitch. My great-grandmother quilted blankets for each of us in her unmistakable squares made up of triangles. All exacting crafts and hobbies, all requiring precision and an eye for detail, an attention to color combinations, a love of a patterned world.

Noticing was all around me. It was the clothes on my body, and the quilt on my bed. Noticing was the crops in the fields, and the clouds in the sky.

I’m a teaching writer. Seeing details is my job, both in my writing and in my students'. Nothing is too small to ignore. Paying attention is my occupation. Noticing is my vocation. I sew, knit, quilt, plant, cultivate, and harvest, alone and with my students. I notice the sun and clouds on my pages and theirs, both the bright skies and the storms on the horizon. I sniff for rain in metaphor. I see the milkweeds in simile.

So if I notice you're wearing Merrells instead of Hush Puppies, or that your hair has a cinnamon cast instead of mocha, or that your eyes look dull instead of bright, you will know why.

The world is made up of one detail after another, and by opening my eyes to each of them, I can see the world much more clearly, much more broadly. By zeroing in, I learn to expand.

To hear this piece read aloud by the author, click here.

© Michael Somers, 2010