I remember running beneath the weight of the searing sun at Camp Navajo in Arizona. I half expected to fall over and die. I somehow tuned out my physically exhausted body and tuned in on the things that could and did keep me going.
Not only could I hear the rhythm of our platoon’s feet pounding against the dry and dusty desert land, I felt it. I felt the sequence and the struggle. I was seized by the straining vocals of ornery and old General Dixon as he deemed us pathetic. In his seventies he ran faster than the rest of us.
Beads of sweat drenched my shirt. I watched Specialist Day steadily hunch forward in front of me. He was swallowed whole by the gear strapped to his back. I looked down at the pace of his feet. A second wind rushed over me.
I gained a great deal of knowledge about the power of observation working in crisis. There are more forms of communication than words. I learned not to listen to what people say. In their most horrid or vulnerable moments people tend to tell you what they think you want to hear or shut down and tell you nothing.
I looked for signs, I sensed vibes, I focused on body language and tell tales. In the worst moments I had to be able to observe everything, everywhere and process it in seconds. There were times when my ability to observe was a matter of life or death.
It taught me to be present in the moment and to take nothing with me from the last moment into the next. I’m not referring to mindfulness. I’m not some calm ass Buddha. I’m talking about genuinely honing in on my five major senses.
My daughter recently served a court ordered substance abuse committal for heroin addiction. She was hospitalized for five weeks before she was stable and able to be transferred to a residential treatment facility. After weeks locked behind two sets of doors she was finally permitted to go off grounds with us for a few hours. We took her for ice cream.
Her face had filled out and radiated with a healthy glow. Her blonde hair contrasted charmingly against the sparkle of her clear blue eyes. She picked up her spoon with a shaky hand and began eating the colorful creation of swirled frozen yogurt flavors topped with various candies, a luxury after spending months homeless. I placed my hand in hers as we walked out the door when we left. She felt soft and sweaty against my fingertips.
I filled my memory bank with every observation my five major senses could consume. After so long of feeling fearful for her safety how could I not? I was erupting with gratitude. I wanted that moment to last and it has. The small details have transformed into a memory I will hold onto forever.
She felt good to me. She felt uncomfortable in her own skin. It’s intriguing how two people can share the same experience yet experience it in two entirely different ways.
Like many of us I’ve read all the “writing tips,” that make for a great writer. There’s writing every day, reading every day, attending university for a degree and- or workshops, keeping a journal, keeping a pad and pen with you at all times, word sprints, putting future ideas in the parking lot and the list goes on.
There’s also a lot of bullshit articles out there.
The other day I came across an article titled, “This Morning Routine Will Save You 20+ Hours Per Week.” I found it interesting that the article was recommended by 1,012 people. I couldn’t connect with the ‘content’ written and a few paragraphs in I scrolled quickly to the bottom to skim the bold text. I had lost interest.
I admit, I had a shitty attitude about it when I came across it. I’m not a fan of content. I’m a writer who enjoys reading narrative,fiction and poetry. For me, content doesn’t fall into the category of a creative art form. Why would someone write an eleven minute read on saving 20 hours? Had I read the article in its entirety I would be wasting time, not saving it .
I came across another article, “How I Chose a City to Optimize My Creative Output.” I don’t need a city to “optimize,” my creative output. That’s the thing about being creative. I could create something while locked in a dark closet.
My seventeen year old son was having a meltdown. He has no idea what he wants to do with the rest of his life after he graduates high school this year. I reassured him by telling him what I believe is the truth. I have no idea what I’m going to do with the rest of my life either, but I don’t feel I need to.
We live in a societal structure with the expectation that we grow up getting an education, go to college to get that money making job to buy things that serve no purpose. We rave about the impressive steps man has made toward modernization but it reality we’ve been doomed to suffocate.
I told him that whatever he chooses to do to always remember it’s not about money. We don’t need all the things that society sways us to believe we do. We need ourselves and our time more than anything. Work is not life. Work is to sustain. “Pay attention to everything around you,” I said, “or before you know it life will have passed you by.”
The most valuable life lesson I’ve learned is the power of observation. It’s taught me to savor the moments and to notice the small things that provide me with the ability to grow, appreciate, love and learn.
I don’t need all the fancy jazz tips to become a better writer, and by whose terms would I be a better writer, anyway?
As I write this I’m sitting in a room filled with stories. A picture of my children’s grandparents sits on my desk from 25 years ago when we first met and our life long friendship began and the antique treasure chest that houses my 1940’s collection of Readers Digest books sits in the corner. My 1967 Remington typewriter next to me because technology isn’t everything.
There’s a small wooden pallet my dear friend made me for my birthday last year. She hand carved a photograph of my daughter and I. She passed away in July due to complications from breast cancer.
On the wall hangs the letter I found the morning my daughter had taken off during the night in efforts to evade her court order, a paper map of Eastern Iowa because when I moved here I didn’t even know where there was a gas station and my framed acceptance letter from NASA that reminds me although I turned down the position my hard work and determination was recognized.
There are stories in everything we do, everywhere we go and with every interaction we have. That’s the power of observation and those are the stories I intend to tell.