Last summer I was out on my bike a lot, with my oldest son, home from New York City. We rode on the MKT trail a lot. Apparently, on many of those rides we rode past loads of this flower, Hairy Vetch, but I never noticed it. I say “apparently” because this year Iâ€™ve seen masses of it growing along that same trail. And I really doubt that it all just sprang up this year, out of nowhere. It is a lovely purple flower, too, quite eye catching.
I pride myself on noticing things, especially things in nature. And I started learning about wildflowers several years agoâ€“observing, taking photos, looking them up inÂ Missouri Wildflowers, posting photos on social media, etc. They are a particular love of mine. And yet this one, the great lovely banks of it, had eluded me.
This made me think about what other things I may be missing. What ideas, things, people, and places am I failing to notice? Iâ€™m sure there are quite a few. But I am also sure Iâ€™m not alone in this.
I was lucky to hear Jon Kabat-Zinn give a talk some years ago, here in town. There were maybe a thousand people in the audience, as I recall. He showed a video, and asked us to count how many times the people in white clothing passed a basketball. There were people in black in the video, too, all of them moving around in front of an elevator. I concentrated very hard on counting. After the video stopped, he asked how many passes we counted. Then he asked if anyone had seen anything unusual. Maybe 3 or 4 people raised their hands. He played the video again, instructing us NOT to count, but just to watch. Unbelievably, about two thirds of the way through, the elevator door opened, revealing someone in a gorilla suit who stood there beating his chest. This was what only 3 or 4 among us had noticed?! This was stunning to me. How had I not seen that? Well, I was busy with a task that involved paying attention to only one thing. Even so, I found it hard to believe that I had missed that.
The phenomenon is called â€œselective attention.â€ We all have it at times, sometimes to our benefit but often not. His point was that sometimes we focus on negative things, things we struggle with or are sensitive to, and by focusing on them we create more trouble for ourselves. He is one of many who say that whatever we put our attention on grows stronger in our lives.
Because I love morel mushrooms, a few times in spring I have searched for them in the woods. The most I ever found was two. But worse than that, in looking for mushrooms, I failed to enjoy everything else that I normally would have seen, loved, and photographed. Focusing on that one thing took away from my joy of wandering in the woods. I no longer hunt morels.
On the other hand, scientists put razor sharp focus on a particular area of research and make important discoveries. People who get lost in creative pursuits can lose track of time and forget to eat. But they are deep in creative â€œflow,â€ which is rewarding, energizing, and wonderful.
Maybe last summer on those bike rides I was focusing on my son, our conversations as we rode along, and the enjoyment of being with him. That little flower was going to be here again this year, anyway. So now Iâ€™ve found it.
As with most things, there are both good and bad aspects to the little oddities of being human.
If you’re looking for my cards or art, you’ll find all of that on myÂ website. And if you enjoy these letters, feel free to forward this one to anyone you think might like it. Finally, you’ll find past letters and poems here.
Thanks for listening,
P.S. MerryThoughts is the name of my first book, out of print at the moment. The word is a British one, referring both to a wishbone and to the ritual of breaking the wishbone with the intention of either having a wish granted or being the one who marries first, thus the “merry thoughts.”