I’m not a natural born pay attentioner. As a case in point, once when I was a new driver I came in the house soaking wet after driving through a rain storm complaining, “DAD. There is something seriously wrong with the sun roof.” I had not observed that there was both a sun roof and a sun roof shade causing some serious interior rain. There are many stories like this from my childhood, and now closeted ones from my adulthood which are being routinely outed by my children. Ask me if a place looks familiar, and I’m apt to tell a white lie and say yes. My powers of observation are so weak that I have actually concerned myself thinking that if ever I was asked to give a description of a criminal, I would royally screw up the investigation. I have never known the first day of my last cycle.
Given my propensity towards cluelessness, paying attention is something that has required practice. I have always been good at paying attention to my calendar, my to-do list, and now most excellently – all manners of things involving my iPhone. For instance, I always know how much battery I have left (83%.) While those things are important to attend to in order to manage our life, it also seems important to give consideration to the things and people outside the centripetal force of me. Granted this has become much easier as my calendar has lightened and no one dangling a paycheck is watching me tick off my to-do list and flagging things urgent.
Insert here my monthly trips to Paris. These trips started out as a gift to me from my husband, and they are, but they’ve also become these unexpected opportunities to practice paying attention. Normally I blindly follow where my map lovers lead, but being alone has required me to navigate for myself – attending to my geography by marking my spots. Noting places where I feel safe and other places where I feel like I need a personal bouncer. With each trip to Paris, aside from the general approach of circling a different neighborhood on each visit, my agendas are getting looser and less planned. Yet, I feel like I’m seeing more of Paris between the lines – the softer, sentimental Paris.
Giving yourself permission to take detours has this way of opening you up to things you didn’t have time to create expectations for. Without a tight agenda, it’s also easier for people to not be in your way. There is never a subway ride in Paris that isn’t crowded, and when you aren’t in a hurry – you have time to look twice at people. To guess who might be having your same thought bubble – or a creepy one. To sniff out someone who could use a smile with your double take.
On my most recent trip to Paris last week, I planned only a few things: a) explore the 1rst arrondisement, b) check out the Palais Royal and maybe the Museum of Decorative Arts c) having read this recent story in the NYTimes, listen to some musicians perform live on the stages of the Metro.
One of my habits on these trips has been to start the day (after coffee, which on this trip was a lovely place I walked past on Rue Saint Honore called Verlet) in a church. For me, a church – especially the ones in Europe with layers upon layers of history -- is a reliable place to enter into stillness, but for others that may be somewhere else. Normally I visit a church to walk through in transient awe, maybe pause for a moment or two to pray, but this time I decided to sit still for twenty minutes -- in a straight backed chair in St. Roch’s, the church in the neighborhood I was canvassing.
Twenty minutes in the normal course of day of doing pretty much anything flies by, but twenty minutes of being mindful of the small space – even an exquisite space-- around you is quite another thing. It’s long enough to make you feel a wee bit self-conscience but not quite long enough to take a cat nap. As a Yoga flunky and as someone who can’t read in bed for more than ten minutes, the centripetal force in me wants to confess that I did set my iPhone timer (and notice when I heard the first footsteps at minute 14) but also encourage you that sitting still for “longer than comfortable” can be a really useful exercise. I know it wasn’t just for me, but hearing a lone violinist fill the cavernous space just as my timer was going off felt a little like a special benediction.
At the Museum of Decorative Arts, I lost myself in a special exhibit on the graphic design of Phillipe Apeloig called “Typorama”, to the exclusion of the treasure troves of fabulousness on eight more floors. I walked beneath the perfectly clipped pleached trees of the Palais Royal, but shied away from the exclusive boutiques with their fancy doorbells in favor of resurfacing to a place I’d been once before. Jumping from the 1rst to the 2nd, I followed my freezing nose back to the idyllic covered passageways of Galerie Vivienne and passed through other lesser revered, but equally inviting passageways. I stopped when I was hungry or thirsty, and when I saw a piece of carrot cake calling to me from the window.
By late afternoon it was time to chase the subway musicians. I walked to Châtelet — the world’s largest underground station – and hunted the halls until I heard this. Most people were too busy to stop, but I was most definitely not.
“Earth is so thick with divine possibility, it’s a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.” – Barbara Brown Taylor