Marguerite Duras' semi-autobiographical novel, "The Lover," includes the memorable line, "The art of seeing has to be learned." It's much like practicing mindfulness, really. While that sounds like a laudable goal, it's also one of those things that's hard to put on your "to do" list: Learning to see the world around you after years — or maybe decades — of distraction can seem a little too dreamy.
So here's a practical way to start, and you can do it daily: Exercise outside. It has benefits beyond the mindfulness bit. People who walked outdoors scored "significantly higher on measures of vitality, enthusiasm, pleasure and self-esteem and lower on tension, depression and fatigue," compared to those who walked indoors, according to the New York Times. Running, cycling, hiking or doing your weight or interval training outdoors leads to an improved mood, which goes a long way towards getting you outdoors tomorrow, too.
Part of the reason that going out into your neighborhood boosts your mood, self-esteem, pleasure and the rest is that it connects you to the season and the place you live.
First, what not to do: Don't cruise through your neighborhood thinking about all the things you have to do. You might do that (or watch TV) if you typically work out on a treadmill or stationary bike. But there's much to see when you're freed from the sameness of a gym interior. There's lots going on out there, and if you only see your neighborhood through a car window, you're missing most of it.
Here are just a few of the things that those who cycle, walk and run through our neighborhoods see that others might be missing:
1. Nature's seasonal treats
When you are going at a slower pace, you'll notice the smaller, less-dramatic seasonal changes, like the snowdrops pushing their skinny leaves through the still-half-frozen earth a week before they throw their little bell-flowered heads open in a visual fanfare of spring. You'll hear water rushing underground after it rains or dripping from the eaves. Note the sun on hardwood bark, sending off a warm, woody scent that can only mean midsummer. Nature never stops moving and changing, so there will always be something new to see — and if it looks the same to you, look closer.
2. Insight into neighbors' lives
Moving through your neighborhood over time, bits of information will coalesce into a tapestry of lives lived near you. One day you will realize you know who the elderly folks living alone are, who has a penchant for gardening at night, and which of your neighbors are into DIY projects in their driveways or on their front stoops.
Some linguists think our desire to know all about our fellow humans led to the development of complex languages around the world. Getting out of your car means more opportunities to speak with others who are out and about. You might exchange a few words with people sitting on their porches or walking their dogs, or stop to talk to a family putting on a garage sale. Find out what's going on where you live — and who's up to what.
Some might call this gossip, but not all gossip is bad. Gossip could include inquiring about the other person who runs around your area (maybe a future running buddy?) or finding out who's planting a row of trees in the median — is it the town or a generous individual?
3. Where the Little Free Libraries are
These small boxes containing free books are sweet additions to the streetscape that are hard to spot from a car. I have two in my neighborhood and regularly pick up and drop books off in them. I have a feeling many people have no idea they even exist, but I run by them almost daily (which gives me first dibs on books, too).
4. Subtle landscape changes
When you're riding in a car, it's almost impossible to feel the nuances of the small hills and valleys under your feet. When you walk or cycle, all of a sudden you'll realize that long straightaway is actually a long uphill, or that your house is in the middle of a long, barely noticeable valley. Hills are steeper (and more interesting to get to the top of) when you're powering yourself up them.
5. Where the fruit trees are
In older neighborhoods especially, there tend to be fruit trees that have been forgotten about or hedges full of blackberries. I've had many a feast on apples, figs and especially berries in the middle of a run (make sure you're not trespassing; I found my treats on public or abandoned properties). Even if you don't eat them yourself, fruit often attracts animals and birds, so if you watch for a few minutes, you're bound to see something furry or feathered come by for a snack.
6. Creative street art
🌈Tiny Takeover!!🌈@tinydoorsatl began at the Krog Tunnel nearly 3 years ago. We started with one door and a simple mission: to reflect this incredible city and bring a little unexpected whimsy to your day.❤ Today we have 11 doors in 9 Atlanta neighborhoods. We invite artists to repaint #tinydoor1 seasonally as a way to keep it fresh and interesting. If you've ever been in the Krog Tunnel you'll understand why. Art does not stay still around here! Swipe to see some of the many faces of our Krog Tunnel Door. Featured artists: @rlandzo @squishiepuss @lucyricketts_illustration. . #tinydoorsatl #tinydoors #weloveatl #creativeloafing #streetart #krogtunnel #atlantabeltline
Art isn't always in museums — it can be anywhere. Look around your neighborhood and you might notice small creative projects, like DIY knitted covers on signs, small murals on utility boxes, or Pole Poems, like Chester Hopewell's in Atlanta, who shares his poetry on telephone poles. Stop and check it out — one of your neighbors probably created it!
7. Neighborhood gardens
This yard is clearly maintained by a skilled gardener. If you travel outside of your car, you might run into them while they work and snag some tips for your own yard. (Photo: Tracie Hall/flickr)
You probably have a vague idea that some of the homes or apartments around you have colorful flower fiestas going on during the warmer months, but there's likely so much more happening than the obvious. Some dedicated gardeners plant seasonal mini-gardens within larger plots, have beautiful (but less noticeable) plantings, include small decorations in their flower beds, or work on a theme. There might be a hidden Japanese or rock garden to spot from your running route. You will get to know different gardeners' preferences and quirks by observing what they do over time.
8. What the kids are up to
Kids' lemonade stands don't have a drive-through window. (Photo: Patrick/flickr)
From a lemonade stand to sidewalk chalk art, from bikes left in odd places to hidden forts, most of what kids do in their neighborhoods is ignored or unseen. It's a small joy to see a kid's progress with their chalk art or support a budding entrepreneur selling drinks or snacks.
9. Surprises galore
Walk or bike down your street at the same time every day, and you might meet a new feline friend with a similar routine. (Photo: Tricia/flickr)
There's plenty more to notice — things that might be particular to your neighborhood or region. Keep an eye out for patterns, like how the ice forms over the tops of puddles on chilly nights (or how delightful it sounds to break that ice with your sneakers). Take note of where leaves fall — do they create a path of yellow or red, or alternating bands of each in the autumn? Is there a local cat who likes to watch you run by through sleepy eyes, or a kid who's always out on her bike when you are?
If you haven't used your neighborhood as a gym for awhile, take a page from the mindfulness instruction book and focus on being in the moment. What does that mean? Well, as Duras pointed out, you have to learn, which requires a bit of practice. So get out there, look around, and take notice. Then do it again.