Pay attention

School teachers are known for telling their students to “Pay attention!” The phrase itself is now close to being a shibboleth: it tips you off to the fact that the speaker has never studied the educational, psychological or neurological implications of using a word that is included in the phrase attention deficit disorder.

Consequently, I shall not refer to attention but shall instead refer to the command of the Apostle (and many others in different contexts) to be alert.

Marilynne Robinson says that “a [novel’s] character is really the sense of a character, embodied, attired and given voice as he or she seems to require. Where does this creature come from? From watching, I suppose.” She gives her writing students this advice: “Forget definition, forget assumption, watch.”

Be alert. Be watchful.

There is something very strange about a world in which we have the opportunities to learn about anything at all via Google (or encyclopedias, for us oldsters) but wander about in a daze without really noticing the world around us.

I remember visiting Herman Proper (a former colleague who lives somewhere south of Ancaster, Ontario) and admiring the gorgeous deciduous forest in which his home is situated. Because I love oak trees, I expressed my appreciation. Herman noted as an aside that he was living in the northernmost expanse of the Carolinian forest. All of a sudden I grasped the “meaning” of the trees on the streets of Great Hamilton: I was in an urban forest, on the edge of an ecological divide filled with oaks, hickories, sugar maples, basswood, ash, beeches and black walnuts – the home in years past of passenger pigeons. Watching the trees as I was ferried about in that part of southern Ontario became a voyage of history for me. Where had I been in my prior visits?

When I was a schoolteacher I had some success in helping students become alert to their surroundings, not so much in the matter of Robinson’s “character” as in the physical environment. I taught the type of science to non-academic students who elected to forego biology and chemistry. I’m afraid this rather spoiled them for casual conversation. Irene, for example, was driving along with her fiancé – the son of a farming family – and commented on the fact that the fields they were passing were largely orchard grass that had headed out and should have been cut already to avoid loss of protein. I think that cemented the relationship.

In a recent post, Gene Logsdon ( laments the effect of wrist watches, arguing that they demand your attention and diminish the joy of labour, your surroundings and your appreciation of the goodness or sorrows of life.

“I’ve developed ways to tell time by eyeing up the sun,” he says, “with various fixed features on the farm. When I’m hoeing in the garden in the summer, I know it’s about time for lunch when the farthest reach of tree shade from the woods brushes the garden boundary. This changes a bit every day so it’s a little tricky but Swiss watch precision is not necessary. As a boy, cultivating corn in rows running north and south in early June, I knew that when the shade of the muffler top sticking up above the tractor hood reached the third corn row over to the east, it was about five o’clock and time to go home for chores. Who needs watches?”

Nowadays it is common to see various sized and aged pedestrians or transit-riders travelling with glazed eyes while supposedly concentrating on what the earbuds, headset, tablet or smartphone is telling them. No time for them to spot the colony of sparrows in the Mugo Pine in the planter on Main Street, or the last mynah bird nest in Vancouver on Park Street. No chance to be alert to the face of abandonment on the lady sitting next to them, or the hopeless bravado of the pretend-rapper. No time for the wired-up jogger to notice a red-tailed hawk family living on the fringes of Central Park (dining on rats and pigeons). No time for the town dweller in northwest B.C. to greet the First Nations person who sits alone on the Main Street park bench while people walk by without making eye contact.

Paying attention, being alert, noticing things, watching: these are skills to be developed but also choices to be made. Don’t miss out on the prairie falcon killing a pigeon in downtown Calgary next to Boogie’s Burgers, or a peregrine on the hunt in your backyard on Goodview Street, St. John’s.

If you are a magazine editor who watches, “getting the paper out” may not preclude being aware of your surroundings.

Curt Gesch tried to honour the editor with this haiku in his original column, but she cut it.

Hectic with deadlines
(Urban crow munches on mouse)
Editor still sees


  • Curt Gesch and his wife lead the singing via Zoom for a combined service of small United Church congregations in central B.C. each Sunday morning. In the afternoon, they lead a Friends and Family Zoom worship from their home. If you'd like to join that service, please write Curt at moc.liamg@36hcsegc.

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