I began last week by sending an email to my friends asking them for a favor. I asked them to join me in the practice of noticing: being on the lookout for beautiful and good things. “Yes!” several of them quickly replied. To provide context to my request, I shared with them a link to an Instagram post of two photographs of bluebirds I’d recently taken, which remarked further on the birds’ beauty and shared more about where I’d heard of this practice of noticing that I was inviting them in to.
I told them I was part of the launch team for Tish Harrison Warren’s newest book, Prayer in the Night. In chapter 4 of the book entitled “Those Who Watch,” Warren writes this: “To watch is to wait. But to watch implies more than just waiting. It is not the bored malaise of standing in line at the DMV. It implies attention, yearning, and hope.” She goes on to discuss this concept further by talking about her “personal superheroes of attentiveness:” birders (or bird watchers). Warren continues:
“My birder friends are masters of noticing. They study and catalog the natural world with a care and earnestness I scarcely have for anything. […] They’re always on the lookout, and this startling attention reveals my inattention, how little I watch out for anything at all, how often I walk through a world of beauty and mercy and never look up. There is an overlooked workaday poetry in the little-known world of birders. Like all great poets, birders speak out of their profound observations of the world. They remind us that glory comes only by watching and waiting, by keeping an eye out for what most of us miss.”
“What a lovely thought!” I thought. This practice of noticing seemed like the perfect practice to take up at the start of a new year. So I sent that email. I asked for that favor. I invited others in become “masters of noticing” along with me. And my bluebirds, those tiny, brilliant beings whose splashes of color lit up a very rainy, very gray New Year’s Day? The perfect place to start.
That was Monday. Then Wednesday happened.
As I write this, it is 10 short-yet-so-long days later after I took the pictures of the bluebirds. Until Saturday, the sun did not shine a single day in 2021, and when it did come out, I cried—relieved, grateful, worn down. How quickly the darkness sets in, the optimism of a new year fades, the shine of a new practice becomes dull or even awkward. In a traumatizing week, paying attention to anything other than the news feels like impossible task. The cynic in me wondered if I should even go through with this post.
But I am.
I am, because the spirit of noticing is not just for good times when pretty pictures show up in front of us. Becoming a master of noticing as the birders does, as Warren writes, requires not just our attention but our yearning and our hope.
At first, those bluebirds I took a picture of were simply a pretty diversion. But when I look at them now, they appear as something more to me: they are part of God’s invitation for my pessimistic, traumatized, distracted self as a new year began. They are a startling sign of God’s glory—a reminder of how I both bow my pessimistic head in prayer and lift it to look up and watch out for the beauty and mercy of this world, even during a dreary, dread-filled January. They are a reminder that even the dark of night when the dawn seems far, far off, the light will come.
So here are my friends’ pictures and videos. Here are their words about what they noticed. I am so grateful that they joined me in this practice, one that I believe will be important not just in these dark days, but all the days to come as we watch and wait, ponder and pray.
Masters of Noticing: In the Dark of January 2021.
Katie took a walk in the gloom with her two girls one morning.
Olivia enjoyed the view from her flat in Spain. Later in the week, it snowed the most it has in the last 10 years. People built snowman and threw snowballs, walking down the streets delighted in the charming chill of unexpected snowfall.
Eric found consolation in the desolation of a solitary hike through woods.
Lauren, too, found a moment of pause in the woods, admiring the beauty of a frozen branch in a rushing stream.
Stephanie shared with me the poem “Black Rook in Rainy Weather” by Sylvia Plath.
And Jana shared with me a photos from a walk she took through a cemetery. “Our time on Earth is but a shadow. Beyond it is eternal joy.”
Sarah witnessed some spectacular ice formations in her home in Indiana, and celebrated her 24th birthday this week, riding 24 cold miles with her friend.
My friend Rachel didn’t have any photos to share, but talked about the gift of noticing her husband continue to “dedicate himself to serving the Lord by serving the youth He’s giving him in this season, with an abundance of grace, humility and integrity.”
And as for me, I mentioned crying at the sun on Saturday. I am a person who does not at all mind the cold of winter, but the lack of sun is very difficult for me. So that’s why on Saturday, after a hard, hard week not made any better by gloomy, gray days, seeing the sun come out brought me to tears. The way the frost sparkled on my room in the sunshine was a glory to notice.
Thank you my friends who joined me in noticing this week. Your contemplative spirits and eye for beauty are a gift and a grace as well, and have been a good reminder to me of the goodness of the Lord in these dark days. As we see beautiful things, may we be reminded of the one who gives us all good things: who, despite our fleeting attention, fills us with yearning and hope, and pursues us yet.
To anyone reading this post, I encourage you to order a copy of Prayer in the Night. Click on the image below to learn more about the book and order it for yourself, or read the review and reflection I wrote about it over on Mockingbird.