This idea of posting 15 Things I've learned has become a bit of an albatross around my neck. I came up with the list but haven't been good about staying on top of the posts for each of the lessons. A long time ago I wrote that I'd learned that the harder you look, the more beauty you can see.
I used to play a game when I was a kid that I called "find the bugs." Well, it wasn't a game, exactly, and I didn't really call it anything. It was just something I did. In fact, I've never told anyone about it until right now. I discovered that if you were sitting somewhere, in the grass or in the woods or even on the curb of a suburban neighborhoood, and you looked around, you could usually see some bugs crawling around. That was where you began. Then the game was to stay sitting there, and see how many more bugs you could find.
At first you just sit there thinking, "But I see all the bugs already!" And you sit there thinking it's a stupid game and that if you want to see any bugs or anything else worth looking at you'll have to get up and go over there by that rock, where something more interesting must be happening, and then suddenly you see this bug on the leaf right there. And it's a bug that you hadn't seen because it blended in with the leaf but it's been there all along and as you look at it you start to wonder why you didn't see it, because now it's so obvious. And you're inspecting that now-obvious bug, peering in close at it, and you see these tiny tiny red spiders, three or four of them, little pinpricks almost, running around on the leaf. They're small, but they're pretty clear, and the way they trace their little patterns around on the leaf is mysterious and kind of funny. You watch them and wonder what they're thinking, and how they know where to go, and why they're red, and what they eat. And as you're focusing in on that leaf thinking, wow, there are some bugs here after all, something on a blade of grass catches your eye and it's a praying mantis, right there, right next to you, moving languidly up the stalk. There are little spit bugs, too, hiding in their clouds of white bubbles. How was it that you didn't see them a minute ago?
That was the little game I would play whenever I had to sit somewhere and wait. Find more bugs. What I learned is that there are always more bugs. All you have to do is adjust your eyes and make the invisible stuff visible. And when you think there's nothing more there, you haven't waited long enough.
I do the same thing with plants, just by habit. In 10th grade I had to do a plant collection for biology class. We had to find samples of plants in certain families and orders. The ones that were hard for me to find were horsetails. We needed two different kinds, which seemed like it would be completely impossible. I'd never seen a horsetail before and I couldn't see one anywhere, let alone two different kinds. I went all around looking for horsetails and not finding them and I was panicked that I wouldn't complete the project in time. And then I saw my first one, and then there were lots of them around, and not long after that I spied a second kind, and after that it was like they were all over the place. But somehow I never turned off my "gotta find a horsetail or I'm sunk!" mentality, so whenever I'm walking along I absently scan the ground for horsetails, and if there's one there I make a note to myself that if I need one, I can come back to that spot to get it.
I'm mildly interested in plants and bugs, but it's not really the specimens I see that's the point of the looking. The point of the looking is to remind myself that looking carefully is different and a lot more rewarding than the first glance. I still look at my surroundings pretty carefully when I'm walking by. There might be bugs to be noticed, for one. Or there might be edible berries that I'll want to go back and pick. There might be horsetails. This summer I started playing a little game with grasses. It's like the bug game, but you can do it on the highway driving past. The game is, how many different varieties of grass can you notice? What are the characteristics that distinguish one kind from another? Before I asked myself the question I'd never remarked on anything notable about grass. Now I see differences in height and shading and seeds, difference in thickness and texture and color.
I do it with people, too. If someone seems boring or unsympathetic, I'm not looking in the right place. I have learned that with almost everyone, there is a way to crack them open and get them to relax and talk about something that really excites them. Even if it doesn't excite me, there's a kind of beauty in a person who is unselfconsciously talking about something he or she truly loves. And if it doesn't fascinate me, it is fascinating to try to discover how it could be so interesting to somebody else. What a mystery we are, in the different attractions we have. Once upon a time I made that a hobby of mine, kind of like find the bugs. Find the pure, unguarded self. And I learned that I can connect with people who come across initially as flat or stuffy or otherwise difficult. It's just a matter of not giving up too early. When I was younger I believed that if I didn't like someone it was my own fault for not working hard enough to find the inner jewel. I still believe that the jewel is there in just about everyone, but I've come to realize that it's not my job to do all the digging to unearth it. For a variety of reasons, 'find the inner jewel' is a more problematic little game than 'find the bugs' or 'find the horsetails.' The bugs and the horsetails don't particularly care if you find them, but if you find someone's inner jewel, and you pull it out and admire it and tell them you think it's pretty neat, you're entangled with that person in a way you might not have intended, and it's not as easy to walk away when you're done looking as it is with the bugs. So I'm not a relentless 'find the jewel' person anymore in the way I used to be. But I still know how, and I'm still glad I know how.
I think that's how the world is. If you think it's boring or ugly, look harder. There's more to see.