No one wants to go back to the early frightening days of the pandemic when the world ground to a halt, all the news was dire, and we were all locked into cones of isolation. Uncertainty abounded, anxiety ran high, and I woke up many mornings in a state of vague, shapeless panic.
The one thing that helped me was walking. Vancouver was blessed with a warm, sunny spring that year, and whenever I felt the my anxiety mounting, I would throw myself out of doors and just walk and walk and walk. And with all the usual amenities shuttered I looked at everything else around me, because the only other place to go was my thoughts, which was not a pleasant place. So I looked. And I noticed. I noticed the riotous colours of the flowers in bloom. (Vancouver is splendidly bloomy in spring.) I noticed the varied songs of the birds in the trees, and the music-note patterns they made on the staves of the overhead wires. I noticed the cracks in the pavement and the graffiti on the walls, the empty parking spots on Main Street and the social distancing dots on the sidewalk.
Are you picking up on the theme here? It was a time of noticing – at least for me – because noticing was pretty much all there was to do. And here’s the lovely thing: our minds, undistracted, are creative places, and my noticing began to expand from “what is” to “what if?” What if the graffiti were secret messages masquerading as art? What if the cracks in the pavement were maps of unexplored territories? Or if the tiny weeds growing out of the sidewalk were miniature forests for bugs? And the mysterious openings and holes in the environment, portals to other worlds?
So yes, it was a bewildering and frightening time. But it was also a forced respite from the daily grind of busyness and a chance to notice the world around me, to find beauty in unexpected places and see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
In my quest to pay closer attention to my surroundings, I was aided by a couple of great resources and one magical tool. The first resource was Rob Walker’s wonderful book The Art of Noticing, which is filled with activities to heighten our attention and see the world anew. Go on a colour walk. Make a sound or a scent map. Look up – and then look further up. Imagine ordinary objects are art. And so on. Every short chapter is a prompt to notice aspects of our surroundings we usually overlook, and re-enchants us with the delightful strangeness of the world.
Another resource I drew on heavily during Covid was my friend and coach Amy Walsh’s #DomesticInfinite project on Instagram: a series of creative prompts intended to help us shift into a space of possibility by finding the strange and wondrous in the familiar things that surround us. #DomesticInfinite was a time-specific project, but it’s still on Instagram and continues to provide delicious food for the imagination.
And that magic tool? My camera. We’re often exhorted to put down our cameras and just “be in the moment.” And I get it. Since the advent of smartphones everyone is a photographer, all of the time. Try taking a photo of any landmark nowadays without picking up at least several people taking selfies in front of it! It’s like: stop, pose, snap, go. But there’s another kind of photography that not only deepens the moment but opens up new ways of seeing. That’s the kind of photography that creates magic.
Without my camera, I often float through the landscape in a daydream – my head filled with imaginary conversations, plans, worries about work, the state of the world, that pain in my lower back. (Sound familiar?) With my camera, though, I’m on a constant hunt for the interesting, the curious, the beautiful, and the weird. And that’s where the magic comes in: because the more I look, the more I see, and the more wonderful even the most mundane things become. That pattern of cracks in the pavement can absorb me for half an hour as I angle my camera this way and that, zoom in and out, play with blur and multiple exposures to turn what I see into art.
My camera accompanied me on all my “Covid walks”, and I still get a kick out of seeing what it saw. Or more accurately: what it helped me notice, both in front of me and inside me.
Life has since reverted to its usual busy pace. I no longer take long, aimless walks each day and I don’t always bring my camera when I do. I’m as guilty as anyone of paying more attention to the little screen in my hand than to the world around me. But there’s a little voice in the back of my head that chirps up periodically, when I notice I’m not noticing, and reminds me to look up, look around, notice. Because this precious moment will never happen again … and besides: who knows what magic lies just beyond sight if only I pay attention?
Here are some of the things I saw on my Covid walks in early 2020: