It’s snowing today. I decided to go for a walk in the woods for inspiration. The excursion turned out to be more illuminating and instructive than expected. I walk through those woods all the time, and I realized today that I have a tendency to look down at the ground while I’m walking. Part of that is just my nature and a bit of a defense mechanism. I tend to curl into myself, but I’m also looking down for stumbling blocks, pitfalls, obstacles. Shit.
While it’s important to be mindful of the details of each step, you can’t solely exist in that place. You miss a lot that way—everything else going on around you. I recognized that I tend to move through the world a lot of times in a kind of tunnel-visioned fog.
That seems counter-intuitive for a writer. One would think I’d notice everything. When I’m paying attention, I notice a lot, but mostly how things feel as opposed to how they look. On today’s walk, I noticed how the dip in the center of my top lip was colder than the rest of my face. My right big toe gets cold before the rest of my toes. When I went to lick my lips, I could taste the moisturizer with sunscreen that I put on before I left, and zinc oxide tastes like soap. Gross.
At one point I looked up and was almost startled at what I saw around me. Some of the trees seem to be stricken with this weird green coating that made me think of aliens. When the tress get wet, the bark is a richer brown than when they’re dry. Wet snow sounds different than dry snow—more like the patter of rain than peaceful stillness. And the landscape can be grey, dreary, shiny, and sparkly all at once.
I also saw three young swans, which reminded me of how another of our local swans was killed by a car a week or two ago. It tended to take its sweet time crossing the road from one part of the marsh to the other. I wonder if the guy who hit it was looking down or if he saw the swan in the distance. I’m choosing to believe that he wasn’t looking ahead because it would be a pretty shitty thing to see a creature ahead and hit it anyway. A discussion for another day.
But the importance of the bigger picture and looking ahead instead of watching each little step goes beyond speaks to knowing when to do each, because there is a time for focusing on the details, and there’s a time to trust in your ability to navigate the landscape and just move forward.
An illustration of the point is cross country runners. In high school, my daughter was racing at a pretty high level of competition. At the speeds these kids were moving at, they really didn’t have the time or space to watch each step. They just had to go. They did need to be aware of the competitors around them—how close were the footsteps or the breathing of the person coming up on their backs. How much room did they have to take the twists and turns of the course without hitting a tree. But more importantly, they had to focus on the person right in front of them and keep closing the gap between them. If they got out front, they had to keep their attention on the finish line.
This isn’t to say they ignored the details, but there was a time for that. Before each race, they took a jog through each course. This was the time to notice where the roots were, where they could turn an ankle, where the choke points were. That was their time to plan and think about how to navigate. Once the gun went off, they had to trust in those plans and throw all caution to the wind. They had to fly.
I remember one race at our home course. It had been raining, and the course was a muddy, disgusting mess. There was one hill, which really was just about a fifty foot, steep incline that they had to go down. It was slick, and it was dangerous. And not one girl slowed down in the slightest. Amazingly, most of them stayed on their feet. A couple wiped out, and those who did, got right back up without breaking stride and kept going.
So the short of it is, there’s a time for caution and planning and thinking about the details. But much of the time as we navigate the world, we have to look ahead at where we’re going. We have to trust in our preparation and our ability to bounce back from setbacks. Some of those obstacles are better detected by looking at the larger landscape than at the little patch of ground at our feet. When opportunities arise—whether it’s the opportunity to absorb the beauty around us or if it’s the chance to race towards our dreams, we won’t accomplish much unless we’re looking up.