PERSPECTIVE: Keep your eyes peeled

headshot_Cameron+Gorman

headshot_Cameron Gorman

Cameron Gorman

Whenever people would say — on roadtrips, Girl Scout camping excursions, hikes through the woods — “Keep your eyes peeled!” I would always grimace. 

It seemed to me like imagining a skinned grape, something wet and exposed. I imagined my own eyes, the irises and whites peeled away, something else left over.

Something hawk-eyed and ready enough to lean out my mother’s passenger-side window and see the name of the street she had to turn down.

There are so many reasons to keep your eyes open in day to day life, beyond just straining to check street signs and exit numbers.

It’s something I’ve often been advised to do as a writer. If you want to report on the world around you, or even to write something about it, it’s best to be an observer. You can’t just be a scanner, can’t just exist passively in your environment. 

You’ve got to be fly-paper, picking up on every little thing. You’ve got to be the kind of person who notices things.

In my fiction writing class, my professor Ted (who sometimes does read this column) asked us about our spring breaks. Around the class, we told bland, sometimes yawning stories about our time sleeping and relaxing at our parents’ houses.

Ted was, understandably, not impressed. Asking for stories in a fiction class, it turned out, was about more than just regurgitating an overview of what we’d done — or hadn’t done.

It wasn’t all about us, though that didn’t mean it wasn’t about us at all. Rather, it was about what we’d noticed. Our worlds, our families, our lives.

To try us again, Ted assigned us to write a list of things we’d noticed, and to read it in class. Finally, we’d be forced to latch onto the details outside the windows of ourselves.

As I began to write the list, I was shocked for a moment. I was worried I wouldn’t have enough to write about, but, as I started to type, I realized: How could I not?

The world had been vivid since I sat in class. That weekend, I had been to my sister’s dance competition, had watched her dance on stage. It was something I’d done so many times.

Now, I was quantifying it into words, picking the little details of the experience out as the peaks of the memory.

Slowly, I realized that writing down where I’d been, much like writing down poems about my own life, crystallized what I had lived through and set the memories down solidly.

I remembered the heavy rhinestones on my sister’s fake eyelashes, the way the girls made exaggerated theater faces onstage. Things I had lived through were fuel for my writing — but more importantly, I realized how present I could be.

When people talk about mindfulness and being present in your body, it can feel like it’s something totally esoteric, something you might only be able to attain if you’re moving slowly and carefully through the landscape of your life. But that’s not necessarily true.

You can be busy, and still remember to notice things as they pass you by. You can be someone who’s got to write a list, and still realize that what you’re noticing is important — not just a school assignment. After all, this is your life.

And whether you end up writing anything down or not, it might be a good idea to keep your eyes peeled. We don’t want to miss our turn.

Cameron Gorman is a columnist and an illustrator. Contact her at [email protected]