Pay Attention

Note: I began writing this post just as the Coronavirus pandemic reached the eastern U.S. As it quickly disrupted our lives, I set the post aside to focus on more immediate concerns. Once I eventually began to feel more resigned than reactive as I settled into a new routine for the time being, I returned to the post. Unexpectedly, I realized that the message I intended when I started is of particular relevance in our current situation. Who gets our attention?

I stood on the second floor balcony overlooking the interior of the Angel Orensanz Center, a historic synagogue turned art and performance space, trying to take a picture of the event I was attending. But we were on a lunch break, and the sound of a hundred people having separate conversations created a buzz that intensified into a vibration so strong that I found myself overwhelmed by the noise. I checked my watch and saw that there was still thirty minutes left before the program resumed for the afternoon. I decided to go outside and enjoy the fresh air. Stepping into the nearest stairwell, I came across a display of artwork. Hanging both on the wall and from the ceiling, the mixed media pieces surrounding me were all created by Angel Orensanz, the namesake of the building.

Arriving at the venue that morning, I had never heard of Angel Orensanz. Curious about building, I quickly read online that he was an artist who had purchased the synagogue years after it had stopped being used for religious purposes and had essentially been neglected. But my research ended there, as the program began and I turned my attention to the event moderator. The stairwell display showcased not only his art, but featured articles written about Mr. Orensanz, along with pictures of him. His portfolio was extensive, going back decades and including pieces presented at many international exhibits in addition to a vast volume of art displayed in New York. I spent the rest of the lunch break reading and observing everything. I never made it outside, but it no longer matter. The stairwell provided enough of a buffer to allow me to enjoy this discovery in relative quiet. I was grateful that I happened upon it.

After lunch, I returned to my seat on the main floor and resumed listening to the speakers. The event was called Women’s Travel Fest, so as you might expect, the seats were filled with women. Which is why, when I noticed an older gentleman in the corner observing the speaker, it caught my attention. He turned his head slightly and I realized it was Angel Orensanz. I was excited to see him, and wanted to tell the woman sitting next to me, but all eyes were upon our speaker. I didn’t want to be rude. So I just watched him as he strolled the perimeter, checking out the vendor booths to the side of the audience. He stayed for a while longer, then went away.

It seemed crazy to me that someone so prominent could come and go without notice. Admittedly, I did not know who he was before that morning. But his name was on the building, and we were essentially in his home. I suspect he was curious to see what was going on and didn’t want to draw any attention to himself. I wondered if anyone else noticed him, or knew who he was. I hoped so. I hoped other people had taken the time to explore the stairwell display, or had researched the venue and the artist before arriving to the event. Or perhaps there were those in the crowd who were well versed in modern artists and didn’t have to look up his name to know who he was.

I considered how everyone’s attention was on the speaker. It made sense. She had the microphone. According to the program, it was her turn to speak. But it made me think about who gets the microphone. Who gets our attention. Each speaker had an interesting back story, a worthy journey to share with our group. Yet, as I spoke with other attendees over the weekend and learned their stories, I felt that their journeys were just as compelling, or in some cases even more compelling, than the speakers who had the microphone.

Our lives are filled with constant buzz, constant chatter, all competing for our attention. And, for whatever reason, either instinctual or learned behavior, we give our attention to the loudest voice, to the person with the microphone. But one thing that has been true time and again from my travel experiences is that I learn the most from the quietest voice. Whether it belongs to the shopkeeper in a small village, the cab driver whose follower count is the number of passengers in his car at the moment, the fellow traveler who shares a tiny pub table with you as you trade stories over a few beers then go on your way, or the artist who says nothing but whose message is literally written on the wall. I know you may not think of a cab driver as being quiet, but what I mean is that they do not need a microphone to hold your attention. Their story is enough.

Understandably, at an event such as the one I attended, it is respectful and proper to give attention to the person holding the microphone. But what about the rest of the time? Who gets our attention when we’re at work, on a trip, or online? And, as a consequence, who doesn’t get our attention? I admit, as a traveler, I’ve been guilty of listening to the loudest voice, and following what they’ve told me to see and do. And then realizing that while I was doing what everybody else was doing, I’ve missed out on experiencing something that was unique to me. Honestly, it wasn’t until I started paying attention to the quietest voices that I understood what I’d been missing.

I went to this event seeking inspiration. And I found it, just not how I was expecting. It came from those around me. It came from conversations with others. It came from taking the time to stop and read things. It came from pausing and taking in my surroundings, or looking at something more closely. It came from paying attention to the quiet ones.