Someone told me I should be writing stories about my travels. But the thing is, I’m not really travelling much these days. I spend most of the year between three places: Canada, my home, and Indonesia and Thailand. I’ve spent enough time in all three countries that my eyes have become a bit, well, immune to many details of daily life. My perspective has, in effect, been pruned, much like the brain’s synapses as we grow and our surroundings and encounters become more familiar with each experience. And then the other day I went for a walk and realized something.
I strolled through a local village through rice fields and dense jungle in Bali. It was just a simple walk on a Monday afternoon at the end of a long, hot day spent tied to my laptop. A nice reprieve.
At one point, my friend and I passed a temple. Local women wore colourful batik sarongs and walked in groups with young children. Some bathed naked in the nearby river. Others balanced large baskets of fruit on their heads. Thick, dense palm leaves wrapped us inside a jungle haven as we walked up a stone path, away from the temple toward the heart of the local dusty village. Houses cramped together in compound style. Handsome roosters stood trapped within wicker domes. Laundry was laid out to dry like flat, faceless men painted on surfaces. The day was closing on about 6pm and the crickets were already starting their bedtime stories featuring rainfalls and maracas. The buttercream sky promised another sunset in paradise.
And for just a second I got that feeling. That one that young children have every day. It’s that first taste of something you’ve never experienced before. That first date, there’s-so-much-juicy-stuff-I-don’t-know-about-you feeling. Different, exotic, unfamiliar, strange, enchanting. It conjures up nostalgia a mere moment later––that’s how fleeting a feeling it is. And after years of returning to Bali, which has become as familiar to me as Downtown Toronto once was (what a contrast!) those first-time moments don’t happen like they once did.
There must have been something just slightly out of the ordinary in what I was seeing during that walk, or perhaps there was a different energy in me at that moment because for a nanosecond, I was somewhere I’d never been before. It wasn’t so much that everything looked totally new, it was that it felt totally new.
Then I realized something: those moments of that feeling are almost better than the actual first ones that have no point of reference. And they suggest that we don’t have to travel to different places all the time to experience that sense of newness and wonder. Just knowing that feeling is possible, means we can create it for ourselves.
When something is brand new, you can’t see it any other way because it’s all you know. It’s totally pure, unaltered by time’s poor memory.
The first time you saw a bustling Asian market. The hiss of fried meat in oil. The smell of dried fish next to sweet pineapples and peanut sauce. The billows of campy smoke from barbeques.
The first time you watched the ocean swallow the sun and spit out the moon.
The first time you saw snow. Then, as an adult in Canada’s central region, the first time you saw -40 degrees on the weatherman’s screen, stepped outside, and felt every single hair in your nose freeze.
The first time you saw, like really saw because you were surrounded by them, the Himalayan mountains.
The first time you saw kangaroos clearing fences like kids on pogo sticks.
The first time you saw your newborn baby or got on an airplane or stepped foot in a 16th century cathedral or dipped your feet in a fish bath.
The first time in you saw Angkor Wat, and fell asleep in the afternoon heat on 900-year-old stones.
The first time you saw the rising sun and the setting supermoon at the same time from the summit of a volcano.
The first time you set eyes on that person, and thought, this is a face I could look at for a long time.
(And I really encourage you to write down these first times because it’s a wildly satisfying activity).
The first time you ate homemade pistachio gelato on the Ponte Vecchio or stepped foot in India. Whoa.
Except the true whoa doesn’t hit until later. That initial whoa is totally raw, organic, whoa in its own right without comparison to the same place in a past or future experience. It’s not until enough time has passed to warrant a mental visit back that we realize how that first time actually felt. Incredible. Consuming. Completely in contrast to the ordinariness of everyday life in all its monotony.
When something becomes familiar, it’s almost impossible to see it as new––we can’t unsee things––but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible. And while we never forget some experiences, they can affect us much differently than they did the first, second, or even third time, depending on how we look at them. If we want to capture that feeling from anywhere in the world at any time, we have to look at everything with different eyes.
How do we do that?
By actively looking, not passively seeing. By being the boss of your moment-to-moment experience. By stepping into certain moments with full awareness of where you are, and realizing how incredibly rare that moment is because it’s unique and unrepeatable.
Have you ever read a book more than once, and each subsequent time you read it, you got something different out of it than the last time, or certain passages struck you that had no meaning before? Do you ever wonder how such a meaningful detail escaped you the first time around? How grateful were you for having gone back to read that book a second time? (If you’re not a book junkie this may not resonate).
What about the person you’ve spent years of your life with? Have you ever seen them differently, a little unfamiliar, perhaps when the light hits their eyes a certain way or they wear an expression you’ve never seen (noticed) before? And you wonder, how is this possible? How, for just a split second, is this person a stranger to me?
I find that scent does this well too, but we can’t control scent like we can control what we see. I remember sitting in my classroom in Indonesia, teaching my kindergarteners, and suddenly, I was overwhelmed by the scent of a cleaning agent. It was the exact scent in the bathroom of a place I stayed at with my ex-husband when we first started our travels in Portugal almost a hundred moons ago. It hit me like a brick in the chest, winding me, and I had to leave the room to recover. It wasn’t dire or sad, it was a visceral connection to the past via the present moment.
The sense body remembers it all even if the mind forgets.
Developing First Time Eyes takes a bit of exercise, to see things as though you haven’t seen them every day for the past 20 years of your life. If you’ve ever had an accident and injured a part of your body, you can relate it to trying to retrain an arm or a leg to move a certain way again, after tissue damage or atrophy. The brain has to remap those areas that have gone a bit fuzzy, and it requires the body to send the right messages. For example, the mere trying to move your arm stimulates neurons that signal the brain, whether or not your arm actually moves. The point is, the nervous system is alive and awake, and reestablishing that brain-body connection requires repeated, painstakingly disappointing tries until eventually, you can move your arm.
I figure retraining your perspective is a bit like that. It’s not a thinking exercise. There’s no requirement to reframe your life, your immediate environment, or your circumstances, no matter how sticky or unsatisfying they are. It’s about adopting First Time Eyes and noticing the most minute and fluid details that every moment features. That’s what changes everything and everything changes from moment to moment. Maybe a lot, maybe just a single thread of difference.
The most critical component of this perspective is gratitude, which is more about being aware of what’s right in front of you, regardless of where you are, rather than the ability to list all your material privileges and big-ticket items like love, health, wealth, etc. Not that we shouldn’t be grateful for those, but First Time Eyes pick up the little things because they’re what create our moment-to-moment experience. They’re the stuff of life.
You can do this with some things really easily, like a full moon. It happens every month, yet each time we turn our eyes up to the sky in wonder like it’s never been that bright or that big.
With other things, you have to try a little harder. The same kitchen, the same job, the same face. Not that sameness and familiarity are bad things, but they do cause perspective to become a little fuzzy and resistant to change (ironic, isn’t it?)
You have to rewire your perspective every day to notice how incredible life really is, regardless of where you live, what you do, and who surrounds you. And yes, it can be done, even amid the swamp of political and economic crises and gluttonous consumerism and the sickening waste of natural resources. Even though everyone seems crazy and out for blood. Even when someone is dying or you’re overwhelmed by debt. The point is, you always have the freedom to choose your perspective. And after choice, the work starts, you have to train it. Go for a walk every day and challenge yourself to see something different in your familiar surroundings, then notice, not what you think about, but how you feel.
In the words of Fernando Pessoa in The Book of Disquiet:
“Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out of me with forceps.”