03 March 2015

Learning to Look in Oaxaca, MX

I am making my way down cobblestone streets from my daughter's sweet casita on a hill overlooking the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, to the center of town. Centro. I am watching for the markers I made note of when we walked together so I won't get lost. 

Turn left at the metal gate, right at the playground, left at the mural, and so on, one turn after another until I reach the main square. And, this square too is a marker, the anchor for my travels around the city.

I often make note of directional cues. Colors of posts in parking garages. The location of landmarks in proximity to a cafe. Unusual architectural detail. In this way, I find my way, and familiarize myself with my surrounds. 

Once I have arrived the first time, I rarely lose my way again. True for driving as well, which was a particular challenge in Orange County, where roads curve and cross each other, nothing like the NYC grid where I first learned to navigate. 

My version of breadcrumbs in the forest.

What comes to mind is learning to look. The title of an after-school class that taught my young children about the nature and meaning of art. Learning to look is hardly confined to art, nor to navigation for that matter. Yes, it is a grounding exercise. Yes, it serves as center-point for thought and interpretation. Sometimes it is a matter of life or death: crossing the street at the green, avoiding snakes in open space or jelly fish at sea. Learning to look underscores just about everything. They call it mindfulness these days.

In San Miguel de Allende, another wonderful city where I sojourned before Oaxaca, one must always look downward while walking to avoid uneven surfaces, ruts or hidden obstacles that have taken down many a visitor, even as the eye drifts upward to carved doors and overflowing flower boxes. Mindfulness in that city is equal measure safety and delight.

So as I walk, I remember the first time I took my young grandson into the backyard to examine the landscape. I do this each week. Even just a few months old, he looked at every leaf and flower with reverence, learning to look. Imprinting, in effect: the natural byproduct of innocence and the root of curiosity. Soon I will teach him street names, point out particular trees or the colors of houses in his neighborhood, so he will always find his way home. And always appreciate his surrounds.

However, being lost also has value. And charm. The joy of discovery. One must never allow the grounding to inhibit forging new territory. A different path offers new vistas. And another way of looking.

My firstborn daughter, even as an adolescent found every possible alternate driving route to avoid highways and main roads, and I do the same. Is it no wonder that in the many cities she has lived she has always found her way around quickly and always on a more interesting path. I happily follow her lead.

Sadly, too many these days rely on GPS systems for direction. A focus on speed and reassurance. Antithetical to mindfulness, or the joy of exploration. Maps are no longer in our hands or minds and the art of looking may soon be lost. 

Until then, I pay close attention. Not only to sights but sounds, scents. And the impressions the senses inspire. All the very essence of living that begins with learning to look.

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