Things to Think About Before Leaving—Still in Toronto…


As you know, I’m a great fan of the writer and thinker Alain De Botton, and particularly of his book The Art of Travel.

In that book, he makes an excellent point which is relevant to my musings. Why is it that when we’re on a trip, we take such keen interest in everything we see.

Our senses become acute and we photograph and take notes with great enthusiasm. Our minds and spirits seem to float freely, without the restrictions of daily life. But when back home, we return to our old closed-in, oblivious selves, scarcely noticing our surroundings which may well be just as interesting, at least to a visitor.

De Botton devised an experiment. He went for a mid-afternoon walk in his own neighbourhood of Hammersmith in London, England, with the intent of actually paying attention to what was in his path.

Of course, he found that if he actually looked at his surroundings [like a traveller], he would find all sorts of interesting things—which he did. His conclusion? It’s not that we live in a dull spot, but that we have become so habituated to it that literally, we do not see it.

De Botton made another discovery. Once he started actually noticing his surroundings, he began to collect ideas and he became aware of feelings which these sights created in him. He began to wonder why he liked the railway arches so much and why the motorway cut across the skyline.

I can well imagine this situation happening. Maybe you’ve walked by that second-hand store a thousand times before and seen nothing. On your way to the subway, you were thinking about that troublesome file waiting for you on your desk.

But today, you try to clear your mind and when you approach the store you begin to notice that there are actually objects on display. At the back, there’s an old gramophone and some silver picture frames for sale. Suddenly, you envision your grandmother and then your mind slips to grandfather who was a Captain in the Second World War—thoughts about your grade ten history teacher you had a crush on—the futility of war and then how to get out of Iraq—etc. [ at least this is how my mind might dance about.]

If you happen to be a writer, then you just might begin to imagine a life for the owner of the store—and right there, you have the start of a short story or even a novel. And all of this comes from taking time to open yourself up to notice a gramophone and some old picture frames.

As further thought, De Botton reflects upon a passage from the great writer and thinker, Nietzsche.

When we observe how some people know how to manage their experiences—their insignificant everyday experiences—so that they become an arable soil that bears fruit three times a year, while others—and how many there are!—are driven through surging waves of destiny, the multifarious currents of the times and the nations and yet always remain on top, bobbing like a cork, then we are tempted to divide mankind into a minority [minimality]of those who know how to make much of little and a majority who know how to make little of much!

I think we all want to crowd into Nietzsche’s minority. This quote and De Botton’s experiment, lead me to think that if we become attentive and receptive to our surroundings, people, places and things, perhaps our lives will be enriched with new thoughts, feeling and emotions. Such experiences enliven your existence, no matter how mundane you may feel it is. By opening yourself to your environment, you become more receptive to it. You can’t help but react to all these impressions and it is your reaction which makes you a person with a richer life.

How much better for a writer [or any truly creative person] to live this way, whether he or she has never left the hometown or is a world traveller. If we are habituated to our surroundings, then we walk through life with our heads cast down and miss so much. Not good for a writer, who is supposed to be life’s observer. In fact, a writer needs to be keenly aware, on many levels, of what is going on around and within him or her.

Just a note. One Canada Day holiday (July 1), I went for a walk downtown—Queen Street West which some people would call “funky”. Not looking for something beautiful, I found some pretty interesting shots. Here’s one of them.

So next time, whether we are travelling to the corner store or to the Egyptian pyramids, perhaps this is food for thought. By keeping one’s spirit and senses alive, we will be stoking our imaginations with thoughts, feelings and observations—all so very important for a writer. Give it a try!

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About Mary E. Martin

Mary E. Martin grew up in Toronto, Canada. After earning an Honors Degree in History at the University of Toronto, she graduated with her law degree from Queens University, Kingston, Ontario. In 1973, she was called to the Bar of Ontario and began the general practice of law in Toronto, with emphasis on real estate, wills and estates and elder-care law. This law practice of more than 30 years was a great inspiration for The Osgoode Trilogy ("Conduct in Question," "Final Paradox" and "A Trial of One.") Her fourth novel, “The Drawing Lesson,” will be the first in the next trilogy, provisionally entitled “The Trilogy of Rmembrance.” She is also a photographer particularly with respect to her travels. She has had two commercial photography shows. Married in 1973, she and her husband live in Toronto. They have three adult children.
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