I work for a laundromat, and I work for a landscaping company. As I’m writing this, in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Pensinsula, summer and the short tourist season which means survival for everyone living here is drawing to a close. And I believe, as I divide my working hours between my indoor and outdoor jobs, in the importance of noticing the unnoticed. It may seem silly– in the cosmic scheme of things, what does one red sock left behind in a dryer matter? But if I throw away that sock, it may be the only one all summer someone comes back for. Or if I ignore the downcast expression of the woman who comes in to use the pay phone, if I don’t ask her what’s the matter, I won’t find out that her father is dying in a hospital downstate, and she has to arrange transportation and may or may not get to his bedside in time.
There is a story behind the red sock, behind that woman’s sorrow.
When I’m outdoors, scraping my knees on the sidewalk to root out the weeds in the flower beds or walking miles to water, it isn’t a sock I notice ( unless someone has lost one among the petunias) but a beetle abandoning the rock I’ve just turned over or a monarch butterfly poised on a milkweed strand. The insect world is busy– as busy as any human beings while the warm days last, trying to take care of business before the long cold northern winter shuts us down. I notice the insects– they force me to greater awareness of my own hands and feet, in a world which was never set up for my ease or convenience. If I’m careless (sometimes even if I’m not) I may be bitten, scratched or stung. But when I’m working for long hours among the flowers, the humming of bees is a peaceful accompanyment to the snick-snick-snicking of garden clippers or water trickling from the end of a hose.
There is a little girl who sometimes comes and helps me water. She was born in a foreign country but, like the flowers, has thrived in her new environment. She notices things I don’t because she’s so much shorter than I am– on a level of tallness with the flowers– a piece of moss, a pebble, a blue flower growing among great ranks of red and yellow. She makes me think about small things. There are also, in this area, many foreign workers employed by restaurants and motels. A few weeks ago, a staff member at a motel where I was watering drew my attention to a small brown and yellow finch which had landed on the sidewalk between the wheels of her cleaning cart. After much discussion, we decided that the little bird had to be moved. We didn’t know if it could fly, but gently captured and transferred it to the lawn behind some bushes where it might have a chance of survival. I knew I wouldn’t see the bird again, and probably not that lady, but I believe what matters is that we noticed a creature in trouble, and reached across two cultures in order to try and do something to help.
Summer is ending now, and children have gone back to school. Our foreign workers will go home soon. Insects, having readied another generation will die when the frost comes. Monarch butterflies move on to Mexico.
What difference does one red sock make? How important is a bird or a beetle or a child or a scrap of conversation with someone speaking a language you don’t understand?
I believe that noticing the unnoticed matters. I believe, through a long, long summer of laundry and landscaping, it has made me a better human being.
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