Wonder Wanders

Paying Attention – Part 1

My friend and brilliant talking partner, Melissa Hughes, and I have been thinking a lot about curiosity lately.

Curiosity is central to my work as a coach. How can you help clients move off “I’m stuck…” if you’re not honestly curious by asking open-ended questions? And I made curiosity the theme of my podcast, Getting Unstuck–Cultivating Curiosity because our routine-filled lives blind us to so much potential wonder.

Curiosity is central to Melissa’s work as a neuroscience researcher as helps the rest of us understand the cranial convolutions between our ears. Curiosity, along with its evil twin, worry, notes Melissa is what pushes us to investigate the unknown and pulls us away from perceived danger. “We need both,” she advises.

She had used a curiosity-rich phrase a while back that stuck with me as the potential antidote to our autopilot lives:

Pay attention to what you’re paying attention to.

Living that philosophy even a little bit would force us to slow down. We might not just smell the roses; we might first see them.

So, we decided on a little experiment. We would deliberately engage in a long-standing behavior – something we had done many times before – to see what we might have missed or what had changed. We could engage in what I refer to as some wonder wandering.

I decided to take a walk in our nearby forest preserve — Yes, we have a forest preserve in Queens, NY! — an activity I had engaged in countless times during my now 11 years in the area. If I slowed down, took my time, didn’t listen to a podcast or a playlist, but just observed, what would I see?

Off I went to the forest preserve and, it turns out, miles of musings — a deep internal dive. It’s very interesting what comes to one’s mind when it isn’t flooded with the daily deluge of data.

I was still rubbing my arm from a brush with a bee when I noticed the vanity license plate — “Mizery” — held in a frame customized for one of our two New York football teams. The plate was for the New York team that had appeared only once in the Super Bowl to the other New York team’s eight appearances. “Mizery,” indeed. (And yes, the driver of said auto was obviously not the only one in pain because “Misery” was already taken.)

I am not a fan of either team. I follow the New England Patriots, not because they’ve appeared in 11 Super Bowls, but because I lived in Boston for some 25 years before moving to New York.

Actually, I’m more of a Red Sox baseball fan, which is interesting because my wife is a Yankee fan. Two eternal enemies like lions and hyenas. Or wolves and cattle ranchers. My wife and I get some interesting looks on the subway. One guy, pointing to our respective baseball caps, asked, “How does that work?”

Truth be told, my wife is more of a soccer fan, especially of the Juventus club, which plays out of Turin, Italy. My wife was born in Italy, so that may have something to do with her allegiance. She also speaks fluent Italian. Many a local we’ve met on our trips to Italy has acknowledged that she sounds like a native. Oh, and does that ever display her tail feathers. And get this, she’s self-taught!

I’m not self-taught anything. Well, that’s not true. I know a lot about World War II. My wife will quickly bury herself in a Duolingo lesson or move to clean the table if I start to wax on about the discovery of a long-lost submarine or Winston Churchill. If you want to stop a cocktail party dead in its tracks, ask me about the last book of fiction I read.

Speaking of cocktail parties, we’ve only been to one in the 11 years I’ve been here in NYC, and that was one we hosted. We had our downstairs neighbors up after meeting them in the elevator a time or two. Ben and Judy, not their real names, haven’t reciprocated because they don’t have a living room. Well, they do, but it’s filled with boxes of her late parents’ personal effects.

People grieve differently. I respect that, but I couldn’t live that way. I hate clutter. OK, I have a small display of some of my parents’ personal objects that have survived the passage of time. My dad’s shaving brush always elicits a raised eyebrow from guests who stay in that room, as does one of my mom’s elephants from her once large crystal and ceramic herd. But that display is not an “altar”; it just occupies a shelf of my bookcase. It’s not like l pray or recite chants in front of it. I’m not religious.

My parents led all five of us kids to the water of Judaism, but they couldn’t make us drink. I chose not to have a bar mitzvah. What, suddenly I was going to be a man? I grew up in very gentile Park Ridge, Illinois. There was only one other Jewish family that I knew of. I felt like a real outsider, especially when an elementary school chum informed me that “The Jews killed Christ.”

Me: “We killed Christ?”

My mother: “It’s more complicated than that.”

Our temple was 30 minutes away in the Village of Skokie, and I always felt like an outsider there, too, because the local kids all knew each other. But I did like sitting with my mom at the temple on Friday nights even though I had to wear a wool suit. My mom and I would play the “Amen” game where we had to guess by the Rabbi’s intonation when he was going to finish his sermon and say, “Amen.” We sat there staring intently at the Rabbi and then each other and then at the Rabbi with our index fingers raised in anticipation.

I can’t tell you what the Rabbi’s messages were, even though they probably had profound secular applications that I wish I knew now. All I know is that the “fun” of our little game was short-lived because when the Rabbi said “Amen,” the congregation’s president would next get up and ask for money.

Money in the form of gelt, or coins, especially the chocolate ones was something we would get at Hanukkah. My favorite Jewish holiday though was not Hanukkah but Passover. I loved dipping hardboiled eggs in salt water, and you can’t beat all the reclining. (The four glasses of wine? Not so much. Too sweet.)

I believe there is a God-like Universal Spirit – the first few pictures from the James Webb telescope have confirmed that for me – and he, she, or it never asks me for money. (You choose whatever pronoun you like.) I don’t hold conversations with the Spirit where I ask for guidance, but I notice that my thoughts are often answered serendipitously. It’s kind of uncanny.

Religion is great for many people because it gives them a sense of community. But I hate proselytizing. Don’t ask me to experience and share the Grace you get from Whomever, and I promise not to try to enroll you in the Temple of The Sun-Drenched Pine Tree.

I am curious, though. Whatever happened to “live and let” live? Why is “I don’t share your beliefs” not good enough? Why, instead, does it have to be “So, you can’t believe or practice it either”? I don’t wear a black robe, have a job for life, or feign to respect precedent, so I can only offer opinions.

It was about at this point in my mental meanderings that I crossed the four-mile marker, circling back to where the bee had said, “Hey, watch it!” In addition to enjoying my contemplative journey, I noticed that the Parks and Rec Department was installing new and much-needed trail signage. The overflowing garbage cans still left much to be desired, but most people, it appeared, were at least trying to get their trash near the cans. And there was the copse of once small pines that had grown into evergreen adolescence, sharing their wonderful scent, released courtesy of the summer sun.

I had noticed, too, that even on a mid-week, mid-afternoon, the forest preserve drew a healthy, eclectic group. It was heart-warming to see new moms walking with their babies, pairs of seniors engaged in lively conversation, and a few cyclists preparing for next year’s Tour de France, replete with their colorful spandex riding shorts and jerseys, helmets, and gloves. “Vive la France!”

I imagined empty thought bubbles above everyone’s head. My mom and I, I mused, would have invented a game where we imagined what they were thinking or saying.

Wonder wanderings, indeed. Just curious about that.


Jeff Ikler
Jeff Ikler
The river that runs through my career lives – as teacher, publisher, coach, podcaster and author – is helping individuals acquire knowledge, skills, and self-awareness so they can better achieve their desired results and impact. • As Director of Quetico Leadership and Career Coaching, I work with individuals and leaders to overcome obstacles and make sustained changes in their behavior. • I co-host the podcast “Getting Unstuck – Shift for Impact,” where I bring to light inspirational stories of transformation in the field of education. • I am the co-author of the soon-to-be-published book for school educators, Shifting: How Educational Leaders Can Create a Culture of Change.

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  1. Thanks for your thoughts and response, Charlotte. I know what you mean. I can be engaged in a conversation with others and have a point to contribute, but the train has already moved on. It’s hard, but not impossible, to interject and add “A few minutes ago…” The conversation can then come to a screeching halt as people try to adjust.

    The thing I don’t like about social media is that I can’t see those with whom I’m “talking.” So much communication is one’s tone of voice and body language. Conversations here and on LinkedIn, for example, can sometimes become clinical because we’re reacting to content and not the person.

  2. I loved this piece, Jeff.

    How often do we not in a middle of a conversation or a line of thought ask “how did we get to talk/think about that?” At least I do. So this was very relatable.

    I notice a curiosity about what other associations might have come up three steps back, if the discussion had not veered in the direction it did. (Particularly if it veered in a direction the speaker had been down before.) But also if three or more people are present and the body language said that somebody not talking was going to take it somewhere completely different than where it went.

    It is one of the luxuries on Social Media, that we can expand on an existing discussion or make a comment that goes in another direction and because it is saved, we can go back and revisit – unlike in the spoken conversation where it has drifted off and become a hazy memory.