On Noticing


It all started with a poster plastered in a subway stairwell in Chelsea. It was dingy, off-white and torn-- but in the middle was a pencil-drawn, yeti-like creature pulling open a slit in its stomach. Multicolored hearts and stars and smileys exploded out of the incision, and the caption read: There’s Magic Inside All Of Us. I began noticing the magic. In people. In places. I suppose if I was to have one writing superpower it would be in the noticing.

Noticing the one tree on a residential street in Hell’s Kitchen, wrapped in yarn--an arboreous sweater-and dripping with Christmas ornaments; fat, silver bulbs that reflected and warped the light of the carmine-purple sunset and shed glitter on my hands when I reached up and rubbed them. Noticing the sinews of neon deli signs: Katz’s Delicatessen, Send a Salami, Dr. Brown’s Soda Sold Here. Noticing the vendor right off the Brooklyn Bridge. She was listening to the Mama Mia soundtrack and peddling oranges-- two for a dollar-- in a plain white t-shirt with “My Heart Lives in the Dominican Republic” scrawled across the chest in Sharpie marker. Noticing how my body collapsed into bed after a day of walking the city, and how I was compelled to close the curtains even though it was night and the workers at the studio across the rooftop (industrious designers who spent their days pinning and tucking fabric) had left long ago.

I went home to Louisville, but returned again later in the summer so I could visit some editors, and I noticed more beautiful things. Even amid the early morning piles of slick black garbage bags, stacked for pickup on side-streets that momentarily smelled like stale pizza crust and piss, I saw gold; like Ricky Fitts in American Beauty, stunned by the elegance of a plastic bag dancing on the wind. I finally understood then what he meant when he murmured: “Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” I was coming off a summer of writing well, and loving life an immeasurable amount. I felt unstoppable; there was magic inside of me.

Right after that trip, I moved to Lexington to pursue my MFA in nonfiction writing and cried myself to sleep beneath a mustard-yellow quilt every night for weeks-- a potent mix of homesickness and wanderlust, I think.

Before I had relocated, I’d told all my freelancing editors to give me time off to adjust to school, but without work, I soon felt listless. Useless. I didn’t know if I had a book in me. I was one of many, invisible in a swarm of strangers, and there was no distinguishable beauty in it. All I thought about was how badly the black garbage bags in the dumpster behind my complex reeked, and how much I hated the pick-up trucks that careened down Limestone between their impatient 14-second pauses at the red lights. More than anything, I stopped noticing.

After some prodding from worried family, I wandered the city for stories.

There’s a streetlight on the university side of Rose and Euclid that’s covered with bumper stickers and flyers for band performances. Just above the button to signal the crosswalk, I noted that someone had placed a single carnation; scarlet petals with a stem knotted around a screw. I paused in the rain to

consider the unexpected bloom and was flooded with a sense of calm. I had my first mythical moment, and it was a start.

Ashlie Stevens is a journalist and creative nonfiction writer from Louisville, Kentucky.

Among other publications, her journalism has appeared in the Atlantic's CityLab, Slate, Salon, The Guardian and Hyperallergic, while her nonfiction has been featured in Acquired Taste, The Flounce, and Random Sample Review.

She is a current MFA candidate at the University of Kentucky.

Website: www.ashliestevens.com

Twitter: @AshlieD_Stevens

#essays #craft #magic #place #writerslife #nonfiction

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