“Put your phone down and pay attention to what is going on around you. That is where life is. That is what you write about.”
This was the first thing Rick Bragg told us on the first day of his feature writing class at the University of Alabama. It was the first thing I wrote in my notebook and the first thing I read when I went back through the notes a few weeks ago searching for tips to become a better interviewer and writer.
“If you want to be dumbasses, live your life on a cell phone,” Bragg told us in his second class.
I did some dumbass things in 2017 like I do every year, and spending way too much time looking at my cell phone is one of them. Bragg was right and I needed to change so paying more attention to the world beyond Instagram and Facebook started this week on a quick college road trip to Nashville, Atlanta and Athens.
Writing down the details makes small things significant — from produce stands selling satsumas the day after Christmas and horses huddled over hay to political signs nailed to trees along I-65 from south to north Alabama. After the past year of politics, it is too soon to think about Twinkle Cavanaugh wanting to brighten this state as Lieutenant Governor or what who Rusty Glover and Scott Dawson are and what they are running for.
On the cold, grey day it seemed like the pines along Burnt Corn and Murder Creeks were the only trees alive. Roadside crosses were decorated with flowers, Christmas wreaths and angel wings. Closer to Montgomery, traffic was at a standstill for eight miles because a car crashed into the embankment of a bridge.
A gas station bathroom was unlocked with keys attached to an empty water bottle for the women’s door and a trailer hitch for the men’s. One line was so long that a man relieved himself by the cage of propane tanks outside the store.
Icicles hung from the rocky walls along the interstate and a sunset turned the glass towers of Birmingham to orange and gold.
Outside of Huntsville, a sign said “Pray for Laura” and next to the Odd Fellow Cemetery a lady gassed up a four-wheeler at a station that sells “two-handed sandwiches.”
Snowbirds drove sludge-covered cars from Ontario and Michigan down the seven congested lanes of Interstate 85 in Atlanta, inching closer to the warmth of the South.
Outside of City Diner in Chattanooga, a waitress in a “Happy 2018” top hat smoked a cigarette and patted a dog. Across the parking lot, a man in a truck wearing a U.S. Army Ranger hat looked at his phone. On his dashboard was a framed, faded picture of a soldier in uniform and a pair of boxing gloves. Taylor Swift’s “Tim McGraw” played on his radio.
I hope you think that little black dress.
Think of my head on your chest
And my old faded blue jeans
When you think Tim McGraw
I hope you think of me”
So much in that one moment. The waitress. The soldier in uniform. The boxing gloves. Taylor Swift and that little black dress. Happy 2018. Real life in the parking lot of City Diner. I wish I knew their stories.
I am letting go of the annual intentions to be a better writer, give more structure to my kids and cut down on chocolate chip cookies and Peanut M&Ms. I will try to spend less time looking at my phone and pay more attention to the moment and the people around me.