The Simple Act of Noticing

Illustration by Pierre Le Tan



It was wintry.  Outside my windows, the streets of my quiet suburb were laid in dark grids across the map of night.  The children were sleeping, the fire was on. I was curled up on the sofa, reading a book.  And I heard a noise.  A high, panicked, voice. The sound of a body slamming against a wall, or a floor. A flurry of movement.

Must be someone’s TV.  Just some scary movie.

I returned to my book.  And there it was again.
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck, and I knew.  That screaming voice was real.  That voice belonged to someone who was terrified.  I rushed out onto our balcony. I craned my head around the corner of the house in the direction of the noise.  A deeper voice shouted out

“This time, I am going to kill you!  I’m getting a knife!”

And all in a single moment, a woman fled onto the dark street.  Her nightie billowed around her in the blast of cold wind.  The whites of her eyes flashed in the black night.  And those eyes met mine.  I put my finger to my lips and frantically motioned for her to come through our gate.  She suddenly understood and slipped into our property while the man raged onward, almost now at his front door.  I could hear his daughter trying to reason with him.
“No Daddy, don’t kill her!” I was worried for that girl, but I knew that first I needed to get her mother to safety.

When I reached her, the words tumbled out of her mouth between breathy gasps. Her hands were shaking, fluttering up to her face. No, she couldn’t come inside, “I’m afraid” she whispered, her eyes imploring me for help, even as she refused to accept it. We compromised with her hiding out in the shed. I whispered that she must stay, breathe slowly, wait for me to return. And something big, like an angry mother lioness, began to grow inside me. I stormed out onto the street.  The man, someone I knew to be a friendly, sociable neighbour; wore a rage so deep and fathomless he seemed to have a face that was not his own.  All bluster, I demanded to know what he was doing waking up the neighbourhood. He tried to smile, shrug, appear conciliatory.  But it came out as a grimace, his rage fighting his need to appear normal. “It’s nothing, just looking for my wife” he answered through clenched teeth.  “Get in the car!” he yelled at his daughter.

“No,” I said, with a forcefulness that came from the lioness, “your daughter is coming home with me.  Go find your wife.  Go sort out your problems without dragging her into it!”  My voice lifted with indignation, as I put my arms around his daughter’s shoulders and steered her towards my house.  I was afraid he would see through the bravado (please, please don’t guess where your wife is).  And over my shoulder I hurled, “I will bring your daughter home in the morning when you have sorted it out, and I will not discuss this with you further!”.

He began to protest, and then abruptly, sped off. Somehow he still believed that his wife had run off into the neighbourhood, I imagine he thought she couldn’t have got far, not in her nightie, in public.  I rushed the girl inside.  I smuggled in her mother; so glad to know her daughter was inside too, safe. I was afraid that he might figure out any moment what I had done.  They hid in the room farthest away from our locked door.  In barely audible voices they talked about what to do next. They were so brave.

They called the police who arrived and located the man. The police took him into the house to pack and then took him away. Thanks to the police, to her courage, her daughter’s stalling tactics and the simple act of someone noticing, a new future opened up for her.  For the first time since her marriage, my neighbour and her daughter were free from a terrifying, hidden tyranny. None of us had even known it was going on.  The only thing I had ever noticed about their house was that they never drew the blinds.


Don’t get involved, they tell us.  Don’t intervene. If you notice something, look away, forget you heard it.  It’s safer that way.  And maybe it is… but only for us.

It’s not safer for them.  What makes our safety any more important than theirs?  Aren’t we all just as valuable as each other?  I could have picked up the phone that night and called emergency services, but by the time I had, the murderous intent of that man could have erased a beautiful person from the earth.   She could be gone.  People need people. Women need women. We are meant to live in community.

Nearly two years have passed since that cold night.  My neighbour is now single, but very much alive. After the police helped her husband off the property that night, the marriage ended; he never crossed her threshold again.  But I still listen out. If I hear something I still stop what I am doing, to investigate. I will always remember that night. The importance of the simple act of noticing.

According to Daniel Goleman, the author of ‘Emotional Intelligence,’ studies have shown that our brains are actually hard-wired to help. We are pre-disposed to acting out of compassion.  I didn’t do what I did that night because I am inherently good, or kind.  Or even because I am foolhardy.  I barely had time to process what was happening until it was done.  I did what I did simply because I noticed something and I reacted to it.  I did what I did because I am human.

So if we are all innately helpful, why is there so much terror happening in the world?  Why the vacuum of compassion?  How has all this misogyny and violence and hatred escalated into so many wars?
Why don’t we notice each other?

Apparently, a surefire way to ‘turn off’ our inherent tendency toward helping, is by focusing on ourselves.  People who perpetrate acts of cruelty have turned off their innate compassionate wiring.  They are deeply absorbed in the justifications of their own thinking.  Their own creed.  Their own agenda. Themselves.  Even the mute onlooker, the passer by of someone suffering on the street.  That person is just as likely to be absorbed in something, self-involved; a phone, the next task, lunch. Selfishness distracts us from our better selves.

Look around you next time you are on a bus, or in a cafe, or doing the school run. When you are at work, or busy with your daily tasks.  How many people are completely absorbed in themselves?  Have you recently taken the time, without your handheld device or distracting thoughts, to focus on someone else?  To really notice how they are?  To ask them, even? To observe people, be aware of their human value. To seek moments of connection.  When we pause from the demanding distractions of every day life, our natural human instincts have an opportunity to operate. Maybe we need only to do this in our own homes, our own neighbourhoods, our own communities.  Perhaps if we all did this, more humankindness would have a chance to flourish. We could grow something really beautiful. And it might even spread beyond the boundaries of our suburbs, it could even stretch out to cover the whole wide world.

Today, a thousand Bloggers are uniting on one front.  Today we are all writing about compassion. The aim is to provide an antidote to the violence and destruction in our world.  The hope is that by discussing compassion, we can help it grow. You can search under the hashtag #1000speak.  Will you join us in speaking up about compassion today?  Tweet about it, talk about it?

You can even practise a bit of compassion in this very moment.  Look up from your corner of the world. In the simple act of noticing; that is where compassion begins.

And if you want to, you can watch Daniel Goleman’s TED talk on compassion here, please do watch, it is so worth it:

To see more of the posts written as part of the #1000Speak campaign, see the link-up below:

A Problem Like Maria


One night we were talking about sharing the load of the dinner time clear up.  You know, a bit of a family meeting about chores and rosters. When you have a big family, chats like that need to happen from time to time.  Then:

“It’s not like you have to go to work or anything”.

The comment hovered, mid-air in front of me, from one of the teenagers.
I took a deep breath.  And gathered my thoughts.

I remember; being a teenager and feeling full of righteous indignation about the state of the world.  I believed that my rudimentary understanding of the world was in fact, a finely crafted and polished gem of wisdom.  I felt all injustices, chiefly my own, and took it all at face value.  I spent a lot of time thinking how unfair it all was. I thought, back then that I knew the answers to all the world’s problems. And when it came to my domestic world, I certainly thought something similar about my own mum.  I mean, it wasn’t like she had to go to work or anything. In fact, she even had help.

When I was a kid, we lived in Papua New Guinea.  As was commonplace there, we had a girl who worked for us, helping with housework.  Well, everything except our jobs.  Our chores, thanks to my uncompromising mother, were firmly off the to-do list in the interests of our character development. Our Haus Meri’s name was Maria. She was only sixteen when she first came to work for us.  She was still with us when she got married. And when her husband took to her with an axe to prove how much of a big man he was, it was our house she came to from the hospital.  She survived that attack and went back to him. And later, after her baby Hanna was born, she stayed on with us.  Then we went to boarding school and Maria was still there, helping Mum with everything.


Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 1.59.42 pm
(picture credit below)

My Mum had a different approach than that of most expat ladies with house girls.  She insisted on eating lunch with Maria and would always make the lunch herself.  When Maria was caught stealing rolls of toilet paper, instead of summarily docking her pay, she asked questions and discovered that Maria didn’t have enough money for sanitary products.  Mum began supplying her with them. Maria’s pay was small, and with it she supported eight people.  Her life was difficult and Mum made sure that her time at our place was calm, ordered and not strenuous. She gave Maria food, clothes and motherly care. Sometimes, they sang together, gospel songs in pidgin English. I have an enduring image of them both, sitting on our sofa with their feet crossed and tucked beneath their chairs. Ladylike. Maria was a shy, smiley, lovely person. My mother was determined to do it her way despite being chided by her expat friends for her ‘too soft’ approach.

She was determined about a lot of things, my Mum.

Around that time; when I was about fifteen and a sophisticated madam, travelling home from boarding school on the plane every holidays, I thought I was ‘the business’.  I was full of my freshly minted ‘maturity’ and there was nothing that I didn’t know. Except for most things.  I remember returning home one holiday break and feeling so superior. I unpacked my things and called Maria in.
“My sneakers are dirty, Maria.  Can you clean them?”  I asked, loftily.
Maria nodded her head and quietly took my sneakers, padding softly out of the room on her bare brown feet.

I flopped onto my bed and contemplated what I would do over the holidays.

And then, my mother’s face.
White-lipped and syllables clipped.
“GET. UP.”
“-How dare you!”.  She stretched out each word, in that very scary, angry-quiet voice.
“-how dare you presume to tell Maria what to do.  Who do you think you are!?”

For the rest of the day, Mum had me do Maria’s jobs.  All of them.  Maria sat, bemused, pretending to read the magazines my mother had handed her.  I made lunch for them, following Mum’s instructions to the letter, while they chatted. I kept doing her jobs until they were done, long after night had fallen and the geckos were gathering on the fly screens. By then, Maria had gone home.  It had taken me so much longer to do her jobs because my work ethic wasn’t nearly as efficacious.  And I was working under the heavy load of humiliation and shame.  By the end of the day, I got Mum’s point.  Loud and clear.

Because it wasn’t like I had to go to work, or anything.

After the day’s work was finished, I cleaned my sneakers. And I etched that powerful lesson into my memories.  So when those throw away words were said to me at the table recently, I paused for this memory to wash over me.  And I explained exactly what ‘my work’ constitutes.  It probably didn’t make it past the teen-auto-protect-mind-shield, but I tried.

I said that ‘work’ is more than just what you get paid to do.  Work is how you get your job done.  Your job begins with you. But it isn’t finished until you have taken care of everyone in your circle, too.  It’s the opposite of being self-obsessed.  It’s looking out and seeing what needs to be done and finding ways to get it done. Somehow. Sometimes that job is much bigger than any kind of work you might get paid to do. The job of being a good human, chronically ill or not, is far more than nine to five.

And I know; on that day back when I was fifteen, my Mum did one of her best day’s work.


R.I.P Maria.
We were sad to hear that Maria died of Tuberculosis not long after our family left Papua New Guinea.  She was a tiny, beautiful person and I do so hope that her daughter Hanna is safe and well, wherever she might be.

The girl pictured above is Manu, a young Papua New Guinean girl featured in the ABC documentary ‘I am a Girl’. I will find a picture of our Maria when our renovations are finished.  If you would like to learn more about the documentary, about the plight of girls across our globe, click here:–i-am-a-girl-doco-feature/4927910