Only He Who Takes Off His Shoes Truly Loves (On Noticing — & Noticing What We’re Normally Not Noticing)


Burning Bush” — a photograph by Michael Fatali (


Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God,

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

― Elizabeth Barrett Browning


This poem by Barrett Browning was inspired by these lines from Exodus—

Now Moses was pasturing a flock and led it to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed.  So Moses said, ‘I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.’  When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And Moses said, ‘Here I am.’  Then the LORD said, ‘Do not come near here; remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground’.”

(Exodus 3: 1-5, abridged)

I wondered as I read Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem (and even the verses from Exodus) if things might not actually be in reverse order here—the seeing of something extraordinary taking place first, and then there is the stopping and taking off our shoes.

Might it not be equally if not even more true that only he or she who first slows down long enough in life to take off their shoes truly sees?

Might it not be more often the case that only a person who dares to walk slower, more deliberately, less hurriedly, more relaxed, and even more carefully—perhaps in part because of unprotected and exposed toes—is more likely to “truly see”—to notice and appreciate more of what might ordinarily be missed?

The rest will simply hurry by.

Noticing takes time.  Allowing only a fixed amount of time to get from point A to point B means that we’ll have to block out and miss a lot in service of our goal of arriving on time.

And the more we do this—hurry—the better we get at doing this—missing life, beauty, a flower, a sunset, our children growing up—and the more desensitized we become.

And compound this with the advent of smart phones.

Life all around us becoming easier and easier to miss.

A burning bush in the midst of rush hour in Washington D.C. 
World renowned violinist Joshua Bell plays incognito, dressed as a street musician.  Of the 1100 people who passed by during the 45 minutes that he flawlessly performed several of most beautiful pieces of classical music ever written, how many people stopped and listened?  How many people “took off their shoes”? 
You can read the full story hereThe Washington “Pearls Before Breakfast


Promptness / punctuality and productivity are characteristics that understandably are highly valued in our society.  Productivity and driven-ness and inventiveness have given us this strange brave new Hi-Def world of technology that a hundred years ago would have been the stuff of science-fiction.

And dependability, reliability, predictability, all are critically important in this society to keep it orderly.  A certain amount of scheduling must take place lest chaos reign.  And respect for others includes respecting their time, not being more than a few minutes late (at least not without good cause and notification) to an agreed upon meeting or appointment.

And yet what about life being a journey and not a destination—or not just a series of destinations, appointments, meetings, obligations—one after the other after the other?

Can one build in to one’s daily schedule and one’s various commutes some free time wherein one can stop and smell the flowers, or at least have time to slow down and notice them?

Instead of only allowing just enough time to get from point A to point B, can one schedule in time to include opportunities to pay more attention to whatever sights and sound one normally misses or might miss when hustling and bustling along on one’s given route?

There are routes I drive several times a week, and much to my chagrin and to my shame, I will occasionally notice something I never noticed before but that was there all along—the color or architecture of a particular house, a particular tree or bush, et cetera.

And yet perhaps to my seeming credit, there are also many times I will pause because I am happening to notice something that is unique to this particular time on a given route—the way the sunlight is glancing off a certain tree, the way certain storm clouds look, the beauty of a sunrise or sunset on this particular commute.

Am I noticing and then taking off my shoes?  Or am I noticing because I’ve figuratively taken off my shoes—because I am slowing down, reprioritizing the journey over the destination?

Or maybe some of both.  Maybe these two feed each other.  The more we notice, the more we slow down, the more we slow down, the more we notice.  And so on and on, each perpetuating and strengthening each other, each helping us to become more sensitive to what we might ordinarily miss.

Some of the recent sights that have prompted me to take 

off my shoes(and take out my cell to snap a photo of it)
2012-08-21 -2 - ps

Storm clouds departing

2012-09-13 -3 - ps

In front of the bank

2013-02-24 flowers while shopping -ps

At the grocery

2012-10-25 - ps -

The light on this tree was amazing!

2013-01-16 -1 - ps

The sky was on fire — this was a sunset that was hard not to see!

2012-12-22 big egg -ps

A really BIG egg!


I had to pull off to the side of the road to photograph this sunset. It was so beautiful!

Taking up photography many years ago has helped me immensely in learning how to pay greater attention and to see more of what’s around, more of what I might ordinarily miss.  It has given me new eyes with which to see and look out upon the world.

Proust - Travel

Proust is recommending the ultimate stay-cation.
As Rilke put it, “If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place.” (“Letters to a Young Poet,” letter no. 1)

Photography has helped and is helping me tremendously with this.

As have and are writing and reading, making time nearly every day to do these.

If we don’t make time every day to slow down and notice and pay attention to what’s around us—and to who’s around us—then not paying attention, not noticing, not questioning, will become more and more natural for us.  We will become more desensitized, more adept at tuning out. We will likely become more indifferent, more numb, more rote, more mechanical, more machine-like and less human—and less humane.  We will go more and more to sleep, and we will start sleepwalking more and more, just going through the motions, dying inside while alive.

Similarly, if we don’t slow down every day to think, reflect, contemplate, examine.  We are by that self-neglect choosing to sleep and to put ourselves even more to sleep.

reading, writing, thinking, contemplating, reflecting, meditating, walking in nature, practicing photography, drawing, painting–these can help us so much in learning how to listen to our own deeper currents and life’s deeper rhythms, helps us so much in becoming more sensitive and paying more (and better) attention, not only to ourselves, but to what’s around us, including those around us.

To become more loving, to become more alive and live better, to grow as a person, all require that we take practical measurable steps each day in that direction, that we choose and prioritize slowing down and spending some time each day in thought, really reflecting on what these things mean, reflecting on what’s truly important in life, what will matter most in the end.

And reading doesn’t mean just consuming other people’s thoughts and books and even blog posts, but slowing down and examining and reflecting on and exploring our own ideas and thoughts and inner currents.–


Ideally this is how we should read.

Maybe Browning’s words — “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God” — are a bit of an overstatement, but perhaps a necessary one to correct how inattentive and insensitive many of us have become to beauty.

So often so many of us go through life tuned out to what’s really going on around us. We unknowingly let our sense of wonder, marvel, curiosity, amazement die off.

It’s a case of use it or lose it.


Not only do we need to practice gratitude & appreciativeness, we also have to practice (exercise) every day our capacities to marvel, be amazed, be awed, curious, find wonder. All of these faculties need to be stoked and nurtured regularly in us less they atrophy and slough off, less they wither and die, and in doing so take a very significant part of us and what makes us most human and humane with then.


It happens that the stage sets collapse.  Rising, streetcar, four hours in the office or the factory, meal, streetcar, four hours of work, meal, sleep, and Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday and Saturday according to the same rhythm—this path is easily followed most of the time.  But one day the ‘why’ arises and everything begins in that weariness tinged with amazement.  ‘Begins’—this is important.  Weariness comes at the end of the acts of a mechanical life, but at the same time it inaugurates the impulse of consciousness.  It awakens consciousness and provokes what follows.  What follows is the gradual return into the chain or it is the definitive awakening.”

– Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus”


At every moment we’re either becoming more aware and more sensitive or we’re becoming more self-preoccupied and numb; we’re either moving in the direction of becoming more alive inside or more internally dead, more ego-driven or more soulful and guided by perennial universal and noble principles.

Slowing down and taking off our shoes forces us to pay attention, walk more carefully, to really feel and notice the earth beneath our feet, to be vulnerable to the earth.  No more barrier of insulation between us and the ground.

If we don’t make it a point regularly to slow down and pay more attention, to disconnect from our smartphones and wireless devices—or at least lift our noses more often from them—and take off our shoes, we will likely become increasingly desensitized to much of what makes life worth living—truth, beauty, love, wonder, awe, appreciation, amazement, curiosity.

2013-02-24 Cats looking towards the sunset - cropped

Cats looking towards the setting sun, warming themselves by the day’s last light


How do you want to live?

Do you want to liveOr do you want to *LIVE*!


When Death Comes - Mary Oliver

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About John

I am a married, 46-year old, Midwesterner, with four children. My primary interest is in leading a very examined and decent and Loving life; my interests that are related to this and that feed into this include (and are not limited to) -- psychology, philosophy, poetry, critical thinking, photography, soccer, tennis, chess, bridge.
This entry was posted in "When Death Comes", Albert Camus, Amazement, Attention, Beauty, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Exodus, Goethe, Josh Bell, Love, Marcel Proust, Mary Oliver, Mindfulness, Noticing, Photography, Thomas Merton, Truth, Waking Up, What is Love? and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Only He Who Takes Off His Shoes Truly Loves (On Noticing — & Noticing What We’re Normally Not Noticing)

  1. janeadamsart says:

    Nice reminder, john, and I love your burning bush photos, especially the flowers in the supermarket and the eggs! Fastfast is tense and not efficient. Slow is contact. Hare and tortoise. Slow gets things done most wholly and efficiently in the end. Who wants to step off the hamster wheel? Fast is a complete out-to-lunch fantasy. Perhaps think slow, and slow will come, even to the most stressed out job, time’s capacity changes like it is said to before death and you are suddenly in touch with all your life and all space and detail. Once I needed to slow, and I just walked slow, and used my left hand. A very good way to slow is to SPEAK the rattling thought. It moves much faster than what we really mean, and when it “speaks” it is quickly bored with itself, comes apart and vanishes, and it leaves … ?
    Ah well. Having an afternoon off, under duvet, watching the cold winter wind outside!

    • John says:

      Hello Jane,

      Thank you for writing and for the lovely comment and compliments about my photos. I very much appreciate it. And I hope you enjoyed your afternoon off. Those are always nice!

      And, I agree, using one’s non-dominant hand is a great way to get one back in touch with what it’s like to be a beginner and thus to hopefully slow down and pay more attention. That’s a great point! I hadn’t connected it that far.

      And I don’t know if I know how to think slow–my mind usually makes connections pretty quickly. But I do take my time and think very deliberately (thus the length of mosty of my blog posts). Being deliberate means paying attention to the detail. Reading a sentence or two and then making time to explore my own thoughts or let my own thoughts have time to develop, like a photograph in a darkroom. And so much of that comes from just making time or allowing the time. When we’re in a rush we lose that opportunity. And if we do that enough we either lose touch with ourselves–our essential self, our core self–or we never develop a core self. There’s no quick (or easy) way to develop a center or core self: it–depth–requires time, thought, reflection, contemplation. (And reading decent books–books of substance.)

      Thanks again for reading and commenting, Jane, and for the very kind words about my photos. 🙂

      Kindest regards,


      • janeadamsart says:

        Your darkroom process sounds so like mine. Waiting and listening and allowing the subconscious to ripen and deliver like a ship’s full cargo. This is why writing makes us happy – dwelling deep in our natural tempo and feeling it come through. Do you find when you’ve stayed with an idea for some time, polishing it perhaps, or wondering how someone else might “read it”, an unexpected image or wave comes up from the deep and teaches you something? GIVING OUR CREATIVE PROCESS TIME, and giving our companions and our meetings time, and giving ourself time — is the good fishermans way, I feel. Blogging is perfect for fishing, and also the tips we pick up from each other.

  2. Hi John….I have been enjoying your log for months. Thanks for the great insight, always. I have been on a journey to Mozambique, Africa for the past two months,mdoing some volunteer work there. I have blogged about it weekly at

    Anyway, I am just home, and posted the final “official” instalment. But I really liked your post, and have used a quote from your blog to close it out. Your quote ties it together nicely, which I have linked to your site.



  3. Pingback: Reading Aurora Leigh In Mishpacha – בין דין לדין

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