Through the doorway and into the street, around the corner and past the groaning school bus and down the hill… I walk through the waking neighborhood but actually see very little because of all the clutter in my head—the lead of the article that I need to finish, the prep for my class and the phone interview, the gigs to promote and booking emails to send, the dirty dish pile and the painting project, the forbidding tax bill tacked on the bulletin board. All of the items that suggest an already unrealistic agenda for the day that overlays my morning with anxiety.

And then I reach the trailhead. Walk past the blue-blazed pine into the tunnel of trees, sheltered by a steep, rocky hillside. My eyes adjust to the muted light, begin to notice the beds of ferns around the marshy ground. I walk further, crunching on gravel and leaves, until I reach my usual turnaround spot by the decomposing tree trunk covered with moss. And, as I’ve trained myself to do, I stop. Tilt my head back. Listen.

And hear the rat-tat-tat of an unseen woodpecker. Call and response birdsong from somewhere up in the canopy. The white noise of distant commuter traffic. A truck horn. A argument among crows. The moist-earth smell from last night’s rain. A squirrel’s leap shakes the upper limbs of an oak tree. The sun is beginning to break through, beaming spotlights through the crooked branches—like the organist’s first deep notes in an empty church. The forest comes into focus as my head quiets. So much is happening here.

For a little while I stand still and take it in. This little morning ritual emerged over years of walks with my dog Waldo, whose entreaties over breakfast got me outside every day no matter how freezing or wet it was or how crappy or stressed I felt. We’d walk to the trailhead and I’d let him loose from the leash, and he’d scamper around and explore the morning’s smells. And we’d come to this spot. He knew the routine and stood by me, motionless, peering into the forest, as I tried to do what he always did upon going outdoors: raise his nose and just check on what’s happening.

Waldo is no longer here, and I feel his absence like a phantom limb. As a result, I’ve slacked off in my morning walks to the place in the woods now known to Wendy and me as the Here and Now, named after her song and its reminder to be present. She and I walk together some mornings but too often find excuses for skipping it because of the weather or some urgency of work. Spare moments fill up with bleeps and notifications—emails and messages and photos and headlines. But I always notice the difference when I don’t walk, when I wake up with the noise of lists and agendas and go right from breakfast to the laptop. I’m less focused, less clear. I burn out more quickly. Writing is harder, and additional caffeine doesn’t really help. I’m much better off if I take even a couple of minutes to be quiet, to open my senses, to tune into what’s happening.

This, I’m convinced, is the essential attribute and habit of artists of every medium, more important than particular talents or skills: They pay attention.

They pause and allow space and silence. They notice odd little details and juxtapositions that everyone else blows past in the rush of the day to day. They ponder the implications of what others only sense, and then figure out how to articulate them—that’s when the skills come in.

So this little moment at the Here and Now spot helps me begin to do that. A light breeze comes through and knocks drops of water from the leaves as the forest slowly brightens. A tiny frog hops by my feet. I take a deep breath and turn back up the trail, back toward the neighborhood streets and home and the keyboard, to set aside the to-do list for a little while and type these words.

—Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers

P.S. The card in the photo above was given to me to Adam, a participant in one of my songwriting workshops. It is intended for use at concerts.

P.S. Here is Wendy’s song “Here and Now,” written for the Acoustic Guitar Project and recorded last spring by our friend J.B. Nuttle of World One Video down in Maryland.