Observant: My #OneWord365 for 2020

Jun 24, 2021 | Op-Ed, Writing

My parents were the first to observe just how unobservant I am.  There’s a reasonable chance that, when my mom said, “Look quick! Did you see the [bear, deer, flying monkeys, velociraptor]?” it was just a feeble attempt to startle my nose out of a good book, so that I would not miss the endless mile markers as they raced backwards through the tempered glass windows of our VW. I imagined the slow respiration of stalwart trees pumping oxygen into the shimmering air as it rose in heat waves from the asphalt. Jarred so abruptly from the pages of other worlds as they took solid form in my head, it’s hard not to notice the sudden nausea brought on from reading in the car. “You’ll get carsick if you keep reading that, you know.” I did notice things, but I may have missed a beady-eyed crow as it flew faster to our destination than vulcanized rubber tires could carry us.

I think I’d had one or two dates with my husband before I noticed whether or not he wore glasses, or sported a mustache. I did notice his intelligence, his kindness, his trustworthiness – those things that matter most, but would hardly count at all in a police line-up. My mother laughed at me, perhaps relieved that I could not mentally reconstruct the tickle of hair against my upper lip. I doubt that I will ever put Sherlock Holmes to shame, but I think I have done, and can do, better than that.

It’s not just that writers need to be able to pick the purloiners of letters from a line-up; writers need to restock the bits and bobs that build imaginary worlds and all the actors in them. They don’t spring up from the void, fully formed; they are lovingly crafted from snippets of conversation; flashes of memory; wiggly things found under rocks; wisps of nightmares. The imagination must be restocked through keen observation and refilled like a muddy trout pond after years of drought and neglect. Laser focus on particular and pragmatic projects can lead to lack of energetic interest and observation when it comes to everything else.

There is another sense of the word observant: that of being diligently attentive to principles. In a sense, that brings me full circle to 2015, when I first discovered this insidious concept of choosing a single word to guide me in the coming year. In “Just ONE Word? You’re Kidding, Right?” I chose the word, “commit.” Last year’s word was, “limitless.” Did I observe time slipping, stealthy, from year to year, while commitment wavered and limits were, more often than not, self-imposed?

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

from Macbeth, William Shakespeare

Corinne Rodrigues writes, in “Is The Word Of The Year Practice Stressful?” that it’s meant to be “a visualization of what you want to be during the year. No pressure. No guilt.”  In my mind’s eye, I am hiding behind winter coats in a closet, clutching a dictionary to my chest, silently rocking back and forth. I want it all, I whisper. I don’t want a word. I want a paragraph. Then another, and another. If we’re talking about aspirational goals, and if I could choose more than one word, I’d keep both of those and add a new one: “observant.”

Life is short, and I want to live it, observant; I want to drink in the details, and wrestle loose from ordinary experience the elusive, recalcitrant words. At the end, I don’t want a tombstone with a handful of clichés carved into stone; some day, I want to fly – a billion dust motes sparkling like snow in sunshine, drifting onto the warm waves of the Atlantic Ocean as laughter rains up from a sandy beach into the endless blue sky. There are no words.

Meanwhile, in the interstices between that inevitable “some day” and the experiences of tomorrow and today, there are all the words.


Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.


  1. Rowan

    Holly, I loved this post. I had just been trying to remember who said
    “It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.”
    and you came to my rescue. Thank you and Happy New Year!

    • Holly Jahangiri

      How often have we been on the same wavelength, over the years, Rowan? 😊

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I hope your holidays have been fun, and I hope we ALL have a terrific new year!

  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

    You will. Once you are aware of how unobservant you are, you can never be that unobservant again.

    You regress – we all do – but the degree is less each time you remember: “Oh, yes – I must observe.”

    • Holly Jahangiri

      This is my hope: That the ability to observe is a muscle that can be built up through exercise and training. I’m also fascinated by the concept of the “mind palace” – I figure it should be a cinch for us writers to create one, but I’m not so sure it is.

  3. Mitch Mitchell

    I’ll never be all that observant; history’s shown me that I’m better at recalling things I’ve read than things I’ve seen unless I’m in storytelling mode. Even in storytelling mode I forget things like names; I’m a mess!

    Still, it’s a nice word for the year. I chose socialization. It’s way different than my norm but then 2019 was the strangest year I’ve ever had… and that’s saying something.

    BTW, I never got car sick with all the reading and traveling I did, but Dad could have killed me one of those times when he said “just one more” and not stopped at the rest stop. The meanie! lol

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Was that like the time J.J. said “The next Rest Area is just a few miles down the road, you can wait, right?” Sixty-four freakin’ miles… 30+ years later, it still comes up on road trips. “I can wait, but NOT SIXTY FOUR FREAKING MILES. Maybe twelve.” 🙂

      • Mitch Mitchell

        LOL, it’s exactly like that. Parents of that age were crazy. When my dad was in his 60’s and we traveled out of town I told him that we were stopping at every single rest area whether it was him or me who needed it… and he thanked me for it. 🙂

        • Holly Jahangiri

          Hahahaha…J.J. is my husband. Parents know we’re serious when we threaten to pee on the seat.

  4. Shalini

    Your WOTY reminded me of a similar word which I chose a couple of years ago – Savor! And I was about to choose Limitless this year! We do have quite a lot in common 🙂 Wish you a very happy new year, Holly!

    • Holly Jahangiri

      We do! And I like that: Savor! I’ll keep that in mind. It captures the sort of observant I want to be – not a passive observer, watching like go by, but an active observer, noticing and savoring the details I might otherwise have missed.

      Happy New Year to you, Shalini. Thank you for being a friend!

  5. Shilpa Gupte

    First of all, I LOVE the way you write, Holly! 🙂
    Observant is a good word. It’s something that we all need to do considering most of the time, most of us (me included) are lost in a world of our own, either in the dreams or in the pages of a book! Just this morning, I was reprimanding myself about how inobservant I am at times, especially with the kind of words that come out of my mouth! And here I read the word you have chosen–observant. 😛

    WIsh you the best for 2020, dear Holly!

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Thank you, Shilpa! That’s very kind of you, and it makes me very happy. Shalini and I discovered, yesterday, that we had much in common through our words of the year; now, here you are, and we are discovering the same! Be gentle with yourself; no need of reprimands and recriminations – just sit still and look outward. Practice a bit, intentionally, every day. I don’t expect to change a lifetime of bookworm-daydreamer, lost-in-headspace overnight. Maybe I should start by studying the gym… 🙂 Kill two birds with one stone, you know.

  6. Marian Allen

    You write so beautifully!!! I love to read your luminous prose. <3 Me, I always choose the same word, but my mother would disapprove my sharing it.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Oh, now you’ve piqued my curiosity, and remember – curiosity killed the cat, BUT SATISFACTION BROUGHT IT BACK! Do tell. 🙂 I have NO clue how your comment ended up in my spam bucket, either, but maybe the Bouncer read your mind when you thought that word! I shall have to have a stern word with him (not THAT one, I imagine! The other one!)

  7. Corinne Rodrigues

    Ah I love how your words flow, Holly. It’s hard to imagine that you are not observant. In all my interactions with you, I feel that detail seems to pass you by! But then we can all do with being more mindful and taking the time to allow the beauty of life to thrill and inspire us.
    Have a wonderfully, observant 2020.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Thank you!

      Is that a to typo, Corinne, or am I missing critical details in our interactions? 😊 (The occasional comma doesn’t count!)

      • Corinne Rodrigues

        Haha.. I meant “no details”! See what I mean? 😉

        • Holly Jahangiri

          I did see, actually, but yes – you did make your point well with that typo, whether you meant to or not.

  8. Unishta

    I can’t believe you don’t see things around you. After all you write so succinctly with a wicked sense of humour that only comes through sharp observation. However, I wish you well 2020 and look forward to your deeper insights to life coming with sharper observation.

    • Holly Jahangiri

      Maybe what I perceive as unobservant is really just subconscious observation that’s not done simmering around in my brain; when the “fever” breaks, it’ll let the thoughts out through my fingertips, I hope!

  9. Esha M Dutta

    Loved this beautiful post from you, Holly! Your words flow like magic—effortless, graceful and mellifluous!I’m surprised you say you’re not observant because reading your posts makes me feel you are!
    In my case, my family thinks that I’m not very observant and I quite agree, but I do tend to reflect and remember things from the past better than they do, so I guess we all have something that others don’t. I think being observant is a great asset to oneself! I’d love to be that but not quite sure if it too late in the day to try and be that!
    Btw, wishing you a wonderfully observant year ahead, Holly!
    Best wishes

  10. Jennifer Jones

    I really enjoyed reading about how you came to chose your WOTY. As a person who is completely unobservant, I think your word is perfect and really should guide you in 2020


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