Welcome to Week 2. Today’s lecture is all about attention.
3 Forms of Attention
When you think of giving attention to something, you might think of carefully studying it. Standing still, staring hard, concentrating. Observing it and trying to capture its smallest details so that you can understand it, classify it, know it. This type of focused attention is not as easy when you’re moving. It’s difficult to stare when you’re trying to make sure you don’t trip, and your visual acuity while in motion is lower. You see things differently, sometimes as a blur, sometimes as something else, sometimes not at all. But, this doesn’t mean that you can’t pay attention, or that all you pay attention to is watching out for cars or slippery patches or big chunks of ice on the trail. There are other ways to practice attention while moving through an outdoor space, and developing those other ways might help to open you up to noticing more, which in turn can help in your creative process and in your ability to be in wonderment. In this lecture, I’ll explore 3 of these other ways: seeing differently, listening deeply, and being available to noticing.
Learning to See Differently
Moving not only can alter what we see (or whether or not we see), but how we see. And moving can offer us a chance to see differently, that is, to see in ways that aren’t about clarity, focus, precision, and the finest details. Most often, we understand the “normal” way of seeing as one in which we use our central vision to see clearly what is in front of us. To study the details of a face or read words on a sign. Gather a scene in one quick glance. Identify every leaf on a tree, each individual blade of grass on a lawn.
Whether we realize it or not, we also rely on our peripheral vision, and this becomes especially important when we’re in motion. Peripheral vision enables us to see things off to the side, and above or below our central range. It allows us to detect motion, and to orient ourselves within a landscape. And, it can help us to see familiar landscapes in new ways.
In her 1999 book, Sight Unseen, Georgina Kleege, a writing professor at UC Berkeley who has been legally blind since the age of 11, discusses how she uses her peripheral vision to see the world differently. In one section, she describes how she relies on that peripheral vision when people ask her for directions:
People often ask me directions — apparently I look like I know where I’m going. My directions tend to mystify people because they’re too topographical. I may not know street names, but I retain a memory of the contours of land, of architectural features, of landscaping. Peripheral vision is not only the side-to-side view but what’s overhead and underfoot. I give details about the periphery of the route, where trees or building close in overhead, where the sidewalk narrows or widens. I tell people to keep going to the top of the hill, or to cross the street at the corner when the street begins to bank to the right. Since bodies of water tend to be low points, I say, “head toward the river,” even in cities where this is not a commonplace idiom. Sighted people are apparently oblivious to these aspects of their surroundings. They keep their eyes gripped in taut focus, scanning for road signs, house numbers, numbing their other senses. I say, “There’s a red awning, a blue door.” They’re speechless. My landmarks are not theirs. And when I ask directions they say, “it’s over there,” gesturing in a general direction. “You’ll know it when you see it.”
Question: How would you give directions for your route to someone that focused only on things you see in your peripheral vision?
I was drawn to Kleege’s book partly because, although my eye disease is different from hers — I have cone dystrophy, while she has a form of macular degeneration — l am currently losing all of my central vision and, like her, learning to rely more on my peripheral. It’s fascinating to become aware of the role my peripheral vision plays in how and what I see. In addition to giving more attention to what’s on the edge of the frame, above or below or to the side of me, I’ve become interested in how I see things through their movements — the darting squirrel, the blur of a bike, the flash of a bird. And, how I see things as softer, fuzzier, more as general forms than as sharp, discrete objects. Sometimes I can tell what kind of tree I’m running beside — an oak, a maple, basswood — and sometimes it only registers as “tree.”
In her poem, “I Look Up from my Book and Out at the World through Reading Glasses,” Diane Seuss offers a description that fits with what I see through my fuzzy, less focused, peripheral vision, and what normally sighted people might see when they’re moving quickly through a landscape:
The world, italicized.
Douglas fir blurs into archetype,
a black vertical with smeared green arms.
The load of pinecones at the top,
a brown smudge which could be anything: a wreath
of moths, a rabbit strung up
like a flag.
All trees are trees.
Death to modifiers.
A smear of blue, a smear of gold that could be a haystack,
a Cadillac, or a Medal of Honor without a neck to hang upon.
I know the dog killed something today, but it’s lost in fog.
A small red splotch in a band of monochromatic green.
And now, the mountain of bones is only a mountain capped in snow.
It’s a paradise of vagaries.
Just an eraser smudge,
All forms, the man wrote, tend toward blur.
There’s something dreamy and mysterious, almost magical, about the fuzziness of less focused vision. It can be inviting, opening up new ways of experiencing a place.
Question: What happens when you make what is on the edge of your vision the focus of our attention? What does that open up? How does it enable you to see differently? What do you see?
So far, I’ve talked about seeing the periphery literally, that is, using peripheral vision. But, it also works metaphorically, to refer to what’s on the edge of our understanding or is in contrast to what has been deemed important to notice, to make the center of our attention. The big, flashy, beautiful, fancy, “important” things. In the introduction to An Attempt At Exhausting a Place in Paris, the experimental poet Georges Perec describes the purpose of his project. After cataloging many of the known buildings — banks, bus stops, a police station, churches — he writes:
“A great number, if not the majority, of these things have been described, inventoried, photographed, talked about or registered. My intention in the pages that follow was to describe the rest instead: that which is generally not taken note of, that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens other than the weather, people, cars, and clouds.”
Activity: As you move, take note of what happens when nothing happens, those small things that often go unnoticed, or that we take for granted as part of the unimportant background to the main action:
the surface of the trails — layers of ice and snow
the way the bare branches lean across the road
as many entrances/exits/openings/thresholds as you can find
Paying attention, noticing, is often understood in terms of our vision and what we notice with our eyes. But what about the other senses? How do we notice with our nose, or our feet, or our ears? Learning to listen while moving outside is important — as a way to navigate safely through a place, but also as a way to gain a deeper familiarity with that place.
Consider what the poet Jorie Graham says, first about smell, then hearing, in her interview for the podcast, Between the Covers:
It takes very little to reawaken your sense of smell. All you have to do is walk down the street every day or around your home every day and make yourself work at smelling 5 or 6 things. Just saying that and that as you smell them. And within a week or two your whole olfactory instrument would awaken. So then you can begin to smell what actually had been unreachable for you. The same with the acoustic if you begin to listen for more and more sounds outside of you. Close your eyes or walk around and listen to what’s immediate — sure you can hear a crow, but can you hear behind that ringing of a doorbell and a neighbor’s house, the doves that just sounded and beyond that, in the distance, what is that sound? If you awaken all that, you’re just awakening your senses and your capacity as a human.
So, you want to learn to listen? First, practice it with intention. Write down what you hear. Then, listen more deeply. Try hearing beyond the immediate things, listen to more sounds at once, notice the layers of sound and how different sounds exist together, competing with each other or blending into each other. Take special note of sounds you hear that you initially thought were something else. Listen for everything, list it. Or, find a certain sound that you want to study, to be curious about why it sounds the way it does. Or, in the middle of your walk, or when you stop to take a quick break, record a moment of sound on your phone. Listen back to it later, describe it. Why did you capture it? Think about how sound works with your other senses to help you understand your surroundings. Make note of how sounds sound different on different days. Is it the quality of the air? the time of day? something different with you?
Because I know my vision is deteriorating and I need to learn to rely on it less, I’ve been experimenting with listening as a way to navigate and become familiar with a place. And I’ve been paying attention to how I already use sound to make sense of the world. A small winter example that involves a delightful sound. A few days ago, in mid-January, I was running above a sledding hill at Minnehaha Falls. As I moved, I heard a high-pitched voice joyfully yelling while they travelled down the hill. They kept yelling ahhhhhhhhh the whole way, which seemed like a long time. Their ahhhhhhhh was cutting in and out. I realized the sledding hill must be long and bumpy. Each time their voice cut out, they were going over a bump! This familiar sound made me smile and helped me to see the terrain without ever looking at it.
You don’t have to be losing your vision to find this type of paying attention to be useful or fun. We all use hearing (and smelling and touching) to help us see. By giving attention to it, you can learn more about how it works for you.
Question: While outside and in motion, how do/could you use your hearing to help you see?
Being available to noticing
Instead of staring hard and focusing, putting a great deal of effort and energy into remembering to notice, trying to KNOW what a thing is, being available to noticing is a matter of letting go, of opening up to the world. Absorbing details, inhaling the shapes and the colors, the feel of it all. Not trying to know or to classify, to capture a flower or a bird by fixing it in a certain category, but by beholding it, being with it, caring about and for it.
Moving, especially when we’re putting some effort into it, demands a lot of our attention. We don’t have the energy to focus intently on this flower or that bird for too long. Also, we might be focused on how our knee hurts or our breathing is labored. When we’re moving, our attention scatters and becomes harder to control. Instead of digging in and trying to control it, what would happen if we let go, then followed our attention, wherever it wanders, answered it whenever it calls?
The philosopher/mystic Simone Weil describes this type of attention as the opposite of will. Instead of clenching your jaw, tightening your muscles, concentrating, attention is a form of letting go, of waiting to be found by something, of not trying to think your way to it.
In “The Art of Finding,” ‘the poet Linda Gregg describes this letting go as learning to be available to seeing — to see carelessly with a kind of active passivity, letting the physical world pour in.
Practically speaking, this being available to seeing, this active passivity, is about not thinking, or not thinking hard about one particular thing. Letting your mind wander and being open to distractions, or shifts in attention. Letting the world interrupt you.
This interruption happened to me a few weeks ago as I neared the end of my run beside the gorge. I was not thinking about anything in particular, or only thinking about how I was tired from trudging through the slippery snow and glad I was almost done, when I heard a distinctive noise above: the harsh, awkward honks of geese. I looked up: a vee of geese! I stopped to watch them flying low until they disappeared behind a tree. I love noticing the geese, mostly hearing their honks drift down from a gray sky, sometimes seeing them through a break in the clouds, one time watching while a lone geese cried as it flew low across the ford bridge, just barely clearing the guardrails. It would be easy to not hear these geese or ignore them, but because I was open to noticing, they called to me to listen and to delight in the world around me.
Some of my favorite winter interruptions: the sparkle of the sun on the path, revealing a patch of ice; the sharp snap of cold snow being crushed; the soft shush of wet snow being stepped on; the lone glove — almost always black for some reason — left behind on the path; and, of course, the harsh and exciting cries of the wild geese.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Question: What are some of your favorite interruptions?
Activity on interruptions: As you walk or run, pay attention, not to anything in particular, but to everything. Be open to being interrupted. If and when that happens, stop moving. Make a note — on your phone, in a notebook you’ve carried with you — about what’s interrupted you and how and why.
Translating Attention and Wonder into Words, part two: Your Route
In the second installment of translation attention and wonder into words, this week I’ll discuss writing about your route as you run or walk or ski or whatever you do while outside in the winter. First, here are some instructions for an exercise I developed a few years ago called, “Get to Know the Path”:
Step One || Go outside and move
Head to the gorge and move above it on the paved trail. Move at an easy or moderate or fast pace for as long as you want.
Step Two || Prepare to pay attention
Do not wear headphones or move with anyone else. Clear your mind. Breathe.
Step Three || Pay Attention
Pick one of these three ways to pay attention:
Try to take it all in: the hills, the landmarks, how crooked the trail is, how far it is from the road and from the river, where it’s the trickiest and most dangerous.
Focus on only one thing about the trail, like:
How many times does the walking path diverge from the bike path?
When is the path (too) close to the road?
Where does the shared path narrow? Widen?
Where do the worst traffic jams between bikers and walkers and runners occur?
Where are the potholes? The divots? The cracked and cratered asphalt?
When does the path dip down? Rise up?
Where does the path swerve slightly?
Where do the sides of the path drop down steeply?
Do not try to pay attention to anything. Go out for a run and be present on the path and open to observing. Absorb the details through your feet, your breath, your body.
Step Four || Take notes
Speak them into your smartphone, write them in your log.
Step Five || Repeat steps 1-4
Go out and move by the gorge several times a week for several years.
Step Six || Write about it
Experiment with writing your own route descriptions in various forms, such as: limericks, fun rhymes, lists, directions, a lyric essay, haibuns, tankas.
I did a lot of experiments in route writing in the first years of my running log. I used it as a way to try out writing forms that were new to me. Some of these poems/essays are rough and awkward, but they were fun to write and helped me play around with writing in new ways. You can find some examples in the “Translating Wonder, part two” section.
This Week’s Readings on Being Open and Moving through a Place
Being available to noticing is not only about letting the world interrupt you, listening to its call. This week’s readings — brief excerpts from a novelist, a writer and scientist, and 3 poets — all speak to the idea of openness and its importance for being present and more aware of the world beyond yourself. Robin Wall Kimmerer describes this openness as an expansion that makes possible the dissolving of boundaries between “my world and the world of another,” and that enables us to give attention both to the pain and beauty that is equally present. Mary Oliver argues that openness is about feeling and empathy to the world and to others. Marie Howe suggests that it’s not about being open but staying open, not looking away from the world, even when it’s difficult. In her passage, Jaime Quatro links openness directly with running and describes it as a form of prayer where you become synced up with the exterior world — the cadence of birds, the heaviness of a wet cherry blossom. Finally, like Quatro, Rachel Richardson connects her understanding of openness to running, but instead of syncing up with the world, Richardson’s version of openness involves being open to the multiple and messy layers of meaning that co-exist in the place she runs. Being open to all of it — both the beauty and the pain — as she moves through it is how she sees her city.
Richardson’s description resonates for me and how I’ve been using my practice to try to open up to everything around me. I’m trying to confront the messy, complicated ways I notice and experience the natural world as I move through it — how I might delight in the Mississippi River Gorge, for example, as water, rock, tree, bird, wind, and recognize it as stolen land occupied and used, abused, restored, protected, ignored, exploited. Admire it as a geological wonder, slowly carved out by the river as it wore down the soft St. Peter sandstone, and see it as both wild/natural and cultivated/managed, the site of erosion due to water, and erosion due to the introduction of invasive species, industry, too many hikers, bikers, houses nearby.
For me, running through a place can help me to open up to it, to let it in. As I move, my shoulders relax, my chest expands, I inhale deeply and breathe in the world. Sometimes I feel a warmth spread from the top of my head to my toes. I am ready to notice everything. This openness doesn’t always happen, sometimes moving is just mundane, but these moments of attention and awareness, however small and fleeting, build on each other, accumulate.
How does moving open you up to the world?