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 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 give attention, or that all you give attention to is watching out for cars or potholes or a tree root 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 the 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.
The reading for this week is from Georgina Kleege and her 1999 book, Sight Unseen. Kleege is a professor at UC Berkeley where she teaches creative non-fiction. She has been legally blind since the age of 11.
In the first of the two brief excerpts I’ve chosen, Kleege describes her blind spot and the mechanics of how she sees. In the second, she compares her version of giving directions to that of a sighted person.
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 the 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 buildings close in overhead, where the sidewalk narrows or widens.
Question: How would you give directions of your route to someone?
I was drawn to Kleege’s book partly because, although I don’t have a type of macular degeneration like she does (I have cone dystrophy), I am currently losing all of my central vision and 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.
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. I feel that in Emily Dickinson’s short poem, with its purple woods and soft inhabitants and the impossibility of quite knowing:
A lane of Yellow led the eye (1650) / Emily Dickinson
A lane of Yellow led the eye
Unto a Purple Wood
Whose soft inhabitants to be
If Bird the silence contradict
Or flower presume to show
In that low summer of the West
Impossible to know –
Question: What happens when we make what is on the edge of our vision the focus of our attention? What does that open up? How does it enable us to see differently? What do you see?
So far, I’m talking 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:
- birds — the “boring” ones that don’t count on your bird “life list”
- the surface of the trails
- the dips in the road
- as many entrances/exits/openings/thresholds as you can find, the way out or into the action
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 you walk around and you 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?
Instead of avoiding or trying to ignore them, listen for and to those sounds that irritate you. Why and how do they irritate you?
In “Writing a Poem,” Shirley Geok-lin Lim takes up this challenge, giving attention to the relentless buzzing of a high-powered hose somewhere near by:
Writing a Poem/ Shirley Geok-lin Lim
The air is buzzing. Some one near by
is operating a giant machine. He’s scrubbing
a just sold building with a high-
powered hose. None of us are listening,
although we are each hopeless before
the dizz-dizz-dizz. If it was a monstrous
radiated beetle, we couldn’t be more
helpless. It’s eating up the hours
as if they were the sweet nectar of day,
which they are. It is impossible
to think or write. Its buzz takes away
feelings, takes over ears, is drilling a hole
in a loose tooth as you sit in history’s
dental chair, frantic and still, the drill
hammering the gums until only
spit oozes, dribbles, spills over, fills
cavities you didn’t know you had,
only the drill lives in your head
only the dull sharp dizz-dizz-dizz.
This is how the poem ends, dizz-dizz….
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, or why those bikers up ahead are taking up the entire path (or, is that just me?). 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.
Letting go of trying to pay attention can also involve letting go of trying to understand and know the thing you’re noticing. Responding to Krista Tippet’s lament on never knowing the names of birds, the poet/ornithologist J Drew Lanham says:
“Sometimes, what I try to get people to do is to disconnect for a moment from that absolute need to list and name, and just see the bird. Just see that bird. And you begin to absorb it, in a way, in a part of your brain that I don’t know the name of, but I think it’s a part of your brain that’s also got some heart in it.”
This idea of disconnecting from “that absolute need to list and name” is important. To not judge or classify or qualify, to not dismiss as too small or unimportant, but to be with in attention, care, wonder, love. To open up to the world with a wild enthusiasm, to be open to everything, like George Sheehan talked about in one of last week’s reading passages, or like Mary Oliver’s dog Luke, in the poem of the same name:
not in the serious,
that we choose
this blossom or that blossom—
the way we praise or don’t praise—
the way we love
or don’t love—
but the way
we long to be—
in the heaven of earth—
that wild, that loving.
In “The Art of Finding,” ‘the poet Linda Gregg contrasts this being open to everything with 3 other approaches her students take when they try to describe what they’re noticing in the world:
they typically “see” things in one of three ways: artistically, deliberately, or not at all. Those who see artistically instantly decorate their descriptions, turning them into something poetic…. The ones who see deliberately go on and on describing a brass lamp by the bed with painful exactness. And the ones who see only what is forced on their attention: the grandmother in a bikini riding on a skateboard, or a bloody car wreck. But with practice, they begin to see carelessly and learn a kind of active passivity until after a month nearly all of them have learned to be available to seeing—and the physical world pours in. Their journals fill up with lovely things like, “the mirror with nothing reflected in it.” This way of seeing is important, even vital to the poet, since it is crucial that a poet see when she or he is not looking—just as she must write when she is not writing. To write just because the poet wants to write is natural, but to learn to see is a blessing. The art of finding in poetry is the art of marrying the sacred to the world, the invisible to the human. (Linda Gregg).
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 the other day 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 and glad I was almost done, when I heard a distinctive noise below: the distorted voice of the coxswain offering instructions to her rowers through a bullhorn. I love noticing the rowers, mostly hearing their voices drift up from below, sometimes seeing them through a break in the trees, one time getting close enough to hear the rhythmic and awkward slap of their oars breaking the surface of the water. It would be easy to not hear this sound or ignore it, but because I was open to noticing it, it called to me to listen and to delight in the world around me.
Some of my favorite interruptions: the sparkle of the sun on the water, the smell of decomposing leaves, the clickity clack of a roller skier’s poles, the creak of a tree in the wind, and 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.
(“Wild Geese”/ Mary Oliver)
Question: What are some of your favorite interruptions?