3 min read

Paying Attention

For weeks now, I've been meaning to write a thing about entitlement and anger and the virus, and how the ways people are acting out during lockdown are just somewhat more acute expressions of the same cultural assumptions that pervade our economic and political systems and are ruining everything. And then more recently I was going to write a thing about elections and pragmatism and moral calculations. And every day something new happens that makes both of those things seem more relevant and urgent, but also I feel like those are the things I'm supposed to write about and it all just makes me feel exhausted.

So, instead I'm writing this, which is about attention.

Lately I've been making audio recordings when I go out walking. Sometimes I will go so far as to take my digital recorder with me, but often I just use my phone. I turn on the voice recording app, put the phone into my breast pocket, and then walk. I don't narrate or anything—the only times my voice appears in these recordings is when I'm talking to someone, usually my dog. I just walk. I walk, I cross the street to avoid other walkers, I stop to pick up my dog's poop, I cross the street again, eventually I get home and I stop the recording.

So far I haven't really listened to these recordings, except once or twice to see if the wind or my clothes were brushing too loudly against the microphone. I don't know if I will ever do anything with these recordings, or any of the other ones I've made around the house over the past 37 days. Probably not. I don't even really know why I'm making them, except that I want to. But in some ways perhaps the recordings aren't the point, or at least they're not what I get out of the experience of making the recordings.

Walking around my neighborhood with an audio recorder, I find myself more aware of the sounds around me than I used to be. Cars passing, yes, and dogs warning me away from their yards, and birds—so many birds—and my own footfalls. But other sounds, too. The hum of someone's dryer vent. The way that palm fronds don't rustle in the wind so much as clack. A neighbor frying something, I guess with their kitchen window open. I notice, too, that the freeway a couple miles away is quieter than it used to be. The recorder helps me pay attention.

The same thing happened when I started carrying a camera around with me—how many years ago was that now? Five? Eight? I'm not sure anymore. The camera is part of my way of being now, which sounds grandiose enough that I'd probably roll my eyes if someone else said it, but that's how it is. I seldom carry a "real" camera anymore, just my phone. But even when the phone stays in my pocket, even when it's in another room, I'm still looking now. I'm always looking, looking, looking—looking for pictures, looking for details, textures, spots of light, looking closely, seeing closely. Not seeing more, exactly, but seeing what's there. I'm paying attention.

This is why I've always taken exception when people grouse about photography. "Put the camera down! Just be there!" You've heard this before, we all have. But that's not how it is for me. I was never more aware of my surroundings, more present, more appreciative of the moment before I was actually looking at it, and I wasn't looking until I started bringing the camera with me. It's like that with the audio recorder, too. A year ago, out on walks with my dog or jogging by myself, mostly my attention was on tomorrow, or yesterday, or the thing I wanted to write but knew I probably wouldn't. Anywhere but here and any time but now. At best, during a run the feel of my feet on the pavement and the laboring of my breath might get me to let go of my thoughts for a while, but even then my awareness was internal, inside my body, not around me.

Maybe this isn't how it works for you, I don't know. Maybe you can be fully in the world just by thinking about it. For me, though, it's the act of recording, of trying to take a piece of the world with me, that lets me pay attention. If you're like me, try it some time. Turn on your phone's voice recorder when you go out, and see where your attention turns.

I hope you're well.

Take care,