Attention Flow

Sunrise over New York City as seen from the West Side

In Alexandra Horowitz‘s new book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, she explores the blocks around her home in New York City in the company of people with a particular expertise—an artist, a geologist, a self-professed “type nerd”, a field naturalist/insect advocate (among others)—as well as her toddler and her dog. A meditation on the complexity of life that usually goes unnoticed as well as a celebration of the layers of meaning that exist in the world around us, Horowitz’s book is a lyrical journey into how much we miss. It is also a lyrical reminder of how much more we can see if we look beyond what we consider to be the obvious.

From the book:

Part of what restricts us seeing things is that we have an expectation about what we will see, and we are actually perceptually restricted by that expectation. In a sense, expectation is the lost cousin of attention: both serve to reduce what we need to process of the world “out there.” Attention is the more charismatic member, packaged and sold more effectively, but expectation is also a crucial part of what we see. Together they allow us to be functional, reducing the sensory chaos of the world into unbothersome and understandable units.

I learned a new kind of attention when I first moved to New York City in the early 70’s. Over those first few months I walked every day, from one end of Manhattan to the other. With no expert guides or a nose-centric dog to guide me, I was in awe of the compression of life, the theatrical verticality, the unexpectedness of nooked and crannied neighborhoods everywhere. Having grown up in the Western U.S., I had my personal compass rose set to the horizontality of oceans and desert. But this! This was something else altogether. I never lost my infatuation with that high strung, high energy, “you can find anything here” city.

Mojave Desert

But I have other landscapes and other loves. I just returned from a week in the deserts of California and Nevada. How quickly I felt my sensibilities reacclimatize to the bare, the spare, the horizontal. I didn’t realize how much I have been longing for a reconnection with the solitude of that wide open space. Like Horowitz’s deepening revelations of the layers of life in a few blocks of New York City, these open spaces are full of secrets that could also be teased into view with the right expertise. Such a panoply of life is being played out just below the surface of things.

My interests on this trip leaned more into the personal rather than to probing however. Being there felt like a particular kind of homecoming. Deserts, in particular the Mojave, will always be my landscape of identity, my personal omphalos. That sandy, empty, open world is the set point of my origin: It is that stardust turned sandy soil that made my grandmother, my mother, and me. The same is true of my partner. As a result, that is the soil that also made our children.

In light of that linkage, it was a sacred gift to have been in that expanse when our first grandchild arrived on January 2. Now living in her new landscape of Washington DC, Siena Wilcox possesses a rich and textured tapestry that draws on many landscapes—the sandy stardust of the western American desert, the mountains and shorelines of Korea, and the grasslands and deserts of the Rann of Kutch in Gujarat India.

While Horowitz digs into the enchanting layers and recesses of life in New York City’s streets, the flow of our attention is on Siena, this brand new being who has come into existence and coalesces lineages, landscapes and dreams of a possible future.


21 Replies to “Attention Flow”

  1. Ginny Connors says:

    What a beautiful child.
    And of course, watching a very young child, who has few preconceived notions, see and experience the world is like seeing it anew also.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Ginny for your comment. A whole new groove is being cut into my consciousness.

  2. Congratulations what a beautiful child!!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Just following your lead Louise. Thank you for your words.

  3. A wonderful post, and congratulations on your new grandchild.
    For another way of making the point in this post, John Cage wrote: “One shouldn’t go to the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there.”

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Great quote Altoon. Thanks for sharing it here. I have to admit I have been surprised by the joy this child has already engendered. It’s been a long time since I had a connection with an infant. She will be teaching all of us about how to do that.

  4. Congratulations! And I will definitely look up Horowitz’ book.

  5. You have a particularly beautiful way of writing about what grounds you. I especially link how you’ve made the connections in this wonderful post. Congratulations to the new parents. This child will receive so much love, I’m sure.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Maureen! I am going to be in DC much more frequently now and look forward to seeing you.

  6. Jill Fineberg says:

    So Gramma!!!!! A newborn heart and being to snag your own heart. I am pulled in by Siena’s nose– already strong, solid, determined, adding a wise-ness to her face. And I am nuts for her blanket!!!!! She’s already showing her fashion sense!!!! The little landscape of her body/ being is as profoundly spacious as the Mohave, as complex as the people gathered at a NYC street corner. So happy for you.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Jill!!!! She’s here and so eager to find out just who this little Capricorn will be. Thanks for your message, we need a catch up soon.

  7. mrobertstcnj says:

    Deborah, thank you for this beautiful meditation on landscape, on your new grandchild and on, well, beauty. This essay will be a wonderful gift to Siena in years to come.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks Michael! It is lifechanging, this process. Who knew? Thanks again.

  8. Suzanne DesRosiers says:

    Wonderful news! Congratulations!

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thank you Suzanne.

  9. Siena, so uniquely herself while so much a part of diverse heritages! She will be loved by a mighty kindness.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      A mighty kindness…I love that so much. Thanks Di!

  10. blessings, a new blessing for you – so beautiful – as always you are a blessing to me – the connections I feel to you and your wisdom, always when I read your posts

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Thanks so much dear friend. I am so grateful we connected so many years ago.

  11. Many congratulations & blessings. What a wonderful way to welcome in the new year–with a new life! By the way, that’s a lovely photo of a beautiful infant indeed.

    Your post about seeing the world with new eyes and with expert eyes reminded me of John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      Ann, Thank you for your kind words. I am not capable of being objective of course. And thank you also for the reminder of Stilgoe’s book. I read it a while ago and remember it fondly. All the best to you and David.

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