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Attention Exercises

Wet Cement author Susan Schultz exercises her attention to the world with a shifting depth of field, that brings into brilliant focus both broad social issues, and the quotidian details of her work and neighborhood. This juxtaposition of near and far, often in the same paragraph, reawakens us to the integral continuity and dynamic complexity of lived experience. This is seeing being. Her two most recent collections Meditations (WCP) and Lillith Walks (with Blaze Vox Books), are both studies in observation.

Inspired by Susan's observational prowess I recently shared with her some images of my near world. Writing from the countryside, my desk is an observation deck for cycles of oak, wren, cardinal, woodpecker and black walnut. The lawn has become a lake of golden leaves. Autumn here is like the shedding of a thick green veil which has been obscuring the actual body of the hills and valleys. In the season here, and in Susan Schultz's work, an underlying clarity is revealed.

Dear Barbara--

Thank you for the autumn photos from North Carolina; Fall is one of our missing seasons in Hawai`i, though the air does turn more brisk and rain comes more often in November. So it’s not the perpetual summer of myth (or the tourist bureau), but a more subtle change. The orange and brown trees on hillsides nearby come of drought; we worry that they’ll burn.

In the seven or so years before I retired, I gave my creative writing students “attention exercises” as a way to distract them into attending to the world more than to their phones. (Let me add that the personal pronoun belongs here, too.) These exercises involved doing as little as possible over an extended time, and then writing about it. In class we’d stare at a raisin for eight minutes (I believe this is a zen exercise), eat the raisin very slowly, and then write about it. I was not looking for stories about talking raisins that reasoned in the world, though I got some good ones like that. Instead, the idea was to be as direct as possible in one’s attentions. For a while, I had a lot of Biology students; they did well at this, counting the creases, examining the crevasses, touching the sticky skin. In a class on research, I had students go to the library to watch. Much earlier in my teaching career, I asked students to go to a public place, eavesdrop on a conversation, and then write it down. I had a student so taken by the conversation she overheard that she followed people doing research. I have a poet friend who doesn’t fish, but watches fishermen at the shore.

At about this time, two events in my life turned me toward closer attention to the world, namely a dog named Lilith, and a new fascination with photography, inspired by my late “adoption” of an iPhone. Lilith and I walked miles each day through beautiful areas of windward Oahu, mostly Valley of the Temples Cemetery, which rises up a gentle slope toward the Ko`olau Mountains, sheer, green, crenelated. The mountains are astonishing, but the iPhone preferred close-ups: small toys left on children’s graves, sun damaged sunglasses, Heineken bottles, plate lunches in decay, incense sticks. Always there was light and water to refract these objects. I began to get closer and closer to my subjects, until they turned mysterious. A photograph of a muddy sidewalk abutting a green area became a puzzle; it also resembled some modern art. The world was coming up Barnett Newman, except his paintings were abstract. What are such images when they are located in the world? Does it not take a consciousness to go abstract? Abstract to me, maybe, but not to the earth. I did a series of abstract photographs of a Eucalyptus tree, and wrote about it by way of reading through Martin Buber’s I and Thou. (It’s titled I and Eucalyptus.)

We also began to have conversations with fellow walkers; this was in the late 2010s, so we were deep into COVID and the Trump years. Brief exchanges of chitchat—my dog and your dog, my aches and your pains—turned into something more strange and disturbing. Call it the human mind! After many of our walks, I would sit at Facebook and write down the Lilith story of the day in a box; these became my book Lilith Walks (BlazeVox). The walks became places where vignettes developed, like photographs; I remembered what I heard, then puzzled out where to begin telling the story, then when to end it. Often, readers would respond with judgment, though I tried hard not to make any.

My new book Meditations(January 2019 – January 2020) covers much of the same time period as Lilith Walks did. Some of the same stories are included in both books, but from different angles. In the Lilith book, I told stories as through a photo lens, as objectively as I could (I often couldn’t!); in Meditations, my attentions turned inward. The act of meditation is of watching one’s own thoughts go by, noting them without feeling too much attachment to them. It’s a different sort of a walk, located less in a place than in memory’s busy layers, with some conscious meaning-making (brooding) mixed in. If the Lilith book showed the reader, the Meditations book engaged in a telling spree. If Lilith Walks is a camera lens, then Meditations is a microphone, recording one mind’s ambient music.

For nearly seven years, Lilith and I have walked. The walk is discipline and pleasure, solitary and communal, a way to get out as a way to get in. The attention demanded by photograph or conversation draws me out into a world I love and sometimes abhor. Objects draw me so close as to lose category, name. I had a friend on Instagram who died several years ago who pestered me with “what’s that?” on nearly all of my posts. And he was a poet. Go figure. A walk is a poem, if you catch it.

For several weeks—months—I’ve had bursitis in my hips, both of them. There have been cycles of such pain since my early 30s. An orthopedist at the time diagnosed me with “matron’s hips,” namely hips too wide for the muscles and tendons that have to travel over them. (I can’t say that helped, and no doctor since has heard of such a thing.) What had been a cycle seemed to get stuck this time. To walk meant to be in pain, and also to witness the frustrations of my boon companion. I’ve stopped walking much, for now. My new series of photographs I’m calling “Bursitis Series.” Photos of light coming in the front door, of a cat coming home through a dirty screen, of my husband’s face streaked orange in the morning, of battered peeling paint on the lanai, of shadows cast by grandfather clock, of drips of water on a brown wall. Some of these photographs seem to work better in black and white, others in color.

So, a missing season and missing walks. Your photographs allow me to see autumn, and my photos enable me to take walks that only rarely get me outdoors. Your prompts (and your own prompt attention) get me to write down a kind of allegory—or at least story—of seeing. In writing, I love to try to see through; in photographs the “through” is gone, at least at first, until an image releases its light and the moment acquires a memory. A few weeks from now, my iPhone will remind me of my memories. And I will attend to them again, laughing that they aren’t mine, but now belong to the phone.

[Photo Credits: Black and white of Ahuimana, Oahu, Eucalyptus bark detail, Animal Screen and Wall Shadow by Susan Schultz in Hawaii. White oak detail and leaf fall video by Barbara Roether in North Carolina.

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