“Life is a series of moments, like pearls on a string. If you fail to show up for these moments, you’ve missed your life.” - Professor Robert Muesse
“Drawing is seeing, and seeing is looking, and looking is loving.” - Wendy Macnaughton
In January, I bought a bird feeder and hung it in the backyard. I also picked up a laminated pocket guide to backyard birds of Northern California. Then, I started looking out the window.
After a few days, there they were: Birds! The pocket guide gave them names. Dark-eyed juncos, mourning doves, house finches. Spencer started a list of the species we saw in the yard. We got excited when we spotted a new one. We noticed trends. The birds changed with the seasons, the weather, and the time of day; in Spring at around 4:00 every afternoon hoards of sparrows, all subtly different (fox, song, white-crowned, gold-crowned) gathered. Now, in late summer, I haven’t seen a house finch in weeks.
Of course, the birds didn’t actually show up when I hung up the bird-feeder. They had been there all along, quiet in the trees and shrubs around us. It was just that I hadn’t ever noticed them before. I wasn’t looking.
I’ve noticed a thread winding through a lot of the stuff I’ve been reading and listening to in the last couple of weeks, and it feels to me to be fundamental. It is about our attention: how it guides us and how we can guide it, how it is essential for creativity, how easily it is wasted.
If the idea that we waste our attention does not sound new, I can confirm that it’s totally not! In 1670, the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in his Pensées:
“We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does... The present is never our end. The past and present are one means; the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so.
Pascal’s observation seems to me like it could have been written today; it seems to me that I could have written it about myself, though probably not so eloquently. So often it feels like what we call paying attention is passively absorbing the world. I use my “attention” to scroll through Instagram or Twitter; write to-do lists or grocery lists; futilely try to corral my children and bend them to my will; pick up the same toys for the fifth or sixth or seventh time that day. My thoughts are indeed usually focused on the past or the future, and float in and out of my mind seemingly from nowhere.
But making art is one way out. Being creative, focusing your gaze and attention, is a way off the inattention treadmill. This idea of being intentional about seeing the world around you, and how that inspires artists, comes up frequently in books about creativity. Attention is essential to art; I’ve seen quote after quote about this idea, repeated in The Artist’s Way, from Georgia O’Keeffe, from Ann Lamott, from Mary Oliver, and I’m sure there are hundreds more. In Making Comics, Lynda Barry prescribes keeping a daily diary. She writes, “Keeping a diary will change what you notice in the world around you...It will help you notice what you see when you look. In the way certain friends make you see the world in a different way, and the way certain companions make the world more alive, the daily diary will wake you up.”
And it’s not only that noticing things makes the world more alive. It actually changes your experience of the world. In How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell says: “One thing I have learned about attention is that certain forms of it are contagious. When you spend enough time with someone who pays close attention to something, you inevitably start to pay attention to some of the same things...I’ve also learned that patterns of attention - what we choose to notice and what we do not - are how we render reality for ourselves, and thus have a direct bearing on what we feel is possible at any given time.”
That you can direct your attention, and in turn change your reality, feels to me revolutionary. I mean, is that not INCREDIBLE? Our world is malleable, and we have the tools, in our mind, to mold it. (And here I will pause to recognize that this sounds like the observation of someone very stoned.) But my experience with the bird feeder showed me this is true: with a little effort on my part, a world that had always existed was revealed to me. It felt like magic; it was certainly a little magical.
In the spring, my kids and I would join Wendy Macnaughton’s “Draw Together” class on Instagram live. (This was back when we were newly quarantining and everything was taken away so suddenly, leaving so many voids and empty hours I desperately sought to fill with activities.) An exercise Wendy often led the kids through was blind contour drawing, where you draw someone while looking only at them, never at your paper. Afterwards Wendy would explain why she loved this exercise: it teaches you to really look at your subject. “Drawing is seeing, and seeing is looking, and looking is loving,” she’d say, and I’d have to turn my head away so my kids wouldn’t see me start to cry.
What Pascal was getting at in the 1600s, what the Buddha taught in the Sixth Century BC, what we’re taught as children in drawing class, and what we learn and relearn over and over as the days flow by: Paying attention takes effort, but it helps us show up for our lives. It is an act of love. It changes our experience of the world. It can be a source of creativity and inspiration. Our attention is magical, it is sacred, it is not to be wasted.
THE WEEK IN WORK
Completing Week 3 of The Artist’s Way, including daily morning pages and an artist’s date. This week, I went birding! I walked around North lake in Golden Gate Park and spotted lots of birds. It was honestly very nice. At home later I drew the above pictures of a few of the species I saw.
TBH, I spent a lot of time this week just kind of…messing around. I think a gentler term for that would be “practicing.” I’m trying to get more familiar with my watercolor paints and paintbrushes and how they behave on different types of paper, testing out different pens and pencils, etc. Low pressure projects (like drawing birds) help out here.
Relatedly, I started this course “Playing with Watercolor” taught by Lindsay Stripling on CreativeBug.
LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION
I have to say, the below are, like, the Greatest Hits of my recommendations. These are all resources I have returned to over and over again, or that have brought me lasting joy. I’d love to hear your Greatest Hits - reply to this email to tell me what you’re into.
Listening to Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation, a Great Courses lecture from Professor Robert Meusse. Zen Buddhists would call Pascal’s dilemma (the human dilemma) mindlessness, and as an antidote they would offer the tool of mindfulness meditation. Professor Meusse has a...unique...cadence, but these lectures are full of wisdom and offer instruction on how with effort we can learn to be present - to show up and pay attention to our daily life as it happens. (And here is my caveat that I am no expert meditator! I try to do it for 5-10 minutes a day and I feel like I’m terrible at it, but you can’t be bad at meditating as long as you show up! It’s a rule!)
Reading How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. This book changed my worldview when I read it last year. (It’s also where I got inspired to start birdwatching!) I’m on my second read right now.
Drawing through Lynda Barry’s Making Comics. I can’t say enough about how generous and special this book feels. Lynda Barry invites us all to live a richer life through art, and she makes it unintimidating. Anyone can draw! Should I be a little sheepish that I’ve mentioned her in every newsletter? TBH, I will probably be mentioning her again. I am a Lynda Devotee: I have loved her since I read Cruddy when I was 16. I got Making Comics right as the pandemic hit this year and it has been a life raft.
Downloading the Audubon Society app, and/or getting your regional Sibley’s pocket guide to identify birds. Especially during coronatimes, watching the birds has made me feel more connected to and grateful for the natural world. The Audubon app is free and great for novices like me because it helps you ID birds.
Trying your hand at a blind contour with Wendy Mac. She guides you through it here. I will forever love Wendy, a true angel of quarantine, offering her gifts to the world so that we could be “at home, together” when we needed that so much.
Thanks for reading! If you have thoughts on paying attention, birds, meditation, or like, existence…let me know by replying to this email. It makes my day.