An Ode to Paying Attention

This essay was written to accompany a gallery installation of personal photography in Stirling's Coffee House in the spring of 2022, which you can find photos of at the bottom of this post.

Like many of us, the past two years have upended much of what I used to believe about happiness and its proper place in my life. Change, isolation, uncertainty, and grief have become as familiar to my routine—to our collective routine—as cooking dinner. Each one of us has been touched by something chronic. Yet, somehow, the ineffability of my various heartaches still distorts the kind of support I feel I can gain from my loved ones, creating a particular kind of solitude that persists even in full rooms. Hope and depression feel inextricable and rhythmic. I spend days promising to myself that I will never again take for granted the physicality of community. I think often of all that I cannot wait to meet and feel again, and all that I have had to let go. In an Instagram post, Anna Marie Tendler asks us all, how does one digest grief?

About a half-year into the pandemic I realized that understanding happiness as my life’s goal was preventing me from digesting my grief and was in turn propelling my depression, which leads me to what has allowed me to really handle the past two years: re-orienting happiness as a byproduct of being as opposed to the point of it. I will not pretend to definitively know what “the point” is, but I do feel that it has much to do with finding a way to make peace with the coexistence of love and beauty and goodness in a world that often feels cruel and punishing. Around you in this gallery are moments I can hold up to the mirror to prove to myself, over and over again, that the world is still worth loving despite the shoe that always seems to drop. Moments that reconcile me to my own two feet on the ground. Just keep going; no feeling is final, Rilke reminds us. Indeed, the morning always comes, shows us that no feeling or condition is final, asks us to keep putting one foot in front of the other. So, we press on.

On my hardest days, I put one foot in front of the other while I recommit to paying attention to when the world insists on being beautiful. I do not try to make sense of a harsh and unrelenting world that still finds a way to enchant—I just let it be. Both/and. Both/and has saved me.

A well-loved café hidden in the back of a local store; blooming lupine as far as the eye can see; getting lost in conversation with a dear friend. I let these things in, let them break me open, let them remind me that solitude does not have to be lonely—which is a way of saying I let their tenderness prevent me from becoming hardened by the inexpressibility of my own experience. I realize with liberating clarity that sensitivity is strength. Sun on the water; a baby goat’s gentle greeting; deciding to have breakfast for dinner on a brisk November walk home. Fresh laundry out to dry; its creases and contrasts and colors. Its ordinariness. Its massive beauty.

Though mindful of Susan Sontag’s warnings about how photography can impact our perceptions and sense of responsibility in the world, I turn to a quote of hers from her address to the Vassar Class of 2003 to encapsulate what this gallery means to me:

Do stuff. Be clenched, curious. Not waiting for inspiration’s shrug or society’s kiss on the forehead. Pay attention. It’s all about paying attention. Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive. You'll notice that I haven't talked about love. Or about happiness. I've talked about becoming—or remaining—the person who can be happy, a lot of the time, without thinking that being happy is what it's all about. It's not. It's about becoming the largest, most inclusive, most responsive person you can be.

I have found that paying attention can accomplish what chasing happiness cannot. Attention is indeed vitality—an act of rebellion against the throes of apathy. Attention is so often more accessible than happiness, asking no more of us than to look around and linger a bit. Photography sings this back to me when I have forgotten the words.

I hope this gallery reminds you of the companionship the world offers you no matter how isolated by your own experience you may feel, be it in the form of late-afternoon light bathing your mother’s kitchen countertops or the way a crescent moon looks in a blank dusk sky—simple, ever-present, lovely. There is much to be loved all around us, and we do not have to make sense of it all in the context of harsh times. We just have to pay attention: open-hearted, open-handed.