TAoN No. 67: New Attention for Something Old
PLUS: Savoring the un-capturable; a new icebreaker; and a personal note
The Art of Noticing: 131 Ways to Spark Creativity, Find Inspiration, and Discover Joy In the Everyday offers exercises, prompts, provocations, games and things you can actually do to build attention muscles, stave off distraction, pick up on what everybody else overlooked, and experience the joy of noticing. Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Knopf. This newsletter offers related news and ideas that have come along since the book.
“Clean Out Some Drawers”
THE PROMPT: Seek out and revisit something that has been there all along — and deserves fresh consideration.
Much is being written right now about the distinct challenges of this late-but-ambiguous phase of the Covid-19 nightmare. There’s an end in sight — but there’s also a pervasive sense of burnout. There’s also a sense of hope for keeping positive lockdown-era habits, or at least avoid returning to bad old ones.
Against that complicated backdrop, a recent suggestion from artist/writer/Design Observer founder (and friend of TAoN) Jessica Helfand struck me as useful.
Early in the pandemic, Helfand started “The Self-Reliance Project,” a series of dispatches (referencing Emerson’s famous 1841 essay) on “what it means to be a maker during a crisis.” In one essay, she mused on various ways one might “recalibrate.” Among them: “Fall in love with some new thing, or even revisit what’s right in front of you in a new way, and fall in love with that.”
More recently, toward the end of this interview on the In the Pursuit of Luxury podcast, she revisited this idea of revisiting. Designers (among others) often focus on the future, she observed, to the point of dismissing history as a nostalgia trap. “But I think one of the things you can do in your studio, or in your life, is to revisit what you’ve got, and reconstitute it in some way,” she said, continuing:
“When my children were young, on rainy days or snowy days when I was going out of my mind, we’d often clean out their closets, and they’d always find some toy at the back of the closet that they forgot they had. Hours of fun would ensue. I know artists that do that. If you’re having a tough day in the studio and you don’t have any ideas, you clean out some drawers.”
Perhaps, Helfand continues, we’ve all had more of the “luxury” of “me time” than we ever wanted. But maybe that’s exactly why, as we wind this period down, we should consider “revisiting what you’ve got, and eliciting from it or excavating something of value.”
“There’s something really marvelous about finding that forgotten thing – old letters, old correspondence, old things you meant to read. And if that doesn’t work, you go do time travel on the Internet, and look at some great collection online. I’ve spent snowstorms looking at the Library of Congress, just looking at posters, and being so delighted.”
If you’ve reached a stage where it’s time to recalibrate again, this is a really a helpful line of thought: Look for the toy you forgot you have. “There’s a sort of less-is-more lesson in this,” Helfand concludes. “You think you need more, bigger, better things. But maybe, in your own back yard, you’ve got them already.”
More about Helfand’s wonderful books, paintings, and other work here.
As some of you know, I recently took the buyout that Medium offered to editorial employees; my last day is Wednesday. It’s a nice package that gives me plenty of breathing room, so don’t worry! But while I’ll be taking a bit of a break to weigh next moves — and to finish some personal projects, one in particular I’ll be excited to tell you about soon — this newsletter will continue as normal.
“Normal” means I’m always thinking about changes and experiments, but there will be no hiatus, is what I’m saying. I’ve really come to value and truly appreciate the readership here more and more. In fact, right now in particular I would love it if you would spread the word about TAoN. (If you like TAoN, that is; if you don’t, please keep that opinion to yourself!)
Something To Notice
“Something To Notice” is a simple suggestion for something you might want to make an effort to notice in the weeks ahead. That’s it. (This feature has gone missing since TAoN No. 59 but I’m bringing it back! “The Dictionary of Missing Words” series will return next issue.) This week’s suggestion comes from .. me!
Back story: On a recent bike ride along one of my regular routes, I caught a glimpse from the corner of my eye of a runaway helium balloon, silvery-pink against a deep blue sky. I craned to look at it and it zigged and zagged and almost seemed to follow me for a block or two. I considered stopping to take a picture — but realized there was no way to capture how gorgeous this thing looked.
A few days later, on a Sunday morning ride through an unfamiliar neighborhood, I caught the sound of a gospel singer from a church somewhere nearby; the music rose and fell as the wind shifted and I couldn’t nail down exactly where it was coming from. I considered stopping to make a sound shot — but realized there was no way to capture how gorgeous this music sounded.
Notice, and savor, the the things that can’t be captured.
Have a suggestion for Something To Notice? Tell me: email@example.com or in the comments.
Icebreaker Of The Week
Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here. || There’s also an Icebreaker Slack app, here. (Back story on that here.)
This week’s icebreaker comes from reader Doug Fawcett:
What is your most vivid memory of a historical event that occurred during your childhood?
This one is easier for me to answer if the age range includes adolescence — I was a teenager when The Challenger blew up, and have a very strong memory of learning about that from my friend whose locker was next to mine. His class had actually been watching the launch live. That said, Doug’s answer is kind of the standard-setter: the Kennedy assassination. But this is a great suggestion — thanks, Doug!
As usual, I’m still working through the backlog of icebreaker submissions, but as always, I want more:
Send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to firstname.lastname@example.org
In Other News
@libristerica (Another one I can’t actually read but I assume is nice!)
The mighty HILOBROW kicks off SEMIO OBJECTS, a series of essays by professional semioticians on objects of personal significance. (This is an extension of PROJECT:OBJECT, which now that I think about it is very in-line with the theme of this issue’s opening prompt!) The new series unfolds here.
Friend of TAoN Carla Diana’s terrific book My Robot Gets Me (I liked it so much I blurbed it!) is out. A virtual launch event in the form of a salon with Carla and folks from Smart Design is April 13: Registration is open now.
Also coming up: an online, communal session dedicated to writing letters to those no longer with us. Fascinating.
Totally delightful and mind-expanding BBC audio doc: “The poet Raymond Antrobus explores the art of translating sound for the eye, looking at the poetic possibilities of closed captions.”
I’m so into the collage illustrations of Lola Dupré, recently written up in Colossal. I’ve been following her Tumblr for years (she’s also on Instagram) and even tried to get her to be part of the Lost Objects installment of Project:Object. She was too busy, but I remain a fan!
“Onomatopee is a visual exploration of sound through interwoven typography and illustration.” Looks (sounds?) very cool!
Aging joyfully > aging gracefully.
I am quite excited about Anne Elizabeth Moore’s new memoir Gentrifier. One admirer describes it as a story of “class, race, gender, religion, sexuality, economics, love, community, and the medical industrial complex, all through the lens of Moore's experience of being given a 'free' house in Detroit.” Moore is a sharp observer and a terrifically smart, funny, fearless, and at times lacerating writer. And, of course, she is a friend of TAoN. More, including preorder info, here.
Mmuseumm is reopening!
Okay that’s it! Next issue in two weeks.
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or please use the comments!
Thanks for reading …
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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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Pulled out my book of Emerson essays to read "Self-Reliance". When it feels like so much has changed, it is fascinating to read old, previously written work that indicates people are still people and life is still life. A healthy reminder.
For me, it's more about cleaning out old notebooks, sorting through notes that were important to keep at one time. And tossing if the old ideas aren't fresh any more.
Thank you for the great ideas.
Regarding the icebreaker about a vivid memory of a historical event; from my childhood is definitely the Moon landing. As a teenager it is, without a doubt, the massacre at Jonestown. Still can't quite process that one.