Walk That Way

TAoN No. 77: Open the gait! Plus: A new installment of Something To Notice, and more.

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Here’s a class I wish I’d been offered in college: “How To Pay Attention.”

It’s a real class! It’s taught by Nick Seaver, an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at Tufts University, and a nice fellow with whom I’ve had a few email exchanges over the last couple of years.

For quite a while now, I’ve wanted to borrow one of Nick’s assignments to share here, and this week I’m finally doing it. I’ve picked one that’s about walking — but with an interesting spin:

“Go for a walk. Pay attention to your feet: How far apart are your steps? Do you feel yourself sway when you walk? What part of your body leads? Now, look at people walking around you; watch their gait, and try to emulate it — take shorter steps, sway more, etc. Pay attention to how your body responds. How does it feel?”

Nick’s students are assigned a related reading, “On Rocks, Walks, and Talks In West Africa: Cultural Categories and an Anthropology of the Senses,” by Kathryn Linn Geurts. You can read that here … but since spending time with an academic paper may not be on your agenda for the week, I’ll do my best to summarize what I found compelling about it.

Geurts discusses a term used by Anlo-Ewe-speaking residents of southeastern Ghana: seselelame. Roughly, it means “feeling in the body.” And more broadly what Geurts explores is the way the term collapses traditional Western distinctions between “feelings” in the sense of a sentiment or emotion, and “sensations” of the sort we associate with the five senses. Seselelame blends those ideas in a way that has interesting implications. Geurts writes:

“Seselelame represents a cultural meaning system in which bodily feeling is attended to as a source of information.”

(Readers of TAoN might detect some resonance with the “hunt for a feeling” exercise in the book, or this newsletter’s recurring endorsement of Duchamp’s notion of “infrathin” sensations or qualities that are outside the five senses, and the related Dictionary of Missing Words series.)

Here, Geurts observes that the blurring of sensation and feeling extends to walking in notable ways: a link between gait and an “inner state of being.” There are dozens of Anlo-Ewe words for specific modes of walking — like a lion, stealthily, “the brisk movements made by a small man as he walks,” and so on. After Geurts pursues the concern of a mother admonishing her children not to walk in the manner of a feckless and irresponsible person, she concludes that for many, “there is a clear connection between bodily sensations and who you are or who you become.”

I’m drastically oversimplifying, and (inevitably) dwelling on the parts that interest me. But — keep all this in mind as you experiment with gait. It’s certainly the most compelling spin on the timeless advice to get out and walk that I’ve heard in a while!

My sincere thanks to Nick Seaver! You can learn more about his class — his agenda, while overlapping some with TAoN, ultimately has more to do with exploring, deconstructing, “problematizing” and questioning the idea of attention — in this interesting overview. Here’s the syllabus; you may recognize some of the names in the readings and assignments (Perec, Oliveros, etc.) but there’s lots here that will probably be new. And many of the assignments are super promising!


“Something To Notice” is an occasional series made up of simple suggestions for something you might want to make an effort to notice in the weeks ahead. That’s it. This week’s suggestion comes from reader Laura Grace Weldon.

Familiar strangers

Back story: “These are people we regularly see on the subway, coffee shop, or running trail but don’t know personally,” Laura writes. “Noticing these people more intentionally affirms our wider connections, especially in these isolating times. There’s also meaning in calling to mind the familiar strangers we no longer see.”

I should note that Laura shared this idea withe me months ago; things are a bit less isolating lately in the U.S. at least, so I have a feeling a lot of us have been re-encountering familiar strangers. (Let’s hope that continues, and the current discouraging virus numbers don’t prove too much of a lasting setback.)

A remarkable coda: Laura published a lovely and related poem called “You Don’t Know Me But” — and says that “a stranger reached out to me to say he read it when it was displayed in a homemade poetry kiosk in someone’s Portland, Oregon yard.” I love it. Thanks so much, Laura!

Have a suggestion for Something To Notice? Tell me: consumed@robwalker.net or in the comments.

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Okay that’s it!

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: consumed@robwalker.net. Or use the comments!

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