Autumn 2020 recap: attention vs intention and the search for the biggest skies

12/2020

I started college this autumn! Here's a quick summary:

  • My favorite class was intro "symbolic systems" (a combination of philosophy, linguistics, psychology, and artificial intelligence), in which we learned about lots of cool stuff.
  • I joined very few clubs, partially because I want to be more selective of what I dedicate my time to, and partially because I have an aversion to club interviews.
  • For the first time, I felt totally free to pursue random, disparate interests; I've subsequently realized if I had to relive high school, I would do things very differently (and high school was just a few months ago!) I'm sure the abundance of exciting opportunities at Stanford plays a part, but I've also found the dynamics of college so refreshing compared to high school, where I felt compelled to pursue prepackaged, pigeonholed activities.
  • I've missed more Zoom meetings than I'd like to admit, despite (or maybe due to) setting three notifications for every Google calendar event. I've also developed terrible sleep habits (as I write this, it's almost 2 AM).
  • I've made minimal effort to interact with people outside of what's required for class, because using a computer has begun to feel to me like arbitrarily manipulating a mouse pointer on a screen. I'm hoping to do better next quarter (in striking up conversations, not mouse-pointer manipulation).

...

There's a place near my home where I feel more alive than anywhere else. It's a public park away from the rest of the city, near the fork of two rivers, its landscape defined by flat grass plains save for a human sundial on a single hill. There are trees, some perhaps hundreds of years old and others planted in the last decade, row after row. There's a trail I can never predict how long I'll take to walk, because there's always something new--a woodpecker, a chipmunk, a cumulus cloud--to marvel at along the way. There are deer and geese and small birds that alternately flap their wings and glide, swimming sinusoidally through the air, together forming a continuously shape-shifting blob.1

When I visit this park on summer nights, most of my attention is spent fighting mosquitoes. On winter nights, though, I like to climb the hill in search of stars. And they're always there--stars in every direction, many more than I can count. Atop that hill is the biggest sky I've ever seen.

Panorama of sky; dark sky above hill with faint blue glow on the horizon

I've thought about what makes this park so different from the rest of the city. Physical isolation doesn't appear to be the full answer--after all, the busy highway bridge crossing the Arkansas River is still audible from the tip of the park (and besides, I'd like to think quiet can be achieved no matter how noisy the surroundings). Perhaps, then, it's an indifference to the pace and events of the outside: no matter what, the geese in the park will still graze on the grass.

I want to learn to graze on the grass no matter what, which is to say I'd like to be less affected by the outside too. To be clear, I'm referring specifically to the petty things here--the things that seem important in the moment but trivial at a temporal distance--not advocating for us all to sit around idly (especially given the shitty things going on in the world right now). In moments of particular pettiness, I find reassurance from old songs and good writing lasts only until I'm reminded again of objective reality: the world didn't change because I read a poem. And realistically, that's true: reading a poem, however profound, will almost never change what's going on outside. But I've never given it a chance to change how I respond.2

Two geese on green grass near asphalt trail with trees in background, one with head down grazing on grass

A few summers ago, I attended a tech conference in San Jose. My dad tagged along too, though I can't remember why; he spent his early mornings eating oatmeal as his AirBnB hosts' neighbors left for work in Teslas, then wandered for hours by bus and on foot, exploring small restaurants, libraries, and more. Afterwards, as he was recounting the places he'd visited and the things he'd done, one remark stood out: he told me he felt like the only relaxed person in the city.

I found this feeling of being "out of step" with one's world all too familiar. Lately, I've thought a lot about a related quote from a piece I read a few months ago for a (later-dropped) literature and urban studies class, about the metaphorical labyrinths and mazes within a city: "...the intentional traveler, wrapped up in the space of [their] own deliberations, is, by the same token, absent from the world itself...to [traverse a labyrinth], [one's] action must be closely and continually coupled with [one's] perception--that is, by an ever-vigilant monitoring of the path as it unfolds. Simply put, you have to watch your step, and to listen and feel as well."3 I've never stayed in San Jose for more than a few weeks, but between the exorbitant living expenses, proximity to an elite university, and generally intense culture, I'd guess people seldom get the opportunity to explore the city as a labyrinth. For many there, it's either laughable or plainly impossible to treat day-to-day life as anything but a maze.4

For those able to have made that choice voluntarily, I wondered: whether it's because feeling absent is uncomfortable, but feeling out of step is worse. Is it simply more unpleasant to walk unhurriedly when everyone else seems to be Dijkstra-ing? Fundamentally, is it even possible to carve out one's own rhythm in that kind of environment?

More intriguing to me, though, were the next two lines of the piece: "Path following, in short, is not so much intentional as attentional. It draws the follower out into the presence of the real." For reference, I've made it a goal to be an "intentional person" for as long as I've sought to make self-aware and carefully-considered decisions about what I do (which is unfortunately not as long as I'd like, and something I've yet to fully grasp). Indeed, elsewhere in the piece, the author claims intention creates a "stochastic sequence of moves punctuated by decision points"--not exactly flattering.

So perhaps intention is a double-edged sword, powerful but limiting. And if intentional isn't necessarily the best way to learn and live all the time, I'm curious what exactly attentional would entail. Doing whatever I feel like doing in the moment, instead of what "aligns best with my interests for the right reasons"? Abandoning direction altogether? My instinct says intention and attention aren't truly mutually exclusive, and there's probably a healthy balance of the two. In the context of walking a city, the metaphor is obvious, but in the context of life, the lines are more blurred.

I don't have a conclusion yet, and I don't suspect I'm supposed to. For now, I'll end with this thought: in my high school graduation speech, I confessed I was prone to "easily [losing] sight of myself"; to "[pursuing] goals without really knowing why."5 Knowing "why" is certainly still important to me, but I've begun to think it isn't the full answer.

...

On a recent clear day, my mom remarked "今天不会有晚霞了" (Mandarin: "jīn tiān bú huì yǒu wǎn xiá le"). I was confused, having misunderstood this as "there won't be a sunset today"--or, in other words, "the sun won't set today". But as it turns out, in Chinese, a 晚霞 (Mandarin: "wǎn xiá") and a 日落 (Mandarin: "rì luò") are not the same thing. While the 日落 is only the setting of the sun, the 晚霞 is also the red and orange glow that bounces off the clouds and fades into violet; it's the sunset as a work of art. And so, the sky of a 晚霞 is bigger than the sky of a 日落.

I wonder how much sky I've missed--how much I'm missing now--because my perception is framed by the wrong words. I'll keep searching for the right ones, for the biggest skies, up to the arrival of my next post and certainly beyond. Until then, stay safe, and as always, thank you for reading.

A few skyscrapers on the horizon, with faint orange glow behind them, fading into blue sky with crescent moon

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  1. I'm not sure what kind of bird they are, but my dad tells me the sparrows he grew up watching in Beijing flew like this.

  2. Special thanks to my friend Taylor for introducing and discussing these ideas of detachment and responding to the outside with me.

  3. Tim Ingold, "The Maze and the Labyrinth: Walking, Imagining and the Education of Attention".

  4. San Jose friends, please correct me if I'm mischaracterizing San Jose / Bay Area culture!

  5. Coincidentally, in that same speech, I made a weak attempt at exploring the importance of "[paying] closer attention".