Robin Wall Kimmerer on Attention

I’ve been growing mint and watching birds during the pandemic. I am constantly amazed by what I’ve been seeing and learning and how ignorant I was for over four decades of things that were right in front of me. This morning, I came across this quote from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (via Maria Popova) that resonated in ways that it wouldn’t have a year ago:

We poor myopic humans, with neither the raptor’s gift of long-distance acuity, nor the talents of a housefly for panoramic vision. However, with our big brains, we are at least aware of the limits of our vision. With a degree of humility rare in our species, we acknowledge there is much we can’t see, and so contrive remarkable ways to observe the world. Infrared satellite imagery, optical telescopes, and the Hubble space telescope bring vastness within our visual sphere. Electron microscopes let us wander the remote universe of our own cells. But at the middle scale, that of the unaided eye, our senses seem to be strangely dulled. With sophisticated technology, we strive to see what is beyond us, but are often blind to the myriad sparkling facets that lie so close at hand. We think we’re seeing when we’ve only scratched the surface. Our acuity at this middle scale seems diminished, not by any failing of the eyes, but by the willingness of the mind. Has the power of our devices led us to distrust our unaided eyes? Or have we become dismissive of what takes no technology but only time and patience to perceive? Attentiveness alone can rival the most powerful magnifying lens.

Hummingbird at Rest

A few years ago, my friend and long-time checkin partner, Kate, told me about seeing a hummingbird resting on a branch overhead, and how surprised she was, since she associated hummingbirds with, well, humming — constantly flitting about, with their wings moving blurringly fast. I was struck by this observation, because I had never seen a hummingbird resting before, and I suppose I had foolishly assumed that they simply never stopped going, going, going.

It turns out that the opposite is true. Hummingbirds spend the majority of their time sitting, because flying consumes an enormous amount of energy.

My partner has Mexican bush sage in her backyard, which is essentially nature’s hummingbird feeder. They absolutely love them. Whenever possible, I sit in her backyard, just waiting and watching. It never takes long for a hummingbird to swing by, moving from flower to flower before flying off.

This morning, I stepped out as the clouds moved ominously overhead, hoping to take in a few breaths outdoors before the rain came down. I watched a hummingbird swoop in, quickly moving from flower to flower, sucking on the nectar. Then it moved to a nearby tree and perched on a branch overhead. I watched it in wonder as it sat… and sat… and sat.

The Newbie Tax

When I first started getting into photography, I learned about the “newbie tax.” Cameras and their many accessories are expensive, and because you’re a beginner, you feel like you can get away with something cheaper. Instead of buying the $300 tripod with the $150 ballhead, you buy the $20 tripod from Amazon.com. After all, it got 4 stars, and it comes with a carrying case!

Your new tripod arrives, and it’s mostly fine, but one of the knobs is a little bit loose. Two months later, the knob breaks. No worries, you think to yourself. You only lost $20. But maybe it’s worth buying the $60 tripod this time. Your new tripod is sturdier, but it’s also heavy and unwieldy, so you rarely take it out. You finally force yourself to bring it with you on a five-mile sunset hike, but afterward, your sore legs and shoulders convince you to spring for the $150 ultra-compact travel tripod.

And on and on, until you finally end up buying the expensive tripod anyway. The cost of all those cheaper tripods you bought and subsequently discarded? That’s the newbie tax.

I think there’s some truth to this in photography as well as many aspects of life. By definition, newbies can’t truly know why good tripods are so valuable (and, hence, so expensive), which makes it hard for them to evaluate tradeoffs. However, money is also an imperfect representation of value. I have certainly paid my share of the newbie tax in my day, but I’ve also bought plenty of cheap equipment that continues to work beautifully. My 16-year old nephew takes better photos with his cheap phone than many gear heads I know who only own top-of-the-line equipment.

Furthermore, I’m not sure the learning you get from paying the newbie tax doesn’t pay for itself in the end.

A few weeks ago, I bought a cheap crab net from my neighborhood bait and tackle shop, and I decided to try my luck with it at Fort Point this past weekend. I know almost nothing about fishing, but the owner of the bait shop insisted that it was easy and that I would have a blast.

And I did! But it wasn’t easy, and it turned out the equipment she had sold me wasn’t quite adequate. My net was good enough to catch crabs off the pier, but it wasn’t sturdy enough to fend off the seal that dived under the pier repeatedly, stealing bait from chumps like me who didn’t know any better. The regulars on the pier shook their heads sympathetically as I stood there, staring at the hole in my net where the bait used to be.

I had paid the newbie tax. I was annoyed by this, and I was even more annoyed by the seal that, only a few moments earlier, I was marveling and cooing at. But afterward, I couldn’t help chuckling at our little run-in and appreciating the gorgeous morning I had spent on the water with my sister, sipping tea, gazing at the Golden Gate Bridge, taking in the community that met regularly at that pier, and day-dreaming about the tasty dinner that I didn’t end up catching. I’m pretty sure that my experience as a whole was more than worth the newbie tax.

Off to buy another (more expensive) net!

We Are Not Freaking Butterflies: An Update on Self-Care and Balance

It’s been two years since I’ve blogged about how my self-care practices have been going, a marked contrast from 2013, which is when I finally double-downed on my commitment to take better care of myself and to live a more balanced life. That was the year I left the company that I co-founded and the team that I loved to start my life and my livelihood over again. It was a hard process, and I blogged about it many times that year, but I was committed and determined, and I was fortunate to have lots of loving support.

Things finally turned a corner in 2015. I am exceptionally proud of this shift, and I love the life I’ve been living, but I remain cautious.

My friend, Jodie, recently told me that she hated when people used the word, “transformation,” to describe changes in their lives. I wholeheartedly agree. We are not caterpillars dissolving into some shapeless goo and emerging, irreversibly, from mummy-like nests in new winged forms. We are human beings. Maybe some wires in our brains get crossed or reinforced in different ways, but our old habits are still deeply embedded, constantly threatening to rear their ugly heads.

People don’t transform. We practice with intention and vigilance, and if we’re really smart, we hack the structures around us to support the lives we want to live.

I started recognizing the shift I wanted and needed to make almost a decade ago, thanks partially to burnout as well as to a relationship that is now ancient history. It took me another two years to take concrete action — hiring a coach and taking my first vacation in eight years. It took me another five years after that to get to where I am now.

Seven years total. Change is hard. It’s also not permanent.

I’ve been obsessing about work the past few weeks. I’m not dealing with any toxicity-induced stress. Quite the opposite. I’m grappling with issues that are complex and stimulating, and I’m not wanting to let go of any of them. I find myself compelled to push through weariness, to keep attacking each problem from different angles. Warning bells have been going off reminding me to disconnect, to slow down, to let go, to exercise, to breathe… and I’ve been cautiously, but consciously ignoring most of them.

I’m concerned enough to write about it, but I’m also heartened, because I’m aware of my self-awareness. I know what’s happening, and I’m letting it happen for now, knowing that I’ll have to make up for it very soon. Hearing the symphony of warning bells is both cause for concern and music to my ears, because there wouldn’t be any sound if not for all the cool little safety mechanisms I’ve put into place over the years.

When I get into one of these work modes, I often start getting curmudgeonly. I’m not mad at anybody, it just helps me think. But it’s also not a good thing if left unchecked. Negativity breeds negativity.

One of my practices is a weekly checkin with my friend and colleague, Kate Wing, which we’ve been doing for three years now. It’s mostly about work stuff, but we naturally weave stuff about our lives into our conversations as well.

At the end of each checkin, we both share a beautiful thing from that week. It’s a simple ritual, but it’s had a profound impact on me. I know I have to share something, and so I pay more attention on a regular basis to things that strike me as beautiful. What I’ve learned from the practice is that I actually experience beautiful things all the time, but instead of lingering on them and letting them soak in, I often just let them slip away. Our weekly ritual has strengthened my muscles around noticing and remembering.

Still, sometimes I need a little stimulation to remember, which is why it’s so helpful to do this with a partner. At the end of this week’s checkin, I couldn’t think of a beautiful thing immediately, so I asked Kate to go first. She shared a story about a moment of repose in the middle of a big meeting, where she stepped into a courtyard to take a breather, and had a brief, lovely encounter with an unusual bird. It was a classic Kate story — simple, sometimes whimsical, often profound.

Not only did her story delight me, it helped me remember all sorts of wonderful things that had happened this week. For whatever reason, I received a number of brief, unexpected notes from friends, family, and colleagues that brought me lots of joy. I was aware and appreciative of all of them in the moment, but they all quickly slipped away in favor of my knotty little work obsession. Thanks to this little practice of ours, I managed to scoop them away from the vortex of oblivion, and they have lingered in my consciousness ever since, bringing a smile to my face each time I think about them.

In the midst of these moments of joy, I can still hear the warning bells ring in the distance. These pleasant little victories, like my memories, can easily slip away without constant practice and vigilance. We are not freaking butterflies.

Nevertheless, I’m happy that I can hear the bells at all. I’m going to listen to them a little while longer, before gently resetting them. I’ll do a little work this long weekend, not because I have to, but because I want to. But I’ll also spend lots of it outside, with good friends and good food in this beautiful Bay Area weather, and maybe a little stillness thrown in for good measure.

Leonardo Da Vinci on Human Ingenuity and Nature

From The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci (Jean Paul Richter, 1888), XIV Anatomy, Zoology and Physiology:

Though human ingenuity may make various inventions… it will never devise any inventions more beautiful, nor more simple, nor more to the purpose than Nature does; because in her inventions nothing is wanting, and nothing is superfluous, and she needs no counterpoise when she makes limbs proper for motion in the bodies of animals.

Thanks to Andrew James Campbell for sharing.