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On attention

The power of focusing on what you want

Mel Hattie
Mel Hattie
7 min read
On attention

I’m a photographer. Every day it’s my job to go through hundreds of images and cull the wheat from the chaff. As a result, I spend a not-insignificant amount of time thinking about choice, aesthetics, and where we put our attention.

Unlike the agricultural process, when selecting the perfect image to use for a cover or trying to figure out where to spend your time and attention in your personal life—it’s a lot more difficult to choose what to keep and what to toss. Art and life are subjective. Aesthetics are less hard, empirical facts, than us choosing what systems and people and things we want to keep in our lives.

I’ve often found myself lost amongst myriad choices, knees gripped with analysis paralysis like the shoppers in that classic choice study who were offered too many gourmet jams and hated having to choose. Learning to choose is hard, but the more work I do to cultivate where I let my attention fall, the more I find myself growing as an artist and a person.

Thinking of how attention can expand and contract—micro to macro, from the head of a needle to the greater cosmos and the purpose of life itself, leaving you dizzy—reminds me of the fall of my second year at university, when shrooms made their way into our group of friends.

One night, maybe an hour after we’d eaten the fungus, I sat staring at my knees peeping through the worn-out fabric of my jeans, changing my focus from my knees to the intricate old patterns on the giant rug my roommates bought at the church estate sale of an old lady in town.

The rug was nine feet long rolled up and my now-husband and another roommate had walked it through town from church like a pair of archaeologists recovering treasure.

When they laid it on the floor, it looked for all the world like a regular old rug. Now, it looked like it was breathing. Moving in and out, like a chest rising up and down, the whorls expanding and contracting like scales. Like one of those woven finger traps you can buy at the dollar store.

At one point in the evening, seated on the kitchen floor, I made the mistake of looking directly into the mirror-like surface of the front of the oven. I saw my face dissolve and experienced a brief moment of total annihilation. Or oblivion. Or nirvana. For a second, I blinked out of existence.

That whole night, I felt like I couldn’t control where my attention went. It jumped up and ran off down the street, then came back and had me laughing at towels—“muppet skins”—in tears on the floor of a bathroom for hours. Ideas came and went as they pleased, without any say from me.

There was a creeping anxiety that followed me around for months afterward, like I’d touched the edge of something else, something sublime and awful and dangerous that took away something I realize I held dear. The ability to analyze and discard ideas. I know some people love psychedelics for the exact reason I didn’t. I discovered they’re not my jam, so to speak.

Nowadays, when I think about attention and interest, I often think about the act of processing. And also, about processing disorders.

I think of neurodivergent people who feel overwhelmed at processing daily life. I think all of us have experienced this to some degree. When the world comes at you all at once, and your brain seems unable to cut it down and see it one block at a time. It’s an onslaught of experience, the view of a god.

It’s like what happened to Semele, the mother of the Greek god Dionysus. When she asked to see her lover Zeus in his true, godlike form, instead of that of a human, she was overwhelmed upon seeing his godliness, burst into flame, and died. (Ugh, Zeus. Such a jerk.)

Something similar happened to the Nazis when they opened the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Our culture has this narrative thread that seeing too much, being unable to process, melts our brains (quite literally in Spielberg).

The ability to choose and process is such a privilege. For my job, from a single photoshoot, I may have a thousand photographs, which I whittle down to a selection of fifty. Just the best. The rest are detritus, the wood from which the final image is carved.

To be able to discard things is a gift. To curate is a privilege that reveals a unique perspective of the world’s beauty. That is aesthetic.

I know a lot of people struggle with making choices. I have several friends and close family members who’ve struggled with throwing things out—for example, when it comes to their possessions. For a long time, it was something that scared me. I couldn’t understand it.

For many years before she died, my great aunt Verna had dementia. In my second year of university, she moved into a full-time care home. My mom, grandmother, and I were tasked with cleaning out her house before we handed it over for sale. It was packed to the brim with “stuff.” Piles of discarded magazines and newspapers, old sets of cutlery (still in the boxes they came in), piles of old food tins. There was a particular smell—age, dust, and sweet rot. Mummified apple cores under the couch; an old, empty can of tuna that had the ghost of tuna smell. That sort of thing. It was unpleasant. Not quite TV-hoarders level, but had it gone on long enough, that’s what it would have become.

“Pick a room,” my mom said. We had to go through all of it.

I went up the pink carpeted stairs, warm, dusty light filtering in through the window, and opened the door to one room. Inside it was filled waist-high with various suitcases and boxes. I picked one suitcase at random and opened it. Inside, there was a single mason jar with the lid screwed on. Inside that, a single AAA battery and a nail.

“This is what crazy looks like,” my brain said. It was so uncomfortable. It was only the second time I’d been inside a hoarder’s house, and the first time the hoarder was related to me. What if our brains were similar?

We cleaned for hours and when we finally left I was pale and my heart was beating fast. In the car on the way home, Mom said, “Let’s get ice cream,” and I let most of mine melt in my hand because I felt too sick to eat it. I didn’t understand why she kept all those things. All that stuff. It made me sick. When I got home, I started throwing out things, compulsively. I was crying. I didn’t want my brain to get like Aunt Verna’s, all clogged up with miscellany and with no sense of choice or order.

Years later, reading the excellent book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Dr. Randy Frost, I got to understand hoarding a bit better, and my fear and anxiety of it has gradually waned. In the book, they explain that clinical hoarding often stems from the inability to choose or being unable to weigh the cost of keeping an object against the fear that you may need in the future (“What if X happens, I might need Y.” Hoarding can stem from trauma, but doesn’t always). People who hoard are often unable to organize or categorize easily.

After I read that, the next time I culled my photos, did a seasonal purge of my belongings, I took a moment to appreciate the efficiency and ruthlessness with which I threw things out. Bags of clothes, useless images, baby, bathwater, everything. My eyes flashed with pride as donations piled higher and higher by the door. Begone, things. Then, thinking of Marie Kondo, I added, thank you for your service.

The skill of editing your life is something you can get better at with practice. I know this because in my photography I’ve seen it improve with time. The first time I shot a wedding with five thousand photos I sat paralyzed in front of my computer screen, thinking, What have I done? Why have I cursed myself?

Then I started, going image by image and selecting what was decent, then going through that again and sifting it with an even finer mental mesh. Panning for gold until I had only a few hundred images left.

Being able to edit comes from experience. Choosing where to direct your attention comes from experience. It’s knowing what the best avocado in the bin is without even having to feel and squeeze them all first. It’s looking at the block of white marble and seeing the Venus within. It’s having a vision for what you want your life to be.

In therapy, I discuss the work I’m doing to prune my life, so that all the remains are the very best branches with berries I’d like to eat all day—my favourite things. As many have already said, the pandemic has made it clearer than ever the precious things we want in our lives, and the bullshit that we don’t. My therapist gives me a chapter to read on assertive communication and we discuss how to approach the most difficult snarls on the roots of my life. How to free myself. The first step is realizing I don’t want them in my life anymore. That the weight of their existence is more tiring than the work it would take to get rid of them.

The truest thing you can maybe take from this essay is that my fear of disorder and respect for clarity of choice reflects an effort to pull meaning from chaos, like so many of us try to do. Maybe that’s what makes us artists. Maybe how you select what’s in your life is your own way of creating a unique symphony out of the deafening cacophony of the universe.

When I was a kid my eyesight was excellent—better than 20/20. I used to brag about it in the way that kids do when they realize they’ve been handed a good thing they haven’t earned. Nowadays, I need to wear glasses to read signs in the distance, or when driving at night. But my vision has never been better.

Blanket Fort

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