On paying attention, intimately

It has become a cliché, at least in some circles, for Americans and occasionally Canadians to say that traveling to India changed their lives. I traveled to India in February 2005 as a (relatively new) bride, before I was a mother but while I was a chief resident in Obstetrics and Gynecology at a hospital in a large Ohio city.  My husband and I went to India so that I could be presented to my husband’s family, who are Punjabi.  I have no intention of explicitly hopping on the American-girl-goes-to-India transformationwagon, but several interesting things happened while I was there, including what I’m about to share.

We were staying with family in Delhi so the traditional tourist trip to the Taj Mahal in Agra was an exciting inevitability.  Although near to Delhi by Indian standards, traveling to Agra takes most of a day–hours of driving around and between mopeds, trucks, a cow, and some chickens.  Even in the back of an air-conditioned Mercedes, it not necessarily a comfortable ride. 

Along the way we saw dozens, maybe a hundred men dressing for work in their lean-tos, shaving and starching white shirts as calmly as if they were not on display. We stopped at McDonalds for veganburgers and chutney and at rest stops with caves labeled as toilets.  Once we arrived at the Taj I was struck by the thousands of shoes piled at its base.  Sandals, Nikes, cowboy boots, more than one pair of stilettos from all over the world.  Shoes aren’t allowed inside, so visitors leave them on the marble square below.  

I have a thing about the meaning of shoes. Moreover, I had delivered my thousandth baby the day before leaving for India, so I connected with those thousand shoes in a specific sort of way.  The unexpected connection wrenched me into a reflective state about myself and my profession, possibly for the first time in my life.  

And it was from that place of cultural disorientation, of unrecognized self-reflection, and of budding personal crisis that I took my first photograph, high on the walls of the Taj Majal.

I had been watching the women walk across the gigantic square for some time.  To me, they looked measured, purposeful, beautiful, comfortable.  From my own unsettled position, high above the square, I sought refuge in their collected groundedness and found comfort there.  

And as I connected to the image, I heard a voice coming firmly from the middle of my brain: “Take a picture, take right it now.”  And yet it took what seemed like forever for my will to overtake my hands.  Then with a sudden urgency I grabbed the little 35 millimeter from my khakis, zoomed in within an inch of its life and hit the button, hard, before cramming the camera way down into my back pocket.  A guilty moment of compulsion. I felt embarrassed for minutes after, as if I had done something wrong, looking around to make sure no one had seen me.
Why the hesitancy, the high drama, the anxiety? I had taken at least a dozen pictures already that day, all awkward photos of family members standing in a variety of formations, usually in front of structures or maybe some nature.  So why was taking this photo so difficult? 

This picture had no smiling family members; it was not in front of a famous landmark; it was not a picture I was expected to take.  There was no reason or excuse to take the picture other than as documentation of my aesthetic and my thoughts.  This picture was revealing, inescapable evidence of how I perceived myself. That day, high on the walls of the Taj Mahal, I gave myself permission to begin documenting my micromoments.

Micromoments, or bits of life, are prominent in the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who studies decision-making, behavioral economics and wellbeing.  Our lives are made of millions of micromoments, but Kahneman says we tend to remember the ones that tell a story, particularly the ones that embody moments of change, significance, or endings.  

Barbara Frederickson riffs off the ideas, suggesting that love is best considered a micromoment, because “love, like all emotions, surfaces like a distinct and fast-moving weather pattern, a subtle and ever-shifting force…love blossoms virtually any time two or more people — even strangers — connect over a shared positive emotion, be it mild or strong.”       
Eight years after snapping that picture of the women, I am grown comfortable in my chosen micromoments.  I blog them, photograph them, return to them for meaning mining and storytelling opportunities.  In short, I curate them.  My blogs, my photography, are they stories?  Without a doubt.  Are they connections with other people, even strangers?  Sometimes, but not always.  The Indian women crossing the square, for example, had no idea I was snapping their photo.  There is no such thing as a one-way connection; rather, in taking that picture I was connecting with myself, my own desires and needs.   

Let us consider the concept of academic intimacy for a moment.  Recently my colleagues have been discussing intimacy in education, in the context of VCU’s upcoming MOOC, an effort spearheaded by our marvelous Vice Provost of Learning Innovation and Student Success, @GardnerCampbell suggesting that intimacy within an academic environment should be a choice.  But is it? Should we, as educators, identify academic intimacy as a student choice?

Intimacy is a close association with or detailed knowledge of a place, subject, or period of history.  To reveal an intimate connection is to reveal one’s desires, one’s aesthetic, one’s self perception.  Is giving oneself over to intimacy essential for personal growth?

I would argue it is! (exclamation point intentional).  My documentation of my micromoments, both in image and in text, are not just an intimate connection between me and myself, but also between me and my environment.

Consider a micromoment I documented in “What I learned while buying stamps.” – I’ll provide an excerpt here:

…The customer at the front of the post office line, unfortunately, was not having nearly as much fun as I.  She was attempting to mail her son’s college applications.  Apparently, the son had failed to put the cities, states, and zip codes on his applications, thinking all that was required was the name of the school and a Post Office Box number.  Stubbornly retaining her spot at the service window, the customer forced us all to listen as she phoned her “ignorant” son.  While there were so many things wrong happening in this story, the ranting mother said something so compelling that I left the post office grateful for having participated, however passively, in her and her son’s troubling story.  You see, in the middle of her tirade, the woman shouted, “Son, you MUST pay attention…YOU MUST PAY ATTENTION IN LIFE.”      

You must pay attention in life.  As I left with two shiny books of stamps carefully folded into my wallet (they smelled good, too), I began to consider how well I had paid attention thus far in my life.

To pay attention in life requires intimate awareness of your surroundings, other people, society, power structures…the list is long.  You must pay attention in life.  Maybe this is the lesson we should be teaching young people.  Maybe being comfortable with intimacy and revealing oneself is not so much a student choice as a challenge, an accomplishment, an imperative, and one of an educator’s deeper hopes.

It’s just a thought to consider.


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