OPINION: ‘Life in the Cracks’ matters ...

OPINION: ‘Life in the Cracks’ matters now, more than ever

Photo by Bridget Quinn

With the ongoing tragedies of the global pandemic, the police brutality and uprisings for Black life, the slide towards fascism, the increasing upheavals of climate change, and the cracking apart of capitalist American culture —is all happening at the same time. Are you stressed out? Exhausted? Me too. You might be wondering why I thought this was a good time to make a community art exhibition about weeds growing up in the cracks of the pavement? (Submissions due September 15th

I believe that the last frontiers of capitalist conquest are happening in the contested territory of our attention. Advertising, social media, the 24-hour news cycle, and the myth of the American dream has many of us in a trance so profound that we don’t even take vacations anymore. How this looks in our daily lives is: constant task switching–helping the kids–working in small spurts– responding to texts–reading the news– all until we find ourselves scrolling mindlessly on social media with a deep horrible feeling.

In these conditions all the mental bandwidth we have is gobbled up until we lack the focus to achieve even simple tasks– we get irritable and become less empathetic, we have difficulty making plans and switch over to a sort of whack-a-mole style of living, where we are responding to urgent matters constantly and feel grumpy and overwhelmed. What I am describing here, has a name… it’s called directed attention fatigue. 

When I first came across the concept of directed attention fatigue, I started to see the American way of life a little differently, with all the angry drivers and people who seem pathologically resistant to acting out of care and concern for others in their community. While it would be unwise to blame all our ills on this condition, it is reasonable to think that many of us suffer from directed attention fatigue on a very regular basis. So, what might you ask is the “cure” for directed attention fatigue?

Two researchers out of the University of Michigan, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan observed that experiences that tended to help people restore their attention (and empathy) had four common traits. Attention restoration occurs when people have the feeling of being away from their everyday worries, in environments that are rich in sources of “soft fascination” (like forests) that are immersive in scale (both physical and temporal), and when people feel safe and at ease. 

Countless studies were put together to test attention restoration theory (ART), and sure enough, after a short walk in the woods, people are more able to concentrate, and even more likely to help each other.

But what happens when we don’t all have botanical gardens next door? What happens when the nature we can easily and safely access isn’t really immersive, but instead a patchwork of alleys and “vacant” lots, and edge spaces? What if our bodies or mobility makes trips out to the nearest park impossible? 

I believe this is where art can be used to enhance the feeling of being away and helping to become immersed in the environment. The act of setting aside time to sit down with a sketchbook to closely observe everyday, nearby wilds is a sort of threshold between the world of daily chores and some other place — so even in small patches of nearby nature, we can take a moment away from the constant and urgent chatter of the world on fire. 

Art is not just about the production of objects, images, sounds… art is also a process wherein we tune our attention to our body/mind/heart/soul/spirit in relation to the world and listen to a deeper creative voice within us. Could making art inspired by a focused interaction with plants have the side effect of helping you regain the sacred territory of your own attention and gain access to the often repressed feelings and creative impulses we have? Perhaps these more muted impulses are critical to our survival, and perhaps may even give us access to a more joyful and cooperative survival?

It is easy to use the language of psychology to legitimize a practice of listening to plants—and indeed that is what I have done here. It’s important to point out that indigenous people all over the world have known the importance of listening to plants- it’s not just about feeling better. It’s about relationships with our friends and ancestors, human and more than human. 

As the descendant of European ancestors, I’ve noticed how Western ways of knowing the world tend to see the world in a mechanical way where all beings are dissected into a series of lifeless and quantifiable entities. Spend thirty minutes sketching some weeds growing from a crack in the sidewalk– and that way of looking simply unravels– the light changes, birds swoop in and out of your field of vision– the world is undeniably alive. 

I think this sort of practice is great for everyone, but for those of us with European Ancestry, whose relational earth-based cultures lay repressed under generations of colonial culture — simple practices like this could be incredibly powerful. We may not know the specific cultural practices of earth connection practiced by our ancestors, but perhaps some of this knowledge is hiding within us — if we only stop to listen. 

Paying close attention to nature, not in an immersive nature park, but instead beside our homes, or in back alleys has the effect of helping us remember how we are connected to the life around us not just in specific designated places but everywhere. When you start seeing the world this way, a sense of deep belonging and responsibility emerge. 

The world is changing at a high rate of speed and there is no returning to how things were before. If we are going to reestablish our ability to think with any clarity and to open our hearts to those around us we will need to adapt our very way of being. Zooming around with survival-of-the fittest philosophy just doesn’t appeal to me. 

The colonial and capitalist ways we have learned to survive will not suit the reality I want to live in. I feel it’s important to adapt my very way of being so that I can help compost aspects of that culture in service of a more-lively, just and symbiotic society. A society where we help each other and do not accept comfort at anyone else’s expense. And practices of slowing down and connecting with my environment and myself is vital to this work.

It's easy to say that we need recyclable, sustainable technologies, old and new- pottery making, bricklaying, sewing, weaving, carpentry, plumbing, solar power, farming, IT devices, whatever. But here, in the midst of our orgy of being lords of creation, texting as we drive, it's hard to put down the smartphone and stop looking for the next technofix. Changing our minds is going to be a big change. To use the world well, to be able to stop wasting it and our time in it, we need to relearn our being in it. 
- Ursula Le Guin

In this time I believe it’s important that we tune our attention to the wilds nearby where we can hear our deeper selves, feel our roots in the shifting ground of reality, and consciously and bravely adapt. I offer the practice of making art with weeds growing from the sidewalk as a simple invitation to a more lively and just world. Join me in looking at what is growing in the cracks.