On LookingOn Looking
by Alexandra Horowitz

Walking around the familiar blocks that surround the house I’ve lived in almost all my life, my level of attention fluctuates.  On a day when I’m walking to get somewhere in a hurry, I see only what is unexpected or surprising, passing by the just-as-usual without a thought. On a night when I’m prayer-walking before bed, I’m mentally distant from the distractions of houses and cars — and as I sink into prayer, I even forget the breeze on my face. But there are other days, when I’m venturing out for a walk after a week trapped in the house by weather or health impediments, days when I’m so refreshed to be out there again, when I wake up to all sorts of attentiveness beyond what is usual.

Walking in places not so familiar as my own block, my attention is usually more wide-ranging and open. New things to see mean deeper seeing is going on. But how to bring that sort of heightened attentiveness to my own familiar block — ah, that’s a good question. And that’s the question this author sets out to explore in this book. She undertakes to simply “go for a walk” around a familiar place, a dozen walks with a dozen different “guides” who will help her look at the block with fresh eyes and a new mind.

Walking with a toddler and seeing with a toddler’s eyes brings her attention to circles and triangles, a standpipe and an abandoned shoe. Walking with a geologist, she learns to see that even the sidewalk under her feet has a personality and a history. Another guide helps her appreciate the cacophony of printed lettering in her urban environment — from no-parking signs to faded advertising painted on brick walls — as something other than mental “noise”.  Walking with artist Maira Kalman, she begins to look with Kalman’s excitement at odd details, to stop trying to sweep them into a larger generalized picture — and she follows her guide through doors into buildings it had never occurred to her to enter — and was drawn into eye contact and conversations with strangers enough to be discomfiting.  One wildlife naturalist introduces her to her millions of neighbors who live under rocks and in trees — bugs and slugs, wasps and ants — while another naturalist introduces her to the urban wildlife menagerie —  squirrels, raccoons, pigeons, and rats.

An expert in the field of public spaces teaches her to notice how crowds of people move, how they “flock” and gather, how differently they walk on a crowded block or an empty plaza. A doctor who is accustomed to making diagnoses based on posture and gait takes a walk with our author and together they attend to all the various ways people stand and walk and move. A walk with a blind friend introduces her to all the senses other than sight — the kinesthetic sense of where one’s body is in relation to the objects all around, or the auditory sense which creates sonic “maps” which can tell us when we’ve entered a new and different space. Walking with a sound engineer, her ears learn to make sense of the urban soundscape which is usually only something to be tuned out if possible. Walking her dog, she pauses while the dog explores with his nose all the surfaces she cannot smell, while she uses her other senses and her curiosity to discover what the dog is trying to show her.

By the time the book ends, the author is able to bring all the richness of what her many guides taught her to her own individual walks, seeing a fresh city around her. Having tagged along, in a way, by reading the book, I wonder if my own walks will have become any richer, too.