All the Tenderness of Attention

Quote by Mark Nepo, block via John Oparah. [White text on a black background: to listen is to lean in softly with the willingness to be changed by what we hear.]

In February, Montez Press Radio broadcast the first episode of Radio, an audio experiment where four people share their channels, describe what’s been collected, and reveal the threads of thought therein. In anticipation of our second episode next month, we’re publishing the transcript of Sharon Neema talking about the channel ad tendere.

I often find myself falling down etymological rabbit holes. Some curiosity or other will have me chasing down the origin of a word, digging for its root. Sometimes what I find is simple, straightforward, the etymological equivalent of 1 + 1 = 2. But sometimes I am met with a reanimated understanding of whatever white-rabbit word I followed.

I mean “reanimated” particularly in its definition of “a restoring to consciousness,” because there are etymologies that stir my awareness of a word in this way, causing me to become deliberate again in my use of the word. Sometimes a word, its origins, its root meanings, and etymological cousins will remind me of the wonder of language — all that a word says (or doesn’t quite say, but still means), all that is lost or that lingers on in translations and evolutions of use and form.

“Attention” is one such word. I don’t remember the first time that I looked up its etymology, if it was a simple, passing, personal curiosity, or if it had been sparked by something I had seen or read or been told.

The root of the word “attention” is the Latin ad tendere which means ”to stretch towards.“ Tendere, or “stretch,” comes from a Proto-Indo-European root “ten-” with the same meaning, "to stretch.” Many other words share this root, but amongst them is of course the word “tender.”

This old kinship that exists between these two words, between attention and tenderness, is one that I have come back to over and over again. 

An arena channel, titled “ad tendere,” grew out of this stubborn rumination, as a space for me to consider all the attention of tenderness and all the tenderness of attention. 

Perhaps ironically, much of what sits in this channel was put there without any particular attention or intentional thought to the other material within this little virtual container. But now, looking back through the blocks, through the bits and fragments that have found home there over the past year or so, it is evident to me that there are, in fact, related threads of thought running through the channel, ideas that I unintentionally kept coming back to. I wasn’t trying to create some methodical, structured analysis of attention and tenderness. I was simply reaching for the shiny things, gathering what caught my attention for the sole reason that it caught my attention. However, out of this intuitive process, what emerged is a representation of  ideas, concepts, and subjects that I am drawn to, that my attention is tender towards.

I am tender towards language, and several blocks within the channel consider the language around attention and tenderness. One block, for example, outlines the different things we do with the word “attention” linguistically.

Image by Juliana Castro. [A chart showing the various verbs that accompany the word “attention” in four different languages. In English, attention is something you pay, as in “pay attention.” In Spanish, you lend it. In French, attention is something you do and in German, it is something you gift. ]

Another block looks at the word “mind.”

Block via cara f. [On one side of a diagram is the word “mind” with arrows drawn to two of its definitions: “to pay attention to” and “to care for.” Between these two definitions, there is another arrow — a double-headed one.]

I love the suggestion that to pay attention to something is implicitly to care for it, to be tender towards it, to take on the responsibility of looking after it. 

In an excerpt from his book, The Disappearance of Rituals, Byung-Chul Han writes,

It is no coincidence that the word ‘religion’ comes from relegare, to focus the attention. All religious praxis is an exercise of attention…. repetitions make the attention stabilize and deepen. Repetition is the essential feature of rituals.

Rituals are another thing I am persistently curious about, particularly in the ways that ritual exists outside of religious contexts — in the mundane, the ritual of a morning routine, or tending to a plant, or gathering to share a meal. So I am partial to this framing of ritual as repeated attention. There is a particular tenderness in that, in that devotion to ritual. As the poet Mary Oliver writes,

[Book page: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.”]

Devotion, in the form of love, is another thread in the channel that stitches together attention and tenderness. To love is to see, to pay tender attention to. As Octavio Paz puts it, “the heart is an eye.” Or as Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to a friend, “I love you, and I am conscious of you all the time.” There is an essay by Ella Risbridger about kitchens as a place of intimacy. In it, she also writes about the tender, loving attention of knowing how someone takes their tea or coffee. She calls this “a small and delightful privilege because it’s a fact of too little consequence to be ferreted out except with small repeated acts of care.”

In the arena channel, there is a screenshot of some tumblr post, that ponders another one of these small acts of care: when you have prepared a fruit for yourself to eat, but then, joined by someone you love, you offer them every other piece of fruit, without them asking. I love the parallels between the image of stretching out this fruit offering and the “stretch” in the etymological origins of attention and tenderness. To love is to offer attention and tenderness in outstretched hand.

Block via Aura Library [Black text on white background: " eat a fruit is to know its meaning."]

Another aspect of attention and tenderness I have been thinking through, by way of this arena channel, is how to bring more tenderness and attention to particular practices. The practice of reading or research or study, for example. In one of the documents linked to the channel, “An Invitation to Radical Tenderness” by Dani d’Emilia and Vanessa Andreotti, there is a line that reads,

It is sense-full, to allow our state of wondering to stay open, without always trapping it into meaning.

Another block in the channel, is an image of an open book, with every inch of the pages, including the margins, entirely highlighted in bright neon yellow. At the bottom of the image, sit the words “everything is important.” I love the ways both of these oppose academic norms of succinctness and prioritisation and ideas around what information is important or worth paying attention to.

Block via dani bloop. [The entirely-highlighted page described above.]

If everything is important, if we allow wonder to guide us without trapping it into meaning, our attention, our noticing, becomes expansive. One of the essays linked within the channel is “Notes on Notes” by Mary Cappello. In it she writes about note-taking as an act of noticing and this particular noticing as something which has to do with missing— “missing what we’d been told to pay attention to.” I am curious about this as an  approach to writing, the idea of intentionally missing what we’ve been told to pay attention to and instead stretching towards the What Else. In an essay on writing by Abigail DeWitt, she urges,

In the midst of a flood, consider the colour of the water.

I have been thinking about why this particular relationship between tenderness and attention is one that I return to so often. Perhaps it is because I am a poet. In one of the blocks in this channel, an excerpt from one of John Berger’s books positions poetry as the process through which attention is made tender. Poetry makes language care because it renders everything intimate. This intimacy is the result of the poem's labor, the result of the bringing-together-into-intimacy of every act and noun and event and perspective to which the poem refers.” Mary Oliver’s work, and her poetry specifically, is rooted in such tender attention to the world. In her poem, “Yes! No!” she writes: “To pay attention / this is our endless and proper work.”

In this world, in this time, attention so often feels commodified, and tenderness can seem scarce or futile. To stretch persistently towards careful attention and stubborn tenderness can be laborious but it is also necessary work. In her book, Ordinary Notes, Christina Sharpe writes, “Care is complicated, gendered, misused. It is often mobilized to enact violence, not assuage it, yet I cannot surrender it.” And later, in the same book, she asks, “What is required of us, now? In this long time of our undoing?” Her answer? “to notice or observe with care.”

Sharon Neema (she/they) is a visual artist & poet based in Nairobi, Kenya. They are endlessly curious about process, embodiment, inner landscapes and community.