Thursday, April 9, 2009

Close up

I spend a lot of time looking at things close up. For much of the winter and now into these weeks of early spring, I’d go out to the driveway, for instance, and stare at crow tracks in the snow, notice where small stones were visible beneath a patch of ice, study the juxtaposition of un-raked leaves against burgeoning shoots of grass. I took a lot of photographs, because much of what I saw was beautiful; I wanted to remember what it looked like, and I wanted to continue to study the photographs. I have frame after frame of abstract compositions; anyone looking at them would be puzzled at the subject matter. I might have to point out the thin layer of ice, the bubbles caught in and beneath its surface, the array of flattened vegetation or pebbles visible just below the crust. I’m intrigued by what is often overlooked. We are, as a species, capable of a narrowness of focus. This is often a favorable trait; intensity of focus helps us concentrate, helps us accomplish. But every day we overlook thousands of incidents, scenes, interactions, and conversations – many of which are of little consequence. But we also overlook distress and grief in those we care about. We overlook catastrophes of great magnitude. We overlook, for years and even lifetimes, entire continents of suffering. It is a survival mechanism. It is a necessity.

When I was a kid I read Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who. In it, Horton, an elephant, notices a sound coming from a speck of dust. That speck turns out to be an inhabited planet. Horton heroically pays attention, even in the face of ridicule and imprisonment. Not only does Horton notice the planet, he does something for the inhabitants. He takes action.

Although I believe that human beings are inherently good, I also believe that we regularly fail to act. We might notice, we might pay extended attention, we might speak about our beliefs, we might speak up or out when it is difficult to do so. All of that is well and good and, at times, even admirable. But most of us, most of the time, fail to do anything. We might send a check, volunteer a few hours of our time – I felt bad for those tsunami victims, those displaced by Katrina, those going hungry in the nearby shelter. Some of us show up to dish out dinner every Sunday or help hang drywall for an afternoon. Lots of us do good deeds when we can.

But look around. Family, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, co-workers, neighbors – a lot of people are overlooked. They are ill, they are stressed, they have lost or soon will lose a job, they can’t cope with the burdens of a long winter, they are lonely, they are afraid, they are confused, they are invisible.

We know this, don’t we? There’s nothing new here. Nothing new here, either: we look away.

I like to stack small, flat rocks. I don’t know why. I like the way they look. I have little stacks all over my study. Sometimes a passing truck or slamming door will cause them to topple. I re-stack them, carefully. To me, they are beautiful. For the most part, I neglect them after I stack them. Cobwebs form, and after a few weeks I might notice and dust them off, or just blow the cobwebs away. I can’t say that I pay much attention to these beautiful things I create, beyond the moment of composition. I say that I love them.

In much the same way, I think of my friends, my family, my students, my colleagues. I would say, in many cases, I love them. But I don’t pay enough attention. I sometimes look away. I often fail to act. This is done knowingly, willfully. The same might be true of you.

Today, all I can do is study this picture. I am caught up in the tilt of the rocks, I am a little mesmerized by the strands of the cobweb. The light draws me in. There is a kind of sadness in the photograph that is quietly appealing. Looking at pretty pictures is a nice way to spend an afternoon. But I wish I were doing something else. I wish I believed that tomorrow would be different. I wish we were all a little more like Horton.

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