Years ago, under a dark, fearful spell, being tested by doctors who found nothing conclusive but called me back again and again for more tests, I became fixed upon the fact of my death. The pressing idea that the people I was with would still be here next Wednesday but I possibly would not be with them, that they would continue on, but I would no longer have knowledge of them or our once shared experiences and environments haunted me.
But something else happened which was quite beautiful. After I recovered from the shock, I started to drink in all the details of life like I had done as a child. Death’s imminence caused me see the world quite differently. Like Dostoevsky’s condemned man, the threat of meeting my end charged all my senses with a massively increased thirst for life. Pleasure in details became a source of intense, melancholy joy. Suffice to say, I lived, but the experienced changed me, at the very least being a very direct experience of personal mortality.
More than a decade later, mortality is less pressing, but just as inescapable. My knees sometimes ache, my hair inexorably thins, and my eyes slowly lose their effectiveness. But unlike many of my peers, I still have good sight – at my last eye test, I was advised that while I might benefit from wearing slightly magnifying reading glasses, I was really in good shape for a man of my age, and I know this is to be true as one after another friend picks up some object with small text and holds it at arm’s length to read it. When I’m tired, or after a long time looking at small screens – the ubiquitous phone – or in the cold, then far distant signs are no longer readable and I must wait until buses are perilously close before deciphering their route number. These experiences come and go; at other times, I have no problems seeing at all.
Like billions of people I take photos, and edit and share them. Unlike billions I trained in art and that has been a mainstay of my work and professional life. I live and breathe image, images. I even flatter myself being an arbiter of quality, curating real art exhibitions, in the era when everyone’s a genius thanks to software on phones.
Just recently I was walking through the most glorious streets and the late afternoon light was arriving at that famous ‘golden hour’ when the sun warms and the shadows lengthen and the everyday suddenly appears to be beautiful and mysterious. I had my camera (phone) in my pocket and I knew I could record the moment and share it, but I didn’t want to, I wanted to look, I wanted to see without the screen interfering with my experience. This is not new, I do it often, else I would never live in my own moment. I resisted the urge to snap as long as I could, until I could bear it no longer, then quickly took five photos, and put the camera away. Even that felt like a guilty theft.
This experience was repeated the following day but with none of the aesthetic stimulation of sunlit streets and peach-coloured clouds and whimsy. I was on a train, my eyes flicking around the crowded carriage and everyone but me and a small girl was staring at their screen or reading a book or newspaper. As I stared at places rather than faces, I became aware that by maintaining my gaze and continuing to actively look, I was allowing so much more detail to emerge than I assumed I could see. Texture, colour, shape, tiny crumbs in the carriage floor where it met the metal seat were revealed. As I kept looking, I kept seeing more, and so I continued, and after a while I knew that I once used to inhabit a world like this, years ago, when I was a child, and had no escape into a fictional reality. Then I remembered that adult experience, when I felt under sentence of death and this caused a minor revelation, but a slightly a startling one.
It is my mind, not my eyes, which skips the wonderful variety of objects. We think we see them, but we don’t, we register them, and at the same time, our minds are filled with thoughts which are nothing to do with what we are looking at. The details which I imagine are becoming slowly lost to me through age and jaded weariness are still accessible, but I had simply stopped seeing them.
This morning, half awake, as I made tea, I glanced out of the window at the sky. Briefly admired the pink-lit clouds. Looked once again at the kettle as it boiled, my mind starting to go through the tasks I have set myself for the day.
Then I remembered. I went back to the window and really looked, even though I have seen this view and so many like it uncountable times. This was not any other time, it was now, unique. I kept on looking and saw how the pink warmed the many colours of brick in the wall near the window. As I continued to look, the kettle boiled and it had a music all its own.
We create our world, our lives, not just by what we include, but by what we leave out. Most of the time I was living with the assumption that I knew what was in front of me, but I was actually experiencing an edited, shorthand version of my environment. I also saw that caught up in the difficulties of navigating the real world, in an internal maelstrom of self-concern about work and paying bills and who said what to whom and what I need to do next, obsessed with outcomes, and without true regard for the self’s need to be truly connected to the fabric of this world, I was depriving myself of the pleasure of the journey.
I know about looking. But I had stopped seeing. So, to just look and keep looking, to drink in the mundane has become something I never want to lose, all the while these senses are mine.