With all the time I’ve been spending behind the computer screen, holed up in my studio, or sitting chair-bound teaching my evening English classes, it seems that of late looking out of windows connects me to the goings on outside.
I hardly meet people any more. My wife is gone by the time I wake in the mornings and she’s asleep by the time I get home from teaching. So I find myself ghosting around the rooms, wandering hallways while mumbling to myself, the action of my jaw reworking the sounds in my head in an autonomic endeavor to create a duality: You and I.
I find my own company comforting at times and perhaps I’m lucky in this way in that I can endure weeks of solitude and still float above my own insanity. All the stuff that rings in my head really does, to me at least, ring a bell, and no matter how still I sit a whole world revolves within that little dome. For the most part I rather like myself and love to seek out my own company.
But not always, though. When the connection between fingers and objects suddenly grows tentative the oscillating phantasm that resides between the blinders of my body loses its substance and form, and like smoke, tends to dissipate amidst my emotions. Loneliness is visceral, it hungers for flesh and bone.
Back in 1987 a friend of mine took me to see May Sarton speak at a church in Maine. It was a cold autumn evening and the deserted streets of the town brought the chill closer to the layer of my pea coat and in spite of walking with my friend I felt disengaged and out of water. The church door opened to a warm glow of lights and the hubbub of listeners eager to hear Sarton dispense her wisdom. And when she actually walked onto the dais, the spotlight catching her with a glare in her eye, she sat there squinting out at everyone, and perhaps not seeing them very well. She seemed reluctant to speak and held a copy of “Journal of a Solitude” as if the name of the book could say it all, and that if we would just read it, as she had intended, then she could safely retreat to her firelight and carpets and chair by the window. But she was kind… you could see it in her eyes and the way she smiled… and let not a trace of such yearnings falter in her voice. She spoke. She related her decision to break with expectation, with her family and safety, and take to living alone and chronicaling the experience. I watched her from the middle of the crowd, there, this hale, soft-spoken recluse, looking more at home with herself and more engaged than most of the people in the audience. And I thought, “Wow, she’s found a way in!”
By being alone the windows speak to me. Every morning, precisely at 8:15, a lone, brown-eared bulbul, a grey clown of bird that flies like a flicker and screeches and cries and chortles like a blue jay, whips up to the branches of the zelkova sapling outside my window and defies me to object. He cocks his eye and nibbles at the new buds, caring not a toot that I am rather enamored of the zelkova and would prefer that no one hinder its growth in any way. To make certain of my humiliation the bulbul, precisely at 8:21, drops to the fence rail where he lets out a jet of white poop, right on top my russian vine. And then, in that impudent way of bulbuls, he glances back, flicks out his pink tongue, and shoots off, leaving a vacuum in the morning stillness.
At work, when classes are slow, there is always a lot of time to gaze out across the gap between my school’s building and the building across the street… a distance of about five meters. My classroom window looks directly into the window of a manager’s office, and like a television variety show the life of the people over there daily unfolds. The manager, whom I’ve never met, often glances across the gap back at me and it is as if, during these last few years, we have come to know one another by sheer pantomime. Both of us have witnessed the drama of our interacting, however minutely, with other people, and, put together, each of our windows tells a story. I’ve seen the manager shout at someone on his cell phone, pace back and forth across the room worrying about God knows what, sitting with his feet up on his desk while drinking beer, undress to his underpants and walk about the room as if no one could see him, sit for several hours smoking a cigarette and never once moving, and read a manga while in a business meeting. Never once have I seen him smile.
For his part he must have seen the times I’ve laughed with my students (which is almost daily), sat drinking coffee while writing notes, the serious conversations that my students and I have had about different subjects, perhaps even the time when I broke down crying in the middle of class three days after the New York tragedy when one of my students innocently asked why the whole thing bothered me so much, or the time when I collapsed, thinking I had had a heart attack, later finding out that my anxiety over my upcoming visit to the States after nine years absence had me wound up a lot tighter than I realized and this had tripped the muscles around my heart.
I’m not sure I will ever discover the elixir for remaining comfortable around others for long spells. Solitude has driven and called me ever since I can remember, and I follow the siren like a star-struck lover. What I find at the end of every little excursion I take alone into roads and lanes and trails doesn’t always bring out a kick, jump, and a smile, but the hunkering down, gazing about, and absorbing that sense of lungs filled to capacity with air has happened often enough that I keep returning for more. I’m not sure if it is the pleasure that is the prime motivator for seeking out lonesome experiences, but there is something to be said for arriving wherever it is you set your mind to, no questions asked.
20 replies on “Wind Eyes”
Great photo again. I get a lot of my motivation for taking photos from looking at your photos and the photos of a few of the others in the Japan blog world. You can probably guess exactly who the others are, too.
there is something to be said for arriving wherever it is you set your mind to, no questions asked.
Agreed. And there’s also a lot to be said for it being a goal you set yourself with no meaning to anyone but yourself, no history and no future. The day as its own entity and expression of yourself, whatever that may be.
A lovely essay, Miguel. I understand your need for solitude, even if I am less present to my surroundings than you are in those moments. I guess, for me, solitude is a time to be present to myself, to my own thoughts and feelings, which can remain mysterious if I don’t take the time to pay special attention.
Your recollection of May Sarton is not only apropos but compelling. Thank you.
I like your writing. As a fellow professional in the gentle art of sheep herding otherwise known as teachng, I can relate.
I was struck by your phrase â€œLoneliness is visceral, it hungers for flesh and bone.â€
I couldnâ€™t help but reflect that when one is on this stringent meat-free diet (no flesh, no bone), oneâ€™s appetite is still satisfied by slurping up keener observations of nature and deeper meanings of life that demand expression. I can tell this essay was written â€˜on demandâ€™ and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Thanks everyone for the comments. It seems that I’ve been in a reflective state-of-mind a lot lately. A kind of quiet background upheaval that is feeling very much like growing maturity. I hope that at the end of this particular path more confidence awaits. And some measure of joy.
Andru… I surely hope that I have not offended you with my alluding to our differences in perception of the world around us; I hope you haven’t felt as if I was deriding your different approach on seeing things. I don’t feel that you are any less perceptive, just focused on different things in the world. You see things that I can’t and perhaps I see things that you can’t. I guess each of us is limited by the kinds of filters our genes have provided us.
Oh, no offense taken, Miguel. I just find the differences remarkable and am enjoying them by bringing them up.
something about the way you describe the act of being alone (even while surrounded by others) is evocative of my vision of contentedness, even while it leaves room for yearning
beautiful words, and illustrated perfectly with the photo
May I ask what kind of camera you use to take these wonderful pictures?
Welcome to the site, BamaKathy. I’m glad you like the photos. Answering your question is not quite a straitforward as you might want to hear, but let me give it a go.
Before I talk about the present cameras I use, let me just say that, as any professional photographer will tell you, it’s not the camera that makes good photos, it is the person taking the picture. I say this because what happens inside the camera is determined by the way the photographer sees things. If the photographer can’t look at the world around and envision what they would like to see appear inside the camera then no matter how good the camera is the photos will never be interesting or beautiful (except by blind luck). Some of my favorite photographers, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, used very simple rangefinder cameras, without all the gadgetry that people have on their cameras today. Take a look at the photographs on this page. All of them were taken by pinhole cameras, basically simple boxes with film at one end and a pinprick hole at the other end.
Good photography basically is just learning how to see. The camera is just an instrument to capture the light.
Now saying all that doesn’t take into account that it is the controls and optics on the camera that make it both easier and more versatile in helping you to form the kind of image you want. I’ve been taking photos since I was 12, when I saved up for six months and bought my first camera, a Minolta 16ps. Since then I’ve gone through all sorts of different cameras. Until recently I was adamant about staying with purely manual cameras, and a lot of the photographs you see in the blog were taken with my venerable Nikon FM2, and earlier, before it was stolen, my beloved Pentax MX. To get the slide images into my computer I used a slide scanner, a Nikon CoolScan LX 2000. When continuing to pay for images to be developed was getting too expensive, more and more I began looking at digital cameras. It wasn’t until last year that cameras with high enough resolution and prices that were reasonable began to appear. I bought my first digital camera, and the one that I’ve used for all of my most recent photographs, the Nikon CoolPix 5400. It’s a great camera, lightweight, compact, with a built-in wide angle lens, and very good image control. But it is also a rangefinder camera, meaning that I can’t look at the camera subject through the lens. Last week I finally managed to buy a more versatile DSLR (digital single lens reflex, basically meaning a camera with interchangeable lenses, that allows you to look and meter the light through the lenses) camera, a Nikon D70s, which is the most expensive and most complex camera I’ve bought to date.
These recent cameras are expensive and take a long time to learn how to use, BamaKathy. If you’re just starting out in photography, I don’t recommend them unless you are sure you are going to get serious about photography. If you’re going to go digital, just about any camera will do (John of Old Grey Poet uses an Aiptek Pen Cam, which costs about $150. It doesn’t have the highest quality image resolution, but his photographs are stunning). If you want more pixels (meaning sharper images on your computer screen and your printer), you might want to go with a camera that has at least 4 megapixels resolution. They’re getting very cheap these days and there’s a huge choice.
Don’t let the camera salesman talk you into getting something you don’t need. Whatever they might say about a camera “taking good photographs”, it is never the camera that does that, it is you. I would say buy a book about how to “see” photographs then take your camera and just get out there, taking lots of images, making mistakes, looking at the problems in your photos, learning to throw away bad images, then going out and trying again until you get it right. And most of all, have fun!
Thanks so much for all your help! I bought a Kodak Z7590 this morning. I have taken so many pictures using the disposable cameras and loved the shots, but hated the resolution of the pictures. I’ve visited local historic cemetaries to photograph headstones and memorial statues, and have photographed deer and the “gentle giant” trees in Sequoia National Park. I just figured that if photography is something I enjoy so much, I should indulge in some decent equipment. Your blog entry on solitude really touched me. You said all the thoughts I have that I couldn’t express. Thank you.
an uplifting entry about the art of being alone. as someone who has never liked solitude but is increasingly finding myself in the midst of more and more of it, this was the type of entry that i needed to read today. thank you.
Oooh, great comment Butuki about cameras and seeing. I’ve been researching digital cameras for work and mostly want speed to capture action but that seems to come with lots of other options I don’t need (and a price tag we can’t afford). It’s very good to be reminded what this is about.
I read this thread yesterday and felt a bit strange not having left a response. I enjoyed reading it and I found it especially touching having found myself in very similar situations but never really seeing the need to have to express them. I imagine that everyone seeks out some sense personal inner space, and that even though we are social beings, there are always certain things or thoughts which one may not want to share others. I thank you for that very detailed picture you have created, it seems very serene. For me those solitary moments are like the act of appreciating or simply observing something, like the photograph which you displayed. Thanks for your insight.
Butuki, I have recently studied some of the enneagram personality profiles and seem to fit exactly into the “five”. Your entries into this blog make me think maybe you are, too, and that is why I was so touched by reading your thoughts. I thought you might be interested in a “five’s” view of his world. It was very interesting to me. Here’s the link: http://llministries.homestead.com/files/Enneagram-five.htm
I just wrote a poem about my relationship with solitude a few days ago. It’s not quite polished yet…There is something about being alone that fuels the writer’s fire in me as well. It is truly ironic though, that as much as I love being alone, it makes me sad as well. I’m taking a trip to London in July for a course and taking a few extra days to explore the city by myself. I’m REALLY looking forward to it. So much in fact, I think I might cry!
By the way, do you know of an inexpensive place to stay in London??? I’m at a loss…
electribarb, how about Youth Hostels or Travel Inns or similar?
Sorry everyone for not posting much lately. I’ve been sort of caught between this blog and the new, more involved site I’ve been working on. As soon as I get it done I hope to posting everyday again.
ElectricBarb, finding a place to stay shouldn’t be too hard. There are youth hostels and travel inns, as LM says, but perhaps you might enjoy a traditional Bed and Breakfast more. You can look them up on the internet and book from the States. One resource you might want to take a look at is the Let’s Go series of travel guides. While the Lonely Planet series is very popular, I tend to find them too dismissive of some good deals and places to see. My favorite guides are the Rough Guides (and they have one specifically for London). The Let’s Go series I suggest because they are designed by and for university students and so have very good deals for places to stay and eat. You may also want to look at the books and home page by Rick Steves. He has great advice about how to travel on a shoestring, but not compromise comfort, safety, and pleasure.
You may also, if you’re willing, want to contact my father’s friend K. He might let you stay at his very nice home next to the Thames and he and his wife are really nice and interesting people (in fact you may have met K. in New York once). Y. and I stayed there when we were traveling around Europe by bicycle. Contact my father and ask him about it.
i would like to have a picture of an eye,window and heart put together
I’ve been enjoying your writing for months now, but your entry on solitude is staying with me day after day. I think its the question of that certain elixir, what May Sarton seems to have discovered. As you put it, “she’s found a way in!” (Noteably, you say “in” rather than”out.”)
I’m coming to the end of a 48 hour period of absolute solitude, with the return of my husband later today – I will also have to start answering the telephone. I NEED this time alone after having spent 35 days nonstop with a demanding person. For many of those 35 days, I had to reach deep inside myself and muster tremendous strength to silently forgive this person for her compulsive and unaware cruel behavior. Even though I’m recoiling now, I think I found a tiny drop of the elixir in those toughest days.
It has to do with acceptance, grace, love. This I KNOW from the hard inner work, and bittersweet tears I shed as she slept. She would never “get it,” but I abandoned that foolish hope years ago. In addition, this is what I speculate: that the elixir flows when we drop our illusions of protective barriers, and accept that one is ultimatly alone in this world.
Maybe I was a weird kid, but I’ve always been very aware of and affected by the sense of aloneness that we all feel, perhaps more so as we grow older. If I look back most of my life has been spent in solitude, very often even when I was with others. I’m not sure I always like solitude all that much, however. When I think back on some of the best memories in my life they were very often with someone, more often with a group of people. One of the reasons why so many westerners are surprised when they visit places like Africa and Southeast Asia and see all those laughing people is because, I think, in those cultures being together and the group are more important than being alone and the individual. When everyone around you is constantly laughing, even in hardship, then it tends to affect you, I guess. I don’t think we are naturally meant to spend so much time alone, and when we do and then try to be with others, we tend to grow into irascible and often selfish people. I know I can be quite demanding and start feeling claustrophobic if I can’t be alone. But what a pronouncement upon myself in a world filled with so many people.