To Observe, Or Not

The walk from the car to the library seemed to take an eternity, and I felt Bedshaped, yes, just like the Keane song. My legs felt like I was dragging stone, and I kept coughing and coughing.  I felt like I was going to have a heart-attack when I was talking to the librarian, holding in the coughs that wanted to explode in my throat.

“What’s the name of the author?”

“Rosemary Sutcliff.”

Silence for the longest time, and I hemmed and tried to breathe as calmly as I could.  After eternity, she found the author, turned the screen to me to show me the only book they had.

It was fine.  As long as it was one I hadn’t read before, and it was.  I thanked her.  She got up and found it for me, and all I wanted to do was cough inconspicuously—impossible.  The librarian handed me “The Shining Company” and as it came into my hands I felt a sense of completion.  It’s the kind of feeling a reader gets when a book comes into her hands and she knows, immediately, that it will be worth the time she invests in it.

“Thank you,” I said, and the lady moved out of the way.  I snuck a quick little cough into my sleeve to tide me over till I could get outside.  Then I went straight to the Fiction section.

B…. B…. B…. B…. Why was the B section so long?  Why were there so many books by Steven Berry?  Then I skipped too far, had to trace with my fingers and my head flung back to see where Steven Berry ended and Wendell Berry began.  Only one book—but as long as it was one I hadn’t read.

I pulled Jayber Crow off the shelf and into my hands, and I held it there.  It didn’t matter that I was in a library, that these books were stamped by the libraries claiming possession—they were mine, they were for me only to discover in what would remain of the time between when they were unread and read.  I would give back the books, but they would still be mine.

We checked out of the library and by the side of the van I keeled over with my hands on my knees and coughed for a really long time.  Feeling much better, I drove home, and spent the rest of the day on the couch in the company of Rosemary Sutcliff and her magic of the 7th century.  She makes the men of history slow down, downsize, and think and feel like human beings, but she talks—oh, she talks like one of them, like people not from this time and place.  The next day I finished the book, and started Wendell Berry.  I leave in so little time, and am constantly aware that what I read in the next four months will most likely be assigned to me.  I have this great desire to read so much of what I love before I go so that it will still be with me in the months ahead.

Jayber Crow is the kind of book you settle into reading.  Not a long kind of settling, like War and Peace.  The kind of settling where you think, “I am going to enjoy this—a story—beautiful writing and thoughts.” And then you really do.  The story seems so simple, but it’s really a story crammed with a thousand stories, and I dare believe that most of them really happened, or at least were inspired by similar stories.  Wendell Berry tells the tale of Jayber Crow, who in the first chapter of the book takes note of all the people on the street of Port William that he, as a barber, sees and interacts with on a regular basis.  And I could almost picture Wendell Berry standing there in the shade of the barber’s shop, just watching, calling out hello to a friend, laughing at something funny.  He probably heard stories as a kid, probably saw crazy things happen on the main street and in the fields and the farms.  He is himself an old box bursting with every kind of story, with almost eighty years worth of living and a hundred stories for every day he lived. I know because I’m a writer.  You begin to write the moment something happens, the moment you hear a story and tuck it away in the corner of your mind.  The power of observation.

I had my eyes examined today.  Before the retina exam, the drops fresh in my eyes,  I kept blinking and opening them wide to try and see, and move the film I felt over my eyeballs.  I couldn’t see anything clearly.  While I was picking out my glasses I kept saying: “Oh, I like this pair! Isn’t this pair cute? Wait, I can’t see them actually… What’s that on the side? Excuse me, ma’am, could you tell me what that thing is on the side? Oh—a circle with a sparkly thing? Okay, thank you!” And it went on like that for fifteen minutes.  I kept getting up close to peer at something, only to discover that that was worse.  Then I would make my brother walk off about six feet with it and see if I could see it from there.  I suppose it was all rather funny, and it felt odd.  I just wanted to get home so I could read more Jayber Crow—more about the people of Port William.

“Your pupils look like Alex’s [our cat] after he’s come out of a dark closet,” from my ten year old brother Luther. I didn’t think of it at the time but I thought of it later, that Luther must have had to watch Alex’s eyes very closely to notice how his pupils changed.  I could just imagine him shutting the cat back into the closet, taking him out, shutting him in, taking him out, testing every time to make sure that the pupils really did get bigger than usually when he was in the closet.

“They really do look like Alex’s!” and, even later, I caught him peering up at me while I was slicing watermelon—trying to, anyways, considering I couldn’t see very well—and he said, “I like your pupils big.”

It never occurred to me how much I observed things until my vision was so blurred by the drops for the eye exam.  She had told me it would wear off in 2-6 hours, and it seemed like an eternity (again).  I stood in front of the sink, watermelon juice streaming down my chin, hands, and wrists, staring out the window at what I could see.  That wasn’t so bad.  But when I tried to look at the seeds of the watermelon? Blurry.  And I couldn’t imagine struggling so hard all the time with seeing clearly when the time came to observe. But it made me realize something very important.

As important as observation is, we can be too conscious of it, too aware of it.  We might observe something too closely, and then it will lose its originality and beauty.  We will miss the bigger picture.  And if we are too conscious of it, it will not present itself in the right light.  As a writer, if I am so concerned with a certain story—for the use of getting it into a novel or a poem—then I am cut off from all the people who are taking part in the story, whether it be my siblings or my friends.  It’s part of living.  We can’t always be just the observer.  It is when we listen and hearken to the stories told anywhere, when we respond with sorrow or laughter or disapproval that we can write about them because they have become real stories to us—real in the sense that they have meant something to us other than good meat for our books.

No. Don’t observe too carefully, or you will miss the entire picture.  At the same time, don’t be proud and think it all comes from the imagination, don’t think that it’s already known.  It’s all there, to be observed.  That is, the grass and the mountains and the blue-jay’s song in the dead of winter, when his streak of blue on the pine branch causes you to look up and wonder: “What was that?”  And the things your mother used to say to your father that you would laugh at, when your grandmother tells you what happened at her mother-in-law’s deathbed, and the pranks your siblings played on each other, the places you loved or the places she loved, smells that remind you of another time and place.

Perhaps there wasn’t much point to this post.  I am still young and enjoy the creative rant when I get a chance!

-RH

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One thought on “To Observe, Or Not

  1. I don’t know why I haven’t been reading your blog lately, but it’s been awhile, I’ll admit. This was a beautiful, fresh post to come back to. I love how your words dance along as you tell your story. I, for one, did not think this was a pointless post at all – the balance of observation and contentment. The day we become too content to observe is the day we stop learning; and yet, all observation will lead only to a totally discontented life.

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