In the video I posted over the weekend, David Foster Wallace talks about how our society doesn’t value the art of being quiet. He says we don’t take an hour to look at a painting; we don’t sit all day with a book. We are uncomfortable with mind challenges in complex music and writing. I agree with him. For some reason, long ago, I smelled this rat and decided to devote a lot of my time to stepping into the discomfort. I sought musicians who were pushing the aesthetic like Stravinsky, Nico and the Velvet Underground, Micheal Nyman…and on the page, Kundera, Calvino, Brautigan. I’d stand in museums and watch installation art-– watched a woman suck her toe for longer than anyone wants to watch another person suck their toe. I loved that Duchamp put a urinal in a museum and called it art. I loved German Expressionism. I liked the grotesque. I sat through the eight hours of Warhol’s Chrysler building movie, Empire–- one continuous shot. I loved Ingmar Berman movies. People called my taste in art and music “weird,” my taste in movies “boring.” I took it as a compliment, denouncing the saccharin pastels of Monet’s water lilies and the living room art people chose to match the upholstery on their couches. I wanted to know what it felt like to step outside the cradle of mainstream society and be in a place of shock, wonder, ugliness, confusion, boredom and thusly, to be wide awake in those places. That’s what I wanted most: to be wide awake.
Along the way, I wrote books and got married and had children and that was extreme enough. I didn’t need to force the issue. Life became full. Self-propelled. And I stopped taking time to look into my awe. Never mind my discomfort. The washboards of life bumped me along and I got used to it. It wasn’t that I was in the cradle, as much as it was that I was going too fast, not pausing enough when wonder struck. I didn’t like that about myself. I wanted that to change.
But in the last few years since the moment I signed a book contract, my life went full throttle. The deliberate act of taking pause seemed like extravagance. Saved for a future rainy day. It felt ornamental. Decadent. Even juvenile. I had a BIG JOB to do. I had planes to catch. I had people to see. I’d leave breathing and birds for later when things calmed down. But that was just a story I was telling myself, because the truth of it is when you kick into high gear like that, there’s a strong possibility that you are afraid of low gear. You’re afraid of that frequency. Who would you be in it? What would the map of your mind look like? Sound like? And dear God, what would you do without any buttons to push? Without your email and messages to check? Without those planes to catch. Uh-oh. You have it bad. How on earth did this happen to you? Two seconds ago, you were happily and hornily watching an eight hour shot of the Chrysler building.
Something had to be done. So, I decided to dare the discomfort again. It looked a lot different than it did in my twenties, however. Here’s what it looked like:
I found a place where my cell phone wouldn’t work, where there was no place to plug in a computer, where there were as few people as possible. I didn’t need it to be gritty or edgy for it to be uncomfortable at this stage of life. In fact, I needed it to be beautiful– as beautiful as yes, Monet’s Giverny. I needed it to play out in the fields of embarrassing riches, in fact. You see, I was so full throttle, that I’d stopped seeing beauty. Worse, I’d stopped stopping for it. It’s one thing to recognize the discomfort in ugliness, but quite another to recognize it in beauty. And to sit quietly with it.
I’ll present this as a question: When was the last time you spent the better part of a day just sitting on a bench? Not in a city, but in a garden? An empty garden? Not talking. Not messing with your cell phone or laptop? Not taking photographs. Not writing in a journal or reading a book or a newspaper. Nothing blaring in your ears. Just sitting there? Watching. Breathing. It’s hard damn work is what it is. Whatever has become of our society that it’s hard damn work? I want to do that work.
Selfish, you say? Glut. No Pilgrim’s Progress there. Must produce. Must succeed. Must conquer. Must push buttons. That’s the cradle of society really needing you to go back to sleep. Get back on the conveyor belt. Sit on a bench in an empty garden all day? That’s for cats in windowsills. Old people in rocking chairs. But…if you think about it…we do sit in one place for long amounts of time. Watching. Just not flowers blowing in the wind. Not dragonflies. Not a robin with a worm. That story is…well, boring. Isn’t it? We’d rather someone had a gun in their hand or a hand on an ass or an ass in a fast car. And I won’t even get into our current obsession with reality TV. I mean…watching people living? Can we not even bear to watch ourselves live? We’d rather be able to turn the channel. It’s so uncomfortable to not be able to turn the channel–- or get up and walk to a different bench and see how the flowers blow there and if there are different bugs and birds. I’m talking about the art of staying.
Well I did it. I sat on a bench in an empty garden for hours. And I’m telling you: it was one of the hardest things I’ve done in years. I went back the next day and took this photo. I am both proud and haunted by it. Only because I know that there is no bench in my garden. And I’m not sure I’m brave enough to put one there.