Vol 1, No. 5
author of On Looking
How did this collection take shape? Did you begin with the intension of “looking,” or did the essays merge more subconsciously to be collected later?
I had no intention of writing a book of essays on “looking.” I was moving from moment to moment in each essay, and then I was moving from essay to essay. An insistent image or scene, or a nagging moment from one essay would reseed itself and another essay would grow up around that particular spark or irritant or sense of incompletion. In this way I ended up with a pile of essays that spoke back and forth to each other. I was aware of swimming around in certain regional waters, and suddenly I was offered the chance to come ashore, to publish them together as a book.
Similarly, does this practice of always paying attention, of always “recording, recording, recording” every present any difficulty in your life? How do you fortify yourself against the human inclination toward ease and the easy slippage into allowing things to become ordinary and unremarkable?
I wish I had more of an inclination toward ease! My intrinsic tendencies run toward a steady form of paying attention, of seeing, of probing, of being curious and having to look. But I also deeply enjoy days that fall into ritual: taking out winter clothes and airing them, washing summer clothes and storing them away. These moments are calming, meditative, and move with a force of their own. The urgent need to see and note is subsume, for that time, in the large form of the tasks.
Attention, though, is a big issue culturally, the constant fear of missing something better has become terribly, spiritually depleting. I think of these two angels often: Goethe, saying “every object, well contemplated, creates an organ for its perception,” and Eliot’s “Burnt Norton,” the lines “…the roses/Had the look of flowers that are looked at.” Paying attention changes both the perceiver and the perceived. If attention is fractured, then actual, human relationships and solitude fray.
You speak of a tendency to live “preemptively with loss, memorializing instances” as they happen. What do you think this says about the way we think about ourselves and the way memory is created?
I grew up, as a second-generation American, in a family for whom the last bit of old Europe was still making itself known- in our attitude toward food, manners, clothing, privacy - so much. From a very early age, I felt the sense of a world teetering, and we all, in our own ways, embrace as well as resist that. Now, of course, I want it all back and it lives only in old wooden spoons, dresses I’ve saved, my grandmothers’ kitchen stuff, my own weird gestures toward order and structure. I was thinking about paper straws the other day, one of the rare and strangely, inexplicably loved objects of my childhood. No more paper straws. My things are beginning to antiquate me. And yet, how necessary to recall them, those straws, the tender-waxy resistance against the teeth, the sheer, few pastel colors.