In Paris I went to neither the art academy nor to the professors. The city itself was my teacher, in all things, in every minute of the day. The market folk, the waiters, the hotel porters, the farmers, the workers. They were enveloped in something of that astounding atmosphere of enlightened freedom that I had never come across anywhere else.
Do you ever have moments where the veil falls away and the world presents itself fresh and new?
My wife and I spent a morning running errands recently and pulled up at a stoplight outside a cafe. A woman on a bicycle was propped beside our car waiting for the light to change. A couple walked, arms linked, in front of the stopped traffic. In the cafe every table was occupied, at least those visible from the street, and on each table there was at least one laptop open. One man looked through the window, checking out the woman on the bike.
I was struck by how particular this scene was to this moment, to this corner of the city, to the people present, and the activities they were doing. It was a grey Seattle day which threw a soft light over everything, and beneath the bustle of activity everyone seemed relaxed. Things moved in slow motion.
That moment will never be repeated exactly again.
Well it’s Seattle, so the clouds will probably be repeated. Never in that exact same way, though.
The woman on the bike will never lean in just that way, in just that spot, watched by just those eyes as she waits for the light to change. The relationship between the couple crossing the road will never be quite the same again. Tomorrow it may be deeper, or fonder, more fraught, or finished. The man looking out the window might never see the woman bike-rider again. Or he may see her tomorrow, run down the road and ask her out.
The light changed and we drove off. The moment of seeing, of really seeing that little scene, dropped away and a veil slipped back over the world.
I don’t remember much at all of the rest of the trip. I was caught up in thoughts, or conversation for most of it. We probably stopped at a few more lights at which nothing really caught my eye, and soon enough we were home again.
But that small moment outside the cafe stays with me. It was just a plain moment, but bright in its plainness.
I read recently that when visitors came to Chagall’s studio they had to wait for him to throw on a pair of pants, because he painted naked. That nakedness shines through in his paintings, too.
I love this gesture of casting away what stood between him and his canvas.
Brief moments where I see the world clearly make me realise how muffled my view usually is. It makes me wonder if sometimes I walk around like a guy wearing a pair of pants over my head.
I’m not sure we’re even built to see the world in all its brilliance all the time. I’m sure we gather that mental clothing around us in self-protection, but I’m also pretty sure I go through life a little overdressed.
One payoff from building your capacity to notice, to be present, is that the discipline in showing up regularly in this way ensures you’ll hit roadblocks and stop signs that occasionally strip away your mental clothing, forcing you to see things as they really are, if only for a brief moment, before the rush to cover back up again.