What You See

Yesterday I was thinking about Sylvia Plath’s line in The Bell Jar:

I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.

I chanted it in my head throughout the evening, even tried to write it prettily.

Today I saw that someone had commented on two photos I took last summer and posted on Tumblr:

Much like life, it’s all a matter of where you choose to focus.


So that got me thinking on quotes I like that are about perspective, like Thoreau’s (often misquoted) musing:

The question is not what you look at, but what you see.

This seemed particularly poignant in response to the statement about my photos above. Because I just thought the pictures were pretty, I didn’t think of them as any sort of metaphor on the perspectives of life. 


To my way of thinking, this goes beyond the basic matter of “seeing”, that is, physically seeing things, or even figuratively “seeing” meaning or something. I think it’s also about what we focus on in our thoughts, feelings, and day-to-day quests.


I had a conversation recently with a friend who thinks much in the same way I do about almost everything. We lamented our ways of being and thinking, identified ourselves as “different” and we both wished we could think about things in different ways, or at least care about things that aren’t so big. I also had a conversation with my husband, and I asked him what he thought about something (it was probably something as asinine as “what do you think the point of life is” because god forbid I zoom in my focus), to which he replied, “I just don’t think that way.” At the time, that seemed incredibly strange to me. I guess I have a hard time understanding *why* people don’t think in the same way I do. But I guess a very simple answer could be, “because it’s EXHAUSTING.” 


I often find solace in the words of dead intellectuals. I love to read journals and letters of those like Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, Kafka, Simone de Beauvoir, and Anne Sexton, etc. They seem to think vastly and deeply, and their insight or their struggles frequently hit close to home for me. I then can convince myself that it’s okay that I’m in a perpetual state of ennui, or that I don’t have to think about the day-to-day things, I can think about THE MEANING OF LIFE! or THE ABYSS or THE PURPOSE OF EXISTENCE! Things that I will never ever solve, things that ultimately don’t really matter in day-to-day things. 


What I’m seeing, though, is that, when I allow myself the pleasure of enjoying the small things or when I focus on what might be termed “the mundane,” it’s okay. I can do it. And it’s easier and less exhausting and, let’s be honest, more purposeful than having my view spread from one end of the universe and/or existence to the other. It does make sense, and it’s not actually as small or meaningless as I might think at some time or another. It hurts too much and it takes up way too much time to have your being opened up to the entire universe, trying to find meaning in every detail of the stuff you can’t even touch. (“What is the practical application of a billion galaxies?” Alan Watts asked, to illustrate the nonsensical way we search for meaning.)


Even the way I try to do photography shows my problem with always looking at the big picture. I constantly try to capture large landscapes; I have a hard time finding things up close to photograph. And yet, I admire the work of photographers who capture the details of a flower, or find beauty in an everyday item that is illuminated, briefly, by the sun’s rays at a particular angle. 


An adjustment in perspective can do many things. Even my friend who thinks like me helped me to see that refocusing can alter everything. If I am somewhere challenging, for example, I can look for reasons to stay, rather than reasons to leave. This kind of thinking needs to be something I do more frequently. I honestly don’t know if my big-picture thinking has always been this troublesome, or if it’s a new thing, but I do know that some refocusing can only do good right now. 

Updating my vantage point about life seems especially important. Days can be filled with questions like, “what am I doing with my day?” rather than, “what am I doing with my life?”


Like in my photos, focusing on a different detail in any given situation can dramatically change the whole picture. This makes me think, too, that in zooming in on our situations, there seems to be less of a distance between ourselves and others, between the various details, between different ideas, or between what the meaning of life is and what the meaning of our days are. Anaïs Nin wrote in her journal,

When we are in conflict we tend to make such sharp oppositions between ideas and attitudes and get caught and entangled in what seems to be a hopeless choice, but when the neurotic ambivalence is resolved one tends to move beyond sharp differences, sharply defined boundaries and begins to see the interaction between everything, the relation between everything.


Perhaps trying to think in a grand scale puts us in conflict. Thinking too big makes us seem insignificant and different. But it’s our everyday things, our mutual focusing on the small, that connect us. 


As I write this, I am struck by the idea that this works in writing, too. I keep starting an essay and deleting what I write because I hate it. I’m now wondering if I just need to adjust my focus. Thinking that, too, makes me wonder if that same principle can apply to other things I’ve been writing and struggling with. It seems such a simple idea: step out of the big picture and into the smaller one, or refocus your view to a different thing. But maybe we get so caught up in the ways we have of looking that we forget that there are other ways available. Even just a small adjustment in the questions we ask ourselves or the details that pervade our view can have a profound impact.


I think that part of the reason I was drawn to the Plath quote is because of an incident of refocusing. Taking the time to acknowledge our heartbeat reminds us that we are in fact alive. That our heart beats whether we notice or not. That we are here, now, and we can come down from the clouds or the far-off landscapes, close our eyes, and be somewhere else entirely – somewhere closer, somewhere that matters a bit more than those distant places.


*This post is adapted from one that originally appeared on February 15, 2015 here.