I sat at the kitchen table with my journal, and when I looked up, I saw hand prints on the glass door, horizontal lines of blinds, square pattern of tiles, vertical lines of the fence. There were shoes strewn about on the porch, trikes parked haphazardly, toys littered everywhere. If I turned my eyes back into the kitchen, I saw crumbs and clutter on the counter, pots and pans on the stove, dishes, books, and bead boxes on the table where I tried to write.
And that was just geometry. Just lines and shapes. There were also color and texture to consider, but I was overwhelmed already, and I couldn’t do it. I had to look back at the clean white page on a warm wooden table. I am stunned by how much I usually block out. I might go insane if I didn’t.
As of 9 o’clock this morning, on this day of visual awareness, of paying attention to my sense of sight, I had already discovered three fundamental things about myself. The first is that I ignore an incredible amount of visual stimulus. An overwhelming amount, I discover, when I allow myself to see.
The second is that I find driving to be a highly stressful and unpleasant experience. Sitting at a traffic light on our way to the park, my heart raced when I forced myself to observe my surroundings. Not to zone out. I was overstimulated by action, by motion, even as I sat still: cars raced by, their wheels turned, people’s mouths jabbered and hands gestured inside careening cages of steel; turn signals and brake lights flashed; traffic lights swayed and changed colors; yellow earth movers jerked jaggedly in my peripheral vision. When I focused on more static objects, I saw hard, stern, concrete buildings with columns and rows of shiny rectangle windows. Bold black words jumbled neon orange road signs, telephone wires julianned the sky; parallel lines on the road bounded lanes, perpendicular lines confined crosswalks, the line of the road itself sliced through the landscape.
The third thing I discovered, when I arrived at the park, is that organic shapes and textures are infinitely more appealing, more peaceful, more zen than hard edges and cutting lines. Shocking, I know. The curves of mounded earth, the browns of wood and leaves, the peeling texture of bark, the fluff of cottony clouds in a crisp blue sky – these things soothed me after the frenetic experience of driving. I watched Spanish moss sway in the breeze – a gentle lift, like smoke swirling, its tip curling like the point of a long beard, then falling slowly and then lifting again. I watched the branches of a small oak tremble. Its leaves shivered. Down by the shining lake, shoulder-high grasses waved slowly in the wind. I wished our townhouse felt like this.
Back at home, I tensed the moment I walked in the door. The mess from this morning was still there. Toys and crumbs and dishes stacked everywhere. The more I looked, the more I saw, and I was in danger of overloading my system. I put up psychic blinders, blocked the stimulus from my consciousness.
I made myself some tea. Washed dishes and wiped the counters while water bubbled in the glass kettle. Put toys away. Straightened.
I rummaged through the fridge, easing myself back into visual awareness. It was the mushrooms that did it. Their happy little domes flecked with crumbs of earth tuned me back in to the pleasures of sight. I stood up and looked around our kitchen. I felt a loosening in me as the beauty in the room came quietly forward once the clutter was removed. Earth brown walls. Warm wood table. Pottery mugs hanging on the wall.
I made myself a snack to go with my tea, and and was calmed by the earthy shapes and textures of food – round golden bagels with a crisp bubbly crust; plump red strawberries smiling brightly; graceful green tea leaves suspended in amber liquid at the bottom of my delicate white cup. Thirteen small bubbles floated on the surface, nestled snugly together in its smooth, porcelain curve.
I wrote this in Tampa in 2008 when I spent five days conducting a sensory awareness exercise. Each day I focused on one sense and wrote what I experienced. I didn’t mean for it to be a writing project – I was mainly interested in being aware of the world, and how we experience it through our senses. It turned out to be one of the most useful writing exercises I’ve ever done. Recognizing how much visual background “noise” there was in our lives, we have now significantly decluttered our home, and I have made housekeeping a higher priority. Consequently, we now find our home a much more pleasant place to be. If you are interested in other writings from this exercise, you can find my morning in sounds here.