Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Loss and Redemption of Seeing

I close my eyes to see, and taking my seeing slow. My little homage to the poet Roethke, but seriously though... I woke up yesterday and realized that I had let my habit of seeing go.

Why should this be? After so many years as a curious person and an artist, so long unafraid to stare back, bare eyeball-to-eyeball at others to see their secret selves. Even when I didn't find the courage or convenience to talk, I observed and noted the details, the pinpricks where devils dance. But now, I find that I have been flinching back from my most immediate environment in a helpless effort to inure myself to it, and thus I have been closing my eyes, shielding them and losing what might have been noticed otherwise. I have surrendered myself to interior pursuits and analysis, rather than careful observation of the facts beneath my nose. Perhaps that's one reason why I feel less compunction about writing my findings down in the blog these days. I'm adding thoughts and analysis to the observations I've already made about China, I'm unsure if I've covered a particular observation or analysis too many times before, and my eyes have become jaded so that they offer less fresh perspective on what they are seeing. I also grow tired of extending my attentions outwards from this frail fleshly redoubt, because I am more vulnerable when I do that.

China, in this way, works like a ceaselessly pounding wave on the shore, a tireless hammer for the nail that stubbornly sticks up from the smoothness of the wood. I think I know much more about the power of conformity than I ever did in America--because in America there is at least some cachet to being non-conformist. Here, it just makes you even more of an oddity worthy of being a caged zoo exhibit. Certainly foreigners often get treated in this sense, like pandas in a cage: sometimes to be petted with intrepid fingers as the little girl gets her picture taken with a cute creature, and other times to be pelted with unwanted food and shouts. As an artist I want to capture and communicate the beauty and humanity in Chinese society; as a human, I just want to build a Great Wall around me to protect me from the alien masses and shouted 'halloos' that sound more like taunts. There is a constant burden inherent in the lifestyle I have chosen, and unconsciously I have bowed beneath the weight, I have coped. The blame is not with the gormless masses who have few true entertainments in their bitter lives, but with the incremental changes that their stares have wrought in me. I have allowed this.

When I pull out my sketchbook, it is like a drawbridge let down for the horde to cross, for crowds to gather around--blocking my sunlight, my line of sight to the subject matter, and disrupting my concentration. Most importantly, that almost telekinetic connection between the subject, mediated by the eyes and communicated through fingers, wood, and graphite to the page... is burnt away like a skim of frost on a pond that is seconds away from being nuked. This is frustrating, and one eventually learns that it rarely pays to let the naked eye extend itself beyond its protective lid; much the opposite, I end up shuffling too and from the safety of my apartment and job with sense and self withdrawn deep inside.

To become invisible, one must also become sightless. A blind worm in the tunnels of the mad might escape the notice of the moles, with their bright teeth and long, sharp claws. In fact, I'm sure I don't really escape notice, not really; but when I can pretend that I am blending in, as I walk quickly past the catcalls with unhearing ears, and sighless eyes, then I can move quickly to the more comfortable interior worlds of internet or reading or writing.

On a more hopeful note, the seeing... well, I'm trying to encourage good habits to return. Yesterday: I walk down through a quiet neighborhood where the old men play Chinese-style chess with large round chits that look like the wooden joints used in Tinker Toys. A verdant park begins where the street ends, and I continue on in. The old city wall of Nanjing paces me to my left, an offshoot canal from the Changjiang (Yangtze) on my right. There are few people in the park with me, not the crowds I'm always used to seeing in China. A jogger. Some old ladies chatting together. An older gentleman rollerskates in swoops and spirals around a stone plaza, playing 'Auld Lang Syne' quite well on his violin. He gives me a most conspiratorial smile. Probably one of those rehabilitated intellectual types. The sun strikes the pitted stones of the city wall, and saplings (sassafras or sycamore) burst forth from crannies between the bricks. One section of the wall has been lowered (or just not rebuilt) so that an avenue can bridge it.

Behind the wall, more park. A mock rocket ship, and a not-so-mock gunship and MIG fighter jet are placed in the park for kids to gawk at and play on. A group of college students stands on the grass in a circle with hiking gear in a pile beside them. I climb up the hill, through the weeds, and then onto the wall itself. I'm hoping to walk back up the wall, and hopefully find a path on the other end of it that can let me down to the street so that I don't have to double back several times in order to go home. The wall, however, ends at a precipice from which I can see my apartment building rearing up about a mile away.

I look down the side of the wall. No good, no safe ways to climb down the wall, although if I had ever practiced climbing it would probably be a piece of cake. There are shacks and muddy paths down there where migrant workers are illegally squatting. I climb down a path through the woods behind the wall. Where does it go? An tiny orchard. A nanosized farm with a bevy of black chickens that scuttle away from me. The farm is squeezed between the woods, a blank cement wall, and a sheer drop down to the running track of a highschool. The school kids are out running and I expect them to see me (so strange to find a laowai pop out of nowhere on the ledge above our running track!) but none of them do. Some things are so strange and unexpected that we just don't notice them at all. Especially when we've been accustomed to the value of not seeing.

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