I can’t tell you about all of it; I haven’t been able to hold onto most of it myself. If anything, I’m cultivating not a collection of sights, sounds, and epiphanies, but the ability to simply let it run through me with the faith that I’ll walk away carrying what I need to.
The world shouldn’t be hard to see, but it’s made up of so many tiny pieces that you really do have to look for it. Even once you think you’ve found it, it never stops moving. My previous unarticulated assumption had been that it moves too slowly to appreciate, like a glacier or a pane of glass. But new T-shirt slogans march by every morning. The wind steals a few leaves here and there, moment to moment, even as the trees get taller. Train cars arrange and rearrange every day, a mobile museum of graffiti and rust.
Which universe to look for depends on whether you’re in Manhattan or Montana, but I don’t believe you can’t find it.
Even the parts that aren’t moving are still capable of hiding in plain sight. The Golden Gate Bridge, for instance, is not only massive and decidedly non-portable — it also happens to be painted International Orange, just in case you could possibly miss it. It doesn’t seem as if you would be able to discover a bridge like that, a bridge that everyone has been perfectly aware of for years.
But little versions of it are everywhere, peeking at you between buildings or jutting up from the rise of a hill. The tiniest and farthest version of it I have ever seen, I had probably glanced at hundreds of times before without even realizing what I was looking at: just the top rungs of one of its towers, so tiny you could cover it with your pinky against the glass. You can only visit that one from miles away, and even then only for a second before it disappears. That Golden Gate Bridge isn’t reliable or famous in the least; I share it with a much more exclusive society of very observant commuters. And even then I can’t always get to it, not even on clear days, not if I don’t find it in time before it’s swallowed by the overpass undulating into the foreground.
I’ve soaked up so much that I keep expecting that same path I walk every day to become wrung out and unforgiving, like that desiccated husk of a dishrag seemingly permanently draped over the neck of the kitchen faucet. But if anything, I’m wading into deeper waters, even months later.
Remember this painting?
How long do you think it would have taken you, walking by it day after day, to realize it features a wee unicorn? I think I clocked in at three weeks, and even then only with intense personal effort.
Despite how this post is already making me sound, I do not walk around swathed in a peaceful aura, gravely and vigilantly acknowledging the endless wonder of the cosmos, carrying out the crucial work of humanity with reverence. In fact, considering that a great deal of casual eavesdropping has been a part of the exercise, I’m often suppressing a laugh.
Take, for instance, the polite, sweet, and clearly mentally ill man who had developed, over the course of six train stops, a schoolboy crush on a middle-aged woman on the train who had been kind enough to converse with him.
“So,” he ventured earnestly, “have you had those dimples all your life?”
Best. Pickup line. Ever.
These treasures are what I receive when I forgo the earbuds playing songs I’ve already heard and decide to really listen – the most notable instance being an invisible train employee’s choked-up goodbye to us after twenty years, delivered over the speakers. We all stood there and held onto the rails and pondered our shoes or the floor in front of us as he told us what a joy it’s been to see us come and go over the years, then wished us a good day for the last time. I had muted that same voice on hundreds of days, assuming it had nothing new or real to say.
This isn’t just about the simple act of passively absorbing sights and sounds, though with a little practice, you might find even that simple gesture to be more pleasurable than you think.
The practice changes you, turns you into someone more capable of resonation, someone who can feel a trill of real delight at the realization that a garden of lush vines has been hidden under an elevated highway, or at a glimpse of a puppy face against a whooshing car window, or at my recent revelation that a stately, stodgy building in San Francisco is, several stories up, proudly flying a pirate flag.
But even that resonation is not nearly all there is.
Even more valuable is the realization that you don’t have to spend your time wishing for some other era or experience – that the present is enough. Abundance is still yours, waiting for you, whenever you’re ready to stop ignoring it in favor of your own nostalgia or desire.
Stop looking backward, would you? You’re missing everything.
In your more sheepish moments, you might realize you already have whatever possession or trait you just envied in someone else. To wit, there was the embarrassing episode last week, in which I eyed my neighbor’s lemon tree and felt this sudden absurd wistfulness about not having a lemon tree, because not having a lemon tree probably means you haven’t gotten anywhere in life, even though you’re thirty-two years old and should have some decent fruit-bearing plants by now. Real adults have citrus!
Except it turns out that I, ah, do have a lemon tree on my patio and had simply never noticed, not until the other day, when I saw the first wee baby lemon hanging from it.
Oh. Well. In my defense, I’m not a goddamn botanist. I couldn’t possibly have known that –- oh.
When life hands you lemons … you can’t do anything with them if you’re too oblivious to realize they’re there, stupid.
If you need a moment, or a week, or a month to choose the present, there’s no real hurry –- it will be there right then, your most steadfast and dependable friend.
At first, the present seems like an odd choice for an imaginary friend. But I would argue that all of our friends are, to some degree, imaginary –- we cobble our versions together out of what we know of anyone, smoothing over yawning gaps and ignoring the guaranteed presence of their secrets without fully contemplating that we are doing so.
The universe is far less imaginary than that. With its buildings and bumper stickers and wayward candy-bar wrappers, it can generally be relied upon to stick rather objectively to the facts.
As a companion, it’s certainly endearing enough. With its curled-up shingles, missing porch rails, and burned-out alphabet, the universe is an exercise in gap-toothed smiles. After spending time in its company, it’s impossible to conclude that you live in a world where perfection is expected, required, or even natural. It seems more okay to be missing a few pieces yourself.
This friend of yours will even speak to you. Unless you believe in God, its messages are pure coincidence. But who said the universe has to know it is speaking to you for you to hear it?
I was standing on a corner near Union Square, waiting for my boyfriend to meet me for a dinner date, when a man shouted at me, “What’s a pretty lady like you doing standing all by yourself? Girl, you gotta say yes once in a while!”
I still think that to myself here and there, just as he said it, when I’m tempted to be lazy, or give in to fear, or cling to the familiar. Girl, you gotta say yes once in a while.
Sometimes, the cosmos and I disagree, as when I glanced up from my seat just in time to see a slogan in large, bold typeface, screen-printed across a man’s chest, brush by me: DON’T FUCK IT UP.
I happen to be a big fan of failure, actually. But even disagreeing with the universe helps you know who you are.
My favorite communique so far, so twee that I’d never allow its use in fiction, happened in a rare San Francisco downpour. I scampered along, holding my coat over my head and cursing under my breath. A man next to me asked if I was headed to the train station, and when I confirmed that I was, he stepped closer to bring me under the radius of his umbrella. We walked together in awkward silence, something I am ever compelled to dissolve with nervous banter.
As we stood waiting for the crosswalk light to change, I said, “You know, I’ve had an umbrella in my bag for weeks, waiting for this. Today is the first day I forgot to bring it. So: I owe you an apology, because I’m pretty sure this downpour is my fault.”
He laughed, and then the light changed. As we stepped forward, I amended, “Then again, I suppose I might not be quite that powerful.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, right before we parted ways at the station doors and he disappeared into the crowd. “You’d be surprised.”
While it would be lovely if I were often so warmly and directly encouraged to discover the superpowers within, most communication is decidedly more subtle. I was walking alongside the train one night when I saw a woman run back toward the train she had just stepped off of, having realized she had forgotten her purse. The train employee allowed her to step back on and grab it, holding things up for a moment. A ways down the platform, right before the train pulled away, a frantic woman sprinted by me just in time to squeeze through the closest door.
I don’t know what she thought as she plopped down into a seat, relieved and gasping for breath, but surely it could not have been It’s a good thing some complete stranger forgot her purse, so I thought it on her behalf. Frazzled women of the world, unite.
That’s what I forget — that even my worst luck is so often a gift to someone, and the same is true for all of us. You didn’t just miss out on a train seat; someone else got one. That job you want so badly while you wait by the phone with your ringer turned all the way up? Someone else wants it, too. So many people all around you are murmuring along with your most fervent wishes, citing them nearly word for word. With efforts so unheroic that the most selfish and foolish could pull them off, with nothing more divine or extraordinary than your own setbacks and tragedies, you answer their prayers all the time. Show me an undertaker who doesn’t have hopes, dreams, or grocery bills.
More and more frequently, when I get something, I wonder who didn’t get it, who ran toward a train door that didn’t stay open quite long enough for them.
I’ve stopped competing for seats. I thought this would feel like a sacrifice, and sometimes it does. But it has, in many cases, resulted in a surprising sense of relief at not having to fight so hard all the time, at not having to defend my empire from every single potential threat to its ability to achieve its absolute maximum glory, not having to vigilantly patrol lines and queues and waiting lists to make sure everyone played fair.
If it’s hard for you to believe that we’re all in this together, if it’s hard for you to sit on the train and observe everyone with their headphones and iPads and closed-off expressions and think anything but It’s every man for himself, I encourage you to choose a spot near the back of a busy car, wait until the train has picked up speed, and lean out a little into the aisle.
You’ll see what I saw the first time it occurred to me to shift my weight in my seat and peer out: every last passenger swaying together in the exact same way every time the train car rounded a curve. This display of involuntary unison, ruled by laws far older and more powerful than we are, may be unintentional, but it is perfectly synchronized nonetheless. Regardless of what we choose to do with our time or attention from our individual seats, we remain at the mercy of that choreography.
I haven’t sat idle in the face of these discoveries, but my actions haven’t become their own fully realized stories, not yet. But I can, at least, tell you the ending of this particular story: I did finally find the heart in the sky, when I wasn’t even looking for it. It had been hiding in the hills, hugging the back of a two-story house and all but disappearing into the red brick facade.
I had probably looked right at it dozens of times without realizing it was there. But this time, the sun happened to catch it, setting its bulbs ablaze just briefly before they winked out again.
I don’t know why someone decided to put a big heart on the back of a house, but I’m glad they did. It’s still there today, and I’m doing my best to honor it by saying yes. I’m doing my best to make sure that every time I encounter it again, it stands for more than it did before.