The Challenge of Being Present, with Eyes Wide Open

Yesterday, I met my friend Miriam for happy hour.  Afterward, we walked up the street together toward my apartment and the theater where she was going to see a play.  We’d shared a half-priced individual pizza as an appetizer, and I was holding a to-go box with the leftovers inside.

In front of us, there was a guy asking people for money and food.  He wasn’t sitting or standing still, making requests as people passed, and he wasn’t taking no for an answer.  He was walking alongside an older man, who was moving slowly and leaning on his umbrella.

As we overtook them, the guy switched his attention from the old man to us.

“Excuse me,” he said.

“Sorry,” we mumbled, walking faster.

“Will you just listen to me before you walk away?”  His voice was loud.  Exasperated.  Vaguely threatening.

“We’re in a rush, sorry,” I told him.  “She’s on her way to a play.”

He matched our quicker steps and leaned in toward us.

“I’m not even asking for money,” he said.  “I’m starving.  I’m asking for some food.”

I looked at the box in my hand.  I didn’t need those extra two slices the way he probably did.  I was meeting another friend for dinner in an hour and had a fridge full of food at home.  Plus, if I gave him the pizza, he’d leave us alone.

“Here,” I said, thrusting the box toward him.  “You can have this.  It’s pizza.”

“Is it really?” He did let us go then.  But he turned back toward the old man.  “You see?” he said.  “At least someone cares.”

That wasn’t really fair, I thought.  I didn’t give him the pizza because I cared more than someone else.  I gave it to him because I had it right there in my hand, and because I was a little bit scared, and because I wanted to be able to walk away.

And then we heard a thunk.  Like cardboard connecting with pavement.  I thought it was the pizza box hitting the ground.  I thought the older man had had enough of this guy following him down the street and now taunting him.  I thought he’d knocked the pizza box out of the guy’s hand.

Miriam and I both turned.  It hadn’t been the pizza box.

The older man was on the ground, his umbrella lying next to him.  The other guy, still holding the box, was stepping backwards as he asked if the man was all right.

Two other images rushed into my brain.  A woman, probably in her seventies, on the ground in Reading Terminal Market last week after she slipped on a wet patch between a cheese shop and a produce place.  And my grandfather, stumbling and falling in the stone courtyard outside my brother’s high school graduation twelve years ago.

“Do you think that guy bumped into him?” Miriam asked.

The older man was starting to stand.  Other people were asking him if he was okay, too, and he nodded or said yes—did something to convey the affirmative—but I don’t remember what.  Less than 24 hours later now, I don’t know what his voice sounded like and I can’t picture his features.

Miriam and I turned around and continued heading up the street.

When I got back home, I felt sad and antsy, so I called my fiancé, Mike.  We talked about other things—happy things—and then I told him what had just happened.  As I said it out loud, it blurred into a story instead of an experience.  The exactness of it was already pixelating.  The two men’s faces were hazy.  I held onto some of the dialogue, and I knew what I had been thinking, but I’d already lost access to my gut-level feelings.  When I wrote out the scene just now, I fell into telling rather than showing when I tried to describe the guy’s voice (loud, exasperated, threatening) and my own emotional state (a little bit scared) because those details weren’t clear enough for me to show.

“That’s just wrenching at every angle,” Mike said when I was done telling him the story yesterday.

And it was.  I hadn’t let myself be fully present in the moment and I’d been content to let the details go fuzzy because I’d found the experience troubling and gut-wrenching on so many levels.

But in his book From Where You Dream, Robert Olen Butler quotes Akira Kurosawa, who said, “To be an artist means never to avert your eyes.”  A good writer (or visual artist or actor or whatever) can’t avert her eyes to things that feel too uncomfortable.  Or, on the other hand, too thrilling.

Two years ago, as I began my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, I worked with Mary Quattlebaum, who required that I freewrite, even just for five or ten minutes, every day.  Sometimes I freewrote about character dynamics or plot ideas in the novel I was just beginning, or I wrote about things that made me anxious.  But sometimes I captured little scenes that had provoked an emotional reaction in me, like the one I tried to write above.  Because I wrote these snippets every night, I got better at keeping my eyes open and staying aware of my feelings during the day.  As I wrote the beginning of the first draft of my novel-in-progress, I drew upon those freewrites a lot.  My novel has a first-person narrator, so it was helpful to realize what I noticed, thought, and did during emotional moments so that I could keep her reactions realistic. I think I need to get back to freewriting a little bit every day again, to re-train myself to keep my eyes and other senses open, and to give myself more material to draw upon as I try to finish revising my novel.

I’ve been struck lately by how distractible I am when I sit down with my manuscript open on the computer—how easily I give into the impulse to check email or Facebook or to Google something I suddenly wonder about.

If I can get myself back to a place where I can really be present for moments, both positive and negative, both in life and in the last chapters of this novel, then maybe I’ll make some real progress toward finishing this revision.

2 Responses to “The Challenge of Being Present, with Eyes Wide Open”

  1. L. Marie

    I smiled as I read the words “my fiancé, Mike.” Congrats again, Laurie. This post hits me where I unfortunately live. I often fail to be present in the moment, even during conversations. I’m too busy thinking about what I’m going to say next.

    You know what’s weird? The other day, I also had an encounter with an elderly person. I was on my way into the grocery store, when I saw an elderly men sitting outside the store. This is not totally unusual. The bus for seniors drops off and picks up passengers at this store. Yet there was something odd about the man. He was just sitting there, head bowed. I was in too much of a hurry to stop

    When I exited the store, a fire truck had arrived, and paramedics were standing over the man. He kept saying, “Leave me alone.” I suddenly realized he had a bruised forehead. He must have fallen or something and was sitting there dazed. Yet he resisted attempts to offer assistance. Sadly, I hadn’t even offered.

  2. laurasibson

    Laurie, I read this post yesterday while I was procrastinating the writing of a difficult scene. I’m not even joking. I couldn’t be present in that story so I sought the internet to relieve me of the discomfort. Your post reminded me that if I show up, I am allowing the good stuff to happen. It can’t happen if I don’t show up. I love that quote by Kurosawa, but at the same time, we are human and our human instinct is to flinch. As writers, we are fighting that instinct every time we sit down to write a difficult scene. Thanks again. Your post made me turn off the internet and write the scene.