A chilly spring evening, threatening rain. The blue lights were out on the trees. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but twilight was upon us.

My first reaction, upon seeing the blue lights and the building was to stop and snap a pic. But I hesitated for a second. And this entire thought process unfurled in my head, vast, critical, and multi-layered. It all happened in a moment. Proust or Joyce could describe the actual thought process better. But it went something like this: “Wait. Put camera down. Beautiful image. LOOK at the beautiful image for a while. LOOK. I wonder if people now have forgotten how to look? Have I forgotten how to look? Since everything beautiful can be captured immediately … are people more concerned with the capturing of the beauty as opposed to reveling in said beauty? What price are we paying right now? How is this impacting movies, books, the art world, our interactions with one another? Where will it end? Can’t I just stand here and LOOK at the beauty?” This entire worry-wart monologue/lecture took place over a period of about 2 seconds. I felt some dismay, because all around me I saw people take pictures of the beauty – standing still long enough to hold the camera still – and then continuing walking. In general, I don’t believe in judging other people for behavior like that. I do my best to only judge people who commit crimes. If you’re a murderer or a rapist or Idi Amin, I feel completely fine in judging you and calling you by your proper name which is “Asshole” and “Scum of the Earth”. If you’re a man who’s done me wrong personally, then I feel justified in judging you and saying, “How you behaved is why you SUCK.” I’m not gunning for the Saint of the Year award. There are exceptions, and I do slip up, but in general, I don’t think that judging people for what is, essentially, benign behavior, is the way to go. Besides, I was participating in the phenomena as well. As in: OMG BEAUTIFUL SIGHT WHERE IS MY PHONE.

Anyway, I wasn’t in a rush. I had had a rigorous couple of hours, in the care of the medical profession, and I was both stressed out and exhausted (a dangerous combo). So I had my little “Oh woe to us who do not take the time to LOOK” lecture imposed on me by some busybody-inner-voice, and decided to just stand there for a while, looking at the scene. The sky was this weird deep blue. The sun was gone from the sky, and it had been a dramatic cold day of clouds and dampness. I couldn’t tell if there were clouds up there in the sky, but there probably were. The lights around 30 Rock are dramatic and cinematic, making the building look iconic and impressive. The skating rink has been dismantled, now that spring is upon us. There was work going on down there. There was work going on outside the entrance as well.

I worked in 30 Rock for a year. I have really fond associations with the place. I worked on the 17th floor, the SNL floor (due to a glitch in office-assignments: there was zero reason that I should have been placed on that floor! I’d go to the ladies room and be surrounded by the glorious lady performers of SNL, all of us washing our hands, me trying to be cool, them probably thinking, “Who the hell is she and why is she on our floor?”) I would come outside onto that stone area facing the skating rink (where the Christmas tree goes), and be assaulted by the throngs of people, making it hard to walk even a foot in any direction without bumping into someone. There were definitely a ton of cons to working at 30 Rock. The amount of people there on a daily basis, for one. You just had to accept it, get to a Zen place with it. There is never a time there when it is not crowded. On the day the Christmas tree lights go on, they let us all go home at 2 p.m., because otherwise we would have been trapped. It was very interesting working there. It was a good job, a windfall in my lap, I made good friends, worked my ass off, and learned a lot. I almost never go by 30 Rock or Radio City anymore because I just can’t take the crowds. But last night I found myself on 50th Street, and was struck dumb by the beauty of the blue lights and the building and the dark blue sky.

It was around 8 p.m., so the crowds weren’t all that bad, especially because the skating rink is closed. The flags were fluttering a little bit, there was some wind, although nothing like the random gales going on right now as I type this.

As I let myself just stand there, forced myself to stand still, things actually started to look different. But the difference was in me, not the surroundings. People were posing by the blue-light trees, having their pictures taken. People were hurrying by on their phones, talking. They were probably hurrying home to someone who loved them. They were probably coordinating with friends over which wine bar to meet up at. Maybe they stopped on the sidewalk to snap a pic of the beauty because they were late somewhere, and wanted to make sure to savor the image later.

I do that a lot. “I don’t have time right now to enjoy this … but later … later I will savor it.”

And I do. Or I try to.

I’m just doing the best I can. And so is everybody else.

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15 Responses to Looking

  1. Paul H says:

    “I’m just doing the best I can. And so is everybody else.”

    A beautiful and important sentiment. There would be less pain in the world if we all took it to heart.

    • sheila says:

      I’m really trying!! It took me a second, it took that little worrying monologue/lecture to get me to stand still, think, reflect – and suddenly everyone around me seemed benign and lovely. Nothing to judge, nothing to worry about.

  2. Amy says:

    Nicely said, Sheila. Dovetails quite well with some readings I’m doing in Zen Buddhism.

    A couple weeks ago I visited a butterfly sanctuary (don’t know what else to call it) – it’s essentially a large terrarium with all sorts of tropical butterflies. I went with other members of my photography club so I had my camera in hand. I get this “gotta get the shot, gotta get the shot” breathless reaction quite a bit when I’m taking pictures and that day was no exception. So I was holding my camera as still as I could, trying to “get the shot,” when a butterfly landed right on the hand holding the camera. (It’s not unusual for a butterfly to use you as a resting place for a couple of minutes at the sanctuary, but the location this one chose was a bit uncanny.)

    So I stayed still for a few minutes while someone ELSE tried to get a shot of the butterfly on my hand (a couple of legs were on the camera too). I finally had to nudge the little guy off gently, but my attitude toward the whole event had changed a bit, for the better, I think. Talk about a reminder to try to enjoy the moment.

    • sheila says:

      Amy – I love your story so much. Sometimes it just takes a breath, a moment, to remember to get present. The beauty exists without the photograph of it. Of course I then went ahead and took my picture – but it was really important to let the beauty in first.

      Thank you for sharing your story! I love the butterfly landing on your hand!

  3. Aliénor says:

    Lovely post! This is so important. I always try to savour the beauty of something before taking a picture or writing a description of it. But I often do judge people…

    Sheila, I told you before that I love you. I get intimidated by your brain, but you have a golden heart…

    • sheila says:

      Aliénor – it is so difficult not to judge, isn’t it? Or at least to let your day be overwhelmed by irritation of this nature. I really make it my business to FIGHT this. I really do. I do not always succeed. But I do try.

      Not easy, when some people INSIST on being annoying! (Or Idi Amin.)

      and your final words brought a tear to my eye. I so appreciate your comments here, and I appreciate so much your kindness.

  4. Lizzie says:

    The feeling you describe at the beginning–the guilt at not stopping and appreciating something in the moment–is so true! For me, it started with reading From the Mixed-up Files at a very impressionable age. At the end, when Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler is dispensing wisdom about secrets, etc., she says that most people take tons of photos of their vacation so they can prove what a good time they had when they get back, but they neglect spending time actually EXPERIENCING it (something about “letting it enter inside and change you”–I can’t remember the exact quote.) But anyway, because of that little paragraph, it took years for me to willingly take pictures when vacationing or sight-seeing, and I still stop and pause for a moment before snapping a photo! I don’t know whether to be resentful or thankful… :)

    • sheila says:

      Lizzie – wow, I forgot that part of Mixed-Up Files – what a wonderful memory of how a book, or a sentence in a book, can really get through to a child. Amazing!

      I do feel fortunate that I grew up in the 70s where picture-taking certainly happened – but not at the level we have now. There were family vacations I have no record of, but I remember perfectly vividly.

      It’s always a good reminder. And I’m gonna re-read Mixed-Up Files next – I have it right here. Thanks again.

  5. devtob says:

    Judging by the quality of your photographs here, you are never rushing to get a quick pic and always looking to find the best way to capture a beautiful and/or telling image.

    Block Island, family get-togethers at the lake, Sandy aftermath, Memphis, etc.

    Your reflections on today’s beautiful photo, and life in the moment, would make Roger Ebert happy.

    OT, did you see the new Joyce 10-euro coin?

    It’s better designed than most coins, and reminded me of the F. Scott Fitzgerald cartoon of Joyce, which I first saw here, on your literally wonderful blog.

    • sheila says:

      Devtob – Yes, I saw the new Joyce coin – but they misquoted him on it. And now that they’re being criticized for it they’re all like, “it is not meant to be an accurate quote, it is taken out of context for the coin” – Dudes, you added a word to a famous sentence written by James Joyce. End of story, you’re asshats!!

      I was excited about the coin, except for the exorbitant price – and then looked closer at it and immediately knew that they had added the word “that” to the sentence. This was before the brou-haha ensued, or before I noticed the brow-haha anyway. I was like, “I don’t think that’s an exact quote, lemme check.” My dad would be proud.

      and yes, God, I love that F Scott Fitzgerald drawing – so so so cool! Glad you liked!

      • Carrie says:

        Add it to the list of things it’s ok to be judgmental about – murderer, rapist, Idi Amin, man who done you wrong, MISQUOTING JOYCE ON A COMMEMORATIVE JOYCE COIN IN IRELAND

        Saw this quip on Twitter about it too – “Embarrassing. The Central Bank have also had to recall their W.B. Yeats coins which read “Tread softy because you tread on my jeans”.”

        Thought of you immediately when the news about the coin broke here. :)

        • sheila says:

          hahahaha so RIDICULOUS. Did they think people wouldn’t notice? Or care? Debacle!!

          • sheila says:

            and I don’t really judge that, because I have come to expect it. I mean, they left out crucial words on the MLK memorial – the “I was a drum major for justice” quote – they’re getting rid of the quote, finally, after all the controversy. In front of my dad’s library there’s a big stone with a quote from Malcolm X – about how much he loves books – but again, they left off the rest of the quote (which said something to the tune of: “I’d love books even more if whitey got off my back” – literally – “whitey” was involved in the full comment). so again: the little editing they did was of course caught by people who knew better. It was a huge controversy. The quote remains. I suppose with the Internet mis-quotes have a way of traveling much farther – people pass things on, on Facebook, blithely assuming it’s Plato or Hemingway – when it’s really not at all. And the people don’t even seem to CARE that it’s not Plato. They just think the quote is adorable and just sooo inspirational, and who cares who said it?

            But a commemorative Joyce coin where they ADD a word? Who was in charge? I am BAFFLED by what went down there.

            If only whitey would get off my back, I would look into it further.

  6. Todd Restler says:

    Nice post. Did you see Louis CK’s new HBO special this week? He talked about exactly this. How he went to see his daughter in a dance, and every single parent is watching the production through their cell phones, trying to record.

    He’s like ” Hey, maybe you should just watch the kid? The definition on the kid is amazing, she’s in total High definition, complete 3D. Instead you record it, and you’ll never watch the recording, you’ll just post post it on facebook where other people will comment on it (without watching it either).”

    Sometimes we all need to smell the roses as they say…..

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