Green lights, as far as I could see, go ahead, go ahead, go ahead…but I had nowhere I wanted to get to, no desire to hit the gas and go tearing up the street, or do anything, and, as always at these times, I couldn’t see that a person would ever want to do anything, doing seemed so presumptuous, so forced a retort to the absurdity of living, when what was wanted, was calling from somewhere deep inside, was the desire for immobility, that curling up into the self that is almost a disappearance—not quite, of course, for there is always the finest thread visible in the light—but a pulling away from all exposure, retraction of exertion in the service of some “I” that has once again outrun itself. Sleep, oblivion, that’s the wish: to be wrapping a dull soft cloth around and around the self—wrap until calm arrives—and then, after a time, who knows how long, might come some forgotten sense of expectancy, the willingness to pay attention. I would disband everything, cut all momentum and idle sidelong looking, throw off this strap-works of avenues and corners, and… Well, I would set myself in a room. A room. I can see it so clearly, there in the afternoon, the waiting expanse of it, its implication of generations come and gone. I almost feel on my skin the dusty tan light from the one high window. Tall space, silence—not full silence, but the near-silence of a dark solid old building at just such an hour, where if you get still and listen in the outermost noise of other lives will reach you, at first only faintly, but growing, resolving, the grumble overhead of a chair being shifted at a table, a bowl rung dully by a spoon, something opening and then clicking into place again, all of it distinct but also far enough away that the room is unaffected. And in that quiet, which somehow also holds the feeling of waiting, of a tide receded, an openness where something had been, the eye could start to move at the real pace of looking, which is to say in little stitch-like adjustments, from this to this, no special emphasis put on any one thing, with each little shift coming to rest: on the spindles of the tall chair by the door, taking in each separate ornamental curve, and then across, slow as any savoring, to the table under the window, there to note how the back edge meets exactly the bottom of the sill, holding still for a time to absorb the pale green cloth, green as peas that come in a can, how it has been arranged to hang evenly along the front, and then on that cloth the three lacquered cups—count them—and a clear little vase with a scalloped rim, water halfway up, but no flower… Above it, on the wall, the erratic faint skips of light, from the day, the window glass, movement of traffic on the streets down below.
Sven Birkerts is the author of nine books, most recently The Other Walk: Essays (Graywolf). He edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and is Director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. He lives in Arlington, MA.
Photography by Eleanor Leonne Bennett