Monday, May 26, 2014

Seeing the World Through Fresh Eyes

Sorry if any of you were sitting there, desperately clicking the "refresh" button for the past few minutes.  I didn't get back into town until late--my being out of town is actually the subject of this post--and I wanted to get this typed up right away.  I had a moment of clarity (rare enough!), and it was writing-related.  Or at least, enough so that this feels like the place to put it.  Anyway, it's all below the break.

Over the weekend, my sister graduated from college.  Because she went to a Catholic college, this meant I ended up not only going to a graduation ceremony, but a graduation mass.

The mass was held in an old chapel (well, about 180 years old.  Those of you on the east coast will have to take my word that 180 years is considered super-old for a building here in the Midwest; those of you in Europe can feel free to keep mocking our very concept of "old").  It was a fairly nice one, but not particularly exceptional as stone chapels go.  It was the classic pseudo-gothic arches, stained glass windows, granite pillars, and dome; it was large (seating about 500), but not exceptionally so; it was a nice acoustic space for classic liturgical music, but it was hardly the echo chamber of a St. Paul's Cathedral.  It was, in short, a great place for a mass--but it's not like just being there was a life-altering experience.

Having come early to make sure we'd get seats (graduation mass was a big deal, it turned out), I was sitting in my pew, looking around and idly admiring the stonework, when--of all things--a bit I one wrote in a fanfic ran through my head:

Towering marble walls soared up from the ground, seeming to defy gravity with brute, implacable strength. The cloud towers of her home were impressive, but to see the arches and spires of Cloudsdale not only replicated, but exceeded, and to see it done using stone, made the young pegasus boggle. The weight of the earth seemed to tower above her, and looking up at the endlessly rising columns, Cadence suddenly felt very small and insignificant.

I don't know why that came to me right then, but when it did, I suddenly saw the chapel in a new light.  The arched ceiling above me, which before had been "only" forty feet high, now seemed unguessably distant.  The pillars, which before had been "only" granite columns, were now bulwarks of stone, giant's fingers which inconceivably contrived to hold up a ceiling whose mass defied understanding.  The distances, the figures, the sounds--all of them were suddenly vast, and alien, and as beautiful as they were imposing.

As quickly as it came, the moment passed.  I didn't have time to stare about me in wonder, or to gasp in awe; it was a flash of insight, gone before I could react.  But in that moment, I saw the chapel with another's eyes.  Not my eyes, which have seen the insides of hundreds of chapels, which have attended and given concerts in such spaces regularly, and which have become inured to the sight.  They were eyes which had never been in such a space before, and to which architecture and art which were unremarkable to me were still unknown.

They weren't Cadence's eyes, but they weren't mine either.  In that moment, I simply saw the chapel with fresh eyes.

For a writer, the ability to look at the world through another's eyes is as valuable a skill as there is.  How can one tell a character's story, if one can't empathize with their thoughts, their actions?  But there's something more fundamental than that, which I think I ever-so-briefly stumbled into, and that's the ability to see something for the first time.  To experience something as though one has never experienced it before.  From that first experience springs all knowledge, all predisposition, all basis for assumption.  From that first experience spring the things that make each of us unique.

As I sat there, before and during the mass, I tried to recapture the moment, to see the chapel again as I had too-fleetingly seen it.  I failed.  I could remember how it looked, what I saw... but I couldn't see what I had seen.  I could remember how I had felt, but I couldn't feel it.

But, for an instant, I saw the world through fresh eyes.


  1. And the people in China just sort of snicker at Europe's concept of 'old', and so around it goes.

    Sounds like a wonderful moment. I can get my brain to look at things without the built-up context they normally have, but that's not quite as good as managing the fresh eyes you are talking about. It's a mind-opening experience, or it has been the once or twice I've had a similar experience.

    1. And people in Egypt will do the same to those of China, and then the Middle Easterners, and the anthropologists, the paleontologists, the geologists, until finally cosmologists manage to look at everyone smugly, while people say they care too much about things that don't have any practical application.

      Reading has always helped me get that fresh-eyes experience. Everything seems fresher when seen from the perspective of another character.

  2. In the US, 100 years is a long time. In Europe, 100 miles is a long way.

  3. Something similar happened to me... but it lasted for days.

    Counter-intuitively, there are times when a lot of knowledge on a subject can provide that "fresh eyes" moment. Having studied medieval history with a focus on technology, I walked into my first European cathedral (Chartres) and had a moment of realization that damn near floored me.

    In a world lit only by fire, mostly illiterate men, with only muscle power, had raised this magnificent, soaring building, without something so basic as a standard system of measurement.

    I went around in a daze for some while afterward.

  4. As much as I love reading, I've never quite managed the trick of putting myself in the perspective of a character I've created. I can only seem to do so for characters that I've read.