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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 02/17/2000
Ottawa is Canada's capital. Kay and I live about forty miles south of it, in the middle of big grainfields which separate us from our neighbors by enough to keep even the sound of barking dogs so faint they sound like scratches on an old vinyl record. We're really isolated. So it's quite an event for us when we go shopping at one of Ottawa's big malls and see all those people swirling around. The people walk around gawking at the shops and mostly we walk around gawking at the people.
Canadians dress funny in the wintertime. Mostly all bundled up in huge downfilled parkas and sloppy jeans and high fleece-lined boots and knitted wool hats they call tuques, so it's hard to tell men from women. We haven't had much snow yet this winter. In fact almost none at all, and if anyone wants to tell me global warming isn't happening, all I can say is in the thirty-eight years I've lived here, I've never seen a winter where we didn't have at least sixty inches of snow on the ground by mid-January. But it's cold. Probably colder than without the usual snow blanket to bounce the sunlight all over everything. So the tuques and parkas and boots hide everyone so well that it's hard to tell men from women even in the warm promenades of the mall. That's why I couldn't tell whether the person sitting on the bench in the center of the main walkway was a man or a woman. I was simply planning to settle down on the adjacent space because Kay had decided to spend some time looking at some porcelain dishware in a place called MacIntosh & Watts-- a venture that didn't exactly excite me. So I thought I'd keep doing my people-watching from a comfortable seat while Kay ambled through her rows of porcelain. But first, of course, I took a closer look at the person with whom I'd be sharing the bench.
Maybe, I thought, as I got closer, my eyes were getting tired. Sometimes, just looking through glasses for a long time, objects get a little fuzzy. So I removed them as I approached the bench. But that didn't help. The person sitting there still looked a little hazy. I rubbed my eyes and looked around. All the passersby showed up sharp and clear for at least fifty feet. Beyond that distance, my eyes don't focus as well so I usually wear my driving glasses when I go out. Then I looked toward the bench again and the occupant still looked hazy. I kept staring, trying to bring him (or her?) into sharper view. I couldn't. And then I noticed the person's hand patting the empty bench space next to him and looking at me. It was a clear invitation to come sit down.
I drew close and now, even though the individual still looked unclear, I discovered she was a woman, maybe about sixty with a heavy shock of grey hair jammed beneath her tuque.
"Don't strain your eyes," she said to me in a clear, almost risible voice. "It won't do you no good." And then she laughed, patted the bench again and said. "Sit down. It's not your eyes, it's me. I'm out of focus."
I laughed too but a little uncomfortably. "You--you're out of focus?" I echoed.
"It's a perfectly simple thing to do," she explained as I settled alongside her but carefully keeping a space of a couple of feet between us.
"Is it now?"
"Of course-- it don't make sense to you, because you've never tried it. Well, have you?"
"Going out of focus?"
"Let's say--tuning in to a different station." "Oh--that," I said. "No-- not exactly."
"Don't you ever dream?"
"Don't you think you're in a different focus when you dream?" "I never thought of it like that," I admitted. "But wouldn't my wife notice if I'm out of focus when I'm dreaming?"
"Maybe she never takes a careful look. How long you been married?" "Forty-three years."
"That explains it. She doesn't look too close at you anymore." She chuckled over this one.
"Oh-- but what about when we were new to each other?" My companion responded with a belly laugh. "You were probably both in a haze back then." And then she added, becoming serious. "What happens when you never change the channel on your radio or TV?"
I shrugged. "You keep getting the same station." "So why can't you change the channel on yourself once in a while?" "I never thought I could do that," I admitted sheepishly. "Nothing to it, really. Trouble is, nobody ever thinks of it. Everybody thinks they're stuck with just the one channel they were born in. You want me to show you?"
"How to change channels? Right here?"
"Why not? I think you got possibilities. Nobody ever noticed me being out of focus before. So at least you look at things. You should catch on easy. All you got to do is use your imagination a little bit. Here's an exercise you can try right now."
"Look at all those people passing by. But not the way you usually look at them. Add a little something to your looking. Try," she went on, speaking more slowly and carefully now as she directed a pair of faded blue eyes at me, "--try to see them just a little bit less sharp. Don't focus too hard. Keep looking and you should be able to see one or two of them--glowing."
"Like they're lit up from inside. Sure--glowing. They're all glowing, if you know how to look. But since you're just learning, relax your eyes and try to imagine them glowing. Just keep doing that."
First, I thought I'd tell her she was pulling my leg. But, of course, I realized, she wasn't. "My imagination is a little rusty," I suggested.
"Of course. But think of it like this. All your life you been tuned into one station. Not all your life, really. As a kid, you changed your focus from time to time. But you probably don't remember it."
I thought about what she said. I remember some of the strange things I'd rediscovered about childhood when I'd written my book, An Unlikely Prophet. Particularly, I recalled making the discovery that when I was watching kids playing in their Superman costumes, they weren't just jumping around. That was only how they appeared to adult eyes who couldn't accept a different reality. But, I discovered, in THEIR reality, those children were flying.
"Well," I admitted, nodding slowly. "I do--sort of." "Good--good for you. Now--go ahead. Make them glow." "If I can imagine them glowing," I asked, "is that how I start changing channels?"
"It's one of the ways. There are others. But you'll find those yourself if you can do the glowing right. Go ahead--try."
I sat there and stared at the stream of passing people. I half closed my eyes. I picked out one or two as they approached and tried to imagine they were glowing. I felt a little silly, but at the same time, I believed I might be onto something. And then, after a few minutes, I saw a man and woman with a couple of small boys tagging along after them and, through my slitted lids, managed to put a glow all around them. So far, so good. They seemed to shine a little bit. I followed them as they moved on past me, then opened my eyelids fully and with a odd tremor of almost fear, I noticed--they were still glowing. I wasn't making them glow. They were glowing by themselves.
I looked around at other passersby. They were all held in the same glow. What was most astonishing is that while they all looked the same, they seemed different. Until this very strange experience, I realized that I had looked at people and seen them only through the lens of my own experience. So what I saw were expressions of a heavy crust of personal prejudices acquired over a lifetime. Whenever I watched a crowd of people like this, there were always some faces I liked and some I disliked. I felt favorably disposed toward some expressions, and ill-disposed toward others. I favored certain ways of walking, and disapproved of other ways. I tended to screen out the faces and figures of the elderly as if I found them a threatening reminder of my own mortality and the decline of my once youthful body. I found beauty in the faces and figures of some women and dislike in those of others. I was, in fact, judging everyone I saw without even knowing them. As though I had acquired a kind of peremanent visual screening apparatus that selected from the world only those persons to which my experience gave a positive cast.
How strange, I thought. At this moment, the glow seemed to be spreading. Even the shops were glowing a little. The cement walkway of the mall itself seemed to work in some sort of harmony with the walkers, holding them up, supporting them. Everything around me seemed in some way to be there to please and cooperate with everything else. It was as though I were perceiving the world as it really was for the first time, without the prejudices I had acquired from being constantly tuned in to the same wavelength. For surely that was what must have happened. I had changed focus.
I turned to my companion. She was smiling at me.
"Well?" she said.
I studied her for a while. "Maybe you just hypnotized me," I suggested, not really believing that either. When someone is glowing at you that way, it's impossible to believe there's any trickery involved.
"You'll find out later," she said. "When you start doing this without me around."
"You think this is--permanent?"
"Only if that's how you want it. Besides, you just started. There's all kinds of focuses you can try. A good TV or radio don't have just two stations."
I could tell you a great deal more about what followed from this adventure. But then it would just be another story. That isn't what I'm after. Instead I'd like every one of you reading this column to try the same exercise. Go somewhere public where there are lots of people. And try the glow trick, exactly as I've described it here.
Remember, it takes a bit of effort, a certain level of concentration. But go do it. A lot of you are going to make some astonishing discoveries.
First thing, you'll realize that I didn't make this story up. Second, don't expect to get results exactly like mine. We're all unique. So you'll likely tune in to an entirely different frequency than the one I found. So don't go looking for what I found. Whatever you discover, whether its similar or very different, I'm asking you to come back to the message board on this site and tell me about it. Or, if you don't want to make it too public, just write me directly . Let's talk about it.
But first, start with the glowing trick. Now that you know how to do it, you shouldn't have a problem. What happens after that--? Well, we'll see, won't we?
<< 02/14/2000 | 02/17/2000 | 02/21/2000 >>
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