Looking Closely is Everything
How the pandemic taught me to look closely at the world, and how I hope to carry that forward out the other side
Looking closely at dang near anything might very well be the key to it all.1With that in mind, I’ve been trying to get better at this, this deceptively simple act of looking closer.
By dint of pandemic stasis, I suspect we’ve all gotten better at closer looking. Perhaps you’ve noticed the subtle slant of the floor of the room in which you’ve been stuck for months on end, or the daily rhythms of that one old dude on your neighborhood block that you’ve now walked around a million times. Maybe you noticed how exhausted you are by video calls, but in noticing that you recognized that it’s really the audio delays and wonky noise cancellation that makes video so stressful.2 Perhaps you noticed how different countries handled the pandemic (how could you not), and from that you recognized the flaws and strengths of the varied responses, and in that the cracks in social systems that we hitherto took for granted.
The point being: Looking closely is valuable at every scale. From looking closely at a sentence, a photograph, a building, a government. It scales and it cascades — one cognizant detail begets another and then another. Suddenly you’ve traveled very far from that first little: Huh.
I’d say that that huh is the foundational block of curiosity. To get good at the huh is to get good at both paying attention and nurturing compassion; if you don’t notice, you can’t give a shit. But the huh is only half the equation. You gotta go huh, alright — the “alright,” the follow-up, the openness to what comes next is where the cascade lives. It’s the sometimes-sardonic, sometimes-optimistic engine driving the next huh and so on and so forth.
#The Simple Description
For me, these last few months have vibrated into a fever pitch of huhs and looking ever-closer.
In November 2020 I set out on another one of my giant walks. This time, I walked the Tōkaidō covering some 700km between Tokyo and Kyoto along the coast. As I walked I read John McBride’s excellent (unpublished) guide to the road. In the early 1800s, the famous woodblock printmaster Hiroshige produced the “The Fifty-Three stations of the Tōkaidō.” Fifty-three prints, one for each post-town along the road. John’s book begins each chapter with a very matter-of-fact description of each print.
Take, for example, this image of Kambara, the sixteenth post town:
I look and see: skillfully deployed rules of thirds, monochromatic palette, cold evening along a mountain road, strange guy with funny hat (?).
John looks and we see:
“The night road falls silent as travelers pass in the deepening snow. The far-right traveller wears a sugegasa, sedge hat, and is shrouded in a rain jacket. He carries an Odawara Lantern. Directly behind him is a rounded, bent-over traveller taking the slope one-step-at-a-time. The male traveller descending the slope has his umbrella partially open. He wears high snow geta on his feet and uses a walking stick to make his way carefully down the slope. Snow has accumulated on the backs of all the travelers and this device draws them into the quiet of the snow scene. Hiroshige depicts the gentle curves of the snow on the roof lines, making the new snow appear soft.”
As I walked, I read those descriptions — sometimes several times a day. What struck me as unnecessary at first (I’m looking right at the image!) quickly became fundamental. In starting from a first-principle of “just describe the freggin’ print” they begin to unlock “obvious” details, provide cultural context and new language (sedge hat, odawara lantern, walking through snow in sandals (!!)) and heightened awareness of artistic skill.
In other words: Well-chosen words guide your eyes to look — to really look at the print — in a way I found I was incapable of without help. John was gently taking my eyeballs and going: This! The radius of the edge of the snow on the roofs, behold! Suddenly the story is very different: Fresh snow? Caught unprepared (the sandals?)? Will this little guy make it to a lodge alright? Will he sleep under that umbrella in the snow?
This act of “really looking” is deceptive. It requires an almost “unlooking” to see closely, a kind of defocusing. Because: We tend to see in groups, not details. We scan an image or scene for the gist, but miss a richness of particulars. I suspect this has only gotten worse in recent years as our Daily Processed Information density has increased, causing us to engage less rigorously — we listen to podcasts on 2x speed or watch YouTube videos with a finger on the arrow-keys to fast-foward through any moment of lesser tension. Which means we need all the help we can get to prod ourselves to look more closely, and a good description can help do just that.
As I took crazy pleasure in the richness of the Hiroshige prints as buoyed by John’s words, a New York Times piece from the summer of 2020 popped up on my radar: A breakdown of a print by another woodblock master, Hokusai. It also happened to be on the Tōkaidō (although Hokusai’s series was technically about Mt. Fuji). Jason Farago from the Times takes us beat-by-beat through the image.
I love it most for how it captures an instant, with an exactitude that feels almost photographic. Here. Now. A country road, two trees, daytime: hold onto your hats.
Let’s start with the road. A serpentine passage cuts through an ordinary little marsh, on a highway that connects Kyoto to Edo (now Tokyo). No graceful landscape, this. We’re somewhere commonplace, undistinguished.
Leading into much bigger cultural and social questions as teased out through detail:
How does a single artist — of mass-market pictures, no less — come to embody a national culture?
Here, the looking closely is coupled with smart digital editing — the final piece is one of guided wonder and joy. I dare you to step away from the article not seeing more and more clearly.
Recently, New York Times Magazine writer Sam Anderson and I spoke about how describing something well is both an act of incredible generosity and a literary challenge of the highest order. Sam:
Words are magic. Words are really magic. They add so much. You can take a TikTok video, and you think the TikTok video is the end in itself. You don’t need any gloss on that, but you absolutely do. It’s so much funnier if you can articulate what is embarrassing or weird or impressive about what that person is doing. That is a great hack.
If you’re stuck on something, especially if you’re trying to do a project, just put a picture of your subject in front of you and sit down and say, “Okay. Describe visually this person for someone who has no idea who they are,” or “Watch this 10-second clip and write down what happens,” and in writing down the details, you start to understand what’s some interesting about it.
In 2020, Sam wrote two wonderful pieces about looking closely at the world. The first, a blow-by-blow description of a snowball fight from France in 1897:
From that point forward, these two are locked in savage, jolly combat. They reload and pelt each other multiple times, until finally — overtaken, perhaps, by the homosocial energy crackling between them — the big man staggers forward and lunges to tackle the slim man like a bear attacking a deer. But once again he misses: The slim man sidesteps and, grinning, shoves the big man into the snow. The big man pops back up, like a mustachioed snow-zombie, and starts pelting the slim man again from behind.
Though the video had already gone viral before Sam wrote about it, I suspect Sam’s piece added depth to all previous viewings — you can’t help but see these new micro-dramas unfold.
His second piece was about eating chips: “I Recommend Eating Chips.” Both of these pieces struck nerves — the French snowball fight is one of the most read pieces on the Times in 2020. The banality of chip-eating elevated through good prose and self-awareness is a gift to us all — recognizing the grim shame of binging Doritos while simultaneously granting us permission via pandemic humor:
Join me. Grab whatever you’ve got. Open the bag. Pinch it on its crinkly edges and pull apart the seams. Now we’re in business: We have broken the seal. The inside of the bag is silver and shining, a marvel of engineering — strong and flexible and reflective, like an astronaut suit. Lean in, inhale that unmistakable bouquet: toasted corn, dopamine, America, grief! We are the first humans to see these chips since they left the factory who knows when. They have been waiting for us, embalmed in preservatives, like a pharaoh in his dark tomb. These chips might have even been produced in the former world, in the time before the plague, when people gathered in sports stadiums, filled concert halls, touched one another’s faces, high-fived, passed around bottles and joints and phones and cash. But now they have been born into this world, into our doomed timeline, and they have absolutely no idea.
This seems to say to me: Only untrained minds are boring. Or: Nothing in the world is bereft of delight. Looking closely helps unlock this delight, this wonder, this doofy curiosity. Huh, I recommend eating chips? I do.
On some morning in December 2020, a six-minute twenty-seven second video of a single cell turning into a full salamander made its rounds. I’ve thought about this video no fewer than five times a day since watching it the many, many times I’ve watched it. It is a video of both literal and figurative close looking. That we can peek over Nature’s shoulder and witness the 0-1 pop of a thing from a gooey dot to sneaky automaton is miraculous and bizarre. When does it “salamander?” The very definition of astonishing seems to be embedded in the way the cells move, as they grow from a “knowable” half-a-dozen dots to the millions and billions of the finished product. The phrase “sentience of the swarm” runs through my mind as I watch it. I am delighted and terrified: These little dots in aggregate know so much more than I ever will.
That the video has no music is, I believe, a boon. The silence is hypnotic. And one could say a kind of hypnosis is required for looking closely. Put another way: I find that looking closely and meditation overlap. Meditation, reductively, is a way of looking closely at the body or mind (or, I suppose, the absence of those things), to be present and observant of the smallest sensation in service to honoring and honing a clarity of attention. With no music, and almost no cuts — just cells doing their freaky thing in fast-forward — I feel like I’m falling into the video, fully in the moment, can feel all the nuclei; ASMR for the eyeballs and the mind.
What’s wild about focused attention is that the act of observation is implicitly timeless. A little dose of time travel. To look closely you must be present. And the more present you are, the more you move outside the boundaries of time. Similarly: During a seasoned meditation session — because you aren’t focused on how much time has passed or how much is left, because you’re observing, say, breath with a kind of total equanimity and stillness — time simply evaporates, as if in a dream.
#Poetry and Closeness
Poetry, by definition — by brevity — is often socks-off-knocking value-dense, so close do its authors look.
American poet Nikky Finney caps her Head Off & Split collection with, “Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica.” It opens:
Be camera, black-eyed aperture. Be diamondback terrapin, the only animal that can outrun a hurricane. Be 250 million years old. Be isosceles. Sirius. Rhapsody. Hogon. Dogon. Hubble. Stay hot … Become the lunations.
In the Winter 2021 issue of the always-excellent Sewanee Review, Ross Gay takes a loupe to Finney’s work:
But to be black-eyed also means to have bruised eyes, hurt eyes: eyes that have been hurt by what they’ve seen, and eyes that have been hurt maybe for what they’ve seen. And an aperture, in addition to being a part of a camera, is a hole or an opening through which the light comes. Be a black-eyed opening for the light to come through. Be this. It’s my first final instruction. It’s the best I can say first and last. Let’s start here.
There is a fine line between extracting meaning from looking closely and from imposing meaning.3 A sophisticated observer operates like a scientist, drawing direct and clear lines between what’s on the page and what is known and true4. What I see in Gay’s reading is pure extraction, full of lived context and knowing, built on immutable truths, helping us slow down to really see the very words themselves — “Be camera, black-eyed aperture” — as opposed to fly on past. (And how can you not want to fly — this poem has so much velocity, Be diamondback terrapin, the only animal that can outrun a hurricane and on and on in a perfect crescendo of such closely observed and well-chosen language that if your heart doesn’t tick-up a few beats perhaps you should check your Apple Watch.)
Finney distills, and Gay unravels — holds our eyeballs — points them with whooping delight: Just look at these words and what’s beneath them!
#In Pre-Soviet Russia, Closeness Looks Youly
George Saunders’ latest book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, is the final piece of close-looking I’ll foist up here before letting you go.
The conceit is simple: George takes apart seven classic 19th century Russian short stories. You know, Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Gogol — those guys. You read a story, and then George becomes an expert onion peeler — he looks with a closeness and curiosity that reveals layers and uniquely Russian secrets within.
On the “radical” philosophy driving these stories:
The resistance in the stories is quiet, at a slant, and comes from perhaps the most radical idea of all: that every human being is worthy of attention and that the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.
I think it’s worth moving your eyeball back a line: “… the origins of every good and evil capability of the universe may be found by observing a single, even very humble, person and the turnings of his or her mind.”
That is a radical mode of noticing.
The book, then: Russians looking closely, and a 21st century American looking even more closely in turn. The charm of this book isn’t just the close looking, but the deconstruction of how a well-observed thing can become all the more powerful placed in the right context, the right literary framing. I.e., George teaches us how to be better writers, and in doing so, better lookers.
So where does this leave us? What’s a good first step to getting better at looking closely? I’d say meditation is a fine first step.
Ten minutes a day, observe your breath — the literal movement of air into and out of your nostrils. Do it first thing on waking up. Before you look at your phone, before your partner rises. Reduce friction by placing a pillow on the floor in a quiet corner of your home the previous night. Then sneak out of bed, make a beeline for that pillow, and just sit and pay attention — to the weight of your body, how your shoulders fall, the tension in your face — as you closely observe that nose air. Is it hot? Is it cool? Does it come out of both nostrils? Just one? Neither? Are you stuffed? Is it pollen season? Why did they plant so many cedars post-war here in Japan? Our eyes are closed, but burning, those damn cedars, wh— oh right, we’re supposed to be focused on our breath. Can you control which nostril the air comes out of? Do you feel the follicles on your upper lip being tickled by the breath? How long can you keep focus on that part of the body? You’ll lose focus. That’s OK. Those stupid cedars will be billowing out pollen upon your world like the pheromones of leopards in heat. Forget the leopards. Bring the mind back to where the air is moving. Note your posture again, the weight of your body sinking in to the floor. Keep that in mind. That’s your archetype, your unique mind-body configuration to which you return when you need to focus the attention — on a sentence, a photograph, the light in a film, a government policy, whatever. There is a physicality to looking closely, to paying attention, and the more aware you are of what attention feels like, the more aware you become of things pulling you out of that state.
Attention is the muscle. Looking closely is the application of that muscle. It can be exercised through deliberate action. Meditation is one method.
So here we are: Dorito noshing, snowball-fight watching, ukiyo-e pondering, salamander-peeping folks. Slowed down by dint of pandemic stasis. Pressing our noses against the nearby world.
These past few months I’ve tried to get better at looking closely, and the result has been a richer, more intimate relationship with my home, my work, my town, the mountains in my back yard, the people and art and media in my life.
The question is: When the gears of society start moving again, will we carry the wisdom of this stillness forward? I hope so. Out the other side, back onto those transatlantic and transpacific flights, pressed against one another on our daily subway commutes, schedules full of dinner parties, brunch dates, weddings, funerals, brit milahs, concerts, pizza cook-offs, retreats, homecomings — back into libraries and classrooms and the homes of our grandparents and elders. Inspecting it all once again with our newly honed, ever-close-looking eyes.
I hope so. Because looking closely at dang near anything in this world of ours might very well be the key to it all.
“All” being, you know: Life, the universe, everything — that tiny basket of stuff. Looking closely as the key to being more empathetic and sympathetic, of nurturing compassion for the self (therapy — a close looking at the mind via the help of an expensive third party) or The Other, of scientific or mathematical rigor, of artistic depth, of literary or critical mastery, of great leadership, of elevated partnership (domestic, business, spiritual, tennis). All of these eminent states are predicated on the skill of close-looking, of having enough control of your attention to focus the mind on a single point and see that point — really see it — for what it is turning it over again and again. ↩︎
Obviously video-call stress stems from much more than just audio issues, but audio is so easy to undervalue. I suspect most of us are far more willing to put up with bad video if the audio’s great, rather than perfect video with splotchy audio. Truly seamless full-duplex audio with good noise cancellation and no talk-over dropout would probably reduce video-call stress by about … 20%? ↩︎
“Imposing meaning” is a kind way of saying “bullshit.” ↩︎
Of course: “Things known and true” can be, and often are, abstract. ↩︎