On the Value of Small Things

I somehow missed reading the bestselling book The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby until my lovely student Maria gave me a copy. Bauby was the French Editor of Elle Magazine who had a stroke at 43 years old, leaving him with locked-in syndrome, able to communicate only by blinking his left eye. The beauty of his writing drives out sadness, replacing it with a sense of wonder.

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Bauby described the treasured letters he received from friends and family. All of them were prized, some discussed deep issues of faith and meaning, but the letters he most valued simply related the small events that punctuated his friends lives. He wrote, ‘Capturing the moment, these small slices of life, (roses picked at dusk, the laziness of a rainy Sunday, a child crying himself to sleep), these small gusts of happiness, move me more deeply than all the rest.’

 He also had the remarkable ability to carefully observe and value small things around him:

Through the window, I watch the reddish-yellow hospital buildings light up under the sun’s first rays. The brickwork takes on exactly the same shade of pink as the Greek grammar book I had in high school. I love that warm, deep shade: it still conjures up for me a world of books and study. “Antique pink” is what the hardware stores call it.

Looking quickly at a subject reveals only what an object  is: a “cup,” a “cat,” a “hammer.” Slow looking, on the other hand, allows us, as the prophet-painter William Blake discovered, to see a world in a grain of sand. Deep looking is a tiny keyhole into an infinitely larger world. It may be obvious that all artists are careful observers- and so are those who write and love deeply. Art is created by the experience of slow looking, an attempt to make the moment eternal, relevant, and true, and to then share it with others. Perhaps most importantly, beyond all our observations about others, this careful seeing allows us deeper participation into our own lives.                           

In November 13, 1851 Henry Thoreau extolled the virtues of a watchman over a merchant by noting that there were different forms of employment and each has its own reward. The merchant is given wealth and the watchmen riches of mystery and communications from heaven. All of us can have a link to the divine depending on how we use our eyes and by what we pay attention to.

If by watching a whole year on the city’s walls I may obtain a communication from heaven, shall I not do well to shut up my shop and turn a watchman? We are surrounded by a rich and fertile mystery. May we not probe it, pry into it, employ ourselves about it, a little? To devote your life to the discovery of the divinity in nature or to the eating of oysters, would they not be attended with very different results?

By some coincidence, or divine humor, the cover drawing of my new book is titled ‘The Watchman’ and I can think of no better use of our time.

Teacups by Juliette Aristides 2019 oil on panel

Teacups by Juliette Aristides 2019 oil on panel