A crack, a wrinkle, or a moving cloud. If it's not forever, then it's fragile, at least on some timescale. Responsive to the sands of time. Alive. What reminds you of life's fragility?
Welcome to this Just Looking Letter - a newsletter about slowing down to notice more of this fleeting existence.
It was my birthday recently! I used to be one of those grinches that thinks birthday parties are a bit silly. Unlike most celebrations, there is no real achievement to be proud of, merely having existed for another year. But these days I find that mundanity is the charm of it. It’s one of the only times we formally celebrate being alive, being here. Which, of course, won’t be the case forever.
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About The Light Above Our Heads
There once lived a great mystic poet and saint in India named Kabir. The Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus all paradoxically claimed that he was one of theirs. Love and respect for this humble man transcended all conventional boundaries. One day a wandering monk came to what is today known as Varanasi searching for Kabir. The monk was directed to a particularly busy street.
“But it’s such a busy street how will I recognise him?” the monk asked.
“He’s the one with a light above his head!” he was told.
After many hours of searching, the monk was tipped off by another helpful local that Kabir went to the graveyard. There he found not just one, but dozens of people standing by the funeral pyre, and all of them had a light above their heads! This was the light of awareness that the body will inevitably stop working. And whenever someone we know dies, we momentarily wake up to this reality.
The monk didn’t want to interrupt the proceedings so he waited a while. Once the fire had gone down, people started to walk back out to the street, and one by one the light above their heads went out. Only one light remained - Kabir’s.
Reading the news can sometimes feel like standing by the funeral pyre these days. It can evoke feelings of fear, anger, compassion, frustration, and also guilt for not being able to help much.
But there is usually also a flicker of memento mori, that light of awareness about the fragility of our human bodies. An awareness that makes us want to live a richer and deeper life, and celebrate it, no matter how mundane the schedule for the day.
(I am grateful to my meditation teacher Bhaishree for this poignant story.)
When you look around, what reminds you of life's fragility? Perhaps you see this visual reminder of impermanence in something, or someone else. Or perhaps in yourself. It could be a crack, a wrinkle, or a moving cloud. If it's not forever, then it's fragile, at least on some timescale. Responsive to the sands of time. Alive.
Links about Looking
Have iPhone Cameras Become Too Smart? [Read]
"Digital noise" is what we're used to grumbling about. Little imperfections, images that aren't quite as good as what we can see with our eyes. But the latest cameras use machine learning algorithms to try and fix these, resulting in something that's different and often more than what we can see in real life. Which is worse?
"One expects a person’s face in front of a sunlit window to appear darkened, for instance, since a traditional camera lens, like the human eye, can only let light in through a single aperture size in a given instant. But on my iPhone 12 Pro even a backlit face appears strangely illuminated. The editing might make for a theoretically improved photo—it’s nice to see faces—yet the effect is creepy. When I press the shutter button to take a picture, the image in the frame often appears for an instant as it did to my naked eye. Then it clarifies and brightens into something unrecognizable, and there’s no way of reversing the process."
A Metallic Liquid Invented by NASA [Watch]
Australian artist and filmmaker Josef Gatti experiments with ferrofluid, a magnetic liquid, that seems to defy gravity. If you want to skip straight to the beautiful moving patterns, start the video at 1.26.
Field Guide to the Haunted Forest [Read]
My current bedtime read is this collection of poems by Jarod K. Anderson. I am awed by how the author celebrates "the absurd beauty of it all." Stunning. (It's made it to my top book recommendations.)
Observation as a Creative Act [Listen]
A wonderful episode of the Time Sensitive Podcast with the artist and author Maria Kalman. On the theme of tuning into fragility, I was struck by Maria's ritual of reading obituaries (or "obits" she calls them) every morning.
"You can’t give up your obits, because they are activators of life, for me, and the wonder of it, and the wonder of what people have done, and how they’ve persevered, and the courage that it takes. So, yeah. Obits in the morning, murder mysteries at night. And, in between, cutting the grass with scissors."
Close Reads [Read]
The NY Times is doing something new with scrolling! It's called "long scrolling" and it combines artwork with commentary, in a way that allows the eyes and mind to look closely, but also to breathe. Holding our attention in an artful way.
[Thanks to Andy Adams, Tom Critchlow for links.]
I'd love to hear from you. I'll leave you with a delightful photo of a manhole that one of the readers Bee sent me yesterday (in case you're wondering what my inbox looks like). Even manholes are fragile, it turns out.
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