Post A: “Watching the Birds”
Published (gregorian) (ornellember)
Tags: existential series
Translations: Post A: “Pouvoir regarder les oiseaux” (fr)
At grandma’s house
“Quelle chance, hein? De pouvoir regarder les oiseaux.”
“What a [luck/privilege/gift], huh? To be able to [watch/look at] the birds.”
I think back to that moment often. It was a few years ago, around 2 to 5 years. My grandma was sitting at the kitchen table, facing the bay window with a view onto the garden. She was watching birds in the cherry tree, as she often does.
I looked at her. I felt like we had perfectly understood each other, but I didn’t dare to confirm. I said something in agreement. We smiled at each other, I think. We continued watching the birds.
What I love about my grandma is how much she can - she knows how to - look at the world. When I was a kid, she’d often drag me and my siblings to the museum. I usually found it annoying: she walked slowly, and stopped in front of almost every painting, saying stuff like “what a beautiful line there, right? She has such an expressive look in her eyes.” I wasn’t interested in many of the paintings (I found the classical ones especially uninspiring) and, after all, I preferred to draw.
As a teenager, I went to the museum alone for the first time. Or maybe I was with friends, I can’t remember. Either way, it was the first time I could go at my own pace, and it was awesome. I could speed through the halls where nothing caught my eye, and I could spend time appreciating what did; I could sit in front of it for 10 or even 20 minutes. A few years later, I started to draw some of the pieces that I wanted to dig into, and that added even more to the discovery. It was a moment of understanding, of intimacy, even, between a piece and me.
I developed a taste for some artists, because through their works and the curators’ explanations, I felt a bit like I understood them. To this day, I often go to the museum alone.
Sometimes, after the museum, I’d read more about the artists I’d liked. (It’s how I found out more about Paul Gauguin’s life, who is, as it turns out, a real piece of shit. That disappointed me. After that, I reflected a lot on the bullshit concept of “separating the art and the artist” - I won’t go into it now, but FYI, if you get me started it’s hard to stop me.) Anyway, I was saying that it was through my interest in the artwork that I’d be interested in its creator and context, and not the other way around.
Why am I talking about museums?
To me, they exemplify what I love so much about my grandma. Through her lifetime of enjoying art, she kind of knows a lot about it, but I’ve never heard her discuss the story of a painter unless it added context to what we were discussing. She’s at the museum, not to educate others or even to make herself feel cultured, but to perceive what’s in front of her in the present moment, and to feel what it provokes, to enjoy it, and maybe with someone else.
That’s what I had heard in her sentence, and I think in English it’s easy to see. “to be able to” sort of conflates having the opportunity and the ability to do something; and when my grandma said we were lucky to be able to watch the birds, I think she was talking about our luck as well as our skill.
Last year, I wrote a whole series of schemes (shout out to Amélie). At first, it was awesome. Towards the end, it was a bit of a chore, not because I didn’t have any more schemes to describe, but because it didn’t really line up with my interior world anymore. I didn’t really think about things in terms of schemes until it was time to write my monthly post.
When I think about it, there were a few factors that contributed to this change. First, I left Twitter. I’d often uncover my schemes by seeing other people’s problems, which made me think about the solutions I have used, and shaped my response into a post. Without Twitter, I read a lot less about others’ lives, and I also have less impact when I discuss my little ideas.
In addition, these last few months, I’ve been more into discovery and perception than explanation. I’d talked about it a bit in my post about Recurse Center, and I also did cognitive behavioral therapy in the last quarter of the year, so a good amount of introspection. I basically confirmed that I have a real talent for making the most out of whatever I have to deal with, but I’m so good at it, so used to it, and take such pleasure in it that I’ve atrophied the part of me that functions before the solution, the part that feels the situation.
I’m thinking back to my first scheme, when I was in an HR process because of my colleague. I was in a shitty situation, looking back. I’d been brave, but I felt betrayed, humiliated, isolated. Yet, all I say in this post is that this guy made my life difficult, and then I talk about the little trick I did to take myself out of the shitty situation I’d been put in. Zero feelings.
Why schemes? And why not?
I think I’ll always be a schemer, because this skill helps me a lot. But earlier today, I asked myself: why was/am I so into schemes?
I have a few answers.
They’re useful. When I look at where I am and how I got here, I can clearly see how my strategic choices changed my life. Plus, I love everything that’s useful, and when I talk about something useful, I feel like I’m giving you something tangible.
It’s fun. I take a step back from things, and turn them into a an overarching mental model that looks like a game; I enjoy thinking that way.
When a scheme works, I win, and I like winning.
And here’s the problem of a strategy game: you need an adversary, or at the very least, adversity. Because you need to win. Which begs the question: what do I do when there’s no adversity? And, if there’s no winning, how do I enjoy myself?
There’s plenty of answers to that last question, and I was able to experience some of them in the last few months. I’m not saying life’s been easy, far from it, but the idea of winning has been less motivating.
You might know this: my grandma’s losing her memory. She’s 99, so it’s not surprising, yet she’d had surprisingly quasi-perfect cognitive abilities until recently, and we’re very close, even in our personalities, so she was really a great friend. But in the COVID years, she’s been isolated, and her cognition took a tumble. There’s still a lot of things to do to mitigate the situation, but there’s no winning. I can’t win. I can only enjoy.
I haven’t yet decided what I’ll talk about this year. I have to admit that I loved the meta-scheme I’d created by giving myself a simple theme to stick to. “Schemes” is both specific and very flexible, and it’s uplifting to write about.
I think I might do series of more or less 6 months. 13 posts on the same subject isn’t all that much, but I just don’t want to try to fit everything I write into it. Maybe I’ll continue on a theme, but write other stuff alongside it. We’ll see.
This post was translated from French, because there’s words in what my grandma said that don’t have a perfect translation in English, and I knew translating them would transform the moment. Now, whether I do this consistently, I don’t know yet. It was sort of easier than I’d thought, though.