Our poet J. Allyn Rosser, author of Mimi’s Trapeze, muses about the rarity of seeing someone “unwired” on the Ohio University campus where she teaches, or so it seemed. . .
A month ago I was walking across campus. It was an almost-spring morning in Ohio, crocuses just up, squirrels unkinking themselves, and the birds making slightly more enthusiastic noises than one hears in January or February. The air smelled clean. The sun was visible in the sky, but pacing itself, rationing its rays – you could almost number them – supplying the faintest suggestion of warmth. I was trudging unmiserably in the way one does when the daily obligations haven’t let up for a long while, but aren’t at peak oppression levels. Passing the gazebo that looks over a pond encircled with paths and the calculatedly random placement of benches, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. I stepped off the sidewalk to let people pass.
It was a young man in a hoodie, backpack on the wooden floor beside him, his back to me. He was standing stock still, arms folded before him, gazing out at the mist rising from the pond, and the trees almost budding, and the soft blue sky.
I was moved by this. I stood watching his enraptured back for a while without thinking, just vicariously enjoying the completeness of his absorption.
Then I realized why the sight of him arrested me. Rarely in 2015 do I see anyone walking alone without headphones, or without texting or talking on a phone. I read recently about a man who was unjustly incarcerated and then released thirty years later on the strength of DNA evidence. When he emerged from his imprisonment, what struck him first was how many people appeared to have earaches. Most people on the street, he couldn’t help observing, were clutching at their ears. Or course he finally realized that they were talking on their cell phones. Thirty years ago, you needed to find a phone booth and some change.
But this spectacle of a person completely on his own internal resources, staring off into space, can still be seen in the occasional passenger of a moving vehicle, since the window is providing its own video. Or you might see this kind of contented solitude on the shore; people do let themselves stare at the ocean. But even there, within thirty seconds the rapt person pulls out a magazine or a book or an iPad, and the attention is hijacked. Call me retro, Luddite, fogy, but it does lift my spirits to see a person just looking about, just thinking.
We often hear now that our children don’t get enough downtime; if they’re not doing homework (generally online), they are expected to be super-achievers in intramural sports or marching band or whatever extracurriculars will look good on the college application. When was the last time you saw a child just silently looking at a tree, or a building, or any scene? Is it acceptable these days to be motionlessly rapt in public? When was the last time you yourself sat on a bench and studied your surroundings, without waiting for someone or pulling out your phone to look occupied? I think this self-consciousness may partly explain coffee’s popularity: it allows one to simply sit and think, while staring off into the distance. Without a cup of coffee (okay, maybe a Chai), you may appear to be a depressed or unbalanced person. This may be why smokers smoke: you get to just stand around talking or thinking, and no one accuses you of being weird or lost or lonely. You’re having a cigarette. It’s an action, however self-destructive, that allows for meditation in public.
On this day in late spring, I finally moved on past the gazebo, though the young man remained immobile, transfixed. Some twenty steps ahead I looked back for one more glimpse. Long enough to see from this new angle that his arms hadn’t been completely folded. He was supporting an elbow on one wrist. His raised hand held something to his ear. — J. Allyn Rosser