Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Look Up!

For September the book group associated with WWfaC Bloomington is reading Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. The opening is a technical tour de force. I love how, in the opening pages, McCann uses synecdoche to great effect, enumerating the body parts, briefcases, umbrellas, discarded trash, you name it, of the fragmented and astonished Manhattanites witnessing Philippe Petit's historic 1974 tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers; he literally embodies the human response to this incredible defiance of boundaries in prose. (My children and I have long marveled at this feat, now made ever so much more poignant by the disappearance of the twin towers post-9/11; we love both Mordecai Gerstein’s childrens’ picture book The Man Who Walked Between the Towers, and the astonishing film Man on Wire.)

I was struck by one of the teasing quotes on the back cover of my paper edition: “Brilliant…a reminder to look up—and to look into one another’s eyes,” from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. I was struck by this, in part because I have been conducting a kind of secret, personal experiment, of sorts, as I walk into work each morning on the edge of the IUB campus, and later in the day.

I have long played around with the usual boundaries of eye contact. I grew up in South Dakota, making eye contact with those I passed, everywhere, usually including a brief-but-friendly verbal exchange. As I moved to progressively larger cities, my natural inclination to greet those I encountered was squelched by the prevailing anonymity of big city culture. However, when I worked in Amtrak’s Onboard Services out of Chicago, one of few whites and fewer women, my co-workers taught me a different, and invaluable lesson in the importance of making eye contact with those with whom you cross paths, acknowledging the humanity of your fellow travelers in life. I will always be grateful to these co-workers, who took me as I came, estimated me according to my willingness to work and learn, and reaffirmed my upbringing as far as looking into my fellow travelers’ eyes.

Lately, in Hoosier Bloomington, I have been sneaking a peek at the people I pass on my way into work. At this relatively early hour, I find, folks are even less interested in making eye contact or interacting with their human surroundings than usual. As a result, I feel I get a secret glimpse into their usually guarded inner beings. Sometimes, passing a bleary student, I swear I can feel his sleepy consciousness trailing behind him all the way from his rumpled bed (and see what his mother adored in his younger self). The young women, with a heightened awareness of presentation, do a slightly better job of disguising their drowsy inner sleepers, but the eyes may yet betray exhaustion or a wistfulness to dream a bit longer. Some older gentlemen, mostly contained in suit and tie, still bear the imprint of the pillow on one side of a balding head, and perhaps, a hint of one last dream image in their otherwise focused eyes. The work- and delivery-men, however, are all wide awake, eager to exchange a look and a word; they have been up for hours, and are well into their day’s labors and the social interactions that lighten them.

What’s your practice regarding eye contact and your fellow travelers? How have your own journeys shaped it? If Philippe Petit tiptoed across your skyscape, would you catch a glimpse?

Mary, for the Poplar Grove Muse


  1. I love this idea of observing sleepy people in the morning and sensing their remnants from dreamland.....thanks, Mary.

  2. One of my favorite glipses into the eyes of another was when a child I made eye contact with gave me the conspiritorial look that told me we were both in on the joke.