A strange thing happened the other day when I walked past a tree. It was a mature pine with the rough, crevassed bark that you expect to find on such a tree. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.
The strange thing happened when I remembered the locust tree that stood in my front yard when I was growing up. I’m old enough to remember when that locust had smooth bark, and how over the years it began to split and roughen as the trunk gained girth.
So as I walked past the pine, suddenly I saw the patterns in the bark for what they were—evidence of the tree outgrowing its skin and literally bursting out of it. By mentally closing the crevasses I could imagine a smaller, smooth-barked tree in its place. I’ve walked past that tree hundreds of times, but now it felt like I’d never seen it before. Same thing with the other trees I passed on that walk. A simple realization—not particularly original or profound, and pretty obvious in hindsight—but it altered my perception and brightened my day.
We have a hard time seeing things we’ve grown used to, even things that would amaze most people. Charles Lindbergh took his first flying lessons in Lincoln, Nebraska, back in the early 1920s when going up in an airplane—any airplane—was an act of reckless abandon. In The Spirit of St. Louis (1953) he wrote of that first flight—or rather, of thinking about it during his famous New York-to-Paris flight in 1927:
We made that flight at Lincoln five years ago last month. I was a novice then. But the novice has the poet’s eye. He sees and feels where the expert’s senses have been calloused by experience. I have found that contact tends to dull appreciation, and that in the detail of the familiar one loses awareness of the strange. First impressions have a clarity of line and color which experience may forget and not regain.
In Life on the Mississippi (1883), Mark Twain wrote about the siege of Vicksburg during the Civil War, during which residents were reduced to living in caves and eating mule meat before the city fell to Grant’s army. Twain talked to a couple of survivors, who told their story “without fire, almost without interest… A week of their wonderful* life there would have made their tongues eloquent forever perhaps; but they had six weeks of it, and that wore the novelty all out; they got used to being bomb-shelled out of home and into the ground; the matter became commonplace.”
[*”Wonderful” in its older sense of “astonishing,” rather than “especially good.”]
Twain said he talked to a man who kept a diary of the siege: “The first day, eight close pages; the second, five; the third, one—loosely written; the fourth, three or four lines; a line or two the fifth and sixth days; seventh day, diary abandoned.”
So we quickly grow accustomed to anything. Does this mean we’re doomed to walking around half-blind in our daily lives? Or can we learn to look at common things in a fresh way?
My eighth grade art teacher, on one of the first days of class, gave us an assignment that I’ve never forgotten. He had us each take off a shoe and draw it. No other instructions, just draw. Most of us did pretty badly, not much better than little kids would have done.
“Turn the shoe over and hold it upside down on your desk,” he said. “Now draw it again.”
The second drawings were consistently—and often strikingly—better than the first. The difference, he said, is that the first time we were looking at something we thought we knew, and we drew what we thought that familiar object looked like. But the second time, with the shoe at an odd angle, we had to draw by looking only at the shapes. Our shoes became unfamiliar, and only then did we really see them.
I’m convinced that the primary skill of artists and poets is not their facility with colors or language. It’s in the way they’ve trained themselves to turn the world upside down and look at it fresh. I started writing that last sentence, “It’s in their ability to turn…” but struck it out. Ability is important but overrated. We can teach ourselves to look differently at the world—I think it’s mostly a matter of practice. That and noticing and appreciating the little moments when it happens spontaneously, like my altered perception of the tree. A small thing, but it’s the difference between a bland and boring world and one that is forever outgrowing itself, bursting out of its skin.