When I sat down in Arena Theater, in the black box where I had acted and built sets and stage managed for my four years at Wheaton College, I looked up at the man that had brought me there. He looked at me too. He didn’t smile. Well, at least not in the broad, welcoming sort of way. There was a hint of it at the corner of his cheek. Although, that may have been imagined. His eyes were smiling and open-hearted.
He didn’t greet me in any way. But we did share that look for longer than most folks would feel comfortable with.
To be honest, I was a little uncomfortable. I did feel the need to make him feel more at home; it was, after all, his first time in this place that was a second home to me. Yet, I was left without a way to do that, besides smile, which I did. And then I just continued to hold his gaze for a minute or so longer.
It was new, and uncomfortable, but not foreign. Arena Theater had been for me, and continues to be for others, a place of open-hearted gazing. Relationships were built on this idea that we looked at each other with intention, even wonder. What is going on with you today? I see you. I notice you. Notice your tears or smiles or giggles or inability to sit still for more than moment.
It was actors’ work. We were actors, after all. We tried to look around with a sense of curiosity. To notice things with intention, with interest. Not assuming the person or situation was the same as the last time we had looked at it.
He told us about the “gaze of the elephant.” I don’t remember whose story it was, perhaps he didn’t say, but someone had told him to look out at the world in the way an elephant does.
Look at everything as if for the first time. Look at everything as if for the last time.
He told us that, doing this, it’s a very heavy thing.
And it is. When you see something for the first time, or for the last time, there are all sorts of feelings and reactions mixed up together, inseparable, and serious.
Holding too loosely
Holding too tightly
(Sure there is more. But short lists are nice and tangible.)
I think I might already try to look at the world this way. I like walking around with my head up, consciously or unconsciously searching for something that may make me smile or think or just see the world with a slightly new frame for a moment. I stare up at the tall buildings of Chicago like a tourist as I commute to work in the morning. (Native Chicagoans do not do this.) I will stop and watch a very ordinary squirrel run up a very ordinary tree after crossing my path on the sidewalk. On a recent flight to Minnesota, I made a list of “Things I Can See from My Window” (future blog post alert).
That is the part of me that is an artist. A writer. A theater maker. A want-to-be-but-very-not musician.
I’m trying to cultivate that. More on why I need to be an artist, or a maker of things (because that title carries less weight in a way that makes the work of it seem more possible) soon. What I do hope is that I can learn to gaze like an elephant at the world around me so that I have more paint on my pallet when I try to create a thing. Any thing.
When Michael Howard looked at me that way, without greeting or approval or judgement, I connected with him more deeply than I did with most of the rest of the room, almost all of whom I knew and many of whom I would call friends. He was looking at me for the first time, and I him.
It is my hope that this blog will be a grounding place for my work as a writer and theater artist. I want, every time that I open this place to write, to remember that moment, that encounter, that gaze of the elephant.