Through my bedroom window I can see a large rectangle of sky. The window faces west. During the day it gradually fills with light, becoming enriched towards the evening with many shades of red. If I don’t have to go out, I sometimes work in bed, looking up at the sky from time to time in order to gather my thoughts or to rest. It’s truly amazing how quickly the view changes, especially when it’s cloudy. One cannot step into the same river twice; likewise, one cannot look at the same sky more than once. Clouds are shape-shifting quietly, letting in more light, then less light. Fluffy vehicles leave the window frame never to return.
It was cold in mid-April and the light was bright and sharp as a razor, soft contours of clouds stood out clearly against it. One day I was watching the springtime spectacle of the sky, looking up, every now and then, from the biography of Rachel Carson, that great teacher of wonder. It occurred to me that if there were a charge to see this, if this were an exclusive ticketed show, many people would certainly wish to see such ‘wonders of nature’. However, because the sky is for free, most of the time we don’t see it at all. Who would be crazy enough to become excited about clouds?
The Japanese Zen master known as Dōgen (1200–1253) said that every day consisted of 6,400,099,180 moments. I have no idea where the exact number came from. I assume that what Dōgen meant to express was that every single day brings endless bounty, but the careless human mind slides on the surface of life, always wanting something, always running away from what’s in front of it, always chasing an illusion of satisfaction. A moment, or an ‘atom’ of time, is ksana in Sanskrit. In Zen literature, we come across the saying that a finger-snap takes 60 ksanas. Each second consists of 65 of them. None of them will ever come back, and yet we waste precious moments not realizing that it is we ourselves who are time.
This time too: the time of willow-green leaves, fiery forsythias, fruit-trees covered in white and pink blossoms, many-coloured magnolias and the swelling buds of lilac flowers. Georgia O’Keefe was a true practitioner when it comes to looking, and she kept saying that seeing takes time, just like friendship takes time. Also friendship with oneself. Won’t I find out more about myself, and more important things, when I hang out with trees, rather than by looking in the mirror? The world is a more interesting and truer looking glass, but we need to slow down – however banal it may sound – in order to see it. Plants are great teachers, because they understand time better than restless, impatient animals – that is to say, ourselves.
“I love the clouds, the clouds that pass up there, marvelous clouds!” exclaims a mysterious stranger in a prose poem by Charles Baudelaire. Marvelous clouds, “long smudges / like unbraided hair” (Adam Mickiewicz), “the daughter of Earth and Water” (Percy Bysshe Shelley) wander across the sky like flâneurs, to the music of streetcars. I can hear that music because I live at the junction of two large streets in Warsaw. I like this urban music. As I loaf about, thinking about Rachel Carson and Dōgen, or simply looking up at the sky – clear and full of light today – I am, momentarily, rich. We cannot squeeze this sort of wealth into our pockets nor put it in a bank, we cannot multiply or save it for some later moment. But neither could you or I be multiplied or stored away for some later use.