Seeing Things

I just finished The Year of Magical Thinking. In it, Joan Didion describes the year following the death of her husband, John Dunne (also a writer). In one passage, she describes how John would walk around with index cards in his pockets, on which he wrote thoughts and observations. Didion wrote memorably about her own notebooks and I’ve tried to keep them at her suggestion, but taking out a spiral bound notebook on the sidewalk and scribbling in it just never quite worked.

I started trying the index card idea. It works – tentatively, at least – better than the notebook for me. I say “tentatively” because I always start well with the notebook and only find it falling by the wayside a few days into the endeavor. So. It remains to be seen. Still, the fruits of such observation should be case enough for me to continue with the note-taking.

Each window on the bottom floor of a building nearby is bound by a wrought iron enclosure. Six heavy threads twist around each other like the hard candies that stuck out of mason jars on the counter of the general store we passed in the summers on the way into the mountains to see fireworks. Superimposed on the two central strands of metal are curls that mirror each other, splitting off from their center point and broadening as they rise and then doubling back into a sort of heart pattern. The whole arrangement is covered in white paint, cracking and peeling off in small flakey scraps and falling into June’s dead flowerbed. Rust covers the wide curves of the metal hearts. It’s a strange place to see corrosion, on a heart.

Down the block a small church is perched on the corner across from a supermarket. It’s wooden in a city where there is very little wood. White painted slats line the outside walls under a gray-shingled roof with a belfry topped with a small cross. Churches demonstrate most sharply the differences between what the city once was and what it is now. The oldest church in the city is St. Paul’s in the Financial District. Its sandy brown color leaps uncomfortably from under the gleaming glass of skyscrapers that tower ten, twenty, fifty times higher, casting an interminable canyonesque shade over the streets. Something so small and old surrounded by the extreme glamor of the center of the universe falls awkwardly on the eye.

But the church in Queens, old and wooden, presents more inconsistency; a more tired and common sort. A small sign juts from the little patch of green outside the front doors, elevated, bound, and separated from the sidewalk by a cement retaining wall. Last week it was adorned with the phrase: CHRIST MAS MEANS MORE JESUS There was a church on U.S. Rte 15 between Gordonsville and Zion Crossroads that posted similar messages, though, if memory serves, they tended to be accusatory in addition to corny and cheap. I was never quite sure how I felt about them. Maybe God needs a little levity now and again. Maybe people should avoid commoditizing and cheapening something that is supposed to be meaningful to them. I don’t know.

These were the things that filled the first notecard, deepened slightly when transcribed in my notebook and significantly when transferred here. Which brings to mind the chess game I watched yesterday – online. That’s where I am right now. A guy was playing an online chess game with a split screen of himself in an office making commentary. As a learning experience it was probably useful if not a bit over my head (he was very very good; I am not; I came into the game halfway through; etc). But I was struck by something he said.

He and his opponent were pushing each other in various directions when suddenly the narrator mentioned that he was excited to unleash “some tactics.” In its simplest form, a “tactic” is a trick: pinning one piece in front of a more valuable piece so that it can’t move without the loss of the piece it protects, attacking two pieces simultaneously such that the opponent can save only one, attacking a valuable piece such that its removal from danger exposes another piece. A few moves went by and the tactics remained leashed until the narrator commented in frustration:

“This guy is seeing everything. A very good player here. He’s seeing everything.”

I had no idea what tactics he had intended to unleash or where they’d been foiled. I saw very little. The two people engaged in their match were seeing lines of attack that extended into the future and split into strange and multiple pathways. I just saw pieces sliding about the board.

I play chess online constantly with Hunter in Virginia. We’re reasonably well-matched though he beats me more than I beat him. We’ve settled into a rough explanation of our strengths that I’m a bit better with the technical bits – the tactics, the patterns, the beginnings and ends – and that he is better with the middle. The middle is the imaginative part of the game. He wins more often than I because he sees things and I, though I can plan my own moves, have a great deal of trouble seeing what’s happening and what is yet to happen on his side of the board. Mine are failures of vision. As are most failures. But vision is a skill much like others and small things can open a mind in strange ways.

Notecards, for example.

I might find something, but perhaps I won’t.

It remains to be seen.