When my wife Wendy was in kindergarten, her mother Ellie had a “teacher’s conference.” The teacher said her only concern was that “Wendy stares out the window a lot.” Ellie, an artist, was very pleased to hear that. To her, it was a sign of creativity.
It seems to me that staring is, indeed, a critical part of the creative process. How else are new ideas going to come up if old ones keep getting in the way? Staring is like meditation except the rules (actually, non-rules) are designed to encourage you to follow any thought that seems promising instead of getting back to the “serious” business of stillness.
Trees have always been my go-to staring non-object. These days, it’s the swaths of hard and softwoods marching in formation across Mount Wantastiquet (Atowi: Wantastegok Wojo) on the other side of the Connecticut River, or the oaks creating a canopy over Lake Dunmore (my go-to guy for Abenaki traditions says the Native America linguistic source of the lake name is elusive.)
At our old house in Dummerston (as opposed to Dunmore) the ephemeral focus of my staring desire was the row of maples above a steep bank, just outside the screened-in porch. Before that, living in town, it was usually a single tree that stood there patiently waiting for me to get back to work.
The other day I got curious about what happens in your brain when you stare. I had images of calming dopamine and happy-go-lucky serotonin molecules zooming around through wide-open neural pathways, leaping headlong into the receptive axons, triggering a brilliant new idea here and then another one there. A cluster f—k of exuberant synapses. Imagine my concern, if not outright horror, when my quick search yielded references to something called “absence seizures,”* a childhood condition caused by “abnormal brain activity” which is, of course, my favorite kind. During one of these seizures, kids will suddenly stop doing what they are doing, their eyelids may flutter, and they might not respond when spoken to (which, I thought, is pretty much what kids do anyway.)
The opposite of staring into space is “putting your nose to the grindstone” a phrase which probably derives from the need to focus on how sharp your knife is getting or, in kindergarten, your expertise in identifying shapes and colors.
I’d rather watch the sparks fly off in every direction as I grind away at a few paragraphs or pages and then settle back and start staring at a tree or two. Maybe I’m just trying to see what Wendy saw as a child…and what I see whenever my eyelids flutter and I get that faraway look in my eyes.
* I should mention that medically speaking. these little “seizures” are not usually super serious but pediatricians and others who know a lot more about kids’ brain health than I do think they may be worth checking out.