I mark time with books, pile them, one after the other, the latest read on top. Time measured by the titles of books, distance measured by pages read. The other day I stood on a mountain in Scotland, staring at a small blue flower whose shadow is all the more intense for the crystalline quality of sunlight; I sat in a kitchen in a dacha listening to a woman recount the tumultuous early days of the Post-Soviet era; I stalked through a forest in mythological Africa,encountering monsters, Princes without kingdoms, a shapeshifting leopard. Each place scored new sensations and feelings in me, and I’d walk in my small town, somewhat altered and newly baptised by distant waters.
Apart from those forays into the depths of the imagination, our feats are now so small and deeply private. A walk done, a meal eaten, a chapter read. Note some thing, a bird seen, a feeling felt, a dream dreamt, that will distinguish that day from all the other days, conferring some sense of shape to otherwise shapeless days. Sometimes they feel useless, such observations, like trying to gouge a void. More often, to pay attention is the effort to fight the desire to just collapse into bed and never get up again. I take courage from the neighbour in her makeshift studio, a marquee in her back garden, as she hammers at a sculpture for hours on a cold rainy day in that gray and perilous zone between winter and spring.
I signed up for an online course on modern art history, realising belatedly that it’s intended for teachers. But I'm committed, even though I can’t see myself in an art gallery or a schoolroom teaching kids to see a work of art, to really see it. How? I take instruction from Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. It took me awhile to get into the book: I did not in the past know how I could spend time in one place, looking at the same pile of stones for that many pages. Central to the work is the author’s constant astonishment by the Cairngorms of which she writes, still surprised after decades of walking it. You’d think you’d tire of one place for so long, yearn for cityscapes and faraway shores. She teaches me to see a mountain, how “place and a mind may interpenetrate, till the nature of both is altered”. Perhaps if I was in a classroom or an art gallery, I would teach how to see a work of art like a mountain, to sit with it in solitude, and to walk around it, and to devote each time to each brushstroke as you would the intricacies of stone, fern, flower, and bird. To think of the art as a living thing, something that is telling you what it is, and of the world around it, and to find that the art has changed, as you have changed by observing it.