By Simon Bell
O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as ithers see us!
– Robert Burns
It was on a windy day in late October that I met myself for the first and last time.
I was head-down against a leaf-spinning wind, trudging down a city street by a market place and happened to glance briefly into the welcoming cinnamon-scented depths of a coffee house. This is when I saw myself sitting on one of the window stools.
My foot paused mid-step, hovered and descended in haste to meet the rising pavement and, in a movement of surprising grace, twisted around to the right, taking the rest of me with it, my body the prisoner of my foot and my foot my eyes. They were fixed upon the coffee house window, caught initially by curiosity but subsequently captivated.
I stood motionless in the street, the noisy market drama around me a total camouflage, gazing at the profile visible through the glass.
We are always gathered around the centre of the flux of our being. We are so used to assuming our being in the world and yet not ever self-encountering. Of all the people who we are aware of we are our greatest surprise. We never meet ourselves and yet our friends, family and occasional acquaintances come across us every day. We never see the world with us in it. We may occasionally be provided with a story of our doings or overhear someone else talking about our clever moments or silly indulgences, but we never encounter ourselves. We leave it to everyone else to find us and make their minds up about us. We live in our shadow, voyeurs of our doings. We are the absence in the world which we inhabit but on the day I am describing all of that briefly but conclusively shifted.
Stationary outcrop of stillness in the swirling market chaos of pots and pans, dog food and flowers, dirty hair and onions, I stood a spectator on such a well-known, but little understood me. My first feeling, after the shock was: “I am so small!”.
And there I sat, reflection distorted by shop glass, casting back off my shadowy outline the images of other passer’s by, not at all interested in the consumers of coffee, there I sat. So many instant changes came in my perception whilst I battled with shock, ego-vertigo, disorientation and curiosity. Aware of myself, the object of my gaze and the confusion of my mind. Impressions. My hair loss is so obvious. My stomach sag so unflattering. How long have my shoulders scooped forward? And, why has no-one told me about the comic-cut of my beard by rear-profile?
In a yo-yo of concentration, I took me in and was baffled by the experience.
In an ordinary lifetime we are who we are and yet we are never party to the experience of ourselves. We transmit, we do not receive. But this was my confused state as the recipient of a warm and breathing presentment of myself. This was like no mirror made, like no photograph or video recording. By these means we are mediated to a flat image of predictable record. Here I was with the unmediated me as I intended it.
Buffeted by the wind,
in cold October clarity.
I looked at the me of I;
and had no notion of what or why.
My horror would have been to see me look up and consider me, I realized immediately that this would have been too much, too vivid, too raw. Had I seen me, rigid, frozen in loss, this could not have been contained in the multiverse of consciousness. Something somewhere would have broken and split. The occasion never arose.
Me in the café seemed happy to ponder the cup in hand and review the passing of the life within the impervious glass walls.
How long did I stand there? I was there for as long as it took me to watch me finish the Americano and leave. That’s all, that’s how long it was. How long? A life-spiral of time. However long it takes a man to rise, smile, say farewell to a barista, open a door and walk away. How long can that be? 30 seconds or a continent of grains of sand draining through an hour glass, the aperture a needles width. Fixed in the hubbub of the street and deaf to every bit of it, time was as meaningless to me as the ocean is to a fish.
And what did I see?
This is the nub of this story. I saw a man walk out of a coffee shop. But when that man is you what is the quality of the watching and what are the implications for he who sees’? If we are always gathered around some kind of a centre of ourselves in life, what happens at death? When the self and the idea of self come apart. During life, the sane understanding is that we are one in and of ourselves. We are not two or any kind of plurality. We exist as a single and undivided entity of unity. A noun. Or that is what I thought. That, I began to see, was the unconscious conceit I accepted in my complacency. How is it to find yourself the audience to yourself? The spectator on you? The world extends to unknown frontiers in all directions, a desert of fullness and, if you look closely, you may find that you are within it. Look long and hard enough and you may just find yourself in there looking back. The dynamic verb rather than the static noun.
This must have been a one off, an anomaly. A moment of insanity which the world of sanity will eventually gently but firmly heal. Even so, the impression is made, the door to other experience has been opened just for a moment and there are consequences. There have to be consequences. We will each have our own sensibilities and have our own experiences, but these are mine.
Seeing me in my world, observing myself has rendered me unable to resist the nudge to look and look for the face staring back. I am just another person and pretty unremarkable. I am the process of me and, seen from me, I am just one more identity, unremarkable as the rest but remarkably, like the rest, able to process all that is not me.
I am invisible to most people. Certainly, I move (but not quite as I thought I moved), I interact with others and I respond to them but, generally, the world goes on alongside me without any reference to me.
I am not the centre of anyone’s world.
I have no centre to my own.
Like a child allowed on the bus for the first time by themselves, I find me vulnerable and fragile.
As I watched me disappear into the crowd of shoppers, I had no desire or capacity to follow. This was not possible. I watched my head gradually pass from view among all the other heads. I was left in place until I was lost to view. Lost to sight and lost in the leaf strewn, windy wildness of the October day.
Artwork © Rachel Furze