About Light

Apr 26, 2020

When I lived in Seattle I’d go for runs around Lake Union, sometimes from my house in the University District all the way to the Space Needle, but always at least across the Fremont Bridge… “Center of the Universe”. I loved to run when it was dark out, sometimes after work or school, others at around 10 PM, when I could avoid other runners.

One night, I left my internship at the Allen Institute for AI, which sat on Lake Union and hugged my favorite trail. With my headlamp strapped on, I trotted a ways, winnowing between cyclist commuters and evening exercisers. I crossed the Fremont Bridge… “Center of the Universe” and reached a usual deadzone: an unpaved trail that split off and went into an industrial unknown, parked cars that often had people inside them, businesses that had to be fronts for something, stores that sold boats.

After this patch, the lanes for those on foot and bike diverged and I stopped off at my favorite area to stretch; fenced pavement jutting out a bit above the water. I loved to look out, propping myself up with my hands on the railing, at the dazzling lights and boats and unmistakable Seattle skyline.

That night, I’d decided, would be a Space Needle night. I was avoiding anxiously awaiting the response of a boy, or maybe a recruiter? and more generally feeling unsure about what lay ahead, so as with all great long runs I was running from something.

It was beginning to get so dark that it was harder to make out other runners. When I passed others wearing headlamps, I realized I couldn’t make out any of their features. The light of their headlamps obfuscated their identities.

I realized our anonymities were complementary; that in illuminating what was in front of me, I was creating a sort of cloak of invisibility. To be invisible has always sounded appealing to me. To get to observe the world with a complete absence of ego. To understand what I would think about if not my appearance or my height or the definition of my triceps.

So as I made my way to the Space Needle, my pace was above average. I felt a weightlessness akin to that of a younger me hopping over a sprinkler on a muggy summer day. I decided that to feel invisible is, at times, to feel free.

If there are unwritten rules about how long your gaze is allowed to fall on the vignette of a neighbor’s window, I probably sometimes break them. When I lived in Washington, DC, I had a couple of friends whose apartments and condos had views that felt like the Netflix homepage. I’d look out their kitchen windows to see modern, floor-to-ceiling buildings full of stories.

It felt so intimate to see what was on someone’s TV or count the number of plants in their windowsill. In novels and movies we’ve romanticized this thing where people take joy in filling in gaps in the lives of other people, think: rom-com where a couple on a first date spend most of it hypothesizing about the relationships of other couples in the restaurant.

Scanning windows to get a taste of the lifestyle of people in a high-rise (though not higher than the Washington Monument in this case :) feels similar, except seeing someone’s home can tell you even more about them than their appearance. The emptiness of a sterile white kitchen, the joyfulness of a plant-filled one with mail scattered across a breakfast table.

I no longer enjoy this luxury during my hopefully not too long stint in the suburbs. Notably, though, the window above my kitchen sink has a direct view into the kitchen window of the townhouse across the street—no more than 40 feet away—wherein I see an elderly woman washing dishes night after night.

I’ve yet to interact with her outside of our respective kitchens, if interacting through my unreciprocated glances of solidarity counts. It’s remarkable how much time she spends at that window. From it, she’s likely seen me grabbing snacks for an evening movie, scraping the rice out of the pan after yet another dinner of trader joe’s frozen Japanese fried rice (I always add an egg), and washing my hands with furor to fend off the coronavirus.

The part I noticed more recently, now that I’m always home during the day, is that when it’s light outside, the contrast of the darkness inside with the bright sunshine outside makes it hard to see my neighbor. I guess I just like this other form of ephemeral anonymity.

Sometimes when it’s sunny and the leaves cast shadows in a certain way, I get this nibble of existential dread in my stomach. It’s hard to describe, but it’s sort of a preemptive awareness that the world will go on long after me and everyone I love is gone.

I realized today that this feeling of dread when looking out the window on a perfect day comes from how it felt when I was young and stuck in situations I didn’t want to be in. Looking through the window, begging time to pass, I felt like half of my life was wasted and it had only barely begun. There’s a sense of loss there that fuels many of my present-day anxieties. I have a persistent sense that there will never be enough time, or enough sunny days, or enough sunny hours in a sunny day, or enough days with the people I love.

And yet, the sun still sets, and, barring an eternal Seattle winter, rises again. Unyielding in this cycle, at least for now…

How much stronger in youth the urge to shine was than the urge to see by the light one had! That youthful feeling of floating as though on beams of light came back to him in memory now, a grievous loss.

-Musil, The Man Without Qualities

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