Interior, 1939, Vanessa Bell © 1961 estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy Henrietta Garnett. Photo credit: Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service)
The minute I expected the view from my window to show me something new, something constructive, was the minute I forgot how to see.
In the movies it is done well. The character slips away from the commotion to find respite at the edge of the room by the bow window. And though we don’t know what the character is mulling over, we know they’ve found something in the landscape onto which they rest their eyes, and likewise, their thoughts.
I inherited my dad’s ability to fall dans la lune. He goes to bed early so he can have more time to dream. He welcomes those dreams, indulges in them before he falls asleep; he sits with them (he sleeps in a rocking chair). I thought dreaming was the opposite of living and so I am ashamed to admit I spent a lot of time pitying him. And when I was old enough to be self-aware, I pitied me.
To be dans la lune means, literally, to be in the moon. It’s an imaginary place. You are scolded in grade school if you are caught dans la lune. I internalized this, reprimanded myself in my head. At a young age, I accepted that I was doomed because my mind easily wandered.
The rocking chair he sleeps in is in the basement of a house west of the West Island, in a suburb of Montreal, where Mom spends a lot of time checking the bank accounts on the computer. She is diligent. She pets our evil cat rebelliously but cautiously. She reads the papers and the most solid image I have of my parents is her in the breakfast nook, reading with severe furrowed brows, while my dad stands at the window, hands in pockets, eyes unblinking as though something were out there only he could see.
And normally all it is is a cardinal or a fox. Once spotted, he hush-yells to my mom, “Lou, look! Look! Come quick!” At which point she sets down the paper and approaches the cold winter glass, says, “Where? What? I don’t see it.” He scoffs loudly, and she says, “Oh!” and laughs a little, amused by his irritability, “I see it.” She looks for a minute then returns to the newspaper. But he stays there, long after the cardinal has flown away, or the fox has scampered into the forest.
Again, he’s forgotten the cup of coffee he re-heated in the microwave, and curses. I recognize this impatience in myself. Any reality that disrupts the dream is an offense.
By the front sidelight window, he sets up a chair for the cat to lie on, where it alternates all day between slumber and spying on squirrels. The animals in this house are treated like royalty. The best seat in the house, the window seat, goes to the cat. And when the dog was alive, it went to her.
No matter where I’ve lived, the rivers — the Ottawa, the St. Lawrence, des Prairies, the Harlem, the Hudson — framed and determined, geographically or ecologically, what was beyond my window. Pin oak or water tower or church on a mountain. Where I live now in Manhattan, three small plastic windmills secured to the black bars of my neighbor’s fire escape, spin and hypnotize. Almost never are they still, but when they are, my eyes refocus on — of course, a water tower — but then, further out, a sun-bleached bridge to Queens.
It was never windows that were fascinating but the smallness and distance of whatever existed on the other side. A window is overlooked yet essential, and I spoiled the view by attempting to intellectualize their function. I quickly became repulsed, and now bored by them. Repulsed isn’t really the right way to put it, because it was my own shortsightedness that irritated me. I was repulsed more by an inability to see what I easily did before. The filthy windows — any city window — became too thick to see through; became infrastructure, material; became impenetrable. I decided to quit looking.
Though, at first it was other subjects that had bored me and caused me to glare out of a window.
It was an ordinary start: I rubbed my eyes. I heard a noise. And my lips were dry. My tooth chipped after I missed the train and clenched my jaw. Two trains passed, the 9:05 and the 9:35, and then a stranger asked for a quarter.
None of it had seemed important, though the more time I spend on the elevated platform looking at the Harlem River Lift Span, the more it becomes central, if only because it is a place I climb to every morning before the work day begins, before I take the book I’m reading out of my bag, before I do anything at all except wait. The shape of that view is wide, rectangular, panoramic.
On the train, mothers hold their standing babies by the hips, as the babies sway, gawking at passing platforms. One boy in an instagram clip I have saved sits in the orange seat and yells, “This is my chance! To look out the window!”
I am not lonely in my obsession. And I wonder if the view is familiar to the boy; if it’s a view he is excited to see daily, but I’m inclined to believe that the spectacle, for a child, is any scenery in motion.
In trains — and in supermarkets, art galleries, offices — the utility of each window in the space is something to decipher. My eyes readjust their focus and I see only the distinct features: the graffitied panes, the steel borders, the direction it faces. What was previously ignored foreground.
What other near invisible materials did I perforate unwittingly to get at something I believed was more important? Why was the window now an obstacle?
On the phone with my mom, I explain that I’m writing about “Windows,” and she replies, “Ok?” Exactly how I was beginning to feel about it. Barely a week ago, I thought windows held a secret in plain sight, being, oddly, one of the most frequently used nouns in English literature, among the top one percent. But now, as I focused on them, and looked not through them but at them, their intrigue was suddenly lost on me. Windows? Ok? The allegories are too obvious: a view of the world, the etymological history of the word: a composite of wind and eye.
I thought harder. Windows were important. They were everywhere. In the city, you looked in at the people. In the country, you looked out at the animals. Babies too are fascinated — why couldn’t I explain what windows did to a person?
Transparency and reflection are qualities of glass. When I think of transparency, I think of the phrase, “The truth is.” I think of somebody revealing what they mean to say. In my relentless search to discover what was initially so absorbing about those see-through surfaces, I filtered the word window through gallery and museum archives. What I found myself doing was opening tabs on tabs on tabs of digitized artwork in hopes of finding one artist who would reveal something to me. I felt I could grab at any one of them, and study. Very quickly however, the aleatory nature of this broad research method felt directionless — it seemed meaningless to choose one artist over another. It was similar to my unfair wish for something in the cityscape outside of my bedroom window to jump out at me. When I demanded newness from the familiar view, nothing or everything revealed itself. Even in the dense urban scene, all of it blurred into one thing — the outside.
The infamous photographer, Francesca Woodman, who died young by jumping from her studio window, once stated (likely in a diary passage although it is not clear), “You cannot see me from where I look at myself.” She was probably writing about her self-portraiture, but her words, You cannot see me, remind me of the appeal of most windows. We hide in dimly lit rooms to watch clueless passersby in the street. And, From where I look at myself: ‘From’ is defined as a “departure or movement away in time or space.” To be away or separate is indicative of the happy isolation we feel, noses glued to the glass, eyes following anonymous bodies, momentarily excusing ourselves from the ordinary realm of space and time. We play with omniscience.
But of course, the very opposite is true. “You cannot see me”, surely someone has. In which case, they are the voyeur and I, the anonymous body.
In the city they are impossible to miss, but even in the Quebecois countryside at my parent’s place, surrounded by forest, I stare all day out of passenger windows, bedroom windows, bus windows, bay windows by the bathtub. The kitchen window is where I notice a log upright in the snow, beneath our one overgrown apple tree in the yard. I imagine termite grooves in the wood and then imagine a language in the grooves that I would translate to English. I think about putting on a coat and leaving the house.
I don’t. Instead, I sit in the kitchen day after day, pending Christmas then New Years, the cat by my side glaring enviously at the neighbor’s outdoor cats. Having managed to go unshowered and pantyless underneath my sweatpants for almost a week, I know we are the same: dirty, isolated house pets. For one of us, this is a choice.
In a lodge roughly twenty-one square meters in size. Finnish author, Tove Jansson and her partner, graphic artist, Tuulikki Pietilä, spent twenty-five summers on a tiny isolated island in the Pellinki archipelago. The average American parking space is fifteen square meters. Japanese photographer Takashi Homma visited the cabin to investigate its windows. According to Homma’s field notes, “all four walls are adorned with windows 112 cm wide and 114 cm high.” He took photos of each from inside the lodge, and, in a book called A song for windows, which he later published, the images are set beside excerpts of Jansson’s novel, The Summer Book.
Jansson and Pietilä had a black cat that sprawled in doorways and on windowsills.
“I’ve observed [the] transition of light on this island from those four windows,” explains Homma. His photograph of the northeastward window faces the Gulf of Finland. The window frame is visible, in soft focus, near the edges of the picture, creating a visual stutter — a frame within a frame. Beyond the dark stiles, a rocky shore meets a flushed Nordic sunset, and past a calm green tide pool, oat grass and arrowgrass sprout from the gaps in the stone. The way the right hand window is swung open looks as though it is gesturing to the scenery, inviting us — the viewer, the photographer, Jansson and Pietilä, whoever might be near — to approach. The gesture is cinematic. It could be scored by the swell of a song to amplify the personification of the window. A window being generous. Of course, the beautiful Finnish landscape plays a part in drawing attention, but the window holds it within a fathomable frame. I wonder if the pull is strengthened by the circumscription, if the window attracts because it hints to privation, and therefore to profusion.
Takashi Homma, A song for windows, Libraryman, 2016
I lost my bearings. I was without a structure, without shape. I found I could dig into anything at all and find a window. It was somehow so ordinary, so ubiquitous, so blatant. I thought, I might as well be looking for automobiles in artwork and celebrate my unsurprising findings. Look! There is a car in this film too! I told you they were everywhere. I was heading backwards. So I tried again.
It starts with a strawberry. And a narrow view of the sky. Our aluminum roof encased the blue above in a trapezoid. That was the shape we saw for three years, whenever we stepped out of our Montreal apartment onto the balcony. I ate strawberries there, usually before dawn, when roommates and neighbors were asleep. Some few djembe players drummed around the statue of a winged goddess. The tempo echoed and that was how we knew it was Sunday. Surrounded by an enclosed courtyard, I had only a restricted view of sky overhead, for which I was grateful. A directional perspective. An aim, preordained.
Always very suddenly, it would be February and we would be tired of our one winter coat, and weary of old grey snow we hoped would soon melt. We thought what we wanted was underneath. But it hid so much it made us calm, and we couldn’t see that until the spring, until the stray cats meowed and scratched at our door again, until the hot sun burned newfangled shapes into the floor, until the cloudless sky filled the opening above the courtyard.
It soon occurred to me that I was the problem. The food cart at the end of the street had moved but otherwise, the view from my bedroom had not changed.
When you come to something with a renewed perspective, perplexed or questioning its function, you approach it as a novice. I think that’s why I had to reorient my gaze. I wanted to be lost again, not weary and expectant.
I found a painting I believed romanticized my boredom — boredom that was also a plea for something new to catch my attention. Painter Vanessa Bell’s quiet but definite preoccupation with windows, hints at the vulnerability in boredom.
In The Other Room, painted in the late 1930s, three women appear to represent the truth of the family’s domesticity. The truth is we often laze about and stare out of the window, the painting seems to say. Three women: one wearing a pink smock, sunk in a grey chair, zoning out on the fabric of her clothes, fixating maybe on the pilling lint; one with her back to the viewer, sitting in a patterned green and white armchair, holding her head in her hand, possibly peeking through downcast eyes at the window; the third one is standing, in a floor-length dress, arms crossed, up close to the window, with half of her body hidden behind a pulled-back purple curtain. It is easy to believe there is a fourth woman, the painter perhaps, parked in a doorway, looking at the women from an adjacent space in the house. Oddly, there are more flowers inside the room than there appear to be in the scene outside. A vase in danger of toppling set on a tiny round side-table holds a bouquet of bright healthy flowers.
By contrast, the view from the window is unfocused, a brush of green grass, no flowers. The sky as well is light green. Those are the only two blurry elements — grass and greenish sky — that fill the frame of the window. In fact, the view is barely a view. I theorize; Bell likely left the scene from the window out-of-focus so as not to over-clutter the already busy décor of the room.
But this blurring also speaks to what often happens when we stare out of a window. Our gaze is passive, we aren’t so much seeing as we are thoughtlessly lingering. Much like my dad standing by the kitchen window after the animals in the yard have disappeared. I wonder if we approach windows as a way of signaling a kind of surrender. It has always seemed that a person at a window was, too, a blank slate.
Vanessa Bell, The Other Room, late 1930s © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett, photography by Matthew Hollow
It is fun to believe that one of the three women in Bell’s painting is her younger sister, Virginia Woolf. And that the title of the painting is The Other Room feels like a sisterly collaboration, seeing as Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own. I want to believe this is Woolf, standing in the window, having moved away from the desk in her bedroom.
There is a section in Woolf’s essay where she mentions an ashtray falling from an open window at a party, how the happy accident led her to look outside and spot a funny looking cat “padding softly across the quadrangle.” Perhaps expectedly, Woolf mentions the word “window” twenty-three times in the text, and some combination of the phrases “I thought” and “looking out the window” appear together in multiple places throughout. It’s true that “I thought”, on its own, is a lonely statement. It begs the questions, how and where and when?
In The Other Room, the subtle view from the window matches the quietness of the space. In a way, Bell’s painting unwittingly answers these questions. This is how. And this is when. And this is where, standing by the washed-out scene, during some afternoon lull, that this woman welcomed, not before waiting patiently, the possibility of seeing something unexpected.
Jancie Creaney is a writer and filmmaker from Montreal living in Manhattan, a Vijay Seshadri Fellow and MFA candidate at Sarah Lawrence College where she edits for the Lumina Journal. Her prose has been published in Soliloquies Anthology and Longleaf Review.