By Ezra Wallach | Photo by Patil Khakhamian
The sun shining down on me was blocked by the big rusty pine trees, my San Jose Sharks hat, and my Ray-Bans that had been tilted to the left for the past few months after my dad hugged me too hard when dropping me off at college, becoming 50% responsible for snapping the left temple off. And of course, there was the 30 SPF sunscreen that I was only able to put on because my mom always left it in her car.
I never knew how long I would go away for. All the days in quarantine got jumbled together and an hour could feel like three hours, or vice versa, so I figured there was no use in paying attention to the time. I liked getting lost.
After parking my car in front of a large building that seemed to belong to a geological research institution, and after fiddling with my headphones that only worked about 40% of the time, I started my journey into the “open space.” It wasn’t long before I saw some high schoolers venture out of the bushes and trees, trying not to look suspicious. Then I saw a couple of old ladies drinking canned coffee on folding chairs and tweens trying to do cool tricks on their mountain bikes off of three-foot drops. I saw some cute dogs too, but it wasn’t until later when I realized that social distancing precautions were the real reason that middle-aged women walking were doing everything in their power to get as far away from me as possible.
After walking for long enough to question how far away I was from the top, I stopped and saw a hill right above me. There was no trail to get to the top of it, and it was definitely too steep for a trail anyways. I decided to go up it; after all, I had nowhere to be (my mom was actually texting me to ask what time I would be home for dinner). I stepped up to a point, and then began to climb with all four of my limbs, two of which had not been put to much use during the first part of my trek. Before reaching the top, I found a rock to sit on overlooking a wide landscape. After more fiddling and pushing the bottom of my headphones into the port, I decided to take them out completely and use the speaker on my phone. I started my first podcast, which turned out to be a guided meditation.
The man had a soothing, raspy voice with a British accent. He used small words that seemed bigger in his pronunciations: glorious, momentous, precarious. He instructed me to begin the process of “having no head,” telling me to close my eyes and look into where my eyelids are. He then told me to open my eyes and look out into the world without putting trees or clouds into categories but instead seeing everything just as an image of light, color, or shadow. He told me to point out into the world, and then to point back at myself. He asked me to look for myself, for the thing I was now pointing at. He told me look for “that which was looking,” to search for the person who was trying to find my forehead. He asked me if that same looking person was a part of the world I saw when I looked out into the landscape in front of me. I wasn’t a part of the world I could see, I realized, and then something clicked. I was sitting on this hill, so far away from any camera or set of eyes, that I knew I had to be completely alone. The earth itself wasn’t looking back at me; I wasn’t being perceived here on this rock. This isn’t to say that I took all of my clothes off and started yelling “Yellow Submarine” at the top of my lungs, though in retrospect that would’ve been kind of fun. Instead, I sat there, gaining an appreciation for the beauty of the universe that I had the ability to witness through my experience. I often view the world as looking back at me and judging me and seeing me as something, some person, some “other.” When I was looking out into the open space knowing that I wasn’t being seen, I realized that all I could really see was the world.
I recognized that its existence isn’t dependent on my own, a sentiment that surprisingly becomes comforting if given enough thought. My body was just the space through which all that was around me could be experienced. I didn’t have to do anything to make the grass in front of me appear or to make the sun move down towards the mountains or to make the crickets chirp; I just had to sit there. All of these things just happened on their own, with or without me there.
I began my descent down the hill, this time zigzagging to avoid a faceplant as the man in my phone went on about the stage of human development when we realize that we are being seen by others, making ourselves “self-conscious.” From this stage on, part of how we act is determined by others, and determined by the fact that we want to take up good space in their lives, and not be annoying or inappropriate or ugly or all of the bad qualities we often try to avoid being ourselves.
I started walking back toward my car when suddenly a cow appeared — actually, a herd of cows. There were many, but I locked eyes with one. At first, I was fascinated. But in our locked eyes I realized he could see me too: I was reminded again that I take up space in this world. The cow didn’t know anything about me; he didn’t know how good of a person I was; or how I’m lactose-intolerant; or how I used to have a stutter when I was a kid and how it makes me sound like I have a New York accent. So, I stopped looking at it, instead walking by it with my head down, uncomfortable with the way it might have been perceiving me. Maybe he saw me as a threat or a trespasser, I feared, as stupid but honest as those thoughts may sound.
After I passed the cows, I stopped and wondered why that had happened. Why had I become less present in that moment after realizing the cow had seen me? Is this what happens every time I exit my dorm room or enter the cafeteria at my school or just look at myself in the mirror as I brush my teeth — do I switch into a different person that takes into account the perceptions of others, therefore automatically becoming something other than my true self without my own consent?
Later that day, after opening up my journal, I conceded the truth that we are always being seen, no matter where we are, what we are doing, or who we are with, even if we’ve spent the last few days or weeks in isolation. I read somewhere that the most popular regret of those on their deathbed is that they lived the lives that others wanted them to and didn’t live for themselves. I wonder if that regret is inescapable.