At 3 a.m., a quiet settles like fog around the neighborhood, freckled by a few bursts of sound. Sometimes there’s the whistle of an incoming train. An acoustical trick might carry sea lion barks from distant buoys, the deep buzz of fishing boats, even a wave pummeling the rocks. Occasionally, a single too-loud bird call coughs and silences itself. I imagine that it’s a youngster, unable to stop from bursting into laughter, with its parents giving it the avian equivalent of the look that means pull yourself together right now or else.
For the past few weeks, I’ve found myself sitting in the middle of the night in front of a square-foot hole in the wall where a window used to be. There’s not a clock in the room, but when an engine rallies down the still-dark street, followed by the thwack of the newspaper on the sidewalk, dawn is still more than an hour away.
A square foot doesn’t seem like much of a view. But one night, a star appeared—extremely bright, familiar, but totally unidentifiable without its surrounding constellation, at least for me. I couldn’t get up, so I just watched it, noticing its warble, the light seeming to change from pale blue to pale green to white, although I wondered if the colors were scraps leftover from a dream.
The first book about writing that I read was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. At first I tried to employ her advice—break things into small pieces, ignore the voices in your head—but over the years, I let a lot of it fall away because I got too busy writing. Or at least, doing the busy work that accompanies it: the emailing, the web-searching, the Excel spreadsheets of hours and assignments, the laundry folding, the notebook-buying.
One of the pieces of advice that I hadn’t recalled until just recently was the one-inch picture frame on her desk. When she’s scattered all she has to do, she tells herself, is write as much as she can see through that tiny space.
Just an inch. Just a foot. Just one molecule. (Just one suspected murderer.) Just one star. But within those spaces—I’d forgotten it until now—so much is contained.
I’d passed up a PhD because I said I didn’t want to focus on “one tiny little piece” of science. I’ve tried to write about all sorts of things, but the result has been sort of scattershot (American sake makers! Conservation policy in Costa Rica! Snow kiting! Acorn woodpeckers! The economics of solar energy programs!). It’s wonderful to learn about so many different fields, talk with so many different people—but in my rocking chair, in front of my small window, I started to wonder if I was avoiding looking at one thing because I was scared. If I found out about a lot of things, no one would fault me for just scratching the surface–if I studied just one thing, my ignorance of it would be apparent.
Others have done wonderful things with a limited view. Elisabeth Tova Bailey, bedridden with a long-term illness, could do little more than observe the small snail in her bedside terrarium. Watching and caring for the snail not only helped renew her sense of purpose, but also allowed her to draw the connections between the snail’s life history and our own place in nature in The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. My blue hours in the rocking chair will be over too soon, but I don’t want to lose what I’ve relearned here—that focusing quietly in on a single thing can actually expand the view.
Over the past week, the view has changed. Slowly, slowly, the stars wheel around. And then one night there is something I recognize: Orion’s three-star belt. A while later the bright star reappears. I should have recognized it earlier—come on, it’s the brightest star in the sky, and I’ve even written about it—but now I’ll know it anywhere, whether I’ve got the whole sky in front of me, or just a pinhole. “That’s Sirius,” I say to the baby. And even if someday I don’t remember its name, maybe he will.