Looking at a picture slowly

Photo by Tambako the Jaguar. Flickr. Creative Commons license.

On New Year’s Eve this year, I found myself at a party. The older folks (like me) mostly left around 10 or 11, while the younger people danced, drank and talked the night away. Of course, the two overlapped, and during that overlap, trying to make myself heard while indie rock pounded against the walls, I realized that I didn’t know how to act anymore. In fact, I felt like someone invisible. I found myself wondering if the 30s-40s people saw me and what they saw, if they did. Did they see 71 years old? Did they see a woman as old or older than their mother?

It’s hard sometimes to be elderly because many of us truly don’t know we are. I’ve known very few older women whose self image isn’t a decade, two, three or more younger than they are. I remember my friend Ada who fell in love with boys half her age when she was in her 50s: I understand her now when I didn’t then. I don’t feel that much different from the way I did at 30, 40 or 50. But I am. When I was 35, I could have taken to the dance floor and caused little comment. At 70 plus, will I seem inappropriate? Not to mention—breathless.

The music that night was very, very loud and rhythmic. About 50 years ago, music became louder and faster, and ever since people have gone hard of hearing at a young age. I know there are still slow songs and gentle music, but it seems to me much rarer than it was for people growing up in the 1940s and 50s. Were people just slower and sweeter then?

I’ve always moved more quickly than most of the people around me—walked faster, ate faster. I still do, though I suppose I’ll eventually slow down. But I wonder if there are some things I should start slowing for now. A few weeks ago I went to a slow dinner to hear about slow food and the recent global gathering of slow food producers in Turin, Italy. Eating slowly, especially when the food is local, fresh and wonderful, is an excellent idea.

Then today, I discovered James Elkins, an art critic and historian from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who blogs on Huffington Post. The subject of his post was “How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?” I discovered that I wanted to spend more time looking at pictures. Each picture. Elkins tells the story of an elderly woman who for decades had been coming came to the Institute three or four times a week during her lunch hour to look at one Rembrandt painting, “Young Woman at an Open Half-Door.” Elkins figures that’s 3,000 hours of looking.

But most of us look at paintings for only a few seconds at a time. Even at the Louvre, people look at the Mona Lisa. on average, for only about 15 seconds. On-line, and in this post, Elkins engages a 14th-century Sorrowing Madonna, a portrait that calls out for a long, searching view. “I have written about this image at more length elsewhere,” he writes. “Here I have just said enough, I hope, to suggest how a person might spend hours, and in the end years, in private communion with the figure in this painting. How long does it take to see this painting? A lifetime, more or less.”

Maybe, just maybe, this is a good time to slow down to taste, smell, eat, view. Maybe, that’s what I should be doing at 71. Although, for the present, I intend to continue walking quickly—I want to get there fast. I want to spend more time looking at whatever it is I’m walking towards.

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