A few blocks from my apartment there is a little park where Socrates reclines on a granite slab, frozen in bronze while elaborating on some point about happiness or the nature of knowledge. The great philosopher sits beside three Grecian columns capped in a curve to trace the hint of an ancient amphitheater. Children from the school next door, named after Henry David Thoreau, run circles around the bust of a stern-faced Aristotle. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, towers over the entrance, while her owl sits hidden in a shady corner.
I grew up in the suburbs, so in my mind a paved expanse without any grass was more accurately named a “parking lot,” rather than a “park.” But I had moved to the city to live with Hazel and I sporadically did my best to embrace my new neighborhood, so one spring day I brought a novel and a notebook to this paved oasis. Armed with a coffee purchased at the bakery across the street, I claimed a bench in the sun and began to read. I had only gone through a couple pages when a man in navy blue coveralls interrupted me:
“Watch your eyes, sir.”
I have the ability (or weakness) of getting lost in a good book, so it took me a moment to regain awareness of my surroundings. As the fictional world I had been submerged in drained away and reality returned, I took in his uniform and the Con Edison truck parked just beside the gate.
“I’m sorry?” I apologized/questioned.
“Watch your eyes, sir.” He used the enormous circular saw he was holding to indicate a patch of pavement a few feet away that was now surrounded by cation tape.
“Alright…” I answered, a bit confused.
Perhaps it was the fact that I was surrounded by monuments to great thinkers, or the handful of trees putting my nature-starved psyche into a reflective mood, but I approached this Con Ed worker’s words of warning as I would a Zen koan.
How do you watch your own eyes? This was a line straight from the Buddha. Shakespeare too, actually: “The eye sees not itself / but by reflection, by some other things.” We can only ever know our selves by our interaction with that which is not ourselves. And if this is so, then do we actually exist independently within ourselves as we suppose, or is it more true to say that we exist in relation, in the space between? And if you are watching your eye by reflection, or watching thoughts stream through your mind, than what are “you” really? Where can you locate your self if the observer and observed must be distinct entities? If I am watching my mind than I am not my mind. So who am I?
These heady revelations were interrupted by the shrieking cry of a saw starting up. The noise grew even louder as the Con Ed worker began cutting into the pavement, sending sparks and gravel in all directions. I wondered for a moment if my glasses would do much to protect my eyes from the flying debris but quickly decided my best course of action was to find a quieter place to contemplate, ideally one where I wasn’t in danger of being blinded.
I went back home that day but have returned to Athens Square many times over these last few years. It was too cold to write this piece there this morning but I walked over to snap this picture of Athena and have further revelations. Another piece on this park is in the works, but until then I advise you: Watch your eyes.