Written in response to Georges Perec’s essay “The Street” from Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, which you can read here.
You must read the essay “The Street” by Georges Perec, taken from his anthology Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, for three reasons. First, because you have never before noticed how little you notice; second, because you will realize how seldom you really think about the world around you; and third, because you will be amazed that the simplest things about our world are also the most complex, and that which is most familiar to us can also be the most unfamiliar. You will realize that everyday life is so rarely questioned or appreciated, and that realization will be jarring.
After reading the first few paragraphs of the essay, I wrote a note to myself in the margins of my book about how odd it is to see something as mundane as a city street broken down, and another note about how it unnerved me to see it done. In fact, I spent most of the piece trying to understand why it made me so uncomfortable until Perec addressed the issue himself: seeing one’s world picked apart gives “the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town…you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening…the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavements…” (53).
Looking at something you thought you knew well and realizing you never really knew it at all is incredibly disorienting. When did we begin neglecting the interrogation of simple things? And when did we decide that it is acceptable to accept life as it is?
Furthermore, if you think you know one thing and then realize you don’t, how could you not begin to question everything? If we fail to make simple observations, then what larger observations are we missing out on? And if we do not regularly question that which we are presented with every day, then do we truly know anything about our world?
Set time aside this week to practice being an active participant in the space around you. Go for a walk or sit on a bench and observe everything you can. Let this observation include not only the way the sunlight hits the street or overheard conversations but also the “hows” and “whys” that go along with the world you are observing. Ask not only, “What do I see?” but also “Why is this here for me to see in the first place?”
Spend more time thinking about how things in our world could be done differently—not necessarily because anything is broken and in need of fixing, but because you may learn something new about our world through the act of truly seeing things for the first time. Step out into the world with an open mind and eyes and think to yourself:
Why don’t we take more opportunities to ask, “Why do we do the things we do, and why do we do them in the ways we do them?”
Why do we establish systems for certain tasks but not for others?
How do activities, objects, and experiences move between categories in our minds from “unusual,” requiring accompanying analysis or explanation, to “ordinary,” where they become mundane, ignored, and undiscussed?
At what point do we stop being curious about our everyday systems and actions and accept them as finished and immutable parts of our existence when existence itself is interesting and impossible and is simultaneously and involuntary being both experienced and observed?
Do not allow yourself to be a passive actor in your own existence. Be aware and ask questions constantly. Take notes and treat every experience with equal care. Be conscious of your reality, recognize that nothing is mundane, and deeply observe everything to find the value in anything. Remember that curiosity is the most valuable tool we have to give meaning and beauty to our everyday lives. And above all, remember that being human is an experience worthy of wonder.