Surface Features Alchemy: Yellow Stucco Wall

Yellow Wall

My hut, in springtime —
there is nothing in it. Oh!
there is Everything!
–  Sodo, (1642-1716)


Walking around the planet at half-speed and paying attention to surface features requires brushing up from time to time – unless you are a very old woman walking by the duck pond, or a little kid anywhere at all.  Here’s a reminder a former student and I had when we met for lunch years later.

We were at Crepvine, a café near the BART station in Oakland,   reminiscing about the surface-features game we used to play in our classes some fifteen years earlier and recalling what happens when we give attention to what is right before our eyes, looking at details  and avoiding interpreting as much as possible (described in my May 5, 2012 post).  Greg was married with two cute little kids by then, but neither of us was ready to put away childish things.

Heinz Bottle

We started looking at a Heinz  ketchup bottle on our table, noticing surface features, shape, size, colors, label design, a ridge on the bottom, materials, any detail.

“Of course, this isn’t about details,” I reminded Greg.  “It’s about what’s there.”

“But you’ve always said ‘what’s there’ is surface features.”

“Sure, but what’s a surface feature?  It’s what my mind selects to notice.  Let’s see what happens when we back off now and allow ourselves to and take another look at the whole thing.  It’s not the same ketchup bottle that was here when we came in.  If we keep looking at it, it will become unique in all the world, the way the Little Prince’s rose was. That’s how we influence the world, one way that we do.  We take in sensory information and mingle that with what’s already in the reality program in our brains, and send out a revised sensory beam with which we now envelope the bottle.”

I went to the restroom, and when I came back, Greg was smiling.

“While you were gone, I tried the surface features game on that wall behind you.  Amazing!”

It was a pale yellow stucco wall, and the sun passing through window panels behind Greg had cast a cross-hatch of pale shadows on that surface. [Today, I went by Crepvine and photographed the wall to include with this post.  But today it was cloudy out, and there were no patterns on the wall.  So the question is, Was Greg’s wall a better one for practicing the surface-features game or was this one in the photo above?]

“But instead of making the usual observations,” he continued, “I looked at shapes, color variations, textures, that long black thin line two-thirds up.  All of a sudden the game stopped, and I was simply there, beyond words!  I got chills up my back.  It was there all at once, beyond interpretation or impression, as if it was presenting itself to me.”

“And just think,” I said, “every speck of fly dirt we encounter has this potential.  It’s so powerful, like the energy cooped up in an atom.  And all it took to let it explode was your attention.  Greg, you’re a nuclear physicist!

“Maybe we ought to get a saw and cart the whole wall off to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, put a frame around it, maybe, just to make sure people paid proper attention to it.”

That got us thinking about the objets trouvés project  we used to do in our classes (my post February 2, 2013).
“Actually, Greg, now that I think about it,” I went on, “we wouldn’t  need to haul the yellow stucco wall off  to a museum.  We could leave it right here and make up a plaque, maybe bronze: ‘Wall, Sun Shadows on Yellow Stucco – Gregory Maier, January 6, 2006. NFS’ Come to think of it, an enterprising Christo type could go around Oakland putting up little plaques on everything.  ‘Ketchup Bottle’, Emily Heilman, 1/23/06; ‘Chewing Gum on Sidewalk’, Tony Kane, 1/25/06′, and so on”

“Yeah, but in about one day, the whole project would become the latest craze, and people would stop looking again.”

“I suppose so.  To stay alive, you can’t skate by on yesterday’s findings.  What’s up right now, that’s what needs tending to, isn’t it?”

Before I headed back to San Francisco, Greg had a parting shot.  “You know, Clark, seeing this way isn’t free.  You have to pay.  You have pay attention.”


On BART I thought back over our lunch and remembered an experience  Paul Wienpahl had written about in Zen Diary . On a sabbatical, Wienpahl had been studying zen Buddhism in Japan, and for several days he had been trying to grasp how a person and some object could be one and the same.  That just did not fit his training as a scientist from a Western culture.  I looked up the passage when I got back to my desk :

Walking back I again have the experience of identification with the world.  There is nothing to think about now.  However, this time the identification is with a bamboo tree.  Standing before it, I first have a brotherly feeling for it.  Then I feel that it and I are one.  I merge with it.  It becomes conscious.

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