March 10, 2015 by Ray Yanek
I’ve been on a travel hiatus for quite a few years now, so I’m always eager to find books like Anthony Doerr’s Four Seasons in Rome. The book chronicles Doerr’s year in Rome as a fellow at the American University. Together, Doerr and his wife must navigate Doerr’s insomnia, culture shock, and more importantly the care of their two, six-month old twin sons.
Part journal, part memoir, part insight into the mind of a working writer, Four Seasons in Rome is quite possibly the most important book I will read this year– important for me as a writer, important for me as a husband and father, important for me as a person who wants to be alive and aware. Even though I read the book back in January, I go back every so often to re-experience the beauty of the writing, to journey back to the Janiculum hill, and to remind myself of the magic of wonder and curiosity.
I go back when I, maybe unconsciously, need to be reminded of the importance of
mindfulness, of paying attention, of being curious and of the person I deeply, deeply want to be.
Nothing that Doerr experiences in Rome escapes his curiosity. Each stone in each wall captivates him, and he can’t help but to search out the name of each bird and tree, the history behind the neighborhoods and the art that hides in every corner crevice. He learns the story behind the people and the ruins.
Being in such a place as Rome would help anyone with the curiosity I suppose, but what Doerr mentions is that we need to pay more attention not to our year long sabbaticals in grand European capitals, but in our everyday life.
“The act of seeing can quickly become unconscious and automatic,” Doerr writes and the then evokes literary critic Viktor Shklovsky’s idea that ‘habitualization’ blinds us and keeps us from seeing the familiar things in our lives as they truly are. Habitualization keeps us from seeing the magic and beauty in the details.
As writers, Doerr argues that our journals should help us in this regard. A writer’s journal should “break up the habitual and lift away the film that forms over the eye, the finger, the tongue, the heart.”
A writer’s journal should make us re-examine all that is around us. Throughout the book Doerr becomes increasingly obsessed with ancient Roman historian Pliny and his volumes of Natural History. Pliny, Doerr says, “is so curious, so ardent… he is scrutinizing things no previous Roman writer have ever paid much attention to: centipedes, pinecones, ravens.” Read in one way, Pliny’s volumes serve as “windows into Roman understanding…read another way, it is a tribute to wonder itself.”
While writing this, I was accusing myself of being cliche, of simply regurgitating something that has been said 1000’s of times before. Of course the duty of the artist is to make the familiar new. “Presence” and “mindfulness” articles show up on my Facebook page more than pictures of cute little kitties.
But despite the overuse of those terms, how many of us actually try to be more aware? I know I don’t. I tend to simply float through my hectic and busy days, ride the wave towards each checkpoint that leads home to a bed where I will rest so that I can do it all over again the next day.
It’s sad that I don’t take more time. It’s sad to think about how much I miss.
Imagine if we could spend even a couple hours a day living aware, living as people who are awake.
Imagine, really imagine, how much different our lives and our art could be if we truly did look with wonder on those everyday things, if we could find something new in those things. Imagine how much different our relationships could be if we looked, truly looked, at our spouse with wonder and magic. What if we did this with our children?
Imagine how much more that wonder and magic could replace our default lens of anxiety and negativity.
I want to give that more of an effort, and at some point in The Consistency Project I want to start using my writing journals to wonder and explore, be less intellectual and more romantic in nature. I want to pay attention to the centipedes and pine cones.
Seriously, you won’t regret it.
Anthony Doerr is also the author of All The Light We Cannot See, a National Book Award nominee.