Reflections on Still Water

When I worked at Stanford last year, I used to take the commuter train to work. It was a ride of about an hour each way and I always looked forward to it. Head phones on, favorite music playing, I would lay my head back against the seat and spend the time just staring out the window.

In the mornings, as the fog was beginning to dissipate, the train would pass a small inlet. This tiny body of water was really nothing more than a small finger of the Bay, crowded under a concrete freeway onramp and surrounded by the debris of half-built and abandoned buildings, homeless encampments, and a steel graveyard.

In this inlet was an old wooden row boat, anchored in the middle of the water and unreachable by shore. As far as I could tell, the boat never moved, was never used. It had all the appearance of something forgotten or abandoned.

It became a ritual for me to look for this boat every morning and I would stare through the windows with expectation until it came into view — weathered and old, covered in peeling and dusty paint, tethered by weed draped rope in the midst of water smooth as glass surrounded by society’s throw aways. I would crane my head around trying to keep it in view as we passed, regreting that the train couldn’t go more slowly.

Occasionally, other passengers seeing my actions would also crane their heads around to see what event could be drawing such intense attention. Seeing nothing, they would resume working on their computers or reading their newspapers.

It surprised me a little that others weren’t struck by the perfection of the boat. I expected that one day I would be craning to look at the boat and my eyes would meet with another person’s as he or she turned from viewing it; I imagined that we would smile, self-conciously, in the way two people who witness something beautiful at the same moment do. Sadly, this moment never occurred.

In more fanciful moments I would think to myself that the boat was my special secret and only I could see it. However, with another sip of coffee reality intruded and I knew that others saw the boat, they just didn’t see it the way I did. Out of all the people in the world, and all the images in the world, the perfect image formed itself for the one person most able to appreciate it.

I checked the location of the inlet and the boat and I know I can find it without being on the train. I’ve thought many times about grabbing my camera some foggy morning and trying to capture the image on film or disk. However, I know that no matter how much I try or what camera or film I use, I could never capture the boat as I see it.

And I’m rather glad I never tried, because now the image will stay in my mind, wrapped in the softness of time — always perfect.

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