Looking Through Glass

by Madhu Kaza

In the borrowed apartment where I'm living for a while, on the top floor of a brownstone, a stone Buddha sits on a low table in front of a center window. The crowns of trees some thirty feet away float in the window; they belong to the park across the street. Many of these trees are rooted near the street below, and the park slopes up behind them, so that through the canopy I sometimes catch flashes of figures moving inside the park at the top of the hill. Through my window I hear the squeaking of swings, and though I don't see them, I hear the squawking of children throughout the afternoon.

One afternoon this summer – it had been dark and humid all morning—I was sitting at my desk working, when suddenly I heard a boom of thunder, immediately followed by the shrieks of children. I looked out the window at the swaying branches of the trees and imagined the scared and thrilled children leaping out of the swings and scattering home before the rain came down. I watched the trees long after the voices emptied out of the park and the rain began tapping the leaves.

I love looking out of windows. I have spent whole afternoons watching the light change inside a room and watching the movements of the world outside. I lived for nearly fifteen years in a studio apartment in Manhattan, where ninety percent of my waking hours at home were spent sitting in a chair by the window, where I worked, ate, read, talked on the phone and idled. I think of the years racked up looking through glass, listening to the muted sounds of the city.

Looking through a window has always felt akin to looking at art. Painters have long made the connections between the canvas and the window. In his 1435 essay, “On Painting,” the Renaissance artist Leon Battista Alberti wrote, “Let me tell you what I do when I am painting. First of all, on the surface on which I am going to paint, I draw a rectangle of whatever size I want, which I regard as an open window through which the subject to 870px-Open_Window,_Colliourebe painted is seen.” In more recent paintings of the 19th and 20th century the window has become a prominent motif, one that can organize or frame the subject of the painting. In Matisse's Open Window, Collioure, for instance, very little (and no detail) of the domestic interior is shown. The painting itself becomes a view from a window.

Even if paintings sometimes open up views onto the world, I recognize that it doesn't necessarily follow that looking out a window is like looking at art. Features that brings these two experiences together for me, however loosely, include the frame and the distance– my position apart from the action. When gazing out a window I am more still in my looking than when I am out in the world. I find myself slightly abstracted from my body and in the position of a spectator. It's great if a window looks out onto a street or a meadow where horses roam, but the view needn't be spectacular or even beautiful. It certainly helps if the view is not of a grim shaftway, if instead it's of a dynamic space where people or animals or clouds come and go, where vegetation comes into leaf, flowers, and dies – anywhere where you can watch things change throughout the day. Through a fixed frame viewed over time the scene becomes cinematic.

The window glass is essential, too, not only because glass is a magical substance (and it is), but because the glass window connects you to the world outside without immersing you in it. For thousands of years until relatively recently, most houses did not have glass windows; glazed windows were a luxury. I was born in India in a building without glazed windows and for much of my early childhood the windows I knew were sealed with wooden shutters rather than glass. The houses were either open or closed to the world – there was no glassy in-between.

Of course, throughout the year there are many days when I keep the windows open, when I want my experience to be porous. Other times I am grateful for glass. The separation it provides is more than a small relief. I think of Tomas Tranströmer's words:

And now inside. And now inside. Behind the huge window-pane. What a strange and magnificent invention glass is—to be close without being stricken.

But if houses are forms of shelter that protect us from the elements, these days their windows also serve an opposite function. Most of us work and spend much of our time indoors. Windows offer relief from the captivity we feel in our buildings. They let us see that there's a world out there where light and weather and children's screams and fire trucks keep the day moving.

Right now the leaves outside my window are a dull, tired green. But in the early evening the deep golden light on the trees is unbelievable. Whenever I look through the window in the early evening I lose the present tense. I'm sure I must be looking at a cross-processed photograph from another era. Or a super-eight film from my childhood. I'm curious how the sunset will color the leaves over the next month as they shift into their autumn hues. I know that at the top of the hill inside the park there's an incredible view of lower Manhattan, but from my window, now, I only see foliage. When the leaves fall from the trees I wonder what it is from beyond that will be revealed.