I’ll sleep a third of my life away. I’ll spend thousands of hours just going in and out of doors. But mostly I’ll be watching through windows, looking out or seeing in. For something that is invisible, the presence of windows enlarges my world.
In a lifetime, there will be millions of windows I will look through. They’ll reveal what would remain unknown without them. We take windows for granted. we hardly if ever notice them. Glass is a remarkable creation, first created four thousand years ago.
Mirrors were produced much later in the 19th century. Unlike windows, mirrors show “just me.” We’re seeing nothing new except for the metamorphoses of aging or various cosmetic adjustments. Windows, on the other hand, coax us out of ourselves. Windows reveal the world beyond “just me.”
Imagine, for example, living in a house with no windows or driving a car you couldn’t see out of? What would it be like roaming malls that have no windows? It’s unimaginable. Even if post-modern technology could make such a thing possible, being in our houses, driving cars or shopping in malls would be intolerably boring.
Last week, I watched the ice storm outside through my living room window. I was able to participate in two worlds at once through the offices of glass: the world out there and the one in here, very different ones I would add; the one world was cold and foreboding, the other warm and hospitable. Windows brought us together.
As a child, I was fascinated with glass: how could this thing have physical properties but at the same time remain invisible. “What’s glass made of,” I once asked my father. “Sand,” he replied. He wasn’t always helpful. I concluded on my own that glass must be composed of the stuff ghosts are; a kind of cosmic substance possessing an invisible corporeality.
In churches, I am conscious of stained glass windows. They depict saints in florid colors. Glass makes sense here since I was taught how saints were special people because light shone through them.
Among the sweetest of childhood’s forbidden fruits, breaking windows has got to be the favorite, for boys anyway. Abandoned buildings are ripe fruit; easy pickens. As the rock, I threw hit the windowpane in the old brewery not far from my house, the breaking glass sounded musical to me, titillating my darker instincts but appealing to my aesthetic sensitivities. When a rock hits a window, the sound has something of the dramatic crescendo of clashing symbols one hears during an orchestral performance.
Windows, fragile are they are, have a strong psychological effect in securing boundaries. I understand burglars are often reluctant to break windows when making a heist. Strange. It would certainly make for an easy entrance. Maybe it’s just reluctance to make noise but I’ve wondered whether, despite their fragility, windows create powerful taboos against violating boundaries.
We say, “glass ceiling” to describe the limits that existing power structures impose on select people in their workplaces, typically women. It’s easy to spot stonewalling, but glass provides an invisible barrier.
As a boy growing up on Staten Island in the late thirties and early forties, there were no malls. We shopped differently, then, not modernity’s casual drive to the mall that contains everything you ever wanted. Choices on the Island were limited. Serious shopping involved going to the city, in this case, Manhattan. Like pilgrimages, we’d make annual family excursions, to Manhattan before Easter and before Christmas. We’d outfit ourselves properly for the seasons.
These excursions were all day events. They involved taking the Staten Island ferry to Manhattan. We then boarded the subway at Bowling Green to take us uptown. I loved listening to the rhythmic “clickety-clack” as the train propelled us through its tunnels. Train windows were dreadfully grimy. I could hardly see out of them. We’d exit the stations closest to Macy’s or Saks. As we took the stairs from the station platform to the street, the skyscrapers loomed above us. They were like monoliths with windows as for up as I could see.
Department stores’ fronts had windows displaying merchandise while also securing it. One window had a display of electric trains wending their way through quaint, miniature villages and lush countrysides. The mannequins in some stores were exquisitely dressed and seemed to be looking right at me. I kept waiting for one of them to greet me. I remember once when we first entered Macy’s, the entire store exuded a distinctive and pleasing scent. It may have been the scent produced when everything in a building is brand new.
As a child, the fairy land of merchandise seemed to me even more enchanting as we prepared to leave the city for the Island. Since by then streets were getting dark, store fronts were brightly lit, and the merchandise presented behind large windows was all the more enchanting and alluring for its illumination.
We say an opportunity presents itself to us as a “window.” We look through this window to seize the good fortune that awaits us. Timing is of the essence. When the attitude of the heart is open and ready, this is the optimum time. We see the opportunities through windows more clearly then. With an open heart, our window of opportunity becomes wider and filled with promise.
I was affirmed recently in the boyhood thought I had about windows being composed of spectral properties. On the sun porch, on cold sunny days, between a double paned window, a ghost appears. He is translucent, like a thick mist and I watch him morph this way and that as temperatures fluctuate. Late afternoon, as it grows colder, he slowly disappears. Unlike most ghosts, this one likes basking in the sunlight between windows rather than haunting people in dark rooms. I can’t tell whether he’s looking in or out of the window.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.