Twenty-five years ago, one of my favourite writers, Paul Auster, adapted his short story Auggie Wren’s Christmas Story into the screenplay for Wayne Wang’s beautiful little film, Smoke. Auster’s central character Auggie Wren, played by Harvey Keitel in the film, runs a tobacconist shop on the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn. Every day he takes his Canon 35mm SLR camera out into the street at exactly 8.00 am and takes a picture of the same street corner, his corner, day after day.
The story of how he gets that camera isn’t revealed until the end of the film, and it’s both shocking and charming in equal measure. You’ll have to see the movie.
Early in the film we meet another character, Paul Benjamin, a famous writer living around the corner from Auggie’s store. Paul, played by William Hurt, has recently lost his wife Ellen, shot dead in the crossfire of a gang-related streetfight. Paul’s grief has rendered him unable to write. He keeps to himself, other than his regular visits to Auggie’s shop to buy cigars where he talks briefly with the coterie of local personalities who hang out there.
One day, Paul sees Auggie’s camera on the counter and asks him about it. When Auggie explains that he’s a keen photographer, Paul smiles, “So you’ve not just a man who pushes coins across a counter.”
“That’s what people see,” Auggie explains, “but that’s not necessarily what I am.”
In the next scene, they are in Auggie’s kitchen, drinking beer and smoking cigars, as Auggie places his albums before Paul for his perusal. But as he is leafing through the pages, Paul points out awkwardly that all the photos are the same.
“That’s right,” Auggie says, “More than four thousand pictures of the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue at eight o’clock in the morning, four thousand straight days in all kinds of weather. That’s why I can never take a vacation. I got to be in my spot every morning at the same time … every morning in the same spot at the same time.”
The screen fills with Auggie’s photos.
Look at those photos. They’re all of the same tobacconist store on the corner of Third Street and Seventh Avenue, Brooklyn. But they’re all different. People are walking to work. A Budweiser delivery truck pulls up. Sanitation workers clean the street. A young couple in love wander by.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Paul stammers.
“It’s my project,” Auggie smiles, taking a drag on his panatella, “What you call my ‘life’s work’.”
“Amazing. I’m not sure I get it, though. What was it that gave you the idea to do this, er… project?”
“I don’t know. It just came to me. It’s my corner, after all. I mean, it’s just one little part of the world, but things take place there too, just like everywhere else. It’s a record of my little spot.”
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” Paul mumbles, shaking his head, as he turns the pages too quickly.
Auggie gently places his hand on Paul’s arm and says, “You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down, my friend.”
“What do you mean?” Paul asks, flipping another page.
“I mean, you’re goin’ too fast. You’re hardly even lookin’ at the pictures.”
“But,” Paul laughs, “they’re all the same.”
Auggie leans in and explains, “They’re all the same, but each one is different from every other one. You’ve got your bright mornings; your fog mornings; you’ve got your summer light and your autumn light; you’ve got your week days and your weekends; you’ve got your people in overcoats and galoshes and you’ve got your people in t-shirts and shorts. Sometimes same people, sometimes different ones. Sometimes different ones become the same, and the same ones disappear. The earth revolves around the sun and every day the light from the sun hits the earth from a different angle.”
Humoring his friend, Paul slows down and takes his time examining each picture. And then he sees her.
“Jesus. Look! It’s Ellen!”
“Yeah,” says Auggie gently, “She’s in quite a few from that year. Must have been on her way to work.”
“It’s Ellen,” gasps Paul, choking back tears, “Look at her. Look at my sweet darling.”
Paul dissolves into tears, his grief flowing like a torrent. He slumps over the albums piled on the kitchen table and sobs inconsolably. And Auggie drapes his arm around his friend’s heaving shoulders.
I’ve never forgotten the wisdom of Auggie Wren: You’ll never get it if you don’t slow down. Paul Auster wrote the screenplay for Smoke in 1995, and Auggie’s advice is more salient than ever. The pace of modern technological life has only increased since the 90s and it has wound us up so fast, we can’t stop. We can’t rest. We can’t take our time with anything. Our culture is dominated by a logic that equates speed with efficiency.
We need everything now!
French philosopher, Simone Weil once proclaimed that our greatest need is to learn how to pray, and prayer ultimately means paying attention. Attention, as she described it, is not a furrowing of the brow and tensing of the muscles in the attempt to learn something new, but the opposite: a radical receptiveness to what is at hand, to something outside oneself. She wrote,
“We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will. The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles… Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different. Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
Paul Benjamin only got to see Ellen again when he came to attention. And in slowing down enought to take the time to look, he was able to open himself to the love of a friend like Auggie.
But you’ll never get it if you don’t slow down.
In his book In Praise of Slow, Carl Honoré writes,
“Fast and Slow do more than just describe a rate of change. They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections—with people, culture, work, food, everything.”
Right now, it feels like we could do with a bit more Slow.
If, as Weil says, coming to attention is prayer, then the best prayers are those that open our cynical, jaded eyes to the myriad ways God is revealing his grace to us, in conventionally religious ways as well as the most unlikely and unexpected. The Kingdom of God is all around us if only we would take the time to look. And that means taking the time to be receptive to what is going on.
Taking your time takes some doing. You might care to consider these suggestions:
Find times to incubate not just investigate: Einstein used to spend hours staring into the middle distance to allow ideas to flow. Try it. Turn your phone off. Take a walk along a beach, or sit in a darkened room. Try to stop thinking, planning, solving. Take the time to let the truth bubble up from the depths of your consciousness. Pay attention. They say no one knows how to be bored anymore, but in boredom comes insight and fresh perspectives.
Develop a childlike sense of wonder at life: One good way to do that is to hang out with children if you can. I became a grandfather last year and the unadulterated wonder in a child’s eyes is truly inspirational. To a child, everything is new, everything is wonderful. Fostering a childlike curiosity is so important. In fact, I reckon curiosity should be regarded as a spiritual gift.
Cultivate a sense of humour: The link between wisdom and humor has been made before. People with a good sense of humor can make connections between the things they observe. They’re good at making comparisons and recognising anomolies. They take the time to play with juxtapositions and similarities.
Create stuff: Whether it’s painting or gardening, brewing beer or baking sourdough, minor carpentry or story writing, allow yourself the time to master your chosen hobby and take the luxury of getting in the flow, where time seems to stand still and where we feel at one with our surroundings.
Develop creative partnerships with others: In collaboration there is truth. In learning to humble ourselves enough to work and create with others, we discover things we would never have learned by ourselves.
Suffer with humility: Don’t go looking for suffering, but when it comes, as it will, don’t try to find your way through it by your will, but by coming to attention. Humble youself enough to alow the tragedy or failure or loss to become your teacher. It takes time. Sometimes, a lot of time.
I think what Paul Auster was saying through Auggie Wren and his strange photographic hobby was that even when it feels like our surroundings never change, in fact everything is changing all the time, every day. Most people don’t notice those changes. Their faces are buried in their screens, their minds are never focused on what’s at hand. They think everything is the same.
But when you slow down enough to take the time to look, really look, you see what you need to see.
You see what God wants you to see.
God is near. God’s grace abounds. But you’ll never get it if you don’t slow down.