Dec 5, 2010
Seeing the bigger picture
It's good to look out the window now and then to see the world outside and get a sense of perspective
IT was 11pm and I was watching yet another episode of the television series Mad Men when I noticed my dog sitting at the window again.
He had begun to make a habit of it recently. Bored with watching his owners watch meaningless flickering images, he went to the window to look at something else.
This time, he was whining excitedly at something. Curious, I hit the 'pause' button and went to have a look.
The living room is on the second floor of a shophouse and the floor-to-ceiling windows look out on one of the many streets that branch off from Joo Chiat Road.
It took me a while to figure out what my dog was looking at. After all, I live in a colourful neighbourhood and something is happening on the street at virtually every hour of the day and night.
In the morning, you can see maids walking the family dogs and forlorn office executives listening to music at the start of a long trek to the train station.
In the dead of night, giggling girls with unfamiliar accents return from the nearby bars where they work, sometimes accompanied by customers who drape their arms around their shoulders.
Next to the street is a grassy plot of vacant land that has yet to be sold by the Government.
I used to think that it was nothing much to look at, until I spotted wild mushrooms growing in 'fairy rings'. I looked it up on the Internet. Apparently, people once believed that mushrooms growing in a circle were following a path made by fairies dancing in a ring.
Another day, I saw a lone man in the middle of the field carrying a net on a long pole. He was moving the net over the short grass in short quick swoops, lost in his own world.
My friend told me he heard such people were spirit catchers, and I have never looked at the open field in the same way since.
That quiet night, however, my dog had set his sights on something closer to home, gazing at a group of stray cats hanging out at the open drain just across from our door.
From their colour, it looked like the five of them might have been related. Three kittens were playing with one another while their mother watched nearby.
Papa Cat sat in the middle of all of them like a contented king of the castle. He was seated on his backside, balancing himself on the gentle slope of the drain, with his hind legs spread out in front of him.
His body was arched forward in a strangely human pose, and yes, he was staring curiously back at us.
These days, we never find the time to properly look out the window.
In densely populated Singapore where buildings are crammed so tightly against one another, it's hard, in the first place, to find a room with a view.
But I've discovered that sometimes we don't even want it. Often, we are too much more concerned about what's inside of a house or a living space than what's outside it.
That sort of logic accounted for two of the worst views I have had in my lifetime.
My last apartment, for example, was in a crowded condo belt in River Valley. All the windows looked directly into flats across the narrow street.
I bought it because it had the largest and squarest living room I had ever seen for a tiny studio apartment. A friend who went with me peeked out behind the drawn blinds and warned me about the view.
'It's okay,' I told her, clearly sold on the space already. 'How often am I going to look out the window anyway?'
That prediction turned out to be true. I spent the next seven years living with the blinds permanently down.
Worse still was the HDB executive mansionette that my parents bought in the late 1980s.
The view from the living room was of the bricked side wall of the next block. You had to go right out to the edge of the balcony to get narrow slivers of a view, which was of the field of a nearby school.
I think my parents settled for the flat because they were frustrated from having waited too long in the HDB queue. Thank goodness they sold it after five years and we moved on.
Contrast that with two of the best views I have ever had.
In my first job, my desk on the 45th floor of a skyscraper in Shenton Way had a stunning view of the Tanjong Pagar port and the sea beyond.
I looked out the window all the time, counting the stacks of containers whose height hinted at the health of the economy, staring at the ships anchored on the horizon, and marvelling at the breathtaking speed at which the clouds would gather for a storm.
The view never failed to inspire and awe me. I was in the civil service then, and it made me feel like there was something concrete here to love and protect.
My parents' Holland Village flat where I spent most of my childhood was in one of the tallest blocks in the neighbourhood because it was built on a hill.
When I became tall enough to look out the kitchen windows, I discovered a panoramic new world of possibilities.
I learnt about markets, community centres and carparks. I figured out the bus routes and the timing of the traffic lights.
I could see my parents coming home from work. It was a busy bustling adult world out there that I couldn't wait to be part of.
This is why I'm somewhat glad that in my current home, I have something of a view again. It's not a million-dollar view that makes you feel on top of the world, but it adds a certain something that you can't quite put your finger on.
Perhaps it is that looking out the window gives you a sense of perspective that you rarely get as you go about your busy day.
Buddhists meditate to bring a sense of calm to their lives. They learn to look at themselves as if from above and realise that they, along with whatever problems they are currently facing, are insignificant and transient in the larger universe.
Maybe it has arrived with age, but I find that I get that sense of perspective when I look out the window these days.
The world stops spinning for a moment. I imagine I am in a movie and the camera pans away from a tight shot of me in the window.
It swings away from me slowly and now you can see the whole house, the whole street.
It continues to pull away until I and my dog are just two specks in a mess of faces in windows of cars and malls and offices all over the world that could mean something. Or nothing at all.