Apprehending the Light

By

Arts & Culture

Photo: Scott O’Connor.

On a mild evening at the end of May, the day after the official U.S. death toll from COVID-19 reached a hundred thousand, I drove thirty miles from Los Angeles to see a work of art. I’d first visited James Turrell’s Dividing the Light seven years before with my wife and son. We shared a night of quiet beauty in the outdoor installation on the campus of Pomona College. That experience stayed with me, a moment of meditative calm to remember when things were hectic or difficult. But the feeling had faded over time. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, I hoped that by returning to the site I could recapture some of that peace.

I listened to the news as I drove, discussions of the number dead. I tried to wrap my head around what it meant that the lives of a hundred thousand people in this country, and so many more around the world, had ended in just the last few months. But after a while I turned off the radio. The enormity of the tally made it impossible to comprehend the individual lives lost. The number was a shapeless whole that consumed its separate parts.

Dividing the Light is one of Turrell’s Skyspaces. Once inside, the Minimalist architecture blocks a visitor’s view of the vastness above, except for an aperture cut into a wall or ceiling, which focuses attention on that single circle or square of sky. The Pomona College piece is an unassuming metal pavilion nestled into a courtyard between academic buildings. There’s a sixteen-foot square opening in the center of the pavilion; a shallow reflecting pool of the same dimensions sits directly below. A low wall of granite benches rings the perimeter, coral-colored, like the light one often sees in the west at the end of a Southern California day.

It was just before sunset when I reached the empty pavilion. I stood and looked at the opening above, the whitish-blue square of sky that seemed removed from the rest, as if it had been cut out and set apart. My mind wouldn’t stop racing, though, cycling between the U.S. death toll, the even larger worldwide number, and the staggering numbers yet to come.

My mask didn’t fit right. It was hard to breathe. I stayed standing because I was too hyperconscious of the virus to sit on one of the surrounding benches. I was sad and anxious and feeling useless, wondering why I had made the trip. I had felt this way for the last two months, but that was the slow-motion version, stretched over blurred days of incessant hand washing and Zoom meetings and wiping down groceries, worrying about my son’s cough and my neighbor’s cough and my father’s cough on the phone five thousand miles away. Worrying selfishly about my own health while a hundred thousand people I didn’t know had trouble catching their breath and then couldn’t breathe and then stopped breathing altogether.

*

There is actually one way I can imagine large numbers of people—the crowds at baseball games. It seems inadequate for the gravity of the current moment, but I know Fenway Park holds thirty-seven thousand people, and fifty-six thousand can fill Dodger Stadium. One of my favorite things to do at a game is to take a moment away from the play on the field to look around the stands. All those faces looking toward the pitcher or batter, all those bodies half rising from their seats, following the trajectory of a fly ball threatening the outfield wall. Will it carry? Will it fall?

Once the ball clears the scoreboard or drops into the right fielder’s glove, that energy explodes in jubilation or fizzles in disappointment. But it’s that anticipatory moment before the question is answered that stays with me, thousands of us rising in collective hope.

*

Every morning I check the data. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. New infections, cumulative infections, positivity rate. The number of deaths by day, week, month. Scrolling through the numbers, I almost feel like I know what I’m looking at, like I have the training and context to make sense of the charts and graphs filling my screen. I’m not alone. The LA County Public Health Department tweets their numbers every afternoon and the feed fills immediately with comments, other amateur experts parsing the data.

The data are crucial. Researchers, scientists, and medical professionals need the data to make informed decisions. But what do the rest of us do with it? How does it add to our understanding of what’s happening, and to whom? The data feel solid in a way the pandemic most certainly does not. But that solidity comes at a price. It turns this disaster into an abstraction, increasing the distance between those of us on the sunlit side of the illness and those suffering in the dark.

During his daily coronavirus briefings, New York governor Andrew Cuomo almost always attempted to reject that abstraction when he gave the tally of the previous day’s deaths. The number was not just a number. “Three hundred and sixty-seven deaths,” he announced on April 26. There was a chart on the screen beside him, a blue line climbing. “Which is horrific,” he said. “There is no relative context to death. Three hundred and sixty-seven people pass, three hundred and sixty-seven families.”

*

The sound of the water cresting the low walls of the reflecting pool was surprisingly loud, another impediment to the peace I’d hoped to find in Turrell’s pavilion. I tried to block it out, but it was insistent. After a while I thought it might have another purpose: maybe the water was designed to act as a buffer against the noise of the outside world, the car horns and barking dogs and passing conversations that just a few months ago would have been swirling distractions in the evening air. That night in late May, though, as on so many evenings during the pandemic, there was an unnerving silence. The water’s steady white rush underscored that sonic void. I couldn’t ignore it any longer.

I took a breath and paid attention to the silence. For months I had considered it a formless blank, the simple absence of sound. I was wrong. It had so many different parts: the fear and grief and withdrawal from public activity that so many of us were feeling, but also the keen silence of vigilance, the choice to quiet our lives in the hope of saving our neighbors. And surrounding the silence, an unfathomable uncertainty, the dawning realization that there is no end in sight, that we’ll have to learn to live in this uncharted space.

*

Baseball has always been a sport driven by, and viewed through the lens of, statistics. As a kid in the eighties, I pored over the backs of baseball cards, memorizing my favorite players’ batting averages and home run totals. Those statistics hadn’t changed much since the game’s beginnings a hundred years earlier. But in the late seventies a movement began to rethink the ways of viewing player performance, and to go deeper into those reevaluations. That movement broke into the mainstream in 2003 with Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, which opened the floodgates. Many of the game’s long-standing suppositions (walks are for wimps) have been upended (walks are, in fact, a great way to get to first base). We can now determine the percentage of each run created by a particular player, and the rate at which a pitcher spins the ball to fool a batter. Some of us now watch games with a second screen open on our phones or laptops, pulsing with charts and graphs updating in real time.

Advanced stats have enhanced my enjoyment of the game. During the lulls between innings, my son and I discuss batting averages and home run totals, but we also debate FIP and WRC+ (don’t ask). One of the most anticipated rites of spring in our house is the arrival of the Baseball Prospectus annual, a compendium of advanced stats as thick as a midsize city’s phone book. Watching the data play out during a game feels like finding new pieces to a puzzle we thought we’d solved long ago.

But I wonder if the data has changed our perception in other ways. Does the obsession with numbers detract from our appreciation of the sport’s physical beauty, the lazy arc of a long fly ball, the slide into second base that slips below the shortstop’s tag? Does focusing on metrics reduce players to decimal points and percentages? We don’t have stats to measure leadership or teamwork. Sometimes these intangibles are derided by more number-centric fans. But aren’t the attributes I value most in myself and others—our capacity for love, our ability to empathize—intangible? When a player loses his spot on a team because of a falling performance metric, that’s not just a number that’ll be replaced with another, higher number. That’s the loss of a job, a dream, a sense of self. That’s a life changed forever.

*

About ten minutes before sunset the pavilion’s ceiling began to glow. What started as a flat, metallic gray darkened, subtly, to a deep purple. There are LED lights secreted away in the Skyspace, synchronized to the atomic clock, and every evening just before sunset they begin a programmed pattern, bathing the underside of the pavilion with gradually shifting colors. I was still standing alone in the space, still anxious, but the change in light pulled me from my thoughts, quietly but firmly calling for my attention. The square of fading blue sky, now surrounded by a field of violet, seemed to flatten, losing its depth. It looked like a painted canvas in a purple frame. With a ladder I was sure I could’ve touched it.

The color of the pavilion continued to change, sunflower yellow to rubber-ball pink to a wine red, altering the appearance of the square of sky. One moment it was that painted canvas, in the next it acquired sudden depth, making me feel as if the entire space had flipped upside down and I might tumble through that opening. Each change confounded my understanding of what I saw and felt, proving my beliefs wrong, or at least incomplete. Turrell calls this our “prejudiced perception,” the concept of normalcy we drag around with us most of the time, our tendency to stay sheltered within generalizations and abstractions.

Those prejudices don’t fade without a fight. My brain, still not completely quiet, kept up an irritating, insistent reminder: this is just the sky, a small patch of what always surrounds you. It’s not unique, or extraordinary. I hadn’t looked at the sky much that day—not on my drive or the walk across campus. But here in Turrell’s space I couldn’t stop looking. I thought of a line from one of John Cage’s poems, about how certain moments are invitations to events at which we are already present.”

Of course it was just a small patch of sky. Of course it had been there all along. But now I was finally paying attention.

*

A few days before the 2008 season, the Red Sox and Dodgers played an exhibition game to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the latter team’s arrival in Los Angeles. The game was played, like the Dodgers’ first games in the city, in the Memorial Coliseum, a concrete leviathan that sits just south of downtown, where it has hosted, among other massive events, two Olympics, the Billy Graham crusades, and the last ninety-plus years of USC football.

The game started in the late afternoon, and like most LA crowds this one filtered in gradually, taking its time. By the time the sun had set, though, there wasn’t even standing room to spare. Our rooting interest was split, but the mood was congenial, and increasingly celebratory. We began to notice that this was a very big crowd, much bigger than any at Dodger Stadium or Fenway Park. As we all looked around, there was a growing sense that we were part of some thrilling, illogical stunt, like those old photographs of college kids stuffing themselves into phone booths. It’s the kind of memory that feels wistful and retroactively uneasy in our current reality of physical distancing: so many bodies shoulder-to-shoulder, laughing, cheering, shouting.

The game also felt like a stunt. Wedging a baseball diamond onto a football field involved, among other eccentricities, an absurdly high net in shallow left field, only 201 feet from the batter’s box. The home runs came early and often. Any remaining pretense that this was an authentic game fell away completely.

But by then, we understood that the game wasn’t the point. We were the point, the crowd, our sheer enormity. Every inning, spontaneous bursts of applause rose from a section when the thousands of people noticed, as if for the first time, the thousands in a section on the opposite side of the stadium. Then that applause was returned, like old friends recognizing one another across a great distance.

*

I don’t know how to comprehend a hundred thousand deaths, or three hundred and fifty thousand, or whatever obscene numbers are still to come. But I don’t want to stay numbed by the callous comfort of the abstraction. However we come out of this pandemic, we can’t give in to a collective forgetting, an unspoken agreement to ignore what we’ve lost—who we’ve lost—in the rush to return to the status quo. We can acknowledge the numbers without allowing them to blind us to the individual lives within. For me, this means seeking out the stories behind the numbers—obituaries, remembrances, online memorials—just one or two a day, spending a moment with someone I’ve never met. It’s not enough; it’ll never be enough. But I don’t want to take part in the alternative.

Turrell has said he makes spaces that “apprehend light for our perception, and in some ways gather it, or seem to hold it…” But that word, apprehend, has multiple meanings. Apprehend means to catch, but also to recognize something that might have passed unnoticed—a part of the whole we might still see if we choose to look.

*

Toward the end of that game at the Coliseum, the attendance was announced over the PA system: 115,200 fans. The day’s biggest cheer erupted along the overfull bowl of the stadium. Everyone hugged and high-fived. It was hard to say what we had accomplished, why we were so happy. Simply because so many of us were there together? Was that enough to justify our joy?

The sun set, a tangerine bloom sinking below the highest row of seats. There was a moment of crosscurrent illumination, the sun’s shine fading while the banks of artificial lights woke and brightened. The crack of a bat drew our attention back to the field. Another long fly ball. Everyone half stood in collective anticipation, hoping it would have enough height to clear that ridiculous left field net. I rose with the crowd, then turned away from the moment on the field to the one in the stands, the rows of fans behind me, all of those faces alive and watching, apprehended in the light.

Scott O’Connor’s new novel, Zero Zone, will be out from Counterpoint in October. He is also the author of A Perfect Universe: Ten Stories, Half World, and Untouchable, which won the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and ZYZZYVA, and has been shortlisted for the Sunday Times Story Prize.

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