Dirty Windows

Wouldn't it be easier to "see" life as it truly is if our windows would just stay clean? Brenda Miller ponders the partly-shaded view—the good and the bad.

The sun is out in Bellingham, Washington, which means that most women I know, including me, are staring at our dirty windows. Not out them, but at them. We’re seeing the streaks, the smudges, the fingerprints, the coating of dust, the firm outlines of water drops left over from the hard rains of winter. We’re looking up the phone number of our window cleaners—that nice couple with the VW bug—or we’re considering the time and effort of getting out our own Windex, our rags, our squeegees, and spending this nice day getting our arms sore spritzing, and wiping, and squeaking, and spritzing again.

Or we shift our gaze and see the inches of cat and dog hair in the corners of our wood floors, the fur spread like a second mat on the living room rug. We’re seeing the cobwebs dangling from the corners of the ceilings, forming filaments of dirty lace across the tops of our cabinets. We’re seeing the age spots on our hands, our unpedicured toes, the hair on our legs coarse and dark after a winter of long pants, leggings, and tights. We’re seeing all the things that are normally covered up, or blissfully ignored, for most of our cloudy days in the northwest—that gray light so silver, so soft, so forgiving.

Perhaps that is why most of us feel drawn to live here, in the far north corner of the nation, with our preponderance of muted days; it’s why we have migrated back here after brief sojourns in drier and sunnier lands—Southern California, Montana, Utah—places where the sun shines a lot, where the landscapes are certainly beautiful in their dry, vivid ways, but where we never felt truly at home. No, we say, give us cloud cover. A damp breeze. The smell of moist earth that greets you as you deplane on the tarmac of a tiny airport. Give us indirect light; we are plants that thrive in partial shade.

We sigh at our dirty windows, and we wonder if perhaps we’ve been aching inside, too, for a light that is a little more soft, more forgiving—a light that fusses about us and pulls our garments just so to hide any flaws. When I first started a meditation practice more than 30 years ago, I expected that kind of shimmer, a gentle beam, but instead got the full brunt of direct light through dirty windows, a glare that makes you squint. You see every smudge on your character, every fingerprint on your soul, every trace of rains long gone. I closed my eyes, said my mantra, and wished for a cloudy day, one that might wash me in pearls.

For many years now, my sitting meditation has diminished in favor of something else. I walk to yoga class three times a week, and in that walking I place my feet just so: I have arrived, I say on the in-breath, I am home, I say on the out-breath, and then the chestnut trees, the blackberry bushes, seem to wave in acknowledgment, even if I do it just once, even if I’m present here in this world for just a few seconds at a time. Often I’m walking west at the time of day when the sun has just passed its zenith and is heading toward sunset. Sometimes I have to shade my eyes—on one of those rare days when there’s nothing to filter the rays—but most often I can feel the lessening of the sun’s intensity in those five minutes, the gathering of clouds on the horizon, the way some breeze far above makes them break apart in pleasing patterns that will, in an hour or so, deepen to a slow burn.

And in my yoga class my teacher tells us to bring the outside and the inside together as one. We become aware of small muscles, little ligaments, the breath filling us up and creating space where none ever existed. I bring my head to my knee, I salute the moon, and I make a mandala of my body on the little narrow mat. In Shivasana, the resting pose, I feel my teacher’s hand on my head—a touch light and soft—and then it’s gone. But I still feel it, the after-image of her palm, that touch of forgiveness wiping the panes clean.


Brenda Miller is the author of Blessing of the Animals (EWU Press, 2009), essay collection Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002), and co-author of Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (McGraw-Hill, 2003). She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Bellingham Review.

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