One of the ten best moments of my life was making eye contact with a baby.
He was being pushed in a stroller through a crosswalk in one direction, and I was crossing in the other. His mom, busy on the phone, did not give me the usual stink-eye for looking at her precious. This baby and I stared at each other for thirty seconds longer than you’re allowed to with someone you don’t know. I imagined the swing of my patterned shoulder bag probably caught his attention, while I was struck with the translucency of his skin and the floaty wisps of blonde hair being ruffled by the breeze.I felt strangely full and settled as I kept on walking. It hit me without even having to inquire, I missed staring.
Now, to be fair to my friends, teachers, parents, and other caregivers, I don’t have a memory of being told not to stare as a kid. To my knowledge I was never shamed, never had my hand slapped. But somehow, I still learned the lesson. And though I find eye contact with strangers and acquaintances as uncomfortable as most autistics I know, I have this secret hunger to stare at things. Maybe it’s my way of compensating for my slower processing speed and the intense amount of information each visual second holds, but also: THE WORLD IS F****** WEIRD AND COOL TO LOOK AT!!! The shades, the textures, the shapes…how are we ever hungry when there’s so much eyeball munching to do? (To be clear, I don’t eat eyeballs. The sentence was strange, but I’m going to let it stand.)
Something was waking up in me that I didn’t know was asleep.
Fast forward to 2017 when I started teaching myself to paint. I haven’t written a lot about that first year of my painting career, only because it was too perfect for words. Something was waking up in me that I didn’t know was asleep. And along with that wake-up came a full-fledged return to staring. Of course, there were still rules for staring, or even looking, at people. When? Who? How long? I hadn’t figured many of them out despite my best “try harder-ness”, and since I was still four years away from my autism diagnosis, intuition took me in a different direction.
I started by staring at my hands. Both during and after I was done painting, they were miraculous to me. I have hundreds of pictures of my hands from that year. Not only did the tension of the drying paint cause me to actually feel my skin, but my hands weren’t their everyday color anymore! It filled me to feel that I could change. I could be a reflection of the canvas. I couldn’t get enough.
Of course, I was staring at the paintings too. And, as my work has grown in detail and technique, the staring has only increased. I don’t have a separate studio space, so I eat dinner on the couch most every night, watch Netflix, and make heart eyes at my latest piece on the easel. At least once a day, I put my nose millimeters from a piece, stare for as long as I want, and then happily exclaim, “I made you!!” I even started adding an hour or two of staring time into the price of each painting. Now, there are some downfalls to this much staring in your 40’s, especially without your close-up glasses that your optometrist made you promise you’d wear, but it’s totally worth it. I can see my paintings behind my eyes at night as I fall asleep.
I put my nose millimeters from a piece, stare for as long as I want, and then happily exclaim, “I made you!!”
In fact, my art practice so fully returned me to my love of staring that I started staring at things outside the house too. Footprints that dried in wet cement, a rusty bit of metal on the side of a building, jewel-toned trees, and the hundreds of other things that neurotypical brains filter out for their owners. I once stared at a leaf on the trunk of my car in the grocery store parking lot. I stared at it for so long that my ice cream melted. I even found out how to stare at people. Since my work is mostly abstract, I realized that I had no practical need to stare at faces. I could get my fill of people and their people-ness through hands, shoulders, ankles, feet, and hair. You know you have the right friends when they’ll let you study their thumb for half an hour.
To stare is to meet something as it is, not as you want it to be.
Though these acknowledgements of what is can bring us great pain, this is also a hard-won skill of almost every neurodivergent person I’ve ever met. So don’t let someone tell you that staring makes you weird. Whether you’re reading this as a visual artist or not, staring is a meditation and a love letter. Staring is cool, so stare. Stare until the agreed upon definitions melt like ice cream, stare until you no longer need an answer, stare…and see what happens.