Fish Bowl Gazing

In my writing class we have moved on from writing our memoirs to writing about art, and what better place to do that than in Paris? In preparation we read an essay called Blue Arabesque by Patricia Hampl. The essay details the first time Hampl comes across Matisse’s painting “Woman Before an Aquarium” at the Chicago Art Institute. Hurrying to meet a friend, she is stopped in her tracks and entranced by the painting.

“I couldn’t move away,” she says. “I couldn’t have said why. I was simply fastened there.”


Hampl doesn’t pretend to be an art expert by any means; instead she explains how the painting makes her feel. She identifies with the girl in the painting, sitting and staring at the fish bowl. She is not rushed. In our world today, Hampl wonders, how often do we allow ourselves to sit and do nothing, letting our thoughts wander?

“For moderns––for us––there is something illicit, it seems, about wasted time, the empty hours of contemplation when a thought unfurls, figures of speech budding and blossoming, articulation drifting like spent petals onto the dark table we all once gathered around to talk and talk, letting time get the better of us. Just taking our time, as we say. That is, letting time take us,” she says.

Reading this, I began to think about being at home and the time I would spend curled up on the sofa, staring out the front window of my house, not looking at anything in particular, but rather just letting my thoughts take over. I realized that I must have looked quite similar to the girl gazing at the fish bowl in Matisse’s painting.

Later in the essay, Hampl adds:

“Anyway, gone: the long looking of slow days, the world ordered inwardly by seeing, the act of unbroken private attention that was an expression of integrity clasping imagination, making sense, making “vision.” What happened to this heritage of perception? When did our autobahn existence subvert the inner rhythm beating along the pulse and risk the loss of sensation? When did we forfeit leisure? Even our food is fast.”

I have to disagree with her here. I do not think that even us “moderns” are incapable of taking a break from the rush. Living in a city is very different than my past suburb life, where afternoons dragged on and evenings were even slower. In Paris, life moves quickly (although not nearly as fast paced as New York City) but there are still a few spots where life slows down.


One of those spots is St. Martin’s Canal. It’s quite near to where I live in the 11th arrondissement, and today I was walking nearby to get a coffee from Ten Belles (a great coffee bar my friend Judy and I discovered on Sunday) and I saw this man and his dog sitting along the canal.

Paris, of course, is home of le flâneur, the Parisian observers who sit at cafés and watch the world go by so that they can write about it in their novel. However, I did not think of this man sitting with his dog as a flâneur, but more a fishbowl gazer, like Matisse’s girl. He was taking a break from an afternoon dog-walk, and was just sitting doing absolutely nothing but staring into space. There were no people to observe, nothing to look at but the ducks swimming in the dirty canal waters and the brown leaves falling from the trees.


I think what I liked the most about Hampl’s message was that she wasn’t saying we should sit in quietness, but that we should let the thoughts wash over us. I have often tried to quiet my thoughts in meditation, but my inner monologue does not like to be quieted.

Walking along St. Martin’s Canal, I didn’t need a purpose. I could walk and listen to music and try sitting on different benches and just think about stuff. I know that when my eyes glass over with absentminded thoughts, I don’t have to shake my head and tell myself to get back to work. It’s okay to space out every once in a while.





Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s