Gary Lehmann: Vanishing Point

There's a tiny wooded area I pass each day as I go to work. It was probably just a draw or swayle originally, laid into the wetland to draw water away from the roadway, but now it has grown up quite a bit. I'm not at all sure why it fascinates me so much. It's like a mini-vacation, a snapshot of the season, a momentary escape into a world untrammeled by man.

Your eye is drawn along this waterway, amidst a cathedral of tall trees to a point, or an area, where you can see nothing more, a vanishing point. I wonder if this was accidental? It's almost too brilliant to have been designed, especially by the landscape architect who set one tree here and another there in the midst of a field of grass in front of the modern buildings that make up my place of employment.

The trees bend in over the water making a kind of church-like effect. They are tall and have no branches until the crown where a profusion of ripe green appears. The water has cattails at the near end. The water is still, but not stagnant, exactly. Although it is surrounded by modern buildings and a bustle of activity every day, this corner remains remarkably untouched. The wetness and the darkish character of the area probably breeds mosquitoes like crazy, but driving by each morning and evening, they don't bother me.

I had a fascination for this little vista for many years before I discovered the term vanishing point. Artists and architects use the term to describe a place with no clear end. The eye is somehow drawn off infinitely. Apparently modern houses are frequently designed with interior vanishing points to give the space a sense of the mysterious. One white wall curves in and laps another curved white wall with a tear-drop shaped window set at a 45' angle to the ground. Your eye is drawn in and up simultaneously and then it is gently pushed off into a sky-like space which has no ending point. Vanishing point. That's all you can call it.

As a writer, I am very aware of vanishing points. In fact, there's one in this piece, "my place of employment." Didn't you wonder, where I work? Is it a factory? a hospital? a university? a mental institution? a prison? what? As you read along, wasn't a tiny place in your mind occupied by this niggling question which you suppressed to concentrate on the text?

Why does this place interest him? Is he bored with his work? angry? content? Who would ever bother to notice such a place, and think it worth writing about? Over the decades, I have written hundreds of pieces for newspapers and literary magazines, but many times I sensed that the very act of tying things up too tightly limited the reader's enjoyment. Every piece, fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, needs a vanishing point or two for the same reason that every classroom needs at least one window with a view.

Only a small percentage of life happens at the conscious level. No writer, however captivating, can keep the attention of the reader for more than a few minutes. No teacher, no movie, no lecturer, even a circus can only keep your attention for short stretches. For the rest of the time, the vanishing point must be there to absorb the overflow of thoughts that flood the dry landscape of the mind and turn these dusty shores to briney mud.

In some paradoxical way, the best way to keep the reader's attention is to provide little mini-vacations along the way. All the great works of literature do it. Hemingway does it in Movable Feast by means of intense descriptions. Tolstoy's War & Peace is full of philosophical speculations which provide vanishing points along the way. Joseph Heller's Catch 22 provides constant glimpses of eternity beyond the war-torn world he describes. Then there's Gertrude Stein. Reading her work is like going on a permanent vacation. She only touches down on the topic about 20% of the time.

What is metaphor if not a gash in the fabric of reality through which the reader peeks in at the conductivity of experiences? Vanishing points are illusive, allusive, illustrative, illuminating, alliterative. At the subconscious level the mind is invited into pastures and open spaces that let the reader write some portion of the book from internal narratives that have been buried for many years. To some degree, these word associations are personal, but to some extent, they are like Rorschach tests, suggestive of general human experiences. Writing wouldn't be nearly so powerful if we didn't share more than we think we do with others.

So, each day I drive by this strange gash in the stage set of earth and for one brief moment expose myself to a sense of the sublime. I prefer to think it just happened and wasn't actually designed, but you never know.