I can remember instances from my childhood of ‘being here and now’, like a very hot day one summer when I was, I suppose, about five. I remember sitting on the pavement near our house in the silence of 1960s suburban England. There was very little traffic where we lived and I sat there on the tarmac, between activities, just looking around and feeling the heat. No doubt it only lasted for a few seconds before I started doing things again, and maybe it happened many times, I can no longer remember. But from where I am now 50 years later, it is a nice memory.
When I was a teenager I sometimes lay on my side on the floor and stared at the carpet at close range. Though I didn’t lie down for any particular reason – I was probably bored or avoiding doing my homework – I enjoyed seeing something from an unfamiliar angle. I would stay like that, unthinking, just looking and feeling, until I got bored or someone came home. Then I would jump up and look busy.
I also remember lying on my bed on sunny days and by half-closing my eyes I could see my eyelashes as if through a microscope. They became semi-opaque and rainbow-coloured.
I remember schooldays spent in bed while I was recovering from some childhood illness. From my bed I could hear the sound of children’s voices as they came home for lunch. I would hear the odd bird call from outside my window, or my mum doing some housework downstairs. The calm and quiet was incredible. The light came in through the partially drawn bedroom curtains and I would lie looking at the silent furniture; the eiderdown on my brothers bed and the yellow cupboards that my dad had made. The paint was so thick that you could see the brush strokes.
There were also short winter days when it was still dark when I got up for school and we had to have the light on. There was something peculiar and exciting about having breakfast while it was dark outside.
I got the same feeling of excitement when there were power cuts during the 1970s. Then we would have to do everything by candlelight. Even tasks like drying-up and having a bath were transformed into magical adventures, simply for being seen in a new light. Candlelight.
All of these moments made the familiar world seem suddenly more mysterious. I think this is what Virginia Woolf meant by ‘moments of being’: when we experience the world of our senses with a new kind of intensity. It’s also similar, though probably less intense, to Aldous Huxley’s drug-induced experiences described in ‘The Doors of Perception’. I never have such moments now. Pity.