A squirrel springs from a chimney to a power wire, his tail undulating as he swims through the air: against the brilliant white sky the curves he has drawn linger like a wake. A crow follows him, a moment later, with its utterly different, be-damned-to-flow, aggressive flapping. And this in the tiny hatch of sky visible between the shed roof and the silk tree: my palm at arm's length covers the whole view. At a guess, I'd call it one thousandth of the vault of heaven, as it would be available to me were I sitting on the roof. Maybe not so much going on above the rich fields of the skyline, but still: I must miss almost all of the life going on around me, even when I'm attending to any of it. And these are only the creatures I'm designed to notice, the ones big enough to be the prey, predator, or companion of a great ape: a trifling subset of them. The world so teeming, and I so blind.
Yesterday on the train, my phone chirruped at me, telling me I had voice mail from Martha, which meant no doubt that the initial ring had escaped me. I tried to get the message, but between the roar of the train, and the ill reception, and my bad hearing, I had not a chance of understanding the message. I could barely detect a voice amid the rush of sound. I got off at 82nd, ran up the concrete steps, and crossed over to catch the bus for the last mile home. There, on the freeway overpass, with even more roaring all around me, I called home, guessed at Martha picking it up, amid the din, and hollered my location and travel intention hopefully into it, and hung up. She did get my message, as it turns out, and understood it. But it may not be long before we give up on telephone voice communication altogether: only old habit keeps us from texting instead.
I've always been what they call absent-minded. It was easy for me to let conversations wash past me, unobserved, even back when I could hear them. Nowadays, while I know people are talking all around me, I almost never understand talk that isn't directed to me. More of life escaping unobserved. I settle in with my book and let it go. I prefer the deliberate, much-meditated written word anyway. But it is a loss, and I miss it. What were the couple sitting behind me, the interesting-looking ones with traveling packs, murmuring to each other? What was the complaint that the woman with anxiety etched on her face, clutching a faded cloth bag, was making to the surrounding air? I'll never know. The squirrel-tail figures fade, and the sky goes blank.