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Lost in Plain Sight

It's the small things that make the big picture for Oliver Gray
It’s the small things that make the big picture for Oliver Gray

Taking a walk with Oliver Gray isn’t easy. He lives 2,300 miles and three time zones away. But I’ve taken seven walks with him to date and plan to take another on Friday when he posts the latest in his series, “Forgotten Fridays.”

Here’s how it all started. One night last week, I took an amble through his blog, Literature and Libation. Although tempted by articles grouped under “How to,” “Writing,” and very tempted by the photos that appear in the “Libation” department, I headed for the “Other” category, the one that captures all those musings that refuse to be neatly categorized.

I found gold.

I read a letter he’d written to his bone marrow on the eve before donating some of it to his father who, a short while earlier had gone to the hospital with what he thought was the flu. His dad was diagnosed with leukemia instead.

I came upon a zen-like piece inspired by the ability of water to overcome just about any obstacle in its path:

“If I can flow and adapt like water, nothing but the most dense situations can contain me, and none but the driest and least pore-laden of of people can hold me back. After some practice, it makes the worst events seem like brief obstacles in the river of your life. You’re never stuck dwelling on or seething over something, as you’ve floated on long since.”

Then I followed Gray through the front doors of the fitness room in the office complex where he works and found myself feeling sorry for it. As I followed  my guide around the room, I saw the place as if I were right there with him and it wasn’t just because he took a few photographs to go along with the piece.

“In this building is a single room that is sadder than the others. A room that from outward appearance once perspired with potential, but has fallen into a state of lonely abandonment.”

He evokes the sense of yearning that fuels those who seek out the fitness room as well as the hollowness of dreams abandoned. Were they ever as real as we felt they might be when the endorphins coursed through our veins in the gray weeks of an East Coast winter?

“Directly in front of the center treadmill is a tiny picture, pinned to the wall. This piece of paper has been on the wall for about three years now; it appeared as if by magic sometime in early 2010. Sometimes I wonder who took the time to so carefully cut out this picture and so intentionally place it where it is the only thing you can focus on while running. Were they aiming to one day conquer the seventh, using the idea of playing this hole as motivation to get back into shape? Did they ever make it to Pebble Beach? Did their time in this room, on this very treadmill, start a journey that ended with a little white ball dropping quietly into a hole as West-Coast waves crashed on nearby rocks?”

This piece is part of an ongoing series that focuses on what Gray describes “modern archeology, or things that have gotten lost in plain sight.” In each piece, Gray takes us to a place that thousands pass by daily but never really see. He shows us the Dream Roller Rink and a drive-in theater located along a stretch of road he has driven since he was a child. He shows without a trace of sentimentality the remains of the Go-Kart track he also loved when he was young. In “Bridge Over Landover,” he shares the discovery of an overgrown pillar which turns out to be the remains of a bridge that once carried cars and people but outlived its usefulness.

In one of my favorites, we come upon a mystery posed by a stone railway marker,  a solid hunk of granite carved with the information that Baltimore is  23 miles in one direction and Washington is 17 miles in the other.  But the information is wrong.

“… upon Google-mapping, I found that this marker is not 23 miles from Baltimore, nor 17 miles from Washington. It’s almost as if it was picked up and moved here, either by a human’s will or by the slow ebbing flow of nature, growth, and dirt.”

In an attempt to restore it to its purpose, Gray tries to move the marker but it is too heavy to lift.

“So instead, I lay down on the tracks for a second, ear to the rail, listening for the ghosts of the trains that used this marker rumbling miles and memories away.”

I got in touch with Gray to find out more about this person who, in a few blog pieces, got me thinking about how much I was seeing and how much I was missing as a writer or as a citizen of this world.  I half-expected to learn that he was a yogi or had somehow tapped into the well of stillness that so many say gives rise to heightened awareness of one’s self and others.

He laughs at the notion of being still. “For most of this conversation, I’ve been walking around. I’m awful at being still. I can’t think of anything worse than spending a minute doing nothing.”

This explains why, in addition writing, and studying writing at Johns Hopkins, he also takes mandolin lessons, brews his own beer, plays soccer, lifts weights and runs (activities to which he is returning after recovering from the bone marrow transplant). Oh, and he holds down a day job as a technical writer because he is an IT guy, like his dad. He celebrates a life that has been blessed with a large measure of good fortune.

Looking closely at life is something that comes naturally and is consistent with his tendency to engage every chance he can. “I tend to remember everything that seems important, even if it really isn’t. I hate being passive.” With that comes a fascination with scale and perspective reflected in the Forgotten Friday pieces.

“Little details tell the story of the larger thing that catches your eye. Let’s say there is a tanker in port. You can look at the side and see a lot of black paint or you can see how much of the sky it blocks, the shape and size of the people you can see on the deck, the rivets in the side that hold it together and the people who put them there.”

He adds, “I get that most people don’t notice what I notice and in some ways I’m not sure they should. It’s an incredibly distracting way to live your life.” But, he says, “I think a writer is a type of archeologist. We’re often finding, collecting, examining, and then presenting information in ways that people can understand. We connect ideas, places, times, people.”

The full interview can be read here: Oliver follow up 6-5-13.

As we wound up our talk, I asked Gray where he would take me if I were close enough to accompany him on a real walk.

“I’m a woods dweller, always have been. I’d probably take you to Seneca Creek Park or Patapsco or Greenbrier. We’d hike. I’d show you the macro photography I’d like to take [ see the two photos that accompany this post]. We’d eat hummus and talk about spiders and types of oak trees — white oak, red oak, broad leaf oak. It’d be fun. Then we’d hike too far and get tired, because I have a terrible sense of distance and time. Our legs would be really sore the next day.”

"They only bloomed in the spots where the sun cut through the canopy and made it to the forest floor. They smelled great, sort of like summer honeysuckle."
“They only bloomed in the spots where the sun cut through the canopy and made it to the forest floor. They smelled great, sort of like summer honeysuckle.”

Sounds nice and from the photos he sent me of what we’d see along the way, it would be beautiful. But as I’ve been reminded by the pieces in “Forgotten Fridays,” there are walks I can take right here and right now that would reveal stories aching to be told.

What about you? What deserves a closer look in your world?


  1. Thank you, Betsy, for this post. Like your other posts, it reminds me of how much of life’s experience depends on how you bring your head to it.

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