Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you. ~ Annie Dillard
I’ve been awash in the words of Annie Dillard these past weeks. Reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life have been epiphanies and deep hard lessons in the way of words. Words of all sorts and shapes and configurings. Words that speak in the juicy wet tones of poets and words that translate the foreign languages of biology, astronomy and quantum physics in ways that not only hoist me into wonder but weave me into the net of understanding this world I walk upon oh so much better than the moment just spent.
She’s also shown me how little I know about seeing through these two eyes of mine. What we view through these projectors of perception has only a fraction to do with light entering our corneas. The rest of it is our editor brain cutting and splicing from its databanks to come up with a final cut of the scenes we think we see.
In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are fascinating stories of dozens of men and women across Europe and North America, blind since birth from cataracts, who underwent operations to regain their vision. Seeing for the first time through once blind eyes, many of the patients expressed dismay over the concepts of depth or distance; their brains could not compute a three dimensional world. One wondered why there were dark marks in photographs and paintings only to be told those were shadows. Some could only discern an object by closing their eyes and feeling or licking it to identify its place in the world. One man could not grasp the mind bending idea that a larger object (in this case a chair) could hide a smaller object (his dog) or that the dog could still exist if it was not in his line of sight. Many were alarmed to realize they had been seen by others when they were blind. Concern about dress and appearance shoved its way to the forefront of their thoughts whereas before the idea was not even conceptualized.
Everything was new. Form and space, detail and mass. Yes, the light coming through their eyes was the same light entering everyone’s eyes on the planet, yet their brains had entirely different libraries of knowing that had to be purged and repopulated once vision entered their field of awareness. For many of them the world was cataclysmically changed into a canvas of anonymous colour patches with names that didn’t match anything they knew to be true. One girl couldn’t wait to tell her blind friend that “men do not really look like trees at all.” A boy describes a cluster of grapes as “dark, blue and shiny….It isn’t smooth, it has bumps and hollows.” Another girl steps into a garden and “stands speechless in front of a tree, which she only names on taking hold of it, and then as ‘the tree with the lights in it.’”
Revelations. Lights in a tree. Were the lights fruits or flowers? A dusting of snow or millions of butterflies waiting for take off? Does it matter? Astonishing how little we know of something once we have labelled it in the ornery museum of our lightless sight.
So, I’ve been practicing seeing. I studied the burnished fur pelt of the tulip tree’s blossom coat lying in curled memory on the damp grass of the church near my home. A poem, Sky ashen, cove silent, indoors dark as a cave, rendered as liturgy on the bus that lifted my sacrificial heart to the gods. The freckled recesses of a shocking pink rhododendron, its blood dark stamens engorged with pollen tethering sex and life in a wistful dance. A hard coat and soft scarf of peacock blue cocooning a woman as she click click clicked down the street, preening displays of brilliant colour patches set against the hard gray mat of buildings and striated sidewalks.
There’s a lot to be said for new sight. I’ve licked away the delicious coating of presumption, uncovering savoury bits of nuance and steaming sweet underbellies of language delicacies. It’s the added awareness of presence and impermanence that raises the ante on what I see and what I write. Consider that harlot rhododendron with her sultry stamens may not be here tomorrow or even in the next exhale of the vagrant wind. Consider your eyes dimmed with age or illness and the surety of sight abandons you to the dark wanderings of your reeled memories. Consider you’re dead and gone in an instant, like the blindness of those girls and boys.
It makes me pause. I want to see with changeling eyes a world that never existed before this millisecond in time. I want to ply words of conveyance to the moon and that street sign and to the man on the street corner with a lapsed baseball cap hinging from his fingers asking for change, change, any change. And if there’s a tree with lights in it I’m going to find it.
Sky ashen, cove silent, indoors dark as a cave:
pull a sleeping bag outside for the afternoon.
Don’t raise your eyes to the sky, don’t feel the grey in your pores,
First, the creek murmuring.
Second, a gull calling.
And the sounds come tumbling: flycatcher whistling,
grouse drumming, distant robin singing,
flicker hammering, silent pause waiting;
two seals breathing. Is this place so crowded?
You had assumed you were alone. A raven croaks far away;
something splashes close by.
All around you, companionable:
soundless spiders easy in their webs.
“Good Company” by Christine Lowther, My Nature, ©2010, Leaf Press.
Excerpt from “Space and Sight” by Marius von Senden, quoted in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, pages 25-29, published by HarperPerennial, copyright 1974
First posted at the author’s blog, Suhurat . . . Day’s End