How We See: The View Within

We do not speak. He slips beside me, clutching his still slumbering Tigger. We have a ‘quiet’ rule between us: don’t wake the morning.

He glances at the scene framed by the window in front of us and gasps: yesterday’s world, brittled and brown, now trembles in silk sheets of falling snow. It drifts in banks of swirling heaps, shrouds the trees and windowsills. A howl shivers the crystal branches. Shimmering against the slate sky, our thoughts: I see canceled appointments, treacherous roads, busted pipes; he sees snowmen and igloo forts, snowballs, and sledding.

The poet Rumi:

We are cast like sunlight upon the earth. And our light, passing through the body as if it were an open window to our Source, returns, purified, to You. Whoever sees that sun says, “He is alive,” and whoever sees only the window says, “He is dying”.

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borge was inflicted with a “slow nightfall”. Inherited from his father and grandfather, his “slow loss of sight, began when (he) began to see”. [1] At the age of 55 his darkness reached its nadir. He penned, in his poem “In Praise of Darkness”:

To think, Democritus tore out his eyes; Time has been my Democritus.

When Graham Greene visited Borges, he “looked at his eyes” and “was amazed at the expression … they did not look blind at all. They looked as if they were looking into themselves in some curious way, and they had great nobility”. [1]

Though blind, he still lived among “vague whitish shapes that are not darkness yet”. Borges, seer and prophet of letters, the blind Director of a Library with over 900,000 books, myopic luminary of the labyrinth, declared, in the ripeness of his night, “In this world of ours beauty is quite common.”

We stare at the snowfall in unbroken silence. Time hurtles within me; a stillicide within him. Perhaps it’s true that time speeds so swiftly for adults because we see past, present, and future simultaneously, while in youth, we only see the present moment. [2] Endless summers and infinite winters bookend of our childhood years.

Memory, our inner vision, remains our lodestar. Not the big memories, the easily recalled replays that have settled in deep grooves within our consciousness. But the lost memories, the small fractions of time that to us (and to any outward observer), seemed inconsequential. The loud memories -of love and loss and hurt- shape our outward stimuli to the world we encounter, but the quiet moments carve their impress deep within: what we see is how we see, who we are.

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. - Marcel Proust, Remembrance Of Things Past

He stirs beside me, restless beneath the tremulous present. Seeing through his eyes, scales fall from mine, and I see myself, thirty years ago, walking home with my childhood companions. I stopped to listen to the wind.

“Hurry, up!” one shouted. “You go ahead,” I replied.

On that flat top mesa, in the stark wintry madness of the staked plains where we lived miles from civilization, I felt the enchantment of solitude. Huge flakes whispered in the moonlight. My friends’ voices trailed into the thin air, their backs cloaked by darkness. I was left with the big snow and the desert chill and the wind’s howling grief. The loneliness frightened and comforted me. It was as if all the lights on earth had flickered off and I was left alone with a small flame. I was the first and last man on earth. Invigorated, my senses electrified by that solitary silence, awe thundered through me in a slow shudder. The sereneness of that moment carried me much further than the company of my companions ever would. A very young N. Scott Momaday, confronted by grandeur, experienced something similar: "He knew at once that this moment, the blink of an eye, held more beauty and wonder than he could know."

Prophets such as blind Borges and blind Milton, Native American author N. Scott Momaday, and artists like the erratic Van Gogh or Whistler, Wyeth, J. M. W. Turner,  are guides through this luminous subterranean land of fractional memories. Artists are pathfinders. “Custodians of memory.” They take the lost and blind by the hand and lead them to open air and sunlight. The poet says, "here, let me show you something. That is, let me help you to see something as you have not seen it before.” [3]

Charles Simic declared them our “noticers” (Writer's Should Look for What Others Don't See). They elucidate life, interpreting the verve amid its maudlin details and with their spades of ink and pen, strike the mainline to life itself. “The value of Proust’s novel is not limited to its depiction of emotions and people akin to those in our own life, it stretches to an ability to describe these far better than we would have been able, to put a finger on perceptions that we recognize as our own but could not have formulated on our own.” [4]

The musician Keith Richard’s saw silence and decided to build something there:

Ian Stewart used to refer to us affectionately as “my little three-chord wonders.” But it is an honorable title. OK, this song has got three chords, right? What can you do with those three chords? Tell it to John Lee Hooker; most of his songs are on one chord. Howlin’ Wolf stuff, one chord, and Bo Diddley. It was listening to them that made me realize that silence was the canvas. Filling it all in and speeding about all over the place was certainly not my game and it wasn’t what I enjoyed listening to.

Filling it all in and speeding about all over the place ... isn’t this what I felt looking out the window? Standing alone on that hill ... wasn’t that the antithesis of the pandemic busyness that governs my life? The little one beside me saw the silence of the canvas and would fill it, creatively, I was speeding about all over the place. I saw chaos: Things to protect, to maintain. He saw opportunity: Things to celebrate and savor.

It is still the first week in January and I've got great plans. I've been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But -and this is the point- who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded with the site of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued he won't stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get. - Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

We remember the gift of full sight, those fractional moments of transcendence in our youth between the bookend seasons of childhood. They may only be one or two moments in the infinite moments of our lives, but they were impermeable ones. We were penny-rich then. As adults, we snub the lowly penny, casting aspersions while exalting our tin cathedrals, full-sighted yet arrogant in adult-onset blindness.

I stand at the same window. Spring, now. The storms brought terrible and violent skies.  Tonight they settle into twisted ribbons of color, long, angular, thin clouds between hues of bright blue and carnation pink. The sun, resting against the rim of the world, casts a backward glance as if to quote Borges and Dillard: “In this world of ours, beauty is quite common … we are penny-rich”.

The little boy beside me will grow beyond the comfort of his striped companion. His skyscraper dreams, drenched in the freshlight fragrance of possibilities will dissipate into the morass of adulthood. The gravitational pull towards ‘status’ or ‘responsibilities’ will barnacle his sight, an opaque cloud cover over the innocence of dreaming. His challenge will be maintaining his vision despite the pallid ordinariness of daily life, seeing through the strain of growing dark, clinging to the last vestige of hope that the vague whitish shapes are not darkness yet.

Picasso declared, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Though we cannot shake our slow nightfall any more than Borges could, our blindness begins when we begin to see, we will grow along these lines of descent, through the backward drift of forward time. Dylan Thomas stated it best, "Children in wonder watching the stars / Is the aim and the end."

Adulthood is but a reclamation of what we’ve lost.

“(The Greeks) saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes.” [5]

This post is a continuation of a series about living with less stress, previous installments are:

All the photos in the post are from either my travels or my various walkabouts with a camera.

[1] Reflections, Graham Greene [2] Thought from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig [3] In the Presence of the Sun, N. Scott Momaday [4] The Proust Project, "My Fine, Scarlet, Ever-Changing Morning", Alain de Botton [5] Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig