teaching to see

by bam

he rolled out of bed the way he usually does: somersault off the pillow to sprawled on his back at the end of the mattress, head dangling, flopping like some sort of upside-down rag doll, not too far from the ground. a perfect inverted perch, he decided, for keeping watch out the window.

that’s when he called me. “papa is out on the roof. he’s hopping around. i think maybe he’s looking for breakfast.”

papa, for those who’ve not hung in this house maybe so long, is not the little one’s name for the tall guy with tortoise-rimmed glasses. it was not he who was hopping around on the roof, although i too would have come running for that. rather, it was the red bird, papa cardinal, a character here who goes by only one name.

after broadcasting every breath papa was taking, out there on the roof that juts just below the window through which he was watching, the little one reached for the ledge. or maybe i reached there first. the point was, one of us reached for and grabbed the binoculars.

suddenly, the boy hanging there with his curls topsy-turvy, wanted to learn how to look through the little glass circles that, through the wizardry of optics alone, bring the world as close as the end of your nose.

as i tried–it’s clumsier than you would imagine, believe me–to line up the circles, tried to narrow then widen the space in between so it fit the very same space on the face that is his, as he attempted to make it all clear, and not blurry, not too close, not too far, not staring down at the gutter, but trying to get that ol’ bird in his lens, i realized really i was teaching the boy how to see.

how to regard. how to watch. how to take in the world without any words.

how to notice the pinhole there on the side of papa’s small beak. how to study the feathers he fluffs when it’s cold. how to see the ballet of the leaves in the trees as they shudder there in the november wind.

he was, for a while, finding it hard. the bird was nowhere in sight. all he saw were the nail heads there on the shingles.

not quite the subject of choice for intro to looking, a beginner’s class in the fine art of things to do with your eyes.

ah, but once he got papa there in the cross hairs, he didn’t move. didn’t flinch. just froze like a boy with a bird in the palm of his hand. which, almost, it was.

he might still be there now, only the clock nudged us on, the clock and the notion that school had a bell that soon would be ringing.

but, like clockwork, each morning since, he somersaults off the end of the bed, grabs the looking lens from there on the ledge, and begins again to scan the sky, and the trees, and whoever decides to land on the roof.

he’s even tried it at night. though it’s a little bit hard to make out a star with a mere binocular lens. i explained that’s where the telescope comes to the rescue, but that would be the next class in the series, and we’re only just fumbling with this.

last night, drying off from the bath, he explained that really he’d like to see clear to africa. he was hoping perhaps he could raise the lens to his eyes and see faraway.

far, faraway, he explained. he’d like to see maybe a lion or cheetah. and surely a tiger.

“and some day, when i’m 7 or 8,” he informed, “i’m gonna get real binoculars and try to find any sorta kinda nest. so i can look at a fox’s nest, or a bird’s nest, or a squirrel’s nest.

“i would really like it,” he went on, sliding a leg into his red flannel pajamas, “if papa cardinal would just stand there, and didn’t move completely.”

it needn’t be exotic, i’m thinking he knows, for what you see through your lens to be utterly gripping.

i couldn’t be more tickled that he’s taking so deep a fancy to a sense that can take him so far, a sense that will bring more wisdom and glory than he or i or any of us, really, can ever imagine.

to see is to know, is to understand, is to absorb.

to see is to take in, from the thinnest strand of a spider’s web laden with dew to the last dying ember of a star as it streaks through the cosmos, the whole of God’s breath.

and i mean that without the d. although the breadth and the breath aren’t far from the same. but if we consider the whole of creation one deep exhale from the in and the out of something like lungs wholly divine, then really it’s all, well, supremely breathtaking.

and it is not every day that any one of us gets a chance to instruct in using the eyes for all that they’re meant to take in: the way someone fidgets a spoon while making a point at the table. the color of sky as the last beams of the day paint it a pink you’ll never forget. the glint of the moonlight on a pine branch heavy with snow. the gleam in the eye of someone you love.

and, oh, what of the things we can’t teach, the ones we only can pray they learn on their own: how not to miss the twinge of the hurt deep in the heart; the sparkle of love blooming; the look of intent, of paying attention; how to notice a soul draining toward empty.

really so much of it is only just seeing by feeling. it’s braille, after all. so much of the seeing that matters. it comes through the gift of the eyes, but also the touch of the skin and the skip of the heart.

but, alas, in these mornings of teaching to see, i realize i am bound, i am tethered to only the lens bobbing there on the end of the cord that slips over his head.

the rest of the teaching to see i will teach without lenses. i will teach, day after day, for as long as i’m here. i will teach my children to look and look closely.

i will teach them the glory of God is there through the lens. but they must open their hearts, as well as their eyes, to soak in the sights.

it is the often unnoticed to which i must teach them to pay the closest attention.

the five senses, most of the time, come already installed. but not always, and in the absence thereof we notice how much of the world we get or we miss through the eyes and the ears, the palate, the skin and the nose. and even in cases where all senses are up and running, still there is refining and learning sure to be done. if we pay close attention. far as i know, it’s a lifelong dedication. did someone or something teach you, unforgettably, the fine art of seeing, of watching, of looking quite closely? what are some of the fine points of life you’d so miss if not for the grace of your eyes in the first place?

today is the day of the birthday of my sweet cousin julie. and tomorrow, my mother, the one who i realize, so many mornings as i sit to start typing, has informed so much of the way i see through my lenses onto the world. to both, i send the deepest of blessings and prayers for a year just ahead that is filled with great sights. and the knowing, deep in both of their hearts, that you are so loved. happy day of your birth. be full of joy.