Learning to See

Growing up, my family lived quite a distance from the small Christian school I attended. For years, on the trip to and from school, I spent the time gazing out the window of our Volkswagen Rabbit. I was prone to carsickness, and there was nothing I could do on car rides but look at the passing scenery.

Certainly there were times during those years when I slept or daydreamed, but I have distinct memories of what I noticed as we drove.

In early fall, the goldenrod stood out among the fields of late summer grasses; the hickories and sugar maples put on a show at different times. The forests looked different at the bottom of the mountain than they did at the top — some mornings were foggy only at certain elevations or maybe all the way to school. And each day the daylight hours shifted just a little.

In the winter, there was a noticeable difference in the way the landscape felt — dreary and grey on so many days, fields of corn stalks broken off close to the ground. Sometimes, I saw deer, pheasant, or maybe a wild turkey, the evening light almost blue as we drove home.

Later, cold rain gave way to pellets of freezing rain or maybe even snow. Sometimes the snow was piled high on either side of the road, higher and higher each day. Bits of frost formed patterns like stars that would cling to the windows until the car was warm enough for it to melt.

With warmer temperatures, I would look eagerly for signs of spring — for crocuses, forsythia, or clumps of daffodils; for the first bits of green to be visible on the tips of the tree branches. The daylight hours would shift again, and we would be more likely to drive to and from school in full daylight, less likely to witness the sunrise or sunset.

When I think about those long hours in the car, I think of Mary Oliver, who wrote, “Paying attention is our proper and endless work.” As a teenager, I’m not sure I could have articulated what this meant, but even so I was learning. As an adult, I know this to be true.

*****

It’s summertime. The sun is shining, and the air is sticky and hot. I pull over and park alongside the gravel road that meanders next to the creek, our destination. My kids tumble out of the van, and run down the gravel slope toward the water yelling, “Run for the hills!”

I lift the hatch and wrangle a beach chair, a Mexican blanket, and bag full of supplies, and make my way to the edge of water they’ve just jumped into.

As they scream and yell and splash, I shake out the blanket on top of the pebbles by the water’s edge, and set up my camp chair in the sun, making sure that when I sit down my feet will be able to dangle in the water below.

I take a breath and sit down, exhaling as I do. For a few hours I have nothing to do. I close my eyes, the sun warming my face and shoulders. I hear birds and begin to identify them by their call — chickadees, wrens, blue jays.

Blinking, I lean over, noticing the reflections of trees on the surface of the water. As I look closer, my eyes adjust like a camera finding focus — to the stones, leaves, and dirt on the creek bed below. Suddenly, there is movement.

“Kids!” I yell, keeping my head down so I don’t lose track of what’s below me. “Come look at this!”

I warn them to walk slowly once they get to where I am. They gather beside me and I use my finger as a guide, pointing out what I want them to see. Below the surface are several crayfish the size of my pinky fingernail. We squeal in wonder at their size and the fact that we might have missed them.

Minnows dart back and forth near the tiny creatures. We see more crayfish, in various sizes, and what looks like a salamander, one we haven’t identified before, curled around a pebble almost exactly the same shade of dark brown.

“I can’t believe how tiny they are,” says my oldest, turning to me with her eyes full of excitement.

“I can’t believe I almost didn’t see them,” I reply, grasping her arm. “I’m so glad I kept looking.”

*****

Just yesterday, as I drove to pick up my son from soccer practice, I looked up to see a small flock of geese flying low over the road and below a dusty pink sky. I rolled down my window so I could hear them honking overhead as they flew toward the pond where they stay for the night.

The fields near the high school have finally been cleared of corn, and I can see the moon climbing over the horizon. The sunset’s pinks and reds are reflected in streaks of clouds high in the sky. I sigh as I pull into the parking lot, grateful for the lessons that looking out the window have taught me.

So often I say to the kids, “Look at that sky!” or “Did you see the moon?” How else will they learn to pay attention? How else will they learn to look up from whatever they might be doing to marvel at what’s around them? There are times my heart catches in my throat at the beauty of the ordinary world.

This is our proper and endless work.

 

Words and image by Beth Lehman,