Trying to See

Bookmark by Tommy StoneAs I finished my last blog post, my daughter was quietly singing Billie Holiday’s hit, “I’ll be seeing you.” She sang the last line as I put the coda on my post.

After my father’s death, my mentor Jim suggested that I focus less on DO-ing and more on BE-ing. Other friends have passed along their systems for appreciating the blessings in our everyday lives including the 21-Day Gratitude Challenge. But I feel like I have to take a step even further back, back to seeing.

My third grade teacher observed that I could read quickly, but didn’t retain what I read. I was too impatient. My bedside table at home looks like a mini-library because I tend to start one book only to become distracted by another. I flit between categories: travel literature, memoir, nonfiction about death and dying, novels and what I like to call “Cheetos” literature for its complete lack of nutritional value and dependence on artificial coloring. Such escapist reading leaves nothing behind except the tell-tale orange ring around one’s lips.

I have to write a critical essay about a book that changed my life. That’s a tall order, one I don’t think I can fulfill. But the first book that came to mind was one I never finished. At the time, I found it beautiful but tedious. The book was Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Since we moved from Davis to Sacramento, I have maintained a discipline about how many books I can keep. I have room for about 150 books, and it’s survival of the fittest. If I add a book that I want to keep, I force myself get rid of others. Otherwise the whole house will start looking like a giant version of my bedside table. I know I am at risk of book hoarding.

Why did Dillard’s book come first to mind when I didn’t even like it?

A handmade bookmark with a scalloped edge and yarn tie extended out of the book. The outlined letters were colored in with crayon, reading, “Happy Mother’s Day! Love Tommy.” On the reverse, Tommy had colored a tulip red and a vase robin’s egg blue.

It marked page 33, where I read this:

“Seeing is of course very much a matter of verbalization. Unless I call my attention to what passes before my eyes, I simply won’t see it. It is, as Ruskin says, ‘not merely unnoticed, but in the full, clear sense of the word, unseen.’ My eyes alone can’t solve analogy tests using figures, the ones which show, with increasing elaborations, a big square, then a small square, then a small square in a big square, then a big triangle, and expect me to find a small triangle in a big triangle. I have to say the words, describe what I’m seeing…. I have to maintain in my head a running description of the present. It’s not that I’m observant; it’s just that I talk too much. Otherwise, especially in a strange place, I’ll never know what’s happening. Like a blind man at the ball game, I need a radio.

When I see this way I analyze and pry…. But there is another kind of seeing that involves a letting go. When I see this way I sway transfixed and emptied. The difference between the two ways of seeing is the difference between walking with and without a camera. When I walk with a camera I walk from shot to shot, reading the light on a calibrated meter. When I walk without my camera, my own shutter opens, and the moment’s light prints on my own silver gut. When I see this second way, I am an unscrupulous observer.”

When did Tommy make that bookmark for me, I wondered? He might have been five, six or seven — young, anyway. If he was seven, Maddie was 12. And my mother was dying.

I worked for an international public relations firm where I led the firm’s West Coast health care practice. I was at a meeting of the practice in New York City when I got the call that my mother was in the hospital with lungs full of fluid. They confirmed advanced lung cancer, and expected that she had only weeks to live.

My boss told me to take all the time I needed. With the help of hospice, Mom stabilized when we were finally able to get her home. We watched her fade before our eyes for three and a half months.

When I returned to work, my functional boss had to deliver the ultimatum that came down from on-high. Get business up, fast. Mom, he acknowledged, had taken too long to die for the taste of our overseers.

Somewhere during that period, I was trying to read Dillard.

My impatience has caused me to miss a lot, but I find that the images are still there, and I am slowly making my way backward, making sense of my experiences. I am reconnecting with people who have been important to me, but with whom I had lost touch. I am visiting places and imagining them through the eyes of my father, as I did when I visited Marine Barracks last spring and summer. I am retracing my own steps and remembering how I felt when I walked the same path a year ago.

I am trying to see.

I’ll find you in the morning sun/ And when the night is new/ I’ll be looking at the moon/ But I’ll be seeing you.

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