“Lord,” they answered, “we want our sight.”
My blind Cognitive Psychology professor has been teaching us how to see. I took notes, astounded at the many motions at work allowing me to see the words I wrote. Light bounces off objects and hits the eye. That light goes through the cornea and the pupil. Depending on the brightness, the colorful iris narrows or widens. And even this is amazing: our eyes are colorful. The very things that help us see are a color we will never truly see, expect through mirrors, cameras, and veils of distortion. But those light beams hit the lens, bend, and shift upside down and backwards. They enter through the vitreous humor, where the photons work, and then they slam into the retina; their life’s purpose still simply to reflect the light, they rarely fail. Receptors on the retina and fovea accept this firing, connect, and somehow our brain flips the image and we see words on the screen. The vision process is poetry.
This series of connections does not fully capture the process of seeing. Perception and expectations interpret and make shape of the world around us. It takes seeing to be able to better see.
On the second week of classes, I woke up with a black eye. My friends laughed at me and my confounded questions. Did I punch myself in my sleep? They laughed harder as I used frozen white chocolate chips to ice away the pain. We ate the chocolate, the pain persisted, so I finally went to the doctor. It was some bizarre infection, and it hurt to see for the next few days. Though it passed quickly, it made me think. I might be a bit of an over imaginative hypochondriac, but I found myself asking deep questions. What I would do if I only had a week left to see?
Where would I travel? Yellowstone, the Pacific coast, Victoria Falls—which image of nature would I choose to be my last? Perhaps I would choose to see the work of the children of the creator. Maybe I would better appreciate the way simple lines and curves form an alphabet that masters weave together. Would I prioritize a visit to the home of my grandparents, the home where my dad first lived, to see my granddaddy’s strong hands build a fire one final time? I know that I would look more closely, more appreciatively at the way the smiles of my friends transform their faces? Would I notice the way my sisters grow in beauty each day? I wondered what I would want to see if suddenly I couldn’t, but I fear that even these ponderings distracted me from seeing.
Instead of singing in amazement at the swirl of colors and the formation of bubbles, I saw brown smudges of bitterness as I washed dishes alone. Driving to work, the maroon drudgery of my to do list kept me from admiring the spindle dance of trees. Now instead of worrying that I’ll suddenly go blind and never be able to see again, I’m afraid I’ll never learn to actually see. It is my expectation of the world that allows me to see, but it is my expectation that also limits me. It is easy to become numb, to miss the world around me because I’m busy trying to turn on “better” sight. I try to seek illumination, but illumination is not something that can be forced.
Annie Dillard knew the art of seeing. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), she wrote: “The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in the space through the crack, and the mountains slam.”
The prayer “God grant me to see through your eyes” suddenly seems incredibly significant. I can barely handle seeing through my own impaired little eyes. I doubt I’ll ever see as well as my blind professor, as Annie Dillard, as the poets I so admire, or as my grandmother. But I know I’ll never even open my eyes if I live in this expectation that seeing shall always elude me. Likewise, I’ll exhaust myself if I see as if I only have a week left of sight. “But although the pearl may be found, it may not be sought,” Dillard said, “…the secret of seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, weathered, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.”
I remember an image from my early years of high school. My sister and I were busy, learning how to stress at such a young age. But my parents were there, absorbing some of our worries by rushing around with us, helping us. So the family was stressed, but still my mother took time to sit with Rebekah, my youngest sister who was still a girl—little and learning. My mom made it a point to take Rebekah on her lap, hold her close, and open up an I Spy book. Rebekah’s bright blue eyes sparkled whenever those search and finds appeared; it was a little thing that bonded mother and daughter. I didn’t realize it then, but my mom was really teaching Rebekah to look beyond the obvious, to search for hidden things, and most importantly, to simply see. Maybe I’m not yet ready to ask to see the world through the eyes of God. It’s possible I’m not even prepared to pray for the eyes of a poet. I’ll ask instead to see with the eyes of a little girl, undistracted by expectations and learning and seeing for the first time.