You often wondered, when your first baby, the boy with the fathomless blue eyes, was born, what was going through his mind. Thoughts that he had no language to express? Feelings beyond hunger, cold, pain, tiredness –beyond sensation?
You had no idea. You held him constantly in a dangling thing strapped to your chest, and you sang to him constantly as well. The same songs, over and over. You wondered if he ever heard the songs inside his baby head on the rare occasions when he wasn’t with you. How could you know?
Once, back in those days, you poked your head into his room, silently so as not to wake him if he was still sleeping. He wasn’t sleeping. Those blue eyes were wide open and staring up at something. Unblinking. You followed his gaze: the slatted blinds, half-closed at his window, were reflected and multiplied on the ceiling.
Dark bars, white slashes, dark bars, white slashes.
He watched and watched and watched.
Some time later, you read somewhere that infants are drawn to black and white contrast. You thought back to that day of the blue-eyed baby staring at the black and white bars. It made sense.
But did it, really? No. The fact that babies are drawn to black and white contrast means only that. You still don’t know why he was drawn to the black and white. You never will.
He was seeing something that you didn’t. He was seeing the world in a way that you had long outgrown, moved beyond.
When you began to read picture books to the blue-eyed boy, him on your lap, your arms around him, you realized that he saw the books in a way that was lost to you. Read him Goodnight Moon and his small finger would point to the mouse on each page. No matter where the mouse was hiding, he would find it, whereas your eyes went automatically to the printed words.
Two ways of seeing the same book. Two worlds in the same world.
You had a wave of sadness when you realized this, because you saw that you could never go back to the way the blue-eyed boy saw the world, because you knew how to read, and reading changes everything. Words first, pictures second.
The older you get the more aware you are of ways of seeing. Ways of perceiving. Ways of moving through the world.
Five years ago you moved into an old house with beautiful woodwork. Woodwork everywhere, from the box-beamed ceiling in the dining room to the handcrafted kitchen cabinets and radiator covers. Hardwood floors in every room. Gleaming, grained, hand-fitted wood, planed and shaped by the cabinetmaker who lived in the house before you.
Dear ___, what kind of wood are the kitchen cabinets made out of? They’re so pretty. Thanks, Alison
That was the extent of the note you sent him. A simple question about the kitchen cabinets.
What came back was a long, long, long email detailing all the wood used in each room of the house. Cherry and oak and walnut and maple and birch, and all the variations and qualities of each.
Probably way more information than you wanted, I guess.
That was how he ended his email. But he was wrong. You saved that email and sometimes still you read through it to remind yourself not so much of the kind of wood in your house but of the love and devotion that someone else can bring to an ordinary something –wood, in this case– that you think you appreciate, but don’t. Not really.
The friend who cuts your hair was born to cut hair and knew it from the beginning.
“I started cutting hair when I was in elementary school,” she said. “I just knew how to do it. I would cut all my friends’ hair.”
“And you were good at it from the start, weren’t you?” you said.
“Yes,” she said, a simple statement of fact. “I was.”
You were talking a few days ago with a friend who was attempting to explain various numbers on a budget chart to you. Some you got, some you had a hard time wrapping your head around, such as the numbers that count in one year but are actually carried forward to the next.
“It’s another language,” he said, “and there are people who know it as well as English. ‘These are the four numbers that matter,’ that kind of person will say, ‘and here’s why they matter.'”
He shook his head. “A page full of numbers, and they can read the entire story that those numbers signify in a couple of minutes.”
This reminded you of your typing days, back in college and a few years beyond, when you typed papers for money. How you dreaded the math theses. All those numbers, all those lines, all those symbols, all that lack of words. Words are what you love, the very word-ness of them. Numbers, to you, are without story, without color and sound and sensation. Not so to the mathematicians, though.
You used to have –you still have, you just haven’t seen him in many many years– a friend who was born for math. You met him the first week of college, in the mountains, and he was immediately one of your best friends but he couldn’t stay there; he needed to be in a place where numbers were everything. He transferred to MIT and you used to visit him there, in that place where the buildings had not names but numbers.
You would wander from building to building and back to his apartment, where his desk was pristine –completely bare but for a pen holder and a perfectly aligned stack of papers covered with those numbers.
A few years later you used to visit him in Princeton, where he had gone to get his doctorate in numbers, the youngest of anyone you’ve ever known to have those three letters after his name.
How you loved talking with him about math, because he loved it so much. At one point he was studying something called manifolds. He tried to explain the concept to you.
“Manifolds,” you said, trying to understand. “Manifolds. . . what color are they?”
He stared at you. You stared at him. You both started laughing. Different worlds within the same world.
Sometimes, after you graduated from college and moved to Boston, you would temp if you were in need of extra cash. Once in a while the agency sent you to MIT, the very campus where your friend had been a student just a few years earlier. Those same numbered buildings, that manicured grass, those right-angle cement walkways.
You remember a certain professor striding down the hall to the desk where you sat lamely attempting to replicate a scrawled page of numbers onto a computer screen.
“It’s Alison, right?” said the professor.
“So, what are you? A ballet dancer, I’m guessing. Or an actress.”
“A writer,” you said.
He nodded briskly.
“Ah yes,” he said. “That would’ve been my next guess.”
Meaning that you didn’t see the world the way he did. Meaning that your lame attempt at replication was lame in the extreme. What could you say? It was true.
Now you have many artist friends, painters and photographers and sculptors and textile artists. They all see in the world things that you don’t, that you miss, that go right by you.
The only time you draw anything remotely look-at-able is when you let go of the idea you have in your mind of what you’re drawing. When you draw only what you see in front of you, the shadows and weird shapes and lines and curves that don’t have any relation to the thing that you’re looking at, but which, when you’re finished, look so much more like it than if you’d tried to steer yourself rationally.
Yours is not the world of a visual artist, but when you pick up a pencil and work in this way you can almost feel, for a little while, what it must be like to see the world this way.
Nothing is ordinary. To everything in the world there is someone, somewhere, fascinated by it, born to it, someone who sees in it things that you never will.
* * *
“Perhaps this soil is singing. Perhaps June
ends with scents of lavender and heal-all
even though we cannot smell them, and soon
wind feels exactly like the sea. We call
this sundown. We welcome the full moon
fading to a white we have learned to doubt . . .“