Monday, November 4, 2013

Learning to See

Cim's "pet" spider wrapping up lunch.

I sat and watched an Orb Weaver spider make its web the other night. One long strand stretched up to the power line above us. Another connected to a bush at my head-height, and a third stabilizing thread connected to the grass at my feet. The web shone in the light from the streetlamp above as the spider made her way around and around. Her orange-and-brown-striped legs moved tirelessly, reach, pull, attach, cross, reach, pull...

I might not have stopped to watch, except that my daughters' fascination with spiders has rubbed off since we've come to Georgia. It's not just spiders that hold our attention, though.

One day Cim and I sat and watched the dirt in the flowerbed shift and ripple, little crumbs rolling down the sides of new mountains as a worm crawled just beneath the surface. We caught some of the worms and watched them wiggle, then let them work their way back into the dirt, seeing how they exploited tiny cracks and air pockets in the soil.

Another day we caught tan and green grasshoppers and little black-and-red beetles. We watched their antennae move, and watched the grasshoppers spring on their powerful hind legs. We counted their legs. We watched the little beetles fly away right before we could catch them.

The semester or two after I graduated college, I watched through Facebook as most of my English Major friends and classmates applied for graduate school, accepted student teaching or undergraduate teaching positions, or otherwise pursued their writing/literature studies in obvious and laudable ways. And sometimes, I got a little sad. I knew I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom (I graduated in December of 2010 with one baby in my arms, and got pregnant with baby #2 in April), but sometimes I wondered if all the time I'd spent in college was a waste, and if all the things I'd learned about writing and literature would just fade away until I someday sat down to try to re-learn them after my kids were grown.

I've come to peace with this several times in different ways, but only recently have I noticed that I'm in my ideal writing program right now.

Several times in college I read the essay "Learning to See" by Samuel H. Scudder, in which his mentor makes him look at the same fish over and over again for days, trying to see new things about it. Amazingly enough, he finds that no matter how much he's already seen, there's more yet to describe. As writers, we then did exercises like taking one small leaf and writing descriptions of it for fifteen minutes. Once we used a sour gummy worm; I've never forgotten the little lavender line on mine where the pink and blue merged, or the way the sugar crystals sparkled. These exercises helped us remember to look beyond (and hopefully write beyond) the obvious appearance of things, to get at the details that would bring our writing alive.

And now, with my toddlers for tutors, I'm being taught to see once again.

They're also busy teaching me how to imagine. Somewhere over the years, I mostly quit daydreaming. My imagination expressed itself when I wrote, but it sometimes felt squeaky, rusty. It was also reluctant to fire up unless I was actually sitting in front of the computer or a piece of paper, ready to write.

These days, at my three-year-old's direction, I'm a ninja running around the yard fighting monsters with my stick-sword. (Those weeds never knew what hit them.) I'm the mommy dinosaur/tiger/kitty/platypus. I'm a school teacher. I'm a dancer.

And emotion--another key part of writing? Got it covered. Have you ever watched a one-and-a-half-year-old try to analyze why she's crying? Have you ever seen a three-year-old's level of excitement when handed a bucket and told to say 'trick-or-treat'? What about sibling rivalries, feelings of betrayal when mom has to help the "other" child, and anger, which always has some other underlying cause? Oh yes, with two toddler girls, we run the gamut of emotion every ten minutes or so.

Sometimes I forget. Sometimes I'm too busy with the dishes, or whatever it may be, and I don't come when I hear, "Mom, come here, you have GOT to see this!"

But sometimes I do. And my little tutors get to work.

Someday I'll get to the point where I turn my focus to publishing (after a lot of consideration and prayer, I've decided that time's not now), and where I'm finishing as many projects as I have beginnings for in my head. Maybe by then I'll have learned how to live, to see, to imagine, and to feel. And with that, maybe I'll be able to write books worth reading.


  1. This is absolutely BEAUTIFUL. Thanks for sharing it. It's something I've been thinking about a lot lately too - Kate is a constant reminder to slow down and discover the world a little more. Though, erm, I choose not to do it with my tongue, which is how her discovery is usually directed. ;)

    1. Haha, too true. These days my girls are much more into visual/tactile/auditory exploration rather than gustatory, so I'm much more eager to jump in. ;-)

  2. Shannon, you have a gift and you just used to to brighten my day and teach me a powerful lesson. Thanks. I really needed that today!

  3. I loved this! It was absolutely beautiful. I'm going to try and see these things in my life now. Thank you.

    1. Thank you for bringing me back to this post. I need a lot of help maintaining this perspective, and it was good for me to review this one today.


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