Seeing

When my children were younger, I taught them to look at adults when they spoke to them. “Give her your eyes,” I would say when someone asked them questions or complimented their Sunday clothes. This is basic courtesy. It’s the foundation of face-to-face communication. When you look into the eyes of another human being, you are saying, “I am listening.”

 

When I demonstrated for my children how to safely cross the street, I taught them to make eye contact with the drivers. “When you look at them and you know that they see you, then you can cross in front of them without worrying,” I would say as we idled at the edge of a sidewalk, making our way to school in the morning.

 

Something happens when two sets of eyes lock. There’s a silent click that occurs, a momentary understanding, a brief acknowledgment. That moment may not translate into anything permanent or even positive. It may not get filed away as a significant memory, but there is magic in seeing and being seen.

 

I try to practice what I preach, making eye contact with all people, even those who don’t conform to the norms of society. I try to look without staring into the eyes of the disabled. I want my eyes to speak when my words might be too clumsy. I want my smile to say “Hello! I’m happy to see you!” I want to remember the words of Robert Hensel, the man born with Spina bifida who holds the Guinness World Record for the longest non-stop wheelie in a wheelchair. He once said, “There is no greater disability in society than the inability to see a person as more.” I want to see more.

 

I remember so clearly when I fell in love with my husband, nearly a quarter of a century ago. This was the first time I participated in the romantic equivalent of a staring contest. It seems pretty cheesy now, but in the initial puppy love phase, we would look deeply into each other’s eyes without feeling foolish or pressured to break the gaze. The more and better he knew me—the real me, not the “First Date” version—the more I could allow myself to be seen by him. During our dating years, when he sometimes saw me at less than my best—throwing up that one time or post-wisdom teeth removal with bloody gums and high on pain meds, this vulnerability became easier.

 

We may not gaze deeply into each other’s eyes as much now, but I have been known to enter a room and stare at him while trying to remember why I came into that room. I’m not sure if that counts, but it does seem to help. Maybe he’s my North Star and his job is to realign my compass so I can get back on track. He raises his eyebrows as if to say, “Can I help you?” and I squint my eyes in concentration as if to say, “Hang on. Don’t anybody move. I’m thinking.”

 

It’s remarkable what truly seeing can accomplish. And what a difference it can make if we just look up and give each other our eyes.

Family Reading Night

At the end of February, I was given the opportunity to speak at a Family Reading Night at my son’s elementary school. I spoke for about 20 minutes about different types of book genres and my writing process. I showed the kids (and their parents) examples of the books I’ve written. The kids were great listeners and asked really smart questions at the end.

 

Before the second session started, I asked my son Ezra, who was born in Africa and added to our family almost 2 years ago, to pass out bookmarks I had brought for all of the kids in attendance. Three elementary-aged girls—two younger white girls and one older black girl—sitting at my feet, waiting for my talk to begin, noticed my black son calling a white woman “mom,” so they asked me about it.

 

“Is he your son?” asked the older girl, probably a 5th grader.

 

When you have an adopted child of a different race, this is a normal question and, in my experience, not usually meant unkindly, so I’ve found it’s best to just answer honestly and without a lot of details. You can always elaborate if they need more information.

 

“Yes,” I answered.

 

“He looks different than you, like you’re light and he’s dark,” one of the younger girls, a 1st grader, commented.

 

“He was born in a different country, but he’s in our family now.” I wondered if they would ask the uncomfortable question: what happened to his real mom? That’s the one that makes my chest tighten up and causes me to scan the room to see if Ezra heard the question, so I can read his face. As a rule, adopted parents prefer to be considered real (It’s not like I’m invisible or anything), but I have been around the block enough to know that vocabulary sometimes fails us, and what people say isn’t always what they mean. In other words, it’s not helpful to assume people are judging the whole adoption/race thing and get yourself all worked up.

 

But these girls didn’t ask the dreaded question, so I didn’t have to talk about the sad events in Ezra’s life with perfect strangers. Instead, these precious leaders of tomorrow had this discussion:

 

1st grade girl: Did you know that a long time ago dark-skinned people couldn’t go to school with light-skinned people? But Dr. King told them that was wrong.

 

5th grade girl: Yeah, Dr. King wasn’t president but he was still really important. He told us that we’re all the same.

 

1st grade girl: That’s why it doesn’t matter if your son looks different than you.

 

5th grade girl: You can love everybody.

 

The other girl who had been silently listening to this enlightened discussion finally spoke. She said, “I’m excited about your talk but I feel like I’ve already learned a lot from you guys.”

 

I jotted down the words they said before I left the school, because…come on. That’s amazing. When you start thinking we adults have really made a mess of everything, say a prayer of thanks for the kids at John Pittard Elementary School.

 

We can get along. We can talk it out. We can learn from the mistakes of those who came before us. When kids are shown loving, mature examples of empathy and given a chance to spend time together in this kind of atmosphere, they will figure out how to make the world a better place.

The Meanest Man in Town

Mr. Hopper was universally regarded as the meanest man in town. He just didn’t like kids—not in his grass or near his car or close to his mailbox or even in his peripheral vision. At 3:00 pm every day, he made sure to position himself in his front yard with his garden hose in hand. It only took a few showers for the kids to re-route their walk home from school. A shortcut wasn’t worth an afternoon of soggy socks and sodden tennis shoes.

As people moved away and new families moved in, the reputation of Mean Mr. Hopper grew to legendary proportions. Some said his wife had left him, and he hadn’t been the same since. Others said he had fought in Vietnam leaving him bitter and angry. One unsubstantiated rumor claimed he had been an informant for the Feds, now forced into hiding from the Mob.

The neighborhood’s assumptions about him were challenged every year on December 1st. Rain or shine, Mr. Hopper spent the day dragging inflatables and wooden cut-outs from his garage. He untangled miles of orange extension cords and blinking Christmas lights, pausing from time to time to wipe the sweat from his forehead with the bright red handkerchief he kept in his back pocket. He carefully placed the reindeer figures in the seats of the five-foot tall Ferris Wheel before plugging it in and checking that all the lights along the edge worked properly and it rotated smoothly. He set the giant, inflatable M&M near the oak tree then started up the fan that breathed life into the flat green bundle of shiny fabric. Scaling the old splatter-painted fiberglass ladder, he hung the icicle lights on his gutters along the front of the house. By the end of the day, hardly an inch of empty space remained, including the front porch where super-sized versions of The Grinch, Pillsbury Dough Boy, and Mickey Mouse stood guard.

The final piece to Mr. Hopper’s tribute to twenty years of Day-After-Christmas sales was the life-size Mrs. Claus cut from plywood and painted with poster paints. She stood front and center with one hand waving to any passers-by and the other hand holding a plate of tree-shaped cookies. Mr. Hopper would remove his handkerchief to tenderly wipe away any grime she had collected from the dusty garage, then he would stand back to survey his hard work. Without a smile of satisfaction, he would give the yard a nod and walk inside the house to await the increasing darkness that would add magic to his display.

As the days leading up to Christmas tumbled by, more cars would slowly roll past the bright house. On many occasions, Mr. Hopper could be seen peeking out his living room curtains. When drivers caught sight of him, they would speed up to continue down the street rather than risk being on the receiving end of a a fist-shaking from this grouchy neighbor.

“I can’t imagine why a man that ornery would want to do his house up for Christmas,” Mrs. West said to Mr. West as the Hopper house twinkled in the rearview mirror. “They say he’s as tight as a miser with his money. Makes you wonder what he thinks about his electric bills when they come in the mail ‘round this time of year.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

One year Mrs. Haven returned to town on Christmas Eve. She was an elderly woman who had been Mr. Hopper’s neighbor nearly thirty years before but had moved to San Francisco to be nearer her only daughter. Having been the town’s first librarian, she had been invited to the opening of the new public library. At a reception following the ceremony, one of the patrons asked Mrs. Haven if she had kept up with any of her former neighbors.

“No,” she said as she carefully held a plastic cup of punch, “I’ve lost touch with everyone, I’m afraid. It’s too bad because we lived here for ten years.”

“Where was your house?”

“We had a lovely split-level on the corner of Maple and Birch.”

“Oh my! Isn’t that next to Mr. Hopper?”

“Charles Hopper? Yes, that’s right.”

“Muriel Haven, how did you ever stand living next to that man?”

“He was a wonderful neighbor.” Mrs. Haven furrowed her brow with a confused expression. “He kept his lawn neat and his wife baked the best cherry pie.”

“His wife?” The circle of people took a step in toward the center, closing in on Mrs. Haven like a pack of hungry wolves.

“Yes. Charles and Penny were a dear couple. I suppose Penny has passed on now. She would never leave her bed after little Charlie’s accident…” Mrs. Haven paused to sip her punch and glanced at the faces surrounding her. “Of course you all know about the accident.” No one spoke or even breathed. “He was only four when he was hit by a car in the street in front of their house. Poor Penny was such a sweet, meek, little thing. She just crumbled into pieces. My husband and I moved a year or so after the accident and when my letters were unanswered…well, we just never heard what came of them.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

The late local news had ended. Mr. Hopper had just turned off the television set but he had a difficult time pulling himself up from his recliner. He knew he had to turn off the outdoor lights before preparing for bed, but he dreaded the moment when the brilliant brightness would be extinguished. The sudden darkness always made him feel blind and unsure of what lurked just beyond his yard. He reached up to switch off the floor lamp so that he could fully appreciate the cheerful flashing and whirring outside.

Thoughts of a little boy with blond ringlets tearing open the wrappings on a new train set Christmas morning made a hollow ache spread from his stomach to his throat and into the deep sockets behind his eyes. He had spent the past thirty years trying to forget the son who had been a joyous surprise to an aging, childless couple. He had worked hard to prevent any children coming within twenty feet of his door but memories are no respecter of boundaries and garden hoses. He always told himself that he did it for her. He kept them away for the same reason that he put out the lights and decorations every year—to bring her back to him—to make everything the same as it had been before Charlie. In moments of honest introspection, he admitted that he also did it for himself to prove that he was still alive. Sometimes he needed more proof than just the air entering and exiting his old chest.

“Charles?” a weak voice called from the back bedroom.

“Coming, Penny.” Mr. Hopper folded the leg rest on his recliner and stood, then he went to kiss his wife goodnight.

Multifocal

Somewhere around age 40 I started to read the texts on my cell phone or the small print in my Bible like a trombone player. I would slide it close to my face then back away again, attempting to find the perfect spot where I could read it.

 

I’ve been wearing glasses or contacts since early high school, so blurry vision wasn’t unfamiliar to me, but my issues with close-up reading was a new experience, though I seem to be right on schedule (41 years old and still hitting my milestones!).

 

In May I went in for my yearly appointment with the optometrist, and he suggested I try multifocal contact lenses. Now I was already familiar with the idea of bifocals. I mean, Benjamin Franklin supposedly invented them, so they’ve been around for a while. But these types of contact lenses are a more recent invention.

 

Each lens is designed like a bullseye with several prescriptions: one for far away, one for in the middle, one for close up and gradually varying degrees between these three. I’ve been wearing this prescription for five months, and my brain has figured out which lens to use in each situation. It can switch and tell my eyes how to see the pine needles on the trees several yards outside my window or the computer screen just inches from my face. It’s these varying layers of strengths that have improved my vision.

 

This same theory can be applied to other kinds of vision, too. In order to truly see a person—an explanation for his behavior, his relationships, his choices—you need the benefit of layers. Close up you get a different story than what is seen in the wider world. When someone takes a stand that you don’t understand, you can listen to his reasons. When someone reacts with an intensity you didn’t expect, you can hear what he says about his background. There’s almost always more to be seen than what first meets the eye.

 

When we jump to unfair conclusions without listening to the other side, we are looking at the world through a blurry lens, the only clear objects are those as familiar to us as our own hands. Anything else is unknown and therefore seemingly unknowable, unless we make an effort—out of love and empathy and basic human kindness—to try to know it.

 

Before you share an inflammatory article or post a pot-stirring tweet, consider what you know about those you intend to disparage. Take a breath and listen to the other side. Practice Habit #5 from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND, THEN TO BE UNDERSTOOD.”

 

Just as the layers in my fancy contact lenses have improved my vision, there is a strength in diversity, and this applies to humbly listening to diverse opinions and ideas.

Middle Child Syndrome

I have the fortunate distinction of being the middle of three daughters. I can find the fortune in it now that I am an adult with healthy relationships with both my sisters. I love going out with them; hearing people comment about how much we look alike. I am accustomed to the way we compensate for each other like a three-legged stool—balancing each other without enlisting Sister A to gang up on Sister B. Sisterhood can be a fragile ecosystem.

 

Now that we are adults (40 is grown up, right?), we are comfortable with our roles, but growing up was a different story. If I had understood the predicament of the middle child better, I might not have been so upset upon finding a copy of Raising the Sensitive Middle Child—dog-eared and underlined—by my mother’s bedside. Now I appreciate the irony of the scene: “What does this mean?!” I moaned to her through clenched teeth. “Are you saying I’m sensitive or something?”

 

To the casual observer, my sisters and I held equal places in our mother’s affection. She relied on the wisdom of humorist Erma Bombeck to explain her diverse feelings about us. Hanging in the upstairs hallway were three framed tributes to our respective birth order. Each began with “I’ve always loved you best…” Erma’s attempt to placate all the feelings of her children is admirable, but the words of those framed keepsakes mainly confused me.

 

Each passage ends with a parting thought. To the oldest child: you were the beginning. To the baby: you were the culmination. But to the middle child: you were the continuance. In other words, you were the not-as-great sequel to a blockbuster, or you were just there to get us one step closer to the big finale. The part that particularly rubbed me the wrong way as soon as I could read was “you drew the dumb spot.” I never finished reading the thought. It said: “You drew the dumb spot and it made you stronger for it.” I just focused on the fact that it said dumb and assumed it was calling me names. Again: Am I sensitive or something?

 

The greatest curse/blessing of being a middle child would have to be empathy. I experienced persecution from the maniacal brain of my older sister. (For example: “Abby, you can go first on our homemade zip-line. Just climb up this porch pole and grab on the rope. Come on, don’t be a baby.” After the failed zip-line… “It’s just skin. After your hands stopped bleeding, it’ll grow back. Stop crying, cry-baby.”)

 

So when it came time for me to join in the initiation of our younger sister, I was robbed of the joy so evident in my older sister. To say that I experienced no enjoyment in seeing our younger sister scurry to do our bidding just because we said “If you don’t, the bug is gonna get you!” would be a lie, but it was an empty happiness I swallowed as I drank the juice she brought us as we watched an episode of Little House on the Prairie.

 

Now that I have children of my own I understand how difficult it is to make every one of them feel special every day. No matter how carefully I craft my praise for one, the others feel slighted. If I say, “You’re really good at drawing pictures of butterflies” to one daughter the other daughter assumes I think her butterflies stink. My one consolation is that I don’t really have a middle child. My firstborn are twin girls. My older son Knox came three years later, and we adopted another son six years younger than Knox.

 

You could argue that they all “drew the dumb spot” in the family in some way. Being compared to a twin sister in everything you do has been problematic for both of my girls and being the little brother to two strong-willed, older sisters has not been a picnic for my older son. (Knox used to shoot baskets in the driveway alone a lot. Maybe he really liked basketball or maybe he was trying to avoid playing “house” for the thousandth time.) Our youngest has his own set of unique challenges, although he does have the advantage of being our baby with three older siblings to spoil him.

 

My prayer for my children is that they will receive the blessing I think I have finally learned to appreciate: being inconvenienced by your siblings and making compromises for your siblings and showing lifelong loyalty and devotion to your siblings will eventually create compassion for people who are not your family. In other words, it will make you stronger. Thanks, Erma!