I thought again today of how I used to sit where I could watch the singer for the deaf club at forums and devotionals. I knew the manual alphabet and recognized a sign or two, but mostly I watched without understanding, the signer’s hands eloquent and expressive, echoing the words of the speaker. I’d see “thank you,” a hand to the lips and then out; I’d identify the rapid-fire finger spelling of a name—much too fast for me to read. And at the end of the prayers, that beautiful sign “the Lord, Jesus Christ,” the letter L moving diagonally from the left shoulder to the right hip, and then a finger in the palm of each hand. I was always crying long before the prayer.
I couldn’t really understand why I cried—perhaps it was that was watching speech made visible and it was utterly beautiful. But as I think of it now, it’s not just speech it was revealing—it was the beauty of language itself—it was language as poetry—each gesture and movement standing for an idea, a thought, a name. it was the embodiment of my belief that in the beginning of language, every word was a metaphor—a tiny moment of poetry—and that in each of us there is a poet—one who understands and creates with poem-words.
I’ve also thought again of how beautiful the Salzburg dialect was to me when I first heard it—and could not understand it. It was lilting, almost singing, the vowels rich, the consonants dropped, swallowed or changed. But as I learned to understand the dialect, I could no longer hear its beauty—instead I heard, “The paper costs 10 shillings,” or “We do not sell calendars.”
If I learn sign language will I no longer see the beauty and only see the meaning: “Please exit to the right”; “Dress for Success”; “Vote Republican”?
The newly sighted people Annie Dillard reads about in Marius van Senden’s Sight and Sound see a world of “color patches,” “the tree with lights in it” (28, 30). Those of us who have seen since birth don’t see that beauty anymore. Instead we see leaves, a tree, the meaning without the wonder.
My Greek teacher ridiculed the King James Version that describes the shepherds as simply “wondering” at the appearance of the heavenly hosts, but it’s the perfect word to me, since it combines the idea of awe or amazement, but also the notion of not understanding. We seem to lose both kinds of wondering once we know.
Is that the tension—between knowing and wondering? Once we know the name, do we lose the wonder—both the wondering what it means and the wondering, the awe? In losing the one wonder, the other wonder also leaves.
Does this paradox apply to everything—that I can either see beauty and experience wonder or see meaning and not wonder? I fear it may. Dillard says, “[Beauty] is condemned to an eternal danse macabre with meaning. . . . The color patches of infancy are lost” (31).
Did Adam and Eve actually have to leave the Garden? Or with their new and knowledgeable eyes did they simply no longer see the paradise they had in their innocence seen?
The distressing conclusion to this is that the more knowledge I gain, the less beauty I can experience, until at last I’m the perfect encyclopedia—knowing it all, appreciating nothing.
But I reject this conclusion. I can’t accept that to gain the good of knowledge I must forfeit the good of beauty. Surely God, who knows so much, also still sees beauty. His creations he declared “good”—he can’t have meant just mechanically accurate, all parts in place. Surely he also meant beautiful.
Will reclaiming the beauty be part of becoming as a little child? Again seeing with new eyes—eyes not dimmed, but made young, ignorant, capable of Eden?
Does this mean I have to progress again to ignorance as well as progressing to knowledge?
How does God see?
I remember hearing my father tell about a time when he reclaimed the beauty and the wonder. He spent a year on a ship in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. For most of the year, he was based on the outermost island of any size. There were no trees on the island, only low-growing shrubs on the hillsides. There was no town either, only a military base of Quonset huts and temporary shacks.
But my father wasn’t on the base; he was aboard his ship, his first command. And although he was involved in no battles during that year, he felt the tension of his new position and the stress of the hazards of constant wind and fog to his small, lightweight ship.
At the end of the year, my father was transferred to a new assignment. He arrived in Seattle at night; the next morning—his first day back in the States—he boarded a bus for Tacoma. Standing in the aisle of the overcrowded bus, he saw out the window a New England-style village with a white church and houses scattered among tall evergreens. This peaceful scene was familiar to him from the past, but seeing it again after his year away, he began to weep and couldn’t stop. A woman sitting on the aisle made room for him to sit on the armrest as he continued to cry at the wonder of what he had seen.
I remember when I saw it happen to my sister, when she found the wonder again. My sister had her first child at a birthing center, and I was there, nervously, as the family helper—the person to see that someone attended to the husband’s needs.
Much of that long night I have forgotten, but I remember my sister, just a few hours into her labor, leaning against her husband as a contraction gripped her and moaning that she couldn’t take anymore. She was already beyond her strength, and she had so far yet to go.
By morning, we were all on the bed with her, each holding an arm or a leg. The baby’s head had crowned, but then it stuck there without moving for hours. “Nothing can be worth this agony,” my sister moaned.
When, finally, the midwife, kneeling in a pool of blood, caught the baby, we were all weeping, in joy and relief, and my sister, holding her daughter for the first time, said, with awe in her voice, “It’s already worth it!”
There was a time, too, when I saw the beauty again: the second summer I worked at the state school for the handicapped.
Devon was what we usually call spastic—stiff and jerky in his movements, with little motor control. He couldn’t talk, and he couldn’t eat regular food because he couldn’t chew. But he could sit in a wheelchair, didn’t need constant medication, and seemed to enjoy trips, so I was assigned to take him everywhere.
I was dragging Devon’s wheelchair around the zoo for the fourth time that summer, and just to make some conversation I said, “Where’s the deer, Devon? Point to the deer.” He jerked in his chair, his arms flew up in front of him and seemed to lock together, crossed. I glanced away as he jerked again. When I looked back, one arm was stretched out, a finger pointing at the deer.
Before, I’d talked at Devon, or worse, down to him. After that I asked Devon to point at everything, until he would tire himself out and stop.
Margaret was my swimming partner that summer, her legs permanently crossed, her arms drawn up tight at her sides, hands curled over. I would roll her rigid body from her bed onto the gurney and wheel her down the hall to the swimming pool. Then I’d dress her, diaper and all, in a swimming suit, and carry her into the pool. For five minutes or so, I’d just hold her while her body warmed in the hot water. Then another worker and I would hold her leg, above and below the knee, and pressing gently, try to bend her knee—half an inch, an inch—and slowly straighten it again. Then her other leg, each ankle, each arm, each hand, slowly, gently. Margaret began to recognize me as the summer wore on. And I could tell how much she liked the water—and how much the movement hurt.
All the summer workers loved eighteen-month-old Miles because he would grin and gurgle when you talked to him. He couldn’t sit up because his head was too large, but we took him to the Fourth of July parade anyway and tied his balloon to his wrist so he’d have something above him to watch as he lay on his back.
As I sat there beside Miles, waiting for the parade to start, I saw a child about his age running along the street in front of us. Nothing special, just a child running along the empty street. And suddenly I was crying. The beauty, the grace, the precision and timing of his body—it moved together with such ease, each part in perfect harmony with all the rest. The miracle of it! And all that day, each child I saw was another miracle, each motion a surprise, a relief, a joy.
And throughout that summer, off and on, it would happen again. We’d stop in our special bus for gas, and I would see normal children and weep again at the beauty of their going.
How do these experiences apply to everything else? To learning to see again the beauty?
Perhaps there is a universal process at work here. Perhaps when I was a child—before I knew its name—another child in motion was poetry to me. But as I learned its name, I lost the wonder of the thing itself; its mystery faded. It became an ordinary and common thing—running. Instead of the beauty, I saw the meaning, the name. But when the bodies of Miles, Devon, and Margaret became ordinary to me, I oculd see again that poem in motion that is a child running.
I’m coming to see that once we have lost the innocence of Eden, the only way back is through the bitterness of the world, where there is horror and injustice and pain and evil. And though I’ve been thinking of our return to Eden as a return to the “color patches of infancy,” it’s a return with a difference. We don’t return again to the wonder of not knowing. This time we return “and know the place for the first time” (Eliot 2134). And it is utterly beautiful.
Surely that’s the goal: to know the name, but to experience again the wonder. Surely that’s how God sees.
Dillard, Annie. “Seeing.” In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Bantam, 1974.
Eliot, T.S. “Little Gidding.” In American Literature: The Makers and the Making, Volume II. Ed. Cleanth Brooks, R. W. B. Lewis, and Robert Penn Warren. New York: St. Martin’s, 1973.