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  • elizabethdonnebook

Looking with eyes that see

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

My writing space is set up so that I have an inspiring view across the curve of our cul-de-sac. Because Iowans take a lot of pride in their gardens, the view encompasses our neighbors’ landscaped beddings and their manicured lawns, which are either lush with velvety green, brittle with frost, buried in snow, or a dormant brown, depending on the seasons. Further back, towering over the houses, a ring of trees hug the bulging end of our lollipop street. The sky delivers — for our viewing pleasure — turkey vultures (gliding in their unflatteringly wobbly way), crowds of Canada geese or other smaller birds in seemingly constant migration, visitors to my windowsill in the form of sparrows and finches, and scowling swallows that perch on the roof gutter.

It is a good space for writing. The view itself does not always inspire, but its beauty makes me look up, and that changes my perspective, refreshes my thinking.

Enter a global pandemic, stage right. And now I am rooted to this space for the majority of the day. As weeks have become months, my eyes and mind have become immune to the effects of the view, which now seems somehow stagnant. I walk the dogs through the neighborhood, or by the river, or along an urban trail. I drive through our semi-rural backstreets and watch the horses graze. But, no matter how I try to vary the routes, after a while they all blend into a lovely, but predictable sight. With Covid numbers skyrocketing, travel is not a safe option. So what is left to inspire an author who feels the creeping approach of numbing writer’s block?

When I was little, and I couldn’t find something I needed in my room, my mother would tell me to look again “with eyes that see.” I needed to narrow my focus, imagine the shape and color of the object more clearly, so that my mind would home in on it more readily. It always worked.

I decided to try this advice on my current problem. I had been looking, but no longer seeing in detail. I now turned my attention to the way the skeletal trees resembled patches of lace through which I could still perceive the neighborhood backdrop. I noted the reaching strands of grass that clung to the base of tree trunks where the lawnmower could not reach them. Cracks in the concrete of the circular road-end resembled scratches made by blades on an ice rink. The thin light of sunrises reflecting off the pale green of frosty lawns contrasted strikingly with the drama of sunsets: flames of red and orange roaring against a black sky bruised with deep blue. The available view was the same, but I was looking with attention now. And it made all the difference.

The same method can be applied with equal success to our relationships. Important little details become lost in the mundane repetition of everyday life. But their joy can be recaptured. Maybe it’s the way that curl on your child’s forehead lies just so, or the half-smile your sardonic teenager gives you when you’ve said something funny but he doesn’t want to admit that you made him laugh. Perhaps it’s that soft skin on the back of a grandparent’s hand, marked with age and a lifetime of experience. Or the particular scent of your partner that clings to his clothes and makes you feel strangely sentimental when you are folding laundry. These moments of intimate connection can lift the spirit and throw off the gloom of a rut. Try it. You’ll see.

* * *

On a lighter note, here’s a fun activity. I have included several photographs I took during this challenging year of 2020. They are all from a trip I made to South Africa before the pandemic closed international flights. Each one contains a little hidden treasure, which you will only find if you look with eyes that see. Once you get your “eye in,” apply this technique of focused observation to your own surroundings, even your loved ones. May it bring you renewed joy, especially at a time when we need a little Christmas cheer!

Crocodile (but also note the gorgeous reflections)

Three little birds

A lizard

A lion and a lioness


Footprints (Once you spot them, they’re everywhere!)

Driftwood stacked like a small campfire

Two antelope and a hippopotamus

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