Seeing

My vision can’t be corrected to twenty/twenty.

It’s my left eye’s fault. I sit in the optometrist’s chair, looking out at that bright patch on the wall where there are supposed to be letters but I don’t see anything yet. Just a fuzzy pane of light. He makes some adjustments, clicks in a few lenses, his head near mine, like we’re conferring about something.

“Alright. What’s the farthest line down you can read?”

I scan the chart and can make out something halfway down, in the middle of a line. An E, I think? Or is it a B? I blink, and with an effort of great concentration, stare those letters down. Try to pin them to the wall. “C…U…I think that’s an E…” I hesitate.

“Good,” he prompts.

“Could be a T…” I’m losing conviction as the ink swims in the light. “W. 5.”

“Good. That’s a four,” he informs me. Nicely. Trying to help.

I lean back from the apparatus I’ve had my face pressed against. Rub my eyes. He writes something down. Then we get going again.

“Ok—one, or two?” He flips lenses back and forth. “One, or two?” I keep staring out, fixing on that E in the middle like it’s the North Star or something. Knowing this will go on for a while. “Two,” I say. Knowing that eventually, he’ll be asking, “Seven? Or eight?”

When we’re finally finished (what a relief when we get to my right eye, with which I do much better), I feel like I’ve taken a really hard test. Thank god for the science of optics, I think, climbing out of the chair.

It’s not often that I am so starkly confronted with how much effort it can take, to see.

***

Saturn’s rings are made of snowballs. Some of them are as big as houses, or small mountains. The Voyager spacecraft saw them—flew right over them, taking pictures. I remember sitting in a dark classroom at college, looking at those silent films (black and white, or for some reason, I think black and slightly golden?) of Saturn and its rings, coming up on the projector screen. There was something so profound and so transporting about it—the images, and the silence. I felt for a moment as if I were in space.

Galileo was the first person to see Saturn’s rings, in 1610. He needed a telescope to do it. (Optics!) Even then, he thought he was seeing a planet with a moon sticking out on either side. It wasn’t until fifty years later when a guy named Huygens with a better telescope could make out that Saturn actually had rings.

People kept looking, telescopes got even better—and bigger. But nothing we could see from Earth came even close to what the Voyager spacecraft saw. With Voyager, we threw an eye out into the solar system, and saw what was there. Voyager brought us close.

And paradoxically, took us far away.

I watched a documentary recently, about the Voyager mission. Near the end it was explained that as Voyager 1 passed Neptune, the outermost planet in our system, people on the project thought the spacecraft should take pictures, looking back. Voyager 1 had to be turned to do it, and there was no scientific reason to do the work required—so at first, they couldn’t get permission. Then Carl Sagan talked to some people (up the ladder, apparently) and got the ok.

The spacecraft was reoriented, the images captured. Beamed back to JPL (the Jet Propulsion Lab), a series of photos showed bands of red, orange and green, the sun’s light scattered in the camera, way out in the cold blackness where Neptune orbits. In the middle of one of those streaks is a tiny speck of light. You have to enlarge the photo, a lot, even to be sure it’s there:

Earth.

The scientists interviewed in the documentary said there was no real scientific reason, to get that photo. And yet…

I begin to think the most important thing space exploration will ever do for us is to give us sight.

In all that darkness, which it took a spacecraft even traveling at 35,000 mph decades to traverse, the only planet situated at just the right distance from the sun, the only place where there is light and warmth and air and water in the right form and proportion to sustain life as we know it, is that tiny, shining mote.

Human beings—it is our lot, to be nearsighted.

But when we’re handed the lens, when the picture is put in front of us…

What excuse do we have, not to see?

Nancy Squires, December 2017

 

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Look, Up in the Sky…

I’ve been fantasizing lately about a hero, someone out of the past who could come back and save us from ourselves. There seemed an obvious choice for the role. I gave her superpowers. And imagined that if she did come back, she’d be swearing her head off. Not her usual style, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

Screw this, Rachel Carson would say.

I see her, in pearls and a twin set, wearing a nice pair of slacks (better suited than a skirt for action) and a cape. (Because all traditional superheroes have capes.)

Screw this, she says, and tips over the table at the Monsanto board meeting. Or maybe it’s Dupont. Either way, the suited riffraff scatter like dried-up leaves. Like something that fell off a tree that died when their heavily marketed formula (which made them millions) was sprayed around it. You know—to keep the weeds down.

Her work at the board meeting done, Rachel takes to the air, flying with her cape streaming out behind her, to get to the home and garden center. Once there she commandeers a John Deere and rides it down the aisles, knocking all kinds of chemical crap off the shelves with a broomstick. (She could just fly down the aisles—but on the mower, she’s slower, and this gives people a chance to think. Think, god damn it. That’s what Rachel’s saying, in my daydream.)

When she’s hit a few Lowes stores and Home Depots (multi-city tour), she’s off to the fossil-fuel company. You can fill in the blank here—pick any one of several that fight with tooth, nail and huge sums of money to oppose the kinds of energy that don’t cause disasters or heat up the planet. (Sure it’s a cliché, but like Rachel says: Ever hear of a solar spill?) Their latest pipeline faced a lot of opposition for running through culturally and environmentally sensitive lands, but eventually politicians caved and protesters were forcibly removed. After the tear gas cleared the pipeline was completed; it leaked almost immediately.

Rachel swoops in for a landing at corporate headquarters, flies up the stairs and bursts into the CEO’s office. Takes him captive, then nabs herself a couple of VPs too, and a lobbyist on her way out—ropes ‘em up with her strand of pearls, which it turns out is a lot longer than it looks and works the same as Wonder Woman’s lasso. She takes them out to the spill, to the big cesspool of petroleum, mucking up someone’s neighborhood, killing flora and fauna, fouling the stream where kids are used to playing. Then she amuses herself for a while, rubbing their faces in it. Literally. To be fair, she is trying to make a point, which is: It doesn’t feel good, to be swimming in crude.

While she’s dunking execs in spillage, she thinks of another thing that really pisses her off: Seeds. She wrote a whole damn book—while she was dying of cancer, no less—about how the chemicals used to combat insects were killing everything and everybody in the process, and fifty years later, what did those jackasses do? They took over seeds. Seeds that are genetically engineered to tolerate their brand of herbicide (no guarantee for the fields next door). Seeds that are patented, so the farmers have to pay for them year after year and can’t just reuse them. She puts it on her “to do” list: Straighten out this seed bullshit.

Then she’s off to Washington, to the EPA (which some credit, some blame, her work for creating), where the foxes have managed to put themselves in charge of the hen house. Rachel storms into a meeting, grabs a couple of wolves in beauracrats’ clothing, and knocks their heads together like Moe used to do with Larry and Curly. Then she takes away their signing pens, along with their health insurance and their salaries. “You can have it all back when you learn the meaning of public service,” she says. “And environmental protection. That’s P-R-O-T-E-C-T-I-O-N,” she says, before opening a window and with a running start, flying away.

Even superheroes get tired sometimes. She heads home, to take a breather. After a nap she goes into her study, where she wrote Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us. She’s been considering writing a sequel to that one—but she hasn’t been able to get past the first line: “There’s a gyre of plastic in the Pacific stretching thousands of miles…” She takes off her cape, sits down at her typewriter. Looks out the window at the leaves that haven’t turned yet (warmest autumn on record). She sits for a while but the words just won’t come.

Shit, Rachel Carson thinks.

Wearily, she gets up and puts on her cape again. Heads out to another board meeting or a session of Congress. On the way she happens to spot my neighbor, spraying something on some unsightly beach grass growing along our shoreline. She swoops down and grabs the tank out of the woman’s hands.

Screw this, Rachel Carson says.

Of course, I know the real Rachel Carson would have done no such thing.

The real Rachel Carson was quiet, scholarly, soft-spoken and even-tempered. Also determined, and indefatigable. She would have adjusted her wig (the one she wore after her hair fell out from the cancer treatment) and got back to work.

She didn’t have superpowers.

Or maybe, in a way, she did.

If we’re going to make a difference, sometimes we all have to find a bit of superpower within.

The Pencil

I remember a pencil at my grandparents’ house. I think it was in a square tin of stuff they’d given my sister and me to play with. Probably candy had come in the tin, or cookies. I can’t remember the lettering on it, but it was kind of battered, and aqua blue. Along with a couple of old perfume bottles (cut glass, I remember, and one had indigo paint that had chipped off it) there was this fancy mechanical pencil. A short little thing, gold metal, with a jewel on the top end. I was always intrigued by it. What world did that pencil come from?

We were small, and I don’t think I realized it must have been for card parties, for keeping score. But my instincts were right on—it had come from a different world. One in which playing cards was a major social occupation, something everyone did. When you had people over, what did you do after dinner? Play cards. When you joined a ladies’ club, what (besides a sewing circle) would you do? Play cards. And you would not set that table with plastic Solo cups (even if they had existed) or with ordinary pencils.

Funny to think of that silly pencil as an object from another planet.

I can’t remember, besides the pencil and the perfume bottles, what was in the box. I think our crayons stayed in their own carton, in the bottom drawer of Grandma’s desk. I say “Grandma’s” desk, because she was the one who sat at it, to write letters and pay bills. I can’t imagine anyone does that anymore, sits at a drop-front desk and writes. When her arthritis got so bad she couldn’t pen letters anymore, she sat there with an Underwood typewriter (the long keys with the letters on their tips always made me think of the legs of a friendly spider) and pecked out her correspondence. I think she wrote letters every week.

The thing is, I don’t really miss the damn pencil. And I never could type on a manual typewriter. I miss the people I’ve lost. And I want some of that innocence back—the quality that allowed me to hold a rhinestone-topped pencil in my hand and think it was special. What I mourn is not only the people who have gone, but my own capacity for wonder, for adventure, and my resilience. When you’re a kid, tomorrow really is a new day.

Could that still be true?

Make it so, Captain Picard says.

My grandparents didn’t even know what Star Trek was. They certainly didn’t move at anything like warp speed.

But they got through stuff I can’t even imagine.

Friends around a table. Aces over kings. We’ll make it through, somehow.

The Making of the Bed

An old woman and a little girl stand in a room lit by two windows—
A bedroom, it is,
With a closet,
A bed,
A vanity with a big round mirror and a green-cushioned bench,
A brush and comb lying neatly on a doily.

On the nightstand, there is a clock that plays “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.”

The old woman is making the bed.
The little girl is helping her.
They smooth the top sheet over the bottom, the woman bending
(at the waist—her back stays straight as an arrow),
The girl reaching on tiptoe.
The woman’s knobby fingers, crooked with arthritis,
Brush the cotton into serenity
While the little girl tries to follow.

At the foot of the bed
The woman lifts the mattress
And sweeps the end of the sheet under.
At the corner she says, “Here, let me show you how to do this.”

The little girl rushes over,
Stands at rapt attention.

“Pull this up”—the old woman catches the sheet in her stiff fingers—“and tuck this in”—she sweeps the lower edge under with her other hand—“then fold this over”—she drops the upper flap and tucks it under too.
Now there is a neat, tight corner
As crisp as the folds on a cardboard gift box.

“Let me, let me!”
The little girl hops from foot to foot.
Her glasses bounce on her nose.
How badly she wants to be able to do things!

Her grandmother plucks the sheet back out and they go through the steps again,
Slowly
(For there is time enough)
Old fingers shadowing young.

When she’s done
The girl looks up
Through smudged lenses,
Fixes hungrily on her grandmother’s face.
Her world hangs, for a moment, on the old woman’s expression.

The grandmother feels
The force of that look
Feels it like fire,
Is pierced by it
Goodness, it could take her breath away
But she is steady.
She smiles. Rests her palm lightly
On the girl’s fine, wheat-colored hair.

“Very good,” she says, but
The words don’t matter much.
The girl has already found what she was waiting (on tenterhooks) for,
In her grandmother’s face.

Together they lift the white chenille bedspread
And cover their handiwork.

How fraught with peril it is
To be alive.
How sharp a pain is love, sometimes.

How lucky they are.

Nancy Squires July 2017

Photographic Memory

I took photos on Earth Day. It was sunny in the morning; I turned my face up to the warmth and squinted my eyes half-shut as I walked the length of the parking lot, headed to the sled hill.

There the grass was already thick green plush, shaggy. The wind was blowing cool at the top through leafless trees. Someone was walking their dog along a trail. I left them behind as I descended.

At the foot of the hill I headed over to the swampiness at the edge of the clearing, blooming fervently with the bright yellow of marsh marigolds and the fresh green of skunk cabbage, leaves recently unfurled. Reflections floated in shards of standing water, old vines and branching thickets trailed across my view. I tried to maneuver around the deepest mud, setting up my composition: yellow flowers, green foliage, shining water. And a big black tire, dumped there in the swamp.

Up and down, crouched, on my knees, pushing though the thorny branches—I took a dozen shots. Then I turned to look for the bones Sally found last week: a length of vertebrae, lying in the grass, some ribs arching up; a couple of longer pieces, nearly hidden in the watery tussocks. Probably a deer.

It was a tricky subject, this small collection of bones, lying in a field, the line of trees off in the distance, standing guard. I tried this and that—different angles, a close-up, framed with blades of grass, then pulling back so the animal’s bones were just a small, chalky jumble at the edge of a big, green world.

It got warm down there in the sun, out of the wind. Warm, and beautifully quiet. No traffic, no one yelling for their dogs to heel, early on a Saturday. I took off my hat and stuffed it in my pocket, turned off my camera, capped the lens and began the climb up the hill. I was smiling as I went, thinking of my dad. This was exactly the kind of thing he used to do, and now, I realize, what he taught me to do.

I can remember standing with him, just the two of us, in the dimness of the woods off the trail behind the cottage as he showed me how to use the light meter on his old Leica. Take it off the mount and hold it in front of the lens, he advised, you’ll get a better reading. I have his Leica now. He told me to take it one day, a couple of years before he died, and I remember I couldn’t, just then. The idea made me too sad even though I knew he couldn’t use it anymore. I had discovered some time before that he no longer remembered how it worked, the man who used to open up his cameras to explain their operation to me, the mirrors in an SLR, and how things moved when you clicked the shutter.

Go outdoors, he taught me, by example—to the woods or the swamp; quiet yourself, look around. Take pictures.

My dad’s been gone nearly ten years. Strange, as time passes, how often I suddenly realize I am doing or saying the same things he, or my mom, or my grandparents did. Then it seems to me I can almost feel my ancestors come forward out of the past. I like to believe that they never really leave me, entirely. My dad showed me how to set an f stop, and taught me to hold steady as I squeezed the shutter, but so much more. He walks with me again as I edge the swamp, kneel and raise my camera to my eyes. Peering closer, looking deep.

Musing

I was captured by the Ninth Symphony.

It happened last Thursday night, sitting in the dark of a concert hall. This kind of thing has happened to me before, like the time I saw the film Down from the Mountain and afterward had the feeling I should devote the rest of my life to the preservation of bluegrass. Or the time I woke up to Gerald Finzi’s “Eclogue” on my clock radio. I’d never heard it before, and it seemed like a gift out of nowhere. I can still remember lying in bed in my tiny room in Boston with the yellow-painted walls and the announcer saying, “Every time I hear that piece it makes me want to be a better person.”

Often when I have this kind of experience I think about the piece of music for days. I read about it, try to learn something about the composer, the performers, the history surrounding it—whether early 20th century Appalachia, or 18th century Leipzig. I’ve learned some interesting facts in the course of my obsessions—for instance, that Gerald Finzi and I have the same birthday (although he died in the decade before I was born). That when Johnny Cash’s voice changed and his singing took on the low, resonant tones we know so well, the sound of it moved his mother to tears.

Ultimately, though, I’ve come to realize that none of that information explains why I respond so intensely to a piece of music.

This time the experience was so dramatic that I’ve really had no choice but to think about it. I recognize that one factor is the power of live performance—always more captivating and immediate than listening to a recording (as wonderful as it is, to have recordings to listen to).

And it must be relevant that this time the piece was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony—a monumental work, loaded with drama, huge contrasts, big forces (including a choir of more than a hundred voices).

I’ve always loved certain moments in the Ninth—the very beginning, which has such a sense of expansiveness that I picture planets floating in the dark of space, a kind of sublime feeling of contemplating the universe. The opening of the fugue in the second movement—doesn’t everyone love that? It’s so famous that I would guess that pretty much the entire Western world has heard it. The contrast of the slow, tender melody that opens the third movement, and my favorite moment of all: in the fourth movement, when after we’ve heard—twice—a tiny fragment of the “Ode to Joy” theme returning, riding on a pulse in the horns (that pulse always makes me hold my breath), the strings rise and swell like an uplifting of wings and the chorus rushes back in to sing the theme one last time. At Orchestra Hall the other night, the effect was a tsunami of sound.

But my feeble descriptions still can’t explain, fully, what happened to me there. That music, in that hour, cracked me open like an egg.

When it was over and we were all on our feet, clapping and calling out to the roughly two hundred people taking their bows, I was acutely aware that I could have sat down and cried. Sad? No. I wasn’t sad, at all. And as the soloists and the conductor came on and off stage some five times and we kept clapping, I knew the moment was about to arrive when we would leave—but I didn’t want to. I felt bonded to those people, who had done this for me. Reached into my soul and opened it up like—I’m not sure what, but I know as we left I felt dazed, as if after a long time in a dark cave I stood blinking in the sun.

Something has changed, I thought, looking around at the lobby as we left, the people flowing down the stairs and out the doors to the street. Something has changed, I thought, walking into the parking deck which no longer seemed such an ordinary parking deck. It took a while before I realized: What had changed was me.

Of all the arts (and I love them all), music has the greatest power to go straight to our hearts and souls, grab us and shake us in ways that we can barely comprehend. Am I a better person for having attended that concert last Thursday night? I won’t make that claim. But I do see this: My sense of the world, both inside and outside of myself, has grown somehow. And that can only be a good thing.