I am remarkably drawn to questions of perception. Artists often highlight what most incorporate into daily existence without much thought. The photographs that choose a focal object far in the distance. The painting that blurs lines between a man and the winged beast behind him. A familiar melody behind some austere revolutionary music.
It should come as little surprise that what stirs my breath most is the art of words. Anais Nin once wrote that “The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”
Yet, the writer has no more words that any other person. In fact, it is often the most commonly used words that are most successful in evoking gasp, smile and tear. Today it is John Berger who has inspired of me.
John Berger has me on a New Jersey beach, before dawn on New Year’s Day, letting the Atlantic wind sting my face, just so I can watch the waves. Then he has me some years later, on another shore in Down East Maine. Here I turn my back to the wind, protecting my skin. The scene is familiar: wind whips hair away from the water, shoulders hunched as though they could catch some warmth in the curve of the chest. I don’t remember what the water looked like that night.
After this, Mr. Berger works his magic most distinctly, and spreads me around to many shores, throughout the expanse of time. Each event is similar, sand begins to make pearls in the stony eyes locked on some distant unseen point past the horizon. Barefoot and boot alike stand solid. In a San Francisco tower or a New England shore cottage. I look through the eyes of a flip book of lovers, family, children, friend. Each has in common that they await the return of someone from sea. The grey clouds, rain and gale can not turn any of their frames, in fact, it is what has them looking.
The line is this:
“It was a day when everyone turned their backs to the sea, if they had no one out on it.”
The words are simple individually, but put together they provide centuries of context, and request that the reader once again notice more.
This is one example, but I do have a penchant for metaphor, and would like to draw it out. This is, after all, human life. Who among us gives more than a passing glance at the storms that twist and distort so many of the inhabitants of this planet? It is precious few who do not turn their backs to these winds. Humanitarians by trade and your neighborhood Good Samaritan.
We all have been convinced that we are helpless against such overwhelming pain and suffering. Death. Hunger. Violence. Despair. We were not always so hopeless. I go back to my own memories, and remember the 19-year-old girl sitting in the New Jersey sand and letting the wind sting. It is somewhere between birth and adulthood that we stare at the breaking straw in our hand for just one extra moment before we sigh, and throw it on the camel’s back.
I was listening to a radio show the other day that was expressing that soup kitchens are overwhelmed with volunteers in Christmas day, but that it is the 364 other days of the year when the need is great. If an individual can spare just one day a year, they urged, make it May 15, August 22 or February 8th.
In the lunchroom at one of the local elementary schools I listened as the teachers, administrators and paraeducators talked about all of the donating and community outreach they each would do this month. People are very aware of what is needed in their community, and some of it they even believe that they can help with themselves. It is not only in the month of December that the need is great, it is only when we are most reminded. One day a week, one day a month, or one day a year. On a planet with 7 billion human lives, imagine what a difference we could make if only half were able to dedicate themselves to something new every year.
I look down at the shining gold strand in my hand. My head shakes back into reality. I let my fingers drop down from my wrist and watch the straw float to the ground. I look up and find a stick to push the pile off the beast’s backside and back onto the ground. When I am finished, the camel will have a place to make his bed, but I must be slow. Careful. Deliberate. I hear they spit.