Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Retraining My Eyes

When I was a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York, one of my favorite things to do with my family was taking the subway into Manhattan, to Times Square, and walking a few blocks to a Christian bookstore on 43rd Street near 8th Avenue. My parents, walking behind me and my brothers, would often say, "Don't look to the right or to the left, kids. Just look straight ahead." To the right and to the left of us, back into the 1970s, were pornographic theaters and sex shops, prostitutes and trangendered men and women in drag. My mother and father wanted us to retrain our eyes, to not look around us with curiosity and intrigue at the fear and strength, the loneliness and the courage, the desperation and the searching that must have been palpable and visible on the faces of the people behind the neon signs and the thick layers of makeup. They instructed and directed us to look towards our destination, an oasis of books and records, toys and games that would help us stay focused on our faith, our beliefs and on our God. I confess that I peeked both right and left a few times, but I have always wished that I had looked around a little more often. That I had had enough compassion to look into the eyes of those who must have looked curiously at our blinkered family rushing single-mindedly past them.

On one of our epic family vacations one summer, we drove from Brooklyn all the way to California, camping in a tent nearly every night for the three weeks of our adventure. At one point we stopped at "an Indian reservation." That is the term that comes to mind every time I recall that day. We watched a "wild west" reenactment that involved cowboys in large hats, heavy boots and leather chaps fighting against indians in feathers and "native attire." Even at the tender age of eight or nine, I was horrified by the whole thing. Terrified and horrified. How could they be shooting at each other? Why were men falling off of roofs onto the ground below after being shot? Why didn't someone bring this violence to an end? And why were we, as children, forced to watch?

At the end of the show, the spectators stood in line to have our photos taken with the actors. There is a picture of me in a recently purchased bonnet with one of my brothers in his replica of a cowboy hat - and three Native Americans, headdress, war paint, moccasins, feather fan, weapons, and all. One of the people in the photo is younger than I am and several inches shorter. I vividly remember thinking, "These people must hate this, hate these photos, hate being looked at this way. I wish I didn't have to be in this picture. I wish they didn't have to be in this picture. I hate this."

That was a moment when I wished I could have retrained my eyes - to look away from their pain, their anger, their suffering at the hands of a nation and a world that would want to pay and make money based on their annihilation. Tears fill my eyes even now as I gaze down at this sad photograph.

During chemotherapy I was told to drink as much water as possible. A gallon a day was recommended. Although I don't think I ever consumed quite that much, I made several valiant attempts over the four month treatment period. One of the inevitable side effects of increased liquid intake is frequent urination. Day and night, I made trip after trip to the can in the john. At night, as I made my way across our bedroom towards relief, I would inevitable glance at the clocks on both my nightstand and my husband's. For weeks, I saw hours I had not seen with any regularity since my children were nursing infants - 2:17; 3:28; 4:09; 5:35. All in the AM.

Did I mention that fact that there was an old-fashioned, battery-operated clock hanging on the wall above the toilet? Tick tock. You're awake. Tick tock. You're awake.

Often, upon returning to bed, I would stare up into the darkness, praying that sleep would sweep me away from the reality of why I kept having to pee. One night as I prayed for healing and peace and sweet dreams, I also resolved to stop looking at the clock every time I got up. I began by turning my brightly lit digital clock-radio away from my bed. Within days, I unplugged it and donated it to Good Will. I wanted to turn Steve's clock in the opposite direction as well, but recognized that it wasn't fair of me to keep him from seeing the time if he wanted to. So I retrained my eyes - forcing myself to divert my eyes from the glow on his side of the bed and the clock staring down at me in the next room.

Not long after chemotherapy ended, I underwent transformational surgery. I instructed my doctors to cut away and cut out as much as possible to keep me from having to repeat the trauma of breast kanswer and to prevent me from ever dealing with uterine, cervical, or ovarian kanswer. Snip, snip, chop, chop. Done. Or so I'm hoping and praying.

The time that I used to spend staring into the mirror at my long dreadlocs and at my aging body, at the ravages of pregnancy, weight gain, weight loss, gravity and time, morphed into time spent staring at the after effects of kanswer, chemotherapy and surgery. I had to retrain my eyes, to stop looking at and looking for what was no longer a part of my physique and to focus instead on the short hair and the long scars that reminded me of all that I had overcome.

As I take long walks through my neighborhood, I have learned to gaze down at each footfall, to look out for cracks in the asphalt and divots in the grass in order to avoid twisting an ankle, or worse. I have learned to listen for dogs that emerge from shadowy driveways and beneath thick bushes. I have also learned to look far enough ahead to calculate if I will have to walk around a garbage or recycling bin while avoiding oncoming traffic. I have learned to look ahead to see if there will be anyone working in or mowing lawns so that I can wave to them if they look up or cross the street if their machinery is spewing debris in my direction. I have learned to scan the street for roadkill not only so that I won't step on it, but also so that I can retrain my eyes to not look at it as I pass it by.

On this, my life journey, I am learning to retrain my eyes in my home, to look at the scratches on the hardwood floors and stains on the carpet and seeing signs of life fully lived rather than messes long ignored. I am retraining my eyes to see scratches in my pots and pans and stains on my countertops as evidence of meals prepared and enjoyed rather than signs of my ineptitude as a housekeeper. I am retraining my eyes to see my husband and children as loving, attentive, funny, generous, forgiving co-travelers on the pilgrimage called life rather than as selfish, sneaky, remorseless, formidable competitors vying for a limited supply of Trader Joe's organic corn chips and peach salsa.

On my faith journey, I am learning to retrain my eyes as I look around at the broken, the beautiful, the lonely, the lovely, the desperate, and the delightful people who walk with me on this journey. I am learning to look to the right and to the left and straight ahead, to look others and myself in the eye. As often as possible. As deeply as possible. As tenderly as possible.

I am learning to retrain my eyes as I read the Bible, recognizing myself in stories of betrayal and denial, in stories of judgment and forgiveness, in stories of wanting to stone the adulterer and also knowing that I deserve that same punishment, in stories of forgetting how blessed I have been and complaining, in so many of our sacred stories. I am learning to retrain my eyes to see my family members, my friends, my neighbors, and even those I dislike, distrust, and fear in those same stories. May the light of grace, peace, and love radiate from the stories of Christ in the Scripture and increasingly blind me to the faults of all people and my own as well, retraining my eyes to see in all people a flicker, a glimmer, a reflection of The Light of Life.

I hope and pray that my sight, my hearing, my taste, my touch,  my heart, my soul, that all of my senses and all of who I am will be continually retrained. That I will see and hear and feel all of life, with its complexity and simplicity, its allure and its repugnance, its catastrophic storms and its eerie calms, more deeply, more fully, more completely.

There are shadows and fears and tragedies and roadkill everywhere in this life.
There are people suffering and being stared at and ignored and exploited everywhere.
There is prostitution and addiction and desperation everywhere.
There are scars and sagging skin and tears everywhere.
Splintered relationships. Fractured trust. Deflated hopes. Inexplicable abandonment.
Unconscionable violence. Immeasurable fear. Prolonged adversity.
There are also trees in bloom, flowers budding, farmers' markets and backyard gardens.
There is laughter and storytelling and grace and celebration and welcome.
There is also so much healing and connection and beauty and love and joy.
I am grateful for the ways in which faith and God and people and life are all retraining my eyes to see more of both the former and the latter.

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