Last Tuesday I took the bus back from work – I normally drive or walk – and along the way, as I looked out into the street flanked by houses with snow covered rooftops, there was a flash of memory from my first days in Germany. For a moment – fleeting, but intense – I experienced a sensation I’ve almost forgotten: a mixture of awe, wonder, fear, confusion and chill I felt all at once those early days six winters ago, when I first arrived here.
Such moments are rare; the mind now finds the surroundings familiar, the eyes no longer gape in wonder, the stomach has forgotten the sensation of fear in a foreign land and the ears rarely turn pink with cold. Yet, there is something I can never get used to: the transformation of the landscape after a snowfall. All that was gray, green, brown, black, pink, purple turns into white: bare trees are covered with white streaks, as if painted by delicate strokes of a master; leaves covered with snow look like outstretched palms offering a scoop of vanilla; footprints on snow suggest a mystery, asking you to follow; streets, houses, cars, buses, entire villages, fields and mountains all blend into one form: that pure, powdery, soft, sugary substance called snow.
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Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is, among other things, about seeing. In one chapter, she speaks of a game she indulged in during childhood: “..I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone to find…..I was greatly excited at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe.” She now looks for such gifts herself:
“There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But – and this is the point – who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kit paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.”
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If you have heard about it all, and even seen it, you may still want to read The Gates Blog.
Whether The Gates is a work of art, or merely a modern monument glorified by many, is a debate that matters little. What matters is what The Gates has done to people. Those who had forgotten the art of seeing seem to have recovered it (The Gates to awareness?), and those who were aware and sensitive are now seeing new things, new dimensions.
Someone long ago had said: Do not mistake the description of a thing for the thing itself. And yet, there are times when the description of a thing acquires a weight of its own, perhaps greater than the thing itself, and while memory of the thing fades the power of the description grows until all that remains are words and images. The Gates will soon disappear and pass into history; one cannot say the same of its descriptions.