On the Voluptuousness of Sight


There are things you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, and all day long. 

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking, I mean not just standing around, but standing around
as though with your arms open.

And thinking maybe something will come…

From Mary Oliver’s WHERE DOES THE TEMPLE BEGIN, WHERE DOES IT END?

I was sixteen years old the first time I could clearly see the leaves on a tree. It was my first experience of 20/20 vision and I was shocked by the sheer profligacy of sensory content. I remember thinking: No one can possibly need that wealth of detail to get by—how can people even focus in the face of such excess?

Most of my childhood passed in a filmy blur. I lived in a watercolor world where colors bled, where lines crisscrossed, where much of reality passed as abstract art. Faces were vague, shapes were uncertain, and the act of identification was always an arduous task. Deduction replaced perception—and my reasoning was often wrong.

The only world that seemed reliable was the one I found in books. There nearsightedness was not a hindrance—I just had to see enough to read the page. Everything else was murky, foggy, misty, hazy, predisposed to error and susceptible to risk.

All that began to change only when I turned sixteen. That things could be relied on to speak for themselves, that one could dispense with the arbitration of words, that one could, in short, depend on the immediacy of experience, was an epiphany whose unexpectedness has lasted to this day.

Until today, colors startle me, lines fascinate me, and I can track liquid changes in light for hours. I have not gotten over—will likely never get over—the vividness of things, that clarity and distinction that the philosopher René Descartes used as the hallmarks of truth. That the world can be so voluptuous, for no necessity at all, that we can look and keep looking and always find something to reward our contemplation—perhaps that tells us more than anything else that we ourselves are looked after, and that we stand in an infinitely benevolent gaze.

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