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The Tree of Lights
“[M]any newly sighted people speak well of the world, and teach us how dull is our own vision. To one patient, a human hand, unrecognized, is “something bright and then holes.” Shown a bunch of grapes, a boy calls out “It is dark, blue and shiny….It isn’t smooth, it has bumps and hollows.” A little girl visits a garden. “She is greatly astonished, and can scarcely be persuaded to answer, stands speechless in front of the tree, which she only names by taking hold of it, and then as “the tree with the lights in it.”
When the doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw “the tree with the lights in it.” It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forests of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck. I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it. The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.” Annie Dillard 1974, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Ever since reading about the “The Tree of Lights” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1975, I’ve been keeping a look-out for it. Like Dillard, I want to be “lifted and struck”, to resonate in a new awareness, no longer be blinded, to see everything in a sharper focus.
It can happen unexpectedly. The first time was in an art class in 1980. My artistic ability was limited to stick figures so a doctor friend and I decided to take her art teacher husband’s evening “Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain” class. Robert Fulghum was an unorthodox teacher—not just an artist, but a Unitarian pastor, a story teller, and a musician. He was, in his entertaining and inimitable way, able to teach us how to look at the world in terms of shadow and light, solid and air, space and density, patterns and plain. He put a drawing of an old cowboy boot, hung upside down in front of the class, and asked us to draw it that way. We were not to think “boot”, but to think of it as lines and shadow, empty space and full shape, dark against light.
I drew what I “saw”, focusing on the small detail rather than my expectation of the “whole”. At the end of class, Fulghum asked us to turn our drawing right side up, and as I turned the paper around, I was astonished that I had a distinctly recognizable cowboy boot, my first real drawing. It stayed on my refrigerator for four years. I was so proud that I had been taught a new way to “see”.
It was a much less dramatic moment than Dillard’s story of the girl whose cataract removal changed her perception of familiar objects to unfamiliar. But I did feel that distinct sense of being “lifted and struck” like a bell.
Not long after, Fulghum wrote a little meditation on what he had learned in kindergarten for his church’s weekly Sunday bulletin. That bulletin somehow found its way to the desk of Washington State Senator Dan Evans, who read it into the Congressional Record. From there it was reprinted, passed around and eventually made it home in the school backpack of an editor’s son. That mother, going over the school papers, sat down to read “All I Need to Know, I Learned in Kindergarten” by Robert Fulghum and set out to track down the author. He soon received a call from her, and the first thing she asked was “do you have anything else like this you’ve written?” The answer was an emphatic “yes” from a pastor with years of sermons and church bulletins in his files. His first book of collected essays was published a year later. His life was never to be the same.
I keep looking for the “tree of lights” but it is elusive because I’m blinded most of the time. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll find it if I can only turn the world upside down…