Looking and Seeing – Thoreau








What you see, not what you look at, is what you get. Or is it?

Is something there you don’t see? Is what you see there because you put it there?

The relation between subject and object is an ancient philosophical question that’s not about to go away.

When I saw the Thoreau poster, I saw the darkness behind the words. Then it drew me to the light – the sunrise or sunset. But, which is it: a sunset preceding darkness, or sunrise bringing the light? Or are we seeing cars, pavement, poles, and signs? What would Thoreau see?




Be in the Moment

by Gordon C. Stewart, written five weeks ago in flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles…before we learned that Kay’s ankle was broken.

Pay attention. Live in the moment. Don’t rush to be where you aren’t. Be right where you are.”

If, for instance, you’re on the stairs… well, watch your step!

This morning Kay and I rose early to catch a flight for a much-needed vacation on the coast of California. We’re excited about this trip, planned at the last moment in the aftermath of losing the dog companions who have been with us for all but the first month of our 14+ year marriage.

Lonely at home without Maggie and Sebastian, I called Kay last Thursday. “Let’s get out of here. The house is empty without them…but we now have freedom to travel. Let’s go somewhere fun.”

Fred, Kay’s colleague at work, said he knew just the place: Cambria, California, a four hour drive north of LA, one his favorite places on the California coast just south of Big Sur.

Within 24 hours we had booked the flights, found a beautiful home in Cambria through VRBO (“Vacation Rental by Owner”), and looked forward to flying out of Minnesota on Monday (today).

Yesterday, Susan Lince, a local artist who moved to Chaska two years ago after teaching Eskimo children in northern Alaska, led us through exercises to become more aware of the senses. Most important is being where you are….touching, tasting, smelling, hearing, seeing.

So…this morning…with Maggie and Sebastian gone, we packed our bags and headed downstairs to the garage.

I had gone first, packed most of the bags in the car, and was waiting for Kay. I assumed she had gone back to get something or to turn something off in the kitchen. I was wrong.

She had fallen down the steps – nine of them – carrying a suitcase I had missed. She came into my sight in the garage limping badly on the ankle that is severely sprained, at best, pulling the suitcase behind.

We iced the ankle and left home for the airport.

Right now we’re on Sun Country Airlines Flight 421 to Los Angeles. Kay has been treated royally since we arrived at the terminal. A wheelchair. Special privileges in getting through security without a line. A Sun Country Airlines attendant pushing her wheelchair and taking care of her needs while the husband who had forgotten the suitcase that contributed to her fall took care of his own bodily needs. The people at Gate 3 arranged for us to change seats so that Kay could have her own row of seats to keep her leg up during the flight.

So…Live in the moment. Touch, see, smell, hear, and taste where you are. And if you’re on your way to California, watch your step when you’re still in Minnesota. You could end up feeling the cold of an ice-pack on your ankle.

Seeing with the Ears

Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop, Tanner, Henry Ossawa, 1859-1937

Nicodemus and Jesus on a rooftop

He comes by night. He slips along the buildings of the city streets in hopes that no one will notice. He is a man of position and authority, a learned teacher with a Ph.D. in religion on his way to the kindergarten teacher. “Everything I need to know in life I learned in Kindergarten,” wrote Robert Fulghum. Nicodemus has a sense that he has lost a thing or two along the way, that he needs to start over again.

He’s sent a private message asking for a confidential meeting. The arrangements have been made for the time and place…under the cover of darkness… at Nicodemus’ request.

Dressed in a hooded sweatshirt pulled up around his face and wearing an old trench coat to blend in with displaced people who spend the night on the street, Nicodemus changes his normally stately gait on the way to his secret meeting.

Arriving at the appointed address at the appointed time, he ducks quickly to his left into the alley and darts up the stairs to the flat roof where the kindergarten teacher is waiting.


“Shalom aleikem!”

They kiss each other on the cheeks, the left and then the right, as is the custom among their people.

The teacher motions to the wood stool his hands have made for  occasions like this. The stool is well-worn by others who have come it at night, some by advance arrangement, others on the spur of the moment, when the darkness outside or within themselves has overwhelmed them and a hot cup of chamomile tea or warm milk won’t help them get back to sleep.

Nicodemus sits on the stool. But there is no second stool or chair. The teacher takes his customary place on the wall at the roof’s edge, his body and face partially lit by a full-moon, the city landscape and the whole world over the teacher’s shoulder, a strange kind of classroom. Nicodemus can see him – sitting calmly, erect, at full attention, his eyes fixed on his eyes, steady and searching and seeing, it seems, what even Nicodemus does not yet know about himself and the real reason he has come.

The man on the wall sits and waits for Nicodemus to break the silence. The wordlessness does not trouble him. He is at home with silence.

“You are a teacher who has come from God because no one can do what you do apart from the presence of God,” declares Nicodemus.

Nicodemus awaits a response to his declaration of honor, but there comes no response except for the eyes beholding him.

Nicodemus fidgets, uncomfortable with the silence. He repeats his declaration, increasing the decibels in case the teacher is hard of hearing, but not so loud as to wake the neighbors, the street people, or the police:

“You are a teacher who has come from God because no one can do what you do apart from the presence of God.”

Jesus gives a slight nod and looks at him from the wall.

“No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born anew,” he says.

“So it’s about seeing?”

“Yes. It’s about seeing.”

Turning and pointing to the world over his shoulder, he asks Nicodemus, “Do you see this magnificent landscape behind me?… Look at it… Really look… What do you see?”

“I see a mess.”

“Ah, but look again, Nicodemus. You’re looking with the wrong eyes. It is a mess. Anyone can see the mess. If you look, you can see a different outline through the darkness. Maybe you need glasses. Maybe your ears will help you see.”

They fall again into the silence, but the words – “Maybe your ears will help you see” – speak to an inner darkness. Nicodemus looks with his ears at the night landscape and the distant horizon and the stars over the teacher’s shoulder, listening to the faintest sound of a familiar tune they both had learned in kindergarten at the synagogue.

Jesus, is humming.  Softly. Without thinking, Nicodemus joins in humming the tune, and then begins to mouth the words, the familiar words spoken quietly by every faithful Jew living under Roman occupation and in the dark nights of the soul, the words sung or spoken in silence by every Jew on the way home from synagogue, a kind of lullaby of faith, a way of seeing with the ears:

“Peace unto you, ministering angels, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.” (repeat twice)

“May your coming be in peace angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy one, blessed be He. (repeat twice)

“Bless me with peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy one, blessed be He.” (repeat twice)

“May your departure be in peace, angels of peace, messengers of the Most High, of the supreme King of kings, the Holy one, blessed be He.” (repeat twice)

“For He will instruct His angels in your behalf, to guard you in all your ways. The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in from now and for evermore.”