Mr. President, I have spoken about the necessity of living closer to life. I teach my students that in order to live good lives they must always be seeking to get closer to life. It is not enough to live in an estate by the sea. One must do as we tell our children: if you want to know the sea, press a seashell to your ear. Then you will hear a susurration, a soft flowing rush like the blood in your veins.
At our school we try to get as close to life as we can. Yes, we teach them how to balance equations and find the area of a circle. We teach them about photosynthesis and the carbon cycle and geologic history. We teach them to use a microscope so they may see the architecture of ice-crystals and the cellular structure of blood cells. Yes, I teach them about metaphor and irony, commas and quatrains, Abolitionism and the New Deal.
I also teach them to draw. But more fundamentally, we teach them to see life up close. Lately I have been pressing them to see better, to become more deeply observant, more discerning in how they interpret the relations of one object to another, or the way in which one field of sight may contain another. I want them to see into matter, and beyond matter. I want them to begin to see the nature of things, and the invisible nature of things.
For tonight I gave them an assignment. Go home, sit by a window in your house, and look out of it for 10 minutes. Do this every day for five days. Each day for ten minutes let the world in the window fill you. Record all that you see. And then record what you thought or felt.
One of their discoveries will be that they begin to see more. And then they begin to think more, and then to feel more. They will find that there is no end to seeing, thinking, and feeling.
When we draw in our school, we begin by looking at small things. A leaf. A twig. A blade of grass. The surface of an egg. The underside of a fern. No matter the object, they are required to observe for long periods of time. Have you seen everything? Do you trust your eyes? Is there more to see? When they believe they have exhausted their seeing powers, I give them magnifying glasses. Then they really begin to see. A smooth surface is now pocked and mottled. A stem is actually covered in filamentous hairs. The larger veins of the leaf break into multitudes of smaller veins, each mimicking tributaries of tidal flats or the veins in human flesh. Surfaces are misleading. Under the glass the small world becomes very large. What appeared insignificant or perhaps mildly interesting is in fact a textured and variegated world of great complexity.
Then they begin to draw. They draw outlines slowly, moving their eyes around the contours of the object, moving their pencils to keep pace with their eyes. They may not be great draughtsmen yet, but they are learning to see.
I want my students to love everything. “The best way to know god is to love many things,” van Gogh wrote. I teach my students to love grass, and leaves, the surface of eggs and the underside of a fern. There are beauties there to behold. When they know this, looking out a single window might become a vision of splendor; the whispering hush inside a seashell becomes something precious and not to be forgotten.
It’s early on Monday morning in January. I’m up to read papers before the day begins. It is still dark out. The sky to the east behind the tree line is indigo, clear and glowing. The rooster has begun his daily salutations. Rose is at the dining room table painting. She has painted her daughter’s cats, and now she’s onto a series featuring our chickens. Two Rhode Island Reds on a small canvas bend toward the ground. An amaryllis is growing steadily in the window sill, the two knife-like shoots looking for light. There is frost in the windows. The kettle on the wood-stove is simmering and sending a light steam into the room.
I’ve read 40 pages. My coffee cup is empty and it’s seven AM. The sky has lightened but the trees are still dark against it. Black outlines of balsam, maple, birch. Nothing moves out there, but the day is waiting.
If it is a good Monday, the kids will be excited. They will begin by telling us about the weekend. They will be loud and distracted, excited and laughing. Somehow, we will have to get them moving together.
In meeting they begin talking. I ask questions and they dance around the questions, poised at the edge of saying something true.
Henry Swan has a new unicycle. He holds it between his legs, a new toy, a kind of security for him. Sasha tells us he took a walk with his father. Wren’s family has an exchange student from China. On Sunday they took her skiing. She’s never skied before.
Ben talks about the weekend. He says he walked in the woods, that he played guitar on his roof. He says he cut down a tree. But then he gets to the point.
“When I was out there I could hear the sound of the stream under the ice. I was listening to it go through the rocks. I also listened to the birds, and I was grateful to be able to have that and hear that.”
Creed raises his hand. He says that Griffin came over on Sunday.
“There’s a river behind my house but sometimes I forget that it’s there. We went outside and Griffy was so excited about the river. I had kind of forgotten how special that was. You don’t understand what you have sometimes. Then someone who has no river comes and reminds you that you have something special.”
I urge you now to go sit by a window in your house. Go to a river, or a field of grass. Better yet, since you can, take a long walk on the beach. If possible, take your son with you. Take off your shoes and roll up your trousers. Walk at the edge of the sea where the waves slide over the sand. See how clear the water is. Listen to the hiss of the waves receding and coming back. Find a common shell—a lightning whelk or a lettered olive. Put your ear to it. Hand the shell to the child and tell him inside is something special. Tell him that inside is the beginning of everything he needs to know.