Art has known this for a long time, that somehow, the closer you are to something, the less you can see it. —Pádraig Ó Tuama
Just two weeks ago, my daughter got away from me at preschool pickup while I stashed her tiny backpack in her stroller; the assistant director caught her before she could charge into the parking lot. I couldn’t even find words to speak to her about what had happened until we were a third of the way home, when we usually stop at the lake to lob rocks and pinecones in the water and watch the waterfowl bob along some feet away from the shore. How could I tell her what could have happened? Explaining it to someone so small requires being able to describe what happened in simple terms (you ran away while I wasn’t looking) and what could have happened (your body, smeared across the pavement, my eternal remorse). How was I to cast both possibilities in their proper lights and proportions to my child? I looked at the problem from every angle. I ran and prayed and settled myself alongside a good man for support.
Now, if I need to sort things out into the stroller, I steer her over to the benches, far from the parking area, where she climbs up and down and watches herself in the windows. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch her capability, her strength, her daring. Keeping her safe and keeping her adventurous requires a gaze, a posture I have always struggled to cultivate. And there is no more time to practice, except every waking moment of her every day.
When I was at the height of my vulnerability— that is to say, a teenager— those Magic Eye posters were popular. When I looked at them, I wanted so badly to see what I was supposed to see: the contours of a sailboat; the face of a tiger. I looked for the hidden shape within my family, or my own face when I looked in the mirror. I stood close to the posters, my family, myself. I squinted and crossed my eyes. The hidden shapes didn’t reveal themselves.
My place in the world then was indistinct; my vision, deeply lopsided and irreparably blurred, rendered my daily trudge across the oily surface of grubby linoleum school hallways in multi-colored swirls. I spilled the images back onto the pages of drugstore notebooks, transformed them into words between neat blue lines, but I left the place before it ever made sense to me. And with the benefit of twenty years of hindsight, I can confidently report that it doesn’t now, either.
Neither does my family, a collection of people so at odds with each other that ongoing emotional injury seems inevitable, as does the calcification that follows when fractures do not heal. But I have broken every bone in order to reset them, and placed myself in the hands of a therapist and Celexa and God. Each of them gives me permission to adjust my gaze, to look up or down or sideways. To come back to the wreck when I am ready or not at all. To accept that the wreck will always be in view.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
There was a Magic Eye poster in the lobby of my optometrist’s office between the racks of glasses, and it was there that I saw my first and only hidden shape. After some minutes of squinting, a dolphin emerged from the purple-and-teal, wavy splotches. I don’t know what I did differently that time. Did I relax my eyes, allow myself to remain unfocused? I remember thinking of the boy I liked, the one who died years later of an overdose. The one who was doing too many drugs even then, in high school. The boy I liked had pierced his tongue. He loved to kiss people, even me with my astigmatic eyes. I thought about my now-dead kisser as I stood in front of the wavy shapes. When I swung my head away or took a few steps back and let my eyes soften, the hidden dolphin image grabbed me. Don’t think about that boy, said the dolphin. He won’t always be here. I will, it said. I always have been.
I’ve started to categorize some ideas as Magic Eye concepts: squint too hard and you get a mottled mess; look at them head-on and the void stares back at you. Wander away, start thinking about something else; as you let go of your gaze, the pieces will snap into place. Quantum mechanics, the Trinity—you can watch punchy YouTube videos and listen to wry podcasts about these squishy abstractions all you want, but they’re not going to sink in until your ears let go of your shoulders and your upper and lower lashes part in awe.
Mathematician and philosopher Gian-Carlo Rota once remarked, “Not only is every mathematical problem solved, but eventually, every mathematical problem is proved trivial.” Rota and others mean “trivial” not in the sense of “insignificant,” but in the sense of “simple” or “self-evident.” The great “oh,” the sense of relief you feel when you draw a box around your answer—or, better yet, a circle, in defiance of your pre-algebra teacher. (What difference does the shape make? Isn’t the point to identify what you think you’ve learned, to hold it still in some kind of potential space?) The sailboat and the tiger are not insignificant, no less than the separate, connected locations of entangled particles in space are insignificant, or the flash of knowledge that spirit is God is a man, a poor brown carpenter who walks among us, that which is heavenly orbiting him in an eternal gravity that does not overtake him. None of these can sustain hard focus, but with a certain soft gaze, one that wanders but does not fail, one might discover hidden meaning.
I, a mother, ask unanswerable questions, far from trivial. Do I let her climb that thing? After she climbs it, I’ll know if I should have let her. If I hover, will she absorb my anxiety and conclude that climbing is unsafe? If I watch with too little care or look away, will she assume that climbing is so easy that it hardly merits my attention? If there is a trick, it might be to give her just enough space to orient her own body in the plane, to sense its support, to gird herself along its limits and her own, but not so much space that I can’t catch her if—when—she miscalculates.
How do I introduce my child to God? Do I tell her that men, and only men, have walked on the moon? She loves the moon. She would climb up there tomorrow if she could.
What parenthood will give you, if you let it, is a certain inclination of the head, that soft gaze. And if you can hold it, gently and for long enough, this gaze will bring a gift: the ability to see all of time all at once. You will see your child’s life, even the parts you will never see. You will recognize all possible lives she might lead. But look too hard at any individual fragment and your child’s future will collapse into a sea of possibilities, indistinct waves of color. The emotions that come with that collapse—insufficiency, envy, fear, regret—will accumulate in waves. But if you hold your regard in that way your kind yoga teacher once taught you, steady and soft, you might see it all. And it will make sense.
Of course, God bore his own Son, who is also Herself. Of course. The Son is animated by a Spirit both distinct and within a divine parent, Mother-Father. Light behaves as both a wave and a particle, and has a constant speed, except when it bends. Gravity is a wave; the stars and planets formed because that’s where the gravity was placed. Soften your gaze. Can you see it? Your child will be bound by gravity until she becomes an astronaut, by genetics until a mutation grown in a grain of wheat will give her resistance to a disease, by random chance until the pattern is revealed and becomes trivial. Becomes elementary.
The child is both pure potential and fully formed. All at once.
Just for fun, I tried to see a Magic Eye image last week. I say “image” and not “poster,” because, of course, they’re on the Internet now. You can even scaffold the experience for yourself by choosing the layers of colors and the shape you eventually hope to see. But I still can’t do it, can’t see the image in the pattern. The good man who sits beside me encourages me to take off my glasses, to come closer, to move further away. To look through and then beyond the screen, the same screen through which, later, I will create word-images, a recounting of the experience. Nothing helps, but he tries. We try together.
And once in a great while, if I keep trying and not trying, even these tragic eyes can do magic. They can see the insignificant collapse and the trivial emerge, intact, from the chaos. They can watch my child go to the edge of oblivion and twitch the right muscle in my arm at exactly the right time to seize her back from it. They can hold the universe and all that is in it in a blurry cluster that was always there and will always be there, full of light.
Abigail Myers lives on Long Island, New York, where she writes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series, with a personal essay (which was also a finalist for the American Literary Review Fall 2022 essay contest) forthcoming from Phoebe in winter 2023. Her microfiction recently appeared in Heart Balm. Her poetry recently appeared in Rough Diamond Poetry and Roi Fainéant, with poetry forthcoming from Sylvia, Poetry as Promised, Amethyst Review, and Unlimited Literature. You can keep up with her at abigailmyers.com and @abigailmyer
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