I spend a lot of time thinking about what I call seeing. By seeing I mean a sort of intentionality of purpose that pays attention to what might be there. I distinguish it from similar modes of being--looking, finding, the parables of the pearl or lost coin. Where looking is concerned with the discovery of that which cannot be seen, that which is there but hidden from me, seeing is an openness to that which is there now.
Wrapped up in the idea of seeing is also that of the common vs. rare. The willingness to see is often hindered by a lack of understanding about the common. I can remember one of the very first times I took my daughters walking in the woods, when they were old enough to walk on their own, and we could experience it as three individuals. As we rounded the last corner on our way back to the car, there in front of us was a bird I'd spent my whole life looking for, but never before seen. I not only wanted to show the girls this amazing bird, but also to infuse the situation with a sense of its rarity: this bird is one they would not likely see again, perhaps in their lifetime.
But the experience was not the same for all three of us. For my girls it was, after all, the only bird in their path. For me it represented an absence as much as a presence. But it wasn't either of these things. It was simply what was happening now, right here. Experiencing it after a lifetime of looking, or as one of the first birds you ever see, is not what this was about.
That experience, and the impossibility of reconciling our two perspectives, changed how I walked in the woods. First, it reinforced for me the importance of hoping for, and expecting, something to come. Second, it revealed to me the significance of the common vs. the rare.
The rare is what is not common. The common what is not rare. Together they are what is. My experience of the world is a mix of the two, and not necessarily a mix that is weighted how you'd expect. Much of how we are taught to live in the world is to look for what is rare. The rare is hidden, is findable, is to be sought after.
But I live with an awareness of the common. I am deeply interested in what is common, what is here, what happens. This is not to say that I don't also take great pleasure in the rare--I was physically touched when I saw that bird in the woods with my daughters, and will remember the moment my entire life. Instead, I've learned that the common reveals the rare, and that I can only hope to see the rare if I learn to see the common.
Yesterday, I was eating breakfast with my youngest daughter on the porch, and she paused to look at a duck. We live on a small lake, and take great pleasure in watching the variety of wildlife that lives here, or passes through. She studied the duck for some time, and eventually stopped eating so she could go and look more closely:
"Dad, there is something different about that duck. Look at its head and beak. It is very big."
I paused too, and quickly identified a bird that shouldn't have been here at all: the Common Loon, iconic Canadian bird. I saw a bird that didn't belong, that was too far south, that must have been resting over night on its way back north in spring. My daughter saw a duck (we get hundreds, and dozens of species) that was not like any duck she had seen before. It only became a Loon to her when I taught her its name and told her how rare it was. Before this moment, it was what was happening here now, what she could glean from her own four-year old understanding of the common.
I wanted to take a picture of the Loon and include it in this post. I went out this morning to look for it, and found that it had gone. As I walked home I enjoyed the irony in this, and was content with having seen it, and knowing that some day may see it again.