Tell your young eyes to listen. There’s a reason this is my first lesson. No matter how much yours plead, growing wistful, don’t give them what they want: a prettied past. Make them SEE. At first, they’ll glance past a boy slapped by his mother in the airport, or a woman on TV listing reasons she’s lucky to work at Wal-Mart. Students, pay attention! No, sit down. You may not be excused.
How do I explain? You have to train your peepers to watch each sad show. They’ll wince, but who’ll blame them? Even mine skip articles whose headlines start: “After 27 Years, DNA Test Frees Man….” or “Coalmine Collapses….” With irises widening, longing to be closed, yours will ask, “How come the guys who don’t look are smiling?” Say, “You’re lucky, even if the picture ain’t rosy. Turn away, no life. Face forward, a chance.” When they cry, you’ve made progress. After that, they’ll hardly ever get teary, their whites tough as rubber. You’ll be amazed. “20/20,” you’ll say, “how’d that happen?”
Yes, it hurts. But cradle to grave, nothing, a zombie, is that what you want? Don’t laugh. I’m not making anything up. Yes, I’m old. It took me too long to figure this out. Look: Verbena sprouting from brother’s grave—nothing. (Okay, a twinge; my eyes aren’t cardboard, for god’s sake.) Single chair at my kitchen table—more elbow room. (Truth is: I try not to think about it much.)
With practice, you’ll study scribbles in Cy Twombley’s paintings, deciphering codes. Read versions of the creation myth in cuneiform, mandarin, Coptic. OBSERVE: a mouth-twitched lie, a chisel-jawed secret, a body stiffening before its leap. What do I mean? You’re not listening! My eyes barely flinch when Mother stumbles forward, begging, “Who are you?” “Toughen up,” I say when they go jelly, “because you love her. Want to keep living or go dead?” Sometimes, I pinch them. “Wake up,” I say. They recognize broken, crooked, twisted, starved. They’re superheroes, looking through walls, into outer space. Like that, over there. See? Goddamn cane propped against chalkboard, out of reach.
Now, my fledglings, what’s right in front of your cute face?
Photo by Keturah Stickann