What We Learn to See


We were walking through the park the other morning: Late May, the weather shuttling back and forth between the still warmth of summer and the lingering chill of spring, the trees and lawns a chorus of green. There were people stopped in small bunches along the path, peering intently into the canopy. We stopped a moment beside them, heard the snatches of bird song, but the birds themselves were invisible to us, small dark bodies somewhere amidst the leaves.


It reminded me of when I was learning Turkish, I told K, not the Turkish one learns in books, but the Turkish of use, the sorts of rhythms and verbal figures that constitute those thick ecologies of imagination and passion and life. There was one point when I learned the phrase Allah razı olsun, something that would be used in place of thank you, particularly by those for whom vocabularies of faith and belief flowed more quickly from the tongue. May God be pleased. And, I continued, I suddenly realized that those around me were using the phrase constantly, that they must have been using the phrase constantly, I just hadn't known what to listen for. In a way it was like birding, the ways that you learn to find those figures -- of speech or of flight -- woven amidst a vibrant world.


We see a woman standing in the middle of the path. As we near her, she pulls binoculars to her face and looks at a patch of green behind us, over one shoulder. Shh, she says, and hands me the binoculars. Look there. And there, behind the green, a flash of red. It's a scarlet tanager, she says, and as she says so, the bird edges its way a little further along the branch, in an open patch of green we suddenly see this brilliant red wonder of a bird pause in the sunshine and then peel away. Thank you, we say, and she smiles, lets her eyes join once more that chorus of green.


I am thinking about what we learn to see as we shop for groceries that afternoon. K bumps a woman suddenly. She is a little disheveled, wearing a nylon jacket frayed at the sleeves. She is clutching several packets of deli meat to her chest and barely pauses to look, then walks quickly out the store's door and into the Brooklyn sunshine. I might be the only one who sees her, and this, too, makes me think about what we learn to see.


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