the dragonfly eye

I stepped outside into the calm of the retreat center grounds. The calendar had announced spring’s arrival a few days earlier. Though the world was slow to wake, everything felt possible in the glow of the morning sun. The neon green of emerging grass contrasted with the dull bark on naked trees and the litter left by last year’s leaves. No chlorophyll canopy covered the bordering woods, so I still could see deep within. I remembered: resurrection begins at ground level, then rises. I descended to sit next to some small shrubs lining the walkway.

The ground chilled me through the seat of my jeans. I considered how silly I must look, a grown woman seated on the sidewalk, toy in hand. Luckily, here, few people would pass and notice. The birds don’t laugh, and even if they did, their teasing doesn’t translate. It sounds like music to my ears. Their high-pitched chirps and trills swallowed my senses. I looked around, wondering where to begin.

I brought with me a borrowed “dragonfly eye” that promised new views of the world. This bell-shaped instrument in birch casing survived many moves and Goodwill purges to maintain its place on my friend’s bookshelf. I’d unplugged from the world for a fresh perspective and a little worshipful play.  This tiny telescope made me feel like an explorer.

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IMG_20170324_113910877I pressed the narrow end of the dragonfly eye up to my face and pointed it toward the ground. The beveled glass lens manipulated a spiky sweetgum ball resting in the rocky soil. Magnified and replicated, the image filled my entire visual field. Browns and grays poked at my eyes with their sharp edges.

I aimed the tool upward to find some branches of the little tree not yet adorned with blossoms. Thin lines crisscrossed into knots. All I could see was chaos, a tangled mess. Then, with another half turn, I struck gold. Star-shaped forsythia illuminated each tiny window. Its delicate yellow flowers exploded and sparked surprise.

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I rotated and reflected until I’d lost all sense of time. Any one angle was incomplete. The fleeting glimpses didn’t form a cohesive whole. Pinhole snapshots made vision a piecemeal process. My mind couldn’t hold them all. I spun the glass eye until my head dizzied. Before I attempted to stand, I chose a single spot and focused in order to restore my equilibrium.

***

The name of the toy intrigued me, lingering in my brain long after I left. Through the dragonfly eye, the world around me shrank into manageable pieces. My view was the opposite of panoramic: myopic wallpaper. Mere scratches on the surface that never widened to unite with the whole.

I wondered: how can the dragonfly navigate the world or orient itself within it with such limited vision? (For that matter, how can I?)

***

Curiosity drove me to find the facts. I learned that eighty percent of the dragonfly’s brainpower is dedicated to its sight. Wide, multifaceted lenses allow it to see in all directions simultaneously, giving it a 360 degree view. Thirty thousand pixel-like facets cover most of its head.

In addition, the dragonfly displays an almost-human capacity for selective attention. Its ability to zoom in and focus enables it to capture and eat prey, as well as to mate while in flight. This incredible creature is present to the full reality of its surroundings: alert, responsive, and nimble.

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The dragonfly’s iridescent body reflects different colors depending on varying angles and polarization of light. Its lithe core dances and paper-thin wings shimmer as it flies. Not only does it possess the ability to see a wider and deeper reality, its very being stretches the vision of those who encounter it.

***

The disconnect between this new information and my experience prompted me to consider: perhaps the limitation lies not in the toy but in the viewer. When overused, my selective attention becomes a disability.

An hour after I went to bed one night this week, I laid awake, filled with anxiety. Unsure as to why, I reviewed the details of my day. I’d spent hours taking in news and stories. Podcasts about weighty topics. Audiobooks with heavy themes. Facebook updates and tweets linking me to upsetting world events. NPR alerts about an elementary school shooting in California. Threats of war on the evening news. My porous eyes had soaked too much in through a dark and limited lens. When I closed them at the end of the day, I started to drown.

The next morning, the state of my soul showed on my sleepy face. “I wish everything would just bloom already!” I said with a half-hearted smile to an acquaintance who inquired about my irritated eyes.  I blamed my appearance on allergies because I was too weary to explain. The truth was too complex.

That next day, I made some changes. Filled my ears with poetry and music instead of incessant talk. Read only that which inspires. Rehearsed truth and offered honest prayers. Connected with the people around me instead of merely observing the whole world from a distance. Adjusted my sensory input to ease my soul back into balance.

When my gaze is fixed only on the broken, it colors my vision and leaves me unsettled, lacking hope, on edge. My view is limited. Focus matters. I need to rotate the lens to take in the just-as-real beauty all around. With each small turn, I let the light fall on me anew.

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The beautiful ordinary

While wandering through a farmer’s market in Quebec City this summer, my husband and I stumbled upon a jewelry vendor. His display case housed earrings of various sizes, patterns and colors, arranged in pairs like insects pinned on an entomologist’s corkboard. A short, weathered man with a dark ponytail rose to greet us warmly, introducing himself as the artist. In a conversation where we danced clumsy steps in and out of two languages, we learned that he’d crafted them using the wings of actual butterflies from a local farm. By collecting their bodies shortly after they died, he was able to preserve and recycle them into unique accessories.

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I was intrigued. But it’s not like me to make an impulsive purchase, even for a mild indulgence. My husband and I continued browsing, but I couldn’t shoo them out of my thoughts. We soon made our way back through the crowd for another look.

I agonized over my selection. My eyes were drawn to one pair in vibrant blues and greens, but I knew their large size and irregular shape would prevent me from wearing them. Too clunky. The sharp contrast of red-orange and black in the design of another wouldn’t match anything I own. Too flashy. Through the process of elimination, I narrowed the field, landing on a modest teardrop-shaped pair the size of dimes.

It took me a while to notice them. With quiet colors and simple lines, they were easy to overlook. But their understated pattern appealed to me: clean concentric ovals and tiny dots on an off-white background reminded me of ink on paper,  the hand-drawn doodles of a child. I tapped the glass and pointed to them. The vendor pulled them out so I could try them on.

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Close inspection revealed tiny fissures like the delicate fibers  in a sheet of antique parchment. Slender scarlet streaks like blood from a papercut tinged one edge of each,  framing the space where the creature’s core used to be attached. The perfect mirror of their design would allow their lines to kiss when folded.

This was not mass-produced jewelry. These were shaped by human hands using raw materials from this specific spot on earth: a perfect memento of our trip, proof that I was here and breathed the very same air that flew beneath these wings.

 

Flipping them over revealed insect’s dark side, which allowed it to hide, blending in to the environment for its own protection. Textured tree-bark brown camouflaged the iridescent strand of squares curving along their base. Like a row of smiling teeth or modern-cut pearls, they shimmered when they caught the light, only to disappear again into the shadows. These beings were more complicated than they appeared.

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They reminded me of me.

I marveled at this opportunity to hold this brittle beauty. Unprotected, a single touch of my finger would cause them to disintegrate into dust and powder. But encased in their smooth glass bubbles, I could study their intricate details without destroying them.

It occurred to me that I would probably never have noticed this particular insect during the short window we were both alive on this planet. Its tiny size, constant motion, and higher plane would have been barriers preventing our worlds from intersecting. But because of one artist’s careful attention, this winged creature’s purpose will now exceed the limitations of its brief lifespan.

At first glance, this butterfly was unremarkable. But a closer look reminded me that the beautiful ordinary is enough. Worthy of reflection. Inherently valuable.

Satisfied, I handed over my credit card and completed the transaction. The artist carefully wrapped them in cottony cushion and laid them in a small white box. Zipped into a pocket of my backpack, they flew home with me and reemerged as still-life art that dangles from my earlobes as I go about my pedestrian life.

Reflection along the Monon Trail

The heavens floated down to earth this morning. Suspended clouds slipped through the atmosphere and landed upside down on a blanket of blue. Peeking through tangled weeds, they arrested my gaze. My rhythmic footfalls ceased; the world around and within me hushed. I stood rapt, astonished by the celestial masterpiece floating in the retention pond along the paved old railroad path.

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At ground level, the transcendent felt palpable, if just out of reach. A barrier of waist-high weeds, thistles and wildflowers threatened the exposed skin of would-be explorers so I kept my distance. Holding my breath, I witnessed the miracle and received its invitation, beckoning me toward wonder.

As I stood spellbound, my buoyant thoughts were punctured by a pinprick dread of the inevitable. This fluid illusion would dissolve when stirred by wind or human touch. A desperate impulse consumed me, a panicked need to capture the intangible essence. Snapping smartphone photos at different angles, I grasped for tactile proof. A postcard to document where I’d been. A souvenir proving the mirage was reality.

My efforts fell flat: my two-dimensional tool was insufficient for the task. I had no choice but to surrender, tuning in to the fullness of the moment, despite my longing to hold the whisper and carry it home.

This unlikely juxtaposition had shaken me awake. For a moment, the ordinary water, forbidden by the laws of nature to absorb the luscious colors and wispy shapes, transcended its limitations and soaked it all in, casting aside its transparence.

My stunted senses must have needed a shock to be reminded to breathe.

Immersed in beautiful absurdity of the earth-bound sky, reflection ensued. Quiet moments and still waters allow me to soak up the qualities of the presence to which I am present. But the Spirit doesn’t shout. I have to be listening, expectant, to be transformed.

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In this calm oasis, my awareness widened. Cicadas that shimmied and rattled in overhead trees guided me back and bound me to the present moment. The rise and fall of white noise grounded the mystical in earthiness, providing a soundtrack to complete my epiphany. Nature’s wild morning breath stuck to my glistening skin like a perfume mist. I breathed it in, knowing I would carry its scent long after waking from my daydream and continuing on my way.

 

Chipped beauty

The urge emerges in the aftermath of the holiday season, when festivities recede and the mundane winter months stretch out as far as the eye can see, with no end in sight.  Spurts of sparkling snow eventually descend and interrupt the doldrums, painting stark sticks a crisp white and revealing the shape of limbs that have been here all along, blending into the drab landscape. That’s when something shifts in me. I look down at my own pale hands. My subconscious starts to scratch a psychological itch through impulse drugstore purchases. I recognize a pattern emerging in my own behavior. The absence of color awakens my longing. My hands want to come out of hibernation.

The days are dull, diminished, and stripped bare. Like the rest of the world, I am tempted to acquiesce and plod through with my head down and teeth gritted until spring shows up. The rest of my shivering body is layered in fleece, cotton and wool but my hands peek out of my sleeves, exposed. They comprise my essential workforce, the skeleton crew that gets stuff done no matter the season, key employees without whom I cannot function. And now, with everyone else on strike, it’s their time to shine. An uncharacteristic craving rises within me and I indulge in the creamy, lush bottled liquids lined up and waiting for me on the Target shelves.

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They crave attention and burst out in rebellious frenzy. I let them try on costumes in whatever hues strike their fancy: ruby red, dusky periwinkle, innocent pearl, speckled rainbow glitter, luscious grape, robin’s egg blue. This dramatic flair adds weight and presence to my actions. Ordinary gestures now sparkle like the twinkling lights all my neighbors have finally taken down from their trees. The unexpected treat of beauty at my fingertips inspires me to move with more grace and care. These extensions of me dare in their tiny way to push back against the expectations and assumptions that rule my world. Without a word, I begin to resist the status quo.

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My fingernails are blank canvases all my own. They beg to express themselves like mini billboards advertising my moods. Forever growing and being cut back, they become living works of art. They hint at the swirling prints that lie underneath, invisible to the naked eye, marking my unique identity. A lifetime will not be long enough for me to memorize their patterns.

My polished nails perform beautifully, without a smudge or crack, for limited and varying amounts of time. Inattention, interruption, and obligation threaten to disrupt their smooth demeanor before they’ve settled into their roles. Five minutes, five hours, or five days: the countdown begins to see how long my handiwork will last.

When their unvarnished selves start to show, my character is tested. I begin to practice the spiritual discipline of enduring the chipping polish. For the perfectionist, it’s self-prescribed exposure therapy. My focus is challenged as the endgame begins. I wait and suffer, stretching myself to accept the minor flaws as part of the creative process, battling the insecurity that peeks through the layers. The only cure would require me to go without, to silence my spirit, and surrender to a humdrum existence. My game of solitaire continues until it’s time for a fresh coat, beginning again and again until the world warms up and agrees to join me.

 

sacred soil

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My clean hands slide into worn gloves still stained from last summer’s soil. I breathe in the earthy wet morning. It smells like the world is finally waking up. I fall to my knees and feel my jeans sop up the dew as I prepare to disturb the sleeping beds.

Assessing the damage, I notice the crunchy brown receipts of autumn in piles atop the mulch, pushed up against the house, left wherever they happened to land when the cold winds blew. Leaves and trash have intermarried with the mulch over these months of my indifference, making it hard to sift through the mess and leave behind what’s still useful.

My plan of attack involves chipping away at the dead sticks and tangled vines. Structures that once birthed ripe tomatoes or supported healthy green leaves now resemble skeletons lying wasted on the ground. The sedum cry out the loudest for my attention. Tall brown sticks, hardened and still standing, encircle budding green plants that are struggling to rise again. Without intervention, this new life will be stunted, suffocated by the prison of its past and unable to break through and become all it longs to be.

Plants have died in this humble garden, and yet they remain in place. Some of them come up easily with a gentle tug, but others need the sharp teeth of my handheld clippers to slice through their solid stalks and cut them down.

I adjust the tongs of my rake to a width that fits these spaces and gently gather debris into clumps on the carpeted earth. It’s almost time for the first mow of the season. Once I finish each section, I usher the scraps into tall brown paper sacks from the hardware store. It feels like I’m preparing to kick the past to the curb.

Spring makes resurrection hard to ignore. I’m struck by the realization that perennials prove themselves stronger than my black thumb each and every year. I don’t know why I’m surprised. I chose these flowers and shrubs specifically because I knew my own limits. I had experienced how my own laziness and neglect impact my environment.

After performing the grunt work of clearing space for a new year of growth, it dawns on me: the hearty flora has been reborn despite my delays. I’ve been pushing this task to the bottom of my to-do list since late fall. Yet my negligence wasn’t enough to prevent the beauty from rising again. It’s only prevented me from noticing and enjoying the new life. Cutting through the junk opens my eyes to the redemption of what was lost. This practice allows me to receive the gift awaiting me after the barrenness of the preceding season.

As I do my best to practice the craft of writing, there’s a saying ringing in my ears. This foundational wisdom is routinely taught in Composition 101: Show, don’t tell. It occurred to me as I dug in and tackled this long-overdue landscaping project that our Creator does exactly that. He uses tangible elements and nature’s cycles to get our attention. They are tools, helping us to connect the dots and understand His message. The heavenly Gardener is at work not only in setting and sustaining the rhythm of the seasons but literally illustrating His grace.

This household task I’d been dreading gave me fresh perspective. Intentionally and regularly clearing the clutter in my life is important, but thankfully it’s not a task I do alone. God is already at work in the midst of my mess, continually doing a new thing and miraculously bringing new life to dead places. The practice of pruning breaks off that which is unnecessary or no longer helpful, and frees me to abide more deeply rooted in Him. All He asks is my attention and cooperation. He’s the One in charge of transformation.

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