There are few, if any, things as full of pure joy as the squeals of bubbly delight from a baby playing peek-a-boo. When my son was little, long before he could walk, this was an instant and endless source of entertainment, closing my hands over my face, opening them like doors, and saying, “peek-a-boo; I see you!” As a toddler, he would splay his pudgy fingers across his closed eyes, playing this same game with his baby sister while we parents watched. Then he would become tired, and one of us would play while he watched. And we would all laugh and laugh.
There is, of course, a scientific explanation behind the phenomenon: children at this young age are developing the foundations of object permanence and human attachment, the basis for future social interaction. As an abbreviated refresher, human social interaction – our ability to work together in community – is the only thing that has given us an advantage over lions, tigers and bears (oh my). We must see one another, be with one another, cooperate with one another, or else become food for stealthy, hungry predators, not all of which live in the wild.
With or without the brain scans, the obvious source of peek-a-boo delight is the reassurance when the animated shapes of a human face magically reappear from behind a mask of craggy fingers, accompanied by the sound of the words, “I see you.” This tiny, clear comfort isn’t entirely unlike the one we use later in our lives when we say, “I haven’t seen you in ages!” and mean something to the effect of “how good it is that we’re both still here.”
It is among the many quirks of the English language that we use this simple verb, “see,” in so very many ways, to communicate such varying information:
“I see you sold your house.”
“I see signs for a gas station ahead.”
“I’m seeing (a man, a woman, a therapist, a psychic…).”
“I see you’ve been drinking.”
“I see your mother in you.”
“Did you SEE (what she was wearing, who he was with…)?”
“I see this is upsetting to you.”
Or, the utterly simple:
“I see London, I see France; I see your pink underpants.”
It is a miracle, one we too often take for granted, this simple act of seeing. Through our eyes we accept more data inputs than our weary brains can process, and so we filter selectively. We choose what we “see.”
I’ve been thinking about how we see things, and one another, ever since I spent the better part of a day looking at art with my friend Murray. It was the day the 25th anniversary “Works of Heart” show, curated by Murray, was being installed.
The concept for the auction, in case it isn’t familiar to you, is fairly straightforward: 100 or so artists, participating by invitation and ranging from well-established and well-known to recent college graduates, are each given a 12″ wooden heart to use (or not) as the basis for creating a piece of art that will be sold, by silent auction, for charity. Murray, ever the teacher, encourages the artists to explore new territory, experiment with new ideas in creating these works. The resulting collection is a great mix of expected and unexpected, familiar and newly intriguing.
As thanks for their “works of heart,” artists receive personal – deeply personal, and highly personalized – letters from Murray. Having been one of the contributing artists for 24 of the 25 years, I can attest, from my own personal experience, that receiving this letter is often the best part of the whole experience.
Having declared that 2017 will be my year to #artharder and to seek solace in art, I asked Murray if he might spend some time with me, one-on-one, looking at the Works of Heart show. So we spent several hours, just Murray and I, walking slowly around the gallery, pausing every now and then for a break, poring over 125 pieces of art, each carefully created specifically to benefit a children’s charity.
We talked about color and texture and composition, about how some of the better-known artists had evolved over time. We talked about how the themes of the work either did or did not connect with the mission of the charity. We stood in awe of some new, exceptionally beautiful and intricate pieces. Given where we are in current affairs, there were some pieces with strong political overtones. Other pieces followed a traditional formula, set by the artist over time. A few pieces were, to me, inaccessible. “She’s trying something new here,” Murray would say, “and this piece seems to be somewhere in between the question and the answer.”
At the end of our viewing, I asked Murray about the letters. Since Bernard and I have both been contributing artists for the last few years, we had compared our letters and I knew exactly how personalized they were. “The thing about the letters,” Murray said, “is simple: we all want to be seen. The letters let the artists know that they were seen, that someone took time to look.”
Since that day in late January, as I’ve already mentioned, I’ve been thinking about this idea of seeing and being seen, about looking intently and consciously acknowledging art, and artists (and writers, chefs, gardeners, etc.). Not interpretation or critical inquiry or adulation, but simple, uncomplicated acknowledgment. It has been a largely intellectual exercise, as I am overly fond of intellectualizing things.
Then, this happened:
A couple of weeks ago at a conference, two full months after my art exploration day with Murray, I heard the story of a young man named Giovan Bazan. Giovan was a discarded kid, lost in the morass of foster care. He was given the label “trouble,” assigned a diagnosis, prescribed some serious medications, and bounced around a system that can strip the humanity out of the most humane of souls.
One day at the juvenile court facility, slumped and weeping in the hallway, awaiting sentencing and transport to his next foster home, Giovan decided to kill himself. He thought very carefully and specifically about how he would do it. He saw clearly in his mind exactly what he would do, once he arrived at his destination.
While he was contemplating his end, head between his knees, sitting on the floor, he realized someone, or some people, were suddenly standing close to him. When he looked up he noticed a man with long dreadlocks and a woman with long silver hair just a few feet away, holding hands and looking down at him.
The man said, “We don’t know what you’re going through, but it’s obviously very hard and we’re sorry for your sorrow. We just wanted you to know that we see you.” Then the man added, with emphasis on each word, “We see you.”
And then they walked away, and Giovan never saw them again. To this day, more than a decade later, he has no idea who they were or why they were there in the courthouse.
He did not kill himself that day, or any other day since. His life did not magically, instantly become better; but over time things began to improve. Now in his mid-20s, Giovan is a motivational speaker, addressing groups around the country and around the world, sharing his story so people will understand what it’s like to be a kid lost in the system, trying to find his way. His parting advice to his audiences is very simple: Stop, and look around you. See the people who are right in front of you. Let them know you are there.
The homeless man at Walgreens. The sulky teenager in your house. The nosy neighbor. The reclusive aunt. You. Me. Even my bat-shit crazy, boot-eating dog.
As it is in art, so it is in life. Perhaps what we all want, and need, is simply to be seen.
Lest we be eaten by tigers, not all of which live in the wild.
Food | Week of March 27, 2017