I don’t remember where I got the idea.
What I do remember is it wasn’t original to me. I handed out Post-It® notes to the twenty or so young people gathered in the large room of our retreat cabin and told them to rename the items they saw in the room. I led by example, writing the word “tree” on the small yellow square and pasting it to the lamp on the table.
“This is a tree,” I said.
Before long, the table became an aardvark. For the next ten minutes, we moved around the room renaming everything. The activity spilled into the sleeping quarters and even out onto the front porch. After everything was named, I told them to take another ten minutes to study what they had done and to pay attention to what they could see with the new eyes they had been given because of the new names. We moved from there to talk about how we could “break some stained glass” and open our eyes to new names for God in the world around us.
The experience came back to me last night as I was talking to Kyle, one of the servers at work who is also a student at Duke and involved in the theater department there. He told me about one of the drama professors who begins class each semester by going around and asking each student to say his or her name. Kyle said one of his friends said her name, Elizabeth, and the professor stood for a moment and then responded, “No, that doesn’t work for me. I need to call you Jane,” which he continued to do for the rest of the semester. The point of the renaming, which he did with most all of the students, Kyle said, was to shake them up and make them look at themselves differently.
As I drank my coffee this morning, I read my friend Billy’s introduction to his Blue Rock Review; this issue focuses on seeing. He centered his remarks around Marvin Gaye’s classic protest song, “What’s Going On?”:
But it’s the title line that truly catches my eye: “Talk to me so you can see what’s going on.” The song suggests that talking produces seeing. The claim is audacious – you cannot see but that you talk to me. “Can I get a witness?” says the preacher. We are somehow strategic in the clarity of each other’s vision. I see something possible, or hidden, or lovely, or frightening. Do you? “Do you see what I see?” asks the carol at Christmastime. Talk to me. What’s going on?
Dialogue is a kind of collision of visions. What you are holding now is a “collide–o-scope.”
Heidi is someone with whom I’ve become acquainted since I moved to Durham. She grows pea shoots, among other things. We use them at the restaurant in our salad mix and also as a garnish. Last week, I made a grilled salmon stuffed with spinach, sundried tomatoes, and pine nuts. It sat atop a serving of red beet risotto that was the most beautiful crimson color and was topped with a lemon-thyme beurre blanc and, finally, some pea shoots. The plate looked beautiful to me. About five minutes later, one of the servers came back and said abruptly,
“The girl wants to know what the green stuff is on top of the fish.”
She didn’t see what I saw. I’ll admit my first response was to turn into the stereotypical chef who stormed out of the kitchen, grabbed the plate from before the young woman and said something like, “You don’t deserve my food.” (Of course, I would need to say it in a fake French accent.) But I understood what she saw because I’m married to someone who has wondered out loud on many occasions why chefs feel the need to add unnecessary green stuff to the plate rather than serving simply what she ordered. She talks to me, so I can see what’s going on in the mind of those who order food to eat it as opposed to those of us who make it to be both edible and artful.
To rename such conversation as collision helps me see some new things. We talk about collisions mostly in the context of violence and accident: cars crashing together because someone didn’t see the other coming. But in this context, new vision comes out of crashing together with intention, hoping that the shards of curiosity, creativity, and even confusion reconfigure into patterns of hope and light so we can see what’s going on beyond the limitations of our labels, laments, and longings.
When my friend Doug was giving me a painting lesson a couple of weeks ago, he set up the still life and then began to talk to me about how to create the painting. As I began to draw and then paint, he would comment about how the shadows were falling differently than what I was articulating with my brush. A couple of times I said, “But that’s how it looks from where I’m sitting.” He was only two feet to my right and things looked different from there.
None of us has the definitive view. None of us has the answer or the truth left to our own devices and perspective. Yet, when we come crashing into the intersection of faith and life and relationship (can there be a three-way intersection?), we find new eyes, together: a collide-o-scope, for sure.
Rich Mullins — a person, like Marvin, who was as complicated as he was gifted, sang:
And the New Jerusalem won’t be as easy to build
As I hoped it would be
As I hoped it would be easy to build
But the New Jerusalem won’t be so easy to build
There are many bellies to fill and many hearts to free
Got to set them free
But I see a people who’ve learned to walk in faith
With mercy in their hearts
And glory on their faces
And I can see the people
And I pray it won’t be long
Until your kingdom comes
In the collision of our devotion and our despair, in the tension of the now and the not yet, in the crash of what is, what has been, and what is yet to come, and in the glow of the indefatigable light that cannot be put out by the gathering darkness, talk to me so we can see what’s going on.