This past weekend we were getting ready to pay long-overdue attention to the sign at the end of the driveway. The chicken coop took a good bit of time but is as done as can be until the siding is milled. The garden simply yields its bounty (cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and carrots mostly right now). It is not presently demanding anything of me. But the sign that should look something like this,
instead looked like this, and was calling my name. Calling loudly.
I have been successfully ignoring it for weeks now but it’s pretty bad, I know. Pathetic. Quite unacceptable. How did I let it get this way? Two reasons:
- We each get 24 hours in a day. For my whole life I have felt that I could use more hours than that, I would like more, I would have no problem filling more. But I don’t get more. No one does. Lately, to name a few of the things that have occupied my hours: coop, bench, garden, stream bed, company…
- The deer frustrated me and I have resisted giving them another free meal. More than once we have put a lot of work into making the area around the sign look pretty with nice flowers carefully tended, and in one night the deer come along and chew it all up. As if we made them a feast on purpose. As if they can’t find enough to eat in the hundreds of acres of woods surrounding my property. As if I want to tend that area again.
But I can’t leave it looking so bad, deer or no deer, and there were these 19 concrete retaining wall blocks that a neighbor didn’t want sitting under the tarp behind the bench begging to be useful. And Kaileena was here, my 10-year-old great niece who says “okay” when I suggest anything at all and said “okay” when I suggested a project that would involve digging. “I like to dig,” she said, and I smiled. After my own heart she is!
We had to take some before pictures, including the one above, because I will feel that much better when all is lovely again. This is where the suspicious part comes in.
“Come stand here with me,” I said. “You should be in the picture because you are helping.” I am holding an elephant ear bulb, in case you are wondering. It will make a gigantic plant that hopefully deer don’t like to eat.
Kaileena stood with me for the picture. In case you can’t quite see the look on her face, it’s this:
Is she looking suspiciously at me or what? She might be thinking: “What have I gotten myself into!?”
Perhaps it’s more like, “My sister is right. This lady is weird!”
(Context that I failed to mention previously: Kaileena’s 4-year-old sister Brea looked at me squarely one day last week out of the blue and said matter-of-factly, “You’re weird.” When I pressed her for a reason, as in, “Okay, that’s fair, I know I’m weird, but I’m just curious why you think I’m weird,” she could not elaborate. Darn. Just when I thought light was about to be shed…)
Exactly what is that look on Kaileena’s face?
Interpretation is a funny thing. One time in grad school we were talking about the pre-existing notions people have and how this affects the way we see the world. As an experiment, I brought Jane Yolen’s Owl Moon to the seminar that week and read it aloud. The pictures are incredible. This is the last page.
I wondered how different people would interpret the story. For anyone unfamiliar with Owl Moon, I have copied Scholastic’s summary, which I found online just tonight:
A young girl and her father take a nighttime stroll near the farm where they live to look for owls. It is a beautiful night, a moonlit winter night. Bundled tightly against the cold, they trudge through the pristine snow, “whiter than the milk in a cereal bowl.” As they go, hidden in the ink-blue shadows, a fox, a raccoon, a field mouse and a deer watch them pass. A delicate tension builds as the father imitates the great horned owl’s call once without answer, then again. Finally, from out of the darkness “an echo came threading its way through the trees.”
Here I am thinking about interpretation and I discover that even though I have probably read this book more than a hundred times out loud to a child, I have NEVER noticed the fox, the raccoon, the field mouse or the deer watching them pass! Yet that bit is deemed important enough to be included in a hundred-word summary.
The summaries of my fellow grad students were equally interesting. The book is written in first person from the point of view of the child. The pictures are not clear whether that child is male or female, nor does the text make it clear, and I have never been quite sure. Some students’ summaries include mention of the boy who went owling with his father and some of the girl who went. Some interpreted stress on the part of the child, some excitement. Some thought the father was mean to bring her out in the cold.
We cannot help but bring our own lenses to any situation. When we are with people, even people we know well, we do our best to figure out what is really going on around us. Words alone tell us only a small part of what we need to know. We look for signs that are not words — stance, hand gestures, facial expression, tone of voice, softness, stiffness. Most of what underlies the words (and is the real story) — pleasure, displeasure, fear, joy, anger, hope, anxiety – — is presented to us through signs.
A picture is worth a thousand words, right? I could describe the Owl Moon picture above, or the look on Kaileena’s face, all day long, yet you, in one glimpse, understand more than I could tell you in endless words.
Generally we are very good at reading the picture in front of us, whether it involves people or picture books. The written summaries of Owl Moon got the story mostly correct. In everyday life, if we pay attention, if we read the nonverbal clues, we can usually just tell when someone is nervous or upset or bored or tired or whatever. We have a sense that it’s time to leave, or something big is about to happen. We have a gut feeling that it’s better to stay away from this person, or better to stick close to another. We can’t necessarily explain this, we just know it.
But not always. Sometimes we are wrong. Why is Kaileena looking at me that way?
Best to ask her, don’t you think? So I did.
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe I was looking at the dog?”
The dog? What dog? There was no dog.
You mean maybe I asked her to stand for a photo and she got distracted by a dog? She wasn’t looking at me at all?
Sure enough, another look at the original photo reveals…. There was a dog!
Well, good! At least she wasn’t thinking I am weird!