“Now, there is a law written in the darkest of the Books of Life, and it is this: if you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in danger of seeing it for the first time.”
—G. K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill
We do not always pay special attention to the everyday objects around us. They become commonplace to us, fading into background noise or scenery, as we go about our lives. Even people begin to look commonplace. We see nothing particularly “glorious” or “wondrous” about them. We tend to disregard the subtle intricacies of our fellow creations.
Inspired by Chesterton’s quote, I decided to explore the concept of seeing by spending thirty days visiting a tree, which I came to know as Henry. Thirty days is not quite a thousand times, but it is the same practice of trying to see something in a new way. I have realized how impatient and how creative I can be in distracting myself from learning to see something—even if it is only a tree—in a new way.
Henry is a mature oak tree on the edge of the small park beside the public library in Wheaton, Illinois. He stands straight and proud with no split limbs at the base. There are a lot of scars that tell their stories in his bark. A small landscaped circle of broad-leafed plants surround the mulched base of the tree. A big flat limestone rock sits on one side with a depression that frequently collects rain or a passer-by who has a fondness for trees.
I find myself talking to Henry as if he is a person. Before he had a specific name, I addressed him as “Mr. Oak Tree,” and always made sure to say “thank you” and “goodbye” and “‘til tomorrow,” as good manners have taught me. It is funny that we should give human characteristics to anything we tend to spend an extended period of time with. We begin to make that thing, object, or animal more special than a first cursory glance would make it. We begin to see it as something more. It has meaning, purpose, significance—at least to us. We are catching glimpses of glory, and perhaps a cold, as we stand out in the rain and stare up into the wet leaves of an oak tree.
Henry has become my oak tree. I possess him. He is special to me and me alone. Why do I think I can own a tree that is rooted in a public park? Why do I automatically think “mine” when I had no part in creating or shaping or nurturing this tree? All I do is look at it, and take fallen leaves and twigs and acorns, and write nonsensical observations in my notebook. I do not own this tree but I say “mine” when my friends go on the walk to the park with me on some of my observation days, and I show them the tree. I wonder if Henry tells the neighboring evergreen whenever I come by, “That’s my girl. She visits me every day.” I am not sure if I would find that creepy or flattering. And all the while the squirrels in his crown tend to be a little wary of me getting too close to their tree.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.” —C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory”
I met a little girl on the first day, when I was exploring the park to find the tree that would become mine for the next thirty days. The little girl liked the pen in my hand. I think she was the only passerby who smiled at me during my observations. Most of the people do not even bother to give me a second glance. I wonder if I fail to give them a second glance too.
C. S. Lewis, in his sermon “The Weight of Glory,” speaks of re-seeing other people—not just ourselves—in light of the glory he has placed in his creation. I cannot see people like that. I cannot see a tree like a little kid sees it, completely full of the wonder imbued in it. I can see the moss and the cracks, the dried and roughened places in the bark. I see the faults and the things that offend me, hurt me, and remind me of my own messed up life when I look at other people. I do not see the deeper, ineffable good that God has breathed into each one of us as he spoke us into being. I struggle to see it even in myself.
Often when I visit Henry, I like to imagine him in another place or world, or perhaps even reinvent what he is or looks like. Henry reminds me of a great storybook tree, the start of a grand adventure. He marks the entrance into the great Lantern Waste of Narnia. His roots cover the rabbit hole to Wonderland. Henry is conducting a gathering of the Ents, and secretly invites me. He is a castle governed by squirrels that love to run carefree along the parapets. He sits at the heart of Sherwood Forest and Robin Hood’s camp of merry men. In my child’s eye he is big enough to be found among the redwoods and sequoias of Dinotopia’s Treetown as a brontosaurus strolls along with his head in the leaves.
Henry is a mature oak tree on the edge of the small park beside the public library in Wheaton, Illinois. Alexandra Claus
My favorite way to imagine Henry comes from a treasured picture book from my childhood. The story of Go, Dog, Go! ends with a scene in which dozens of different types of dogs engaged in all manner of ridiculous activities—like playing ping pong or wearing crazy party hats—drive their cars up to this great big tree with a huge crown of leaves. The last picture shows this treetop filled with dogs, all having fabulous fun at a party. The image itself is rather silly, especially when I apply it to Henry, my dignified oak tree. Yet somehow it still fits. There are moments during my evening visits, just around dusk, when the orange lamps in the park blink on and this place feels like home, something deep-down familiar. Henry has become part of home for me too; he is familiar and known and a comforting sight.
“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” —Genesis 1:31
Once, I imagine Henry to be a column in a grand green ballroom, hung with lots of lanterns emitting warm yellow light and the stars above adding their silvery shine. I like to imagine myself dancing in such a natural, beautiful ballroom. It feels safe. It feels like home. It is the place that I imagine some great Ending will finally be, or perhaps the Beginning.
I think of the times in my life when I fail to see the beauty and the shared kinship of others. I think of the moments when my relationships fracture, when we are each so caught up with the worries and problems in our heads that it all cascades out. Yet it is in the aftermath of these fractures that we often begin to understand what it means to see the glory that God has put into each human being. We see the shared fallen-ness and the shared redemption, as well as the shared grace of God.
In chapter 12 of Romans I find the phrase, “Love must be sincere.” I am still trying to understand what that means, but I am catching glimpses here and there. I must first begin to re-see people, must understand how to really look at them. I want to look at people with the same child-like wonder that I look at Henry. I want to think fondly of home with these people I pass by every day, my fellow travelers on our great journey to the grand green ballroom.
What I find to be the most special and fruitful part of my experience with Henry is seeing how everything and everyone else in the park has taken on a new image, not just my tree. I am learning how to take time to notice how Henry relates to the whole. The edge of the park is lined by a low gray brick wall. The beautiful and imaginative world of Henry the oak tree lies beyond the stone border, waiting to be explored. The park is now a place of slowing down and taking time to see. I am learning to be patient as I begin to see the goodness in every oak tree and chattering squirrel, in every man and woman and child.
In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor speaks of the “anagogical vision” that writers need to have in order to view someone or something simultaneously on different levels. This is what we begin to see when we are able to look at both the broken nature and God’s glorious restoration of another person, or even of ourselves. O’Connor says that the act of writing fiction “is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.” Seeing well is integral to writing and to living. Humanity comes with a lot of “dustiness,” but there is much good to be found there. We just have to be willing to look for it.