[Editor’s note: We’ve decided to take the last few days of 2018 to repost some of our favorite pieces of writing that showed up on the blog this year. First up: “What Do You See” by Ginny Owens, a lovely reflection on the deeper meaning of sight and what she sees throughout a single morning.]
I’ve spent my whole life trying to find words to describe what nothing looks like.
People always ask, “So what do you see? Is it black? Blurry?”
No, it’s just nothing. Sort of like when your arm goes numb, and for a minute, you can’t feel anything. My brain just doesn’t communicate with my eyes about colors or light.
I started seeing nothing when I was three years old. My condition is hereditary, and a failed surgery ended my seeing journey. I don’t remember anything from before then. Occasionally I have a dream where I can see. But when I wake up, it’s back to nothing. It’s not a big deal anymore to me, but most days I’m reminded it’s a pretty big deal to other people. I recently read a statistic that blindness is one of the top three fears among people in the US, which is hard for me to believe. My top three fears are getting struck by lightning, being stung by a wasp, and dying alone. It’s odd to think that I live every day with many people’s greatest fear. But when I think of it as the fear of seeing nothing, I understand.
The misconception is that when you see nothing with your eyes, you see nothing at all. But that’s definitely not true. I don’t think there’s anything supernatural about how I see, but I definitely see. So this is a story about all the things I saw one morning. Names have been changed, and I’ve added just a few “alternative facts.”
The day begins as it always does, with the largest, strongest cup of black coffee I can make in my aeropress. Coffee must be the most beautiful rich color, because it makes my life so beautifully rich every single morning. With morning coffee comes reading and prayer – always lots of prayer. Prayer helps me not swear at the people that say dumb things because they think I see nothing.
I’m running especially late today, so I throw on a hat in lieu of a shower and I’m off to my errands. My chariot this morning is a Toyota Corolla Lyft. Jack is my driver. Super friendly. I learn in the first couple minutes that he’s a singer/songwriter and he’s just doing this while he’s getting his career going. My mind wanders a little as he chats, and I take stock of my surroundings. I would say that Jack is a hipster just beyond hipster age. I’m going to put him around 37. I can tell his age from his voice and the bands he’s already referenced. The hipster part I can smell in his unwashed hair, and the scent of Nag Champa radiating from his pores.
The Sirius Coffeehouse station is coming out of the car speakers, and Ray LaMontagne is singing “Trouble.” I absently wonder what Ray LaMontagne would sound like doing a hip-hop song. Then it happens. Jack breaks into my peaceful thoughts with the seven words that would change my next half hour: “Do you wanna hear my demo?”
“Sure,” I say enthusiastically, and the first song immediately begins to play.
“This one’s called ‘Dark Night of the Soul.’”
“Oh,” I say. “What inspired it?”
“Really just life I guess,” Jack says. “It’s been a hard few years.”
Jack’s voice isn’t bad. The song is gentle, acoustic guitar with raspy vocals and dark lyrics. Jack frequently rasps the chorus, “I’m broken I’m alone in my dark night of the soul.” After 3.5 minutes, the drum kit comes in, and the bass. Subtle at first. But finally the electric guitar wails its way in and it’s an all-out jam band party.
“Me and my friends added this part last week,” he says. “I dig it, so I kept it in. It kinda gives you time to think about the lyrics.”
“Yeah, cool,” is all I can think to say. We then listen to “Hearts Like Glass,” “The Edge of Light,” and “Distance.” All tender acoustic ballads which morph into jam band tunes three minutes in.
“You have a very nice voice,” I say.
“Cool, thanks, man. I have one more song but it’s not recorded yet, so I can just sing it for you.”
“Alright,” I say. I reach for my phone. My screen’s turned off so people think I’m typing nothing. I text a friend to say this is happening right now.
After the acapella rendition of “This Room is Too Small,” I gently but firmly move us away from music into conversation. I ask Jack about his writing process, and his life here in Nashville, just trying to get a picture. Turns out he was in a rock band that got signed when he was 18. He left his family to move here; everything fell apart. But he can’t shake the music bug. I get it. When the ride is over, I have a pretty good image of this guy. He’s a thinker. A free spirit who loves his art and is searching for his place in the world. I get that too.
Jack drops me off at my first stop of the day: Parisian Nails. The man at the front greets me as he always does: “What you want today?”
I’m so curious what this guy looks like. And how he got the job of greeter at the nail place. My mental picture is of someone relatively short – I can tell he’s about my height – and Vietnamese – I can hear that in his accent. But I wonder how he dresses. And what his hair’s like.
“Just a manicure,” I say.
“You want Steve to do for you?”
“Yes, sir. That’d be great.”
Steve is fascinating. I’ve probably known him six years. He used to be a chef, but he says it was too stressful, and now he does the best nails and eyebrows in the city of Nashville. I asked Steve once if he likes doing nails. “It’s just a job,” he said. “I don’t have to like it. I’m just glad to have one.” Hashtag: perspective. So Nail Greeter Guy grabs my shoulder and practically carries me down the aisles of chairs to Steve’s manicure table.
The misconception is that when you see nothing with your eyes, you see nothing at all. But that's definitely not true. I don't think there's anything supernatural about how I see, but I definitely see. Ginny Owens
Steve and I have something in common: we run out of words. Our conversation quota is about four sentences at a time and then long silences and four more sentences. But these bits of conversation have helped me to see much of him over the years. He’s been in the US for about a decade. He has a daughter. He’s long been divorced from her mother, who broke his heart. I know that he goes fishing at Percy Priest before work, and he cleans the fish and eats them. I know he likes YouTube and music. We’ve even talked about religion, which he’s not a fan of. But every time I’m here, I get a little clearer image of him.
“Hey Ginny, how are you?” he says.
“Great. How are you?” I say.
“How was your trip home to Vietnam?” I ask.
And then we enter long silence number one, as I consider what Steve might want to talk about next.
“So what did you do while you were at home?”
“I visited my grandmother.”
“And my wife.”
“Your wife?” I ask, surprised. I knew Steve had been looking for wife, but this was new information. “When did you get married?”
“Oh. So she lives in Vietnam.”
“So is she going to move here?”
“Wow. That’s cool.”
Silence number two ensues, at which point I begin noticing the people around the room. There’s an older couple beside me getting pedicures. I hear Green Hills affluence in their accents. The guy’s either retired or a CEO. He’s talking about playing golf this afternoon, and his wife is trying to decide on proper attire for their dinner party at Sunset Grill later in the evening. The lady right next to me is gossiping on her cell phone about people at her work. I know this because she’s not using her inside voice.
“I cannot believe the way he conducts meetings,” I hear her say. “It’s just so ra-diculuous.”
She’s also getting bright red gel nail color, which I know because she keeps interrupting her phone diatribe to ask her manicurist, “Do you think this is too bright?” “Are you sure it’s not too bright?” To which the manicurist consistently replies, “It look nice.”
Per usual, Steve and the manicurist next to him chat a good bit in Vietnamese. I know some of it is about me, because every once in a while Steve will ask a question like, “She want to know, do you live by yourself?” Yes. “She want to know, how you eat?” Well, I cook. “How you do that?” I don’t exactly know how to explain because I know his English vocabulary isn’t terribly extensive. So I just smile and say, “It’s easy. I’ve been doing it a long time.”
After a few more brief but meaningful dialogues with Steve, I’m done and getting up to leave. As I head for the door, I overhear retired sophisticated lady say, “Oh would you look at her. Bless her heart. I don’t know how she does anything being the way she is.”
For a moment, I picture this woman with a pointy nose, beady eyes, frumpy hair and a permanent scowl. And a broomstick instead of a Lexus in the parking lot. She is one of the reasons I need long prayer times. Because I’ve had one today, I somehow choose compassion, realizing that in this moment, she is the one who can’t see.
I exit Parisian and climb into my second Lyft of the day, this time with Alex. I don’t notice in the app which kind of car he has, but when I get in, I know it’s nice. Leather seats. Sports car size. Smells great. He smells great actually. And we have a great time chatting about how Nashville weather changes every second and how one billion people move here every day. He tells me about the startup he works for. He seems super cute too. Hmm. I type his company name down on my seemingly blank phone screen, so I can find him on Instagram and ask a friend if I’m right.
Alex has great energy, which gives me energy. It occurs to me that seeing the world with this kind of hope helps the people you’re around see that way too.
I thank Alex for the ride as I head into my next stop. And while I’m at it, I thank God for all the things I get to see every day. Like the textures and colors of the voices that speak words and sing songs. And the hearts that show me we all need hope – and each other – to make it through.
So if you run into me somewhere, don’t feel sad for me. As you can tell, even though my eyes see nothing, I see more than enough.