Two sides of the whole

I often try to look into my son’s soul, to understand who this growing, independent person is.

I’m not always sure what I’m seeing.

The times he spends with me one-on-one, he can be insightful, even wise; he comes up with solutions I can’t, he applies the things I tell him in unexpected ways.

Of course he can be silly, too, and manages to drag out descriptions of the perfect goal (his or someone else’s, doesn’t matter) to the point that I completely loose track of the subject. But for the most part, he is and has been for as long as I can remember, a fun little companion. I’m always reassured when parents volunteering at the school or hosting him for sleepovers say the same thing.

Then there are the reports from camps, teachers, some extracurricular activities. Tales of a bright but disruptive boy who does what he can to be the centre of attention. Pleas to me to remind him to be less silly, less overwhelming.

He’s not bad, they say, and yet the calls and emails do express some frustration. Are these systems simply not set up for rambunctious boys? Is this just the norm, something parents of boys have heard for generations? Do I, on those days that I worry about it, just take it all too much to heart?

I think about this question a lot, this “who is this person?” question. I try to look past the version of him that he offers me when it’s just us, when he has this adult’s full attention. I try to see who he truly is.

But the view I have of him is unreliable. It is shadowed by my own perceptions – of him, of life, of myself – and by the light he chooses to shed on parts of himself, while stowing the other parts in the darkness, just out of my sight.

And maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s the way a person develops their independence, their sense of self. This could be an important process I’ve been watching unfold.

I’m thinking about all of this as I lie in bed, looking at the night sky through our open blind. The moon is a thin sliver tonight, just barely rising above the skyline. I can see its dark side, too, but only just. Venus shines brightly higher up in the sky.

I am struck by the beauty of the thin sliver as it floats serenely, glowing golden, so thin, its dark side glows, too, if darkness can glow. It’s a simple, everyday sight, easy to look at without seeing, to take for granted. But every now and then if you really stop and look you see more, you see the deeper things in that orb.

I’m really looking now, and it’s hard to be sure about any of the details I think I see in that mostly-dark side. It is a darkness that is pregnant and full and seems to threaten to overwhelm the small sliver of light floating along attached to it.

Before I have a chance to find out whether the darkness will win or if that bit of brightness can hold on and grow, the moon touches down on the roof of the cityscape. Then, so quickly I almost wonder if it was ever even there, it slips behind the buildings and disappears, leaving only Venus shining brightly – easily mistaken for a large, vibrant star – in the expanse of night.

All of these things – the moon, Venus, my son – are perceived differently from the way they actually are. The observer will never see its subject the way the subject sees itself. We can only watch from our own perspective.

Venus is not a star.

The moon is in darkness because it is shadowed by us. The only parts we mere mortals know are those parts we manage to see when we get out of the way and let the sun shine on them, however fleetingly.

Like the moon, there are multiple aspects to people; we can never know them the way they know themselves. We can’t be sure whether they are more darkness or more light, or simply different than our perceptions.

The best we can do is stand back, appreciate the beauty, observe what we can see, and let as much of who they are shine back at us.

Snow Scapes: Collecting Glimmers on a Grey Day

Glen was just packing his saxophone into its case in the entrance hall of the Salvation Army shelter when Helen came shuffling along. He looked up and noticed she was dressed to go out. She was pulling the heavy wagon she had fashioned out of an old suitcase handle, a milk crate and some wheels. It made a soft scraping noise on the scuffed linoleum flooring. His eyes quickly took in her appearance and his brow furrowed in concern. She wasn’t dressed very warmly.

“Helen,” he began gently, “Helen, are you going out in that? You know, it’s very cold today.”

Helen looked up absently at him, pulled a scarf down over her hair and knotted it below her chin. “I’ve called a taxi,” she said, as an explanation.

A horn honked outside. Glen turned and looked through the window. “I think your taxi’s here. Do you want some help?”

But Helen was already shuffling off toward the door, lost in her own world.

Glen finished getting his things together and buttoned up his coat. It was cold, but he was looking forward to going out in the snow. He had some tunes in his head that he wanted to play and he knew he would warm up once he started, once he was out among the people on the streets. He pulled on his gloves and, grasping his saxophone case and taking hold of the collection pot and stand, he followed Helen out into the cold, grey day.


It is a cold, cold day. And grey. The clouds are a thick and seamless, unmoving mass overhead. I think it must be too cold to snow, and yet it is snowing. Flakes of white twirl and dance through the air.

Depending on the scene, the moment, the people in it, the same snow on the same cold, grey day can be beautiful or forbidding, it can sparkle or prick at the faces of passersby.

It is early afternoon and I am walking through the crowded exit of a hospital. Outside, just before the entrance, there is a crush of cars and people, coming and going. I am tired and on my way somewhere but the plaintive voice of a small, older woman getting out of a taxi distracts me.

At first, I think she is elderly. She wears a patterned scarf over her head and tied at her chin so that I can’t see her hair. I imagine it is grey, perhaps long. The scarf doesn’t seem warm enough and neither do her other clothes; the cowl neck of a forest green sweater protrudes from the top of her thin overcoat’s collar and her hands are bare and must be frozen in this weather.

She is asking for help, she complains to anyone who might be listening that the cabbie is just in a hurry, that he is not helping her. I offer her my hand as she shuffles her feet, trying unsuccessfully to move up the sloped side of the sidewalk from the curb toward the doors of the hospital. I see then that she is not so old, though her face is lined with hunger and strain and I can only imagine what else. Her lips are cracked and white.

Even with my help, she has trouble moving her feet. She ruefully mumbles that she should have brought something better to lean on, and I glance at the handle that extends from her hand, down to where it is duct-taped to a blue plastic milk crate on makeshift wheels. The contraption is heavy. It is covered with foil so that I can’t see what is inside it, but I imagine it is her belongings. All the things she owns. I try to help her pull the crate behind her but she is right, it is heavy, and not useful for leaning on. She won’t let me pull it up ahead for her.

I have to leave, people are waiting for me and I can see that she is looking for company, or for something else, something I can’t give her. I leave her when she has finally reached the top of the sidewalk. She is still having trouble making her legs move. I take one last glance at her as she struggles along toward the doorway of the hospital. The snow around her is cold and grey, the air biting.

Walking later near my home, the flakes seem to float and flutter, like soft sparkles drifting on the wind. Though the day is still just as cold and just as grey, there is a loveliness to them. A peacefulness. I pause for a moment and follow their paths as they dance through the air, enjoying the purity of the whiteness in front of the warm red of the surrounding brick houses. I think about how different the same snow can be depending on the circumstances.

In the evening, I walk down a busy street, past shop fronts, past people squeezing in a few more minutes of shopping. It is colder, bitterly so, and the snow has stopped falling, though it billows around in the wind.

The sound of a saxophone being played on a street corner draws my attention. The notes float out along the street on the backs of the twirling snowflakes. A young man, brightly dressed in a motley collection of reds, stands next to a Salvation Army collection pot, his shiny chrome instrument flashing in the dim, early evening light. Astonishingly, effortlessly, he coaxes a happy melody out of the cold saxophone though he wears only thin, fingerless gloves.

I stop and watch, thinking that you almost never see the Salvation Army out on street corners anymore. And yet here he is, on one of the coldest days of the year. There is a warmth and a joy that radiate from within him out into the cold. His music calls to people and they draw near and smile, through faces frozen stiff, they chat to him and to each other, and some even dance a little.

I recall the woman I saw earlier in the day, at the hospital, and I think about all the people that are helped by those like the man before me, gathering money and reaching out. Perhaps the two of them have met. Perhaps they have passed on the street or in warmer corridors.

As the snow and wind and cold pick up again, I look around and think about how we are all connected. We all breathe the same air, are touched by the same snow, shiver in the same cold. But it is so different, it looks and feels different, from beautiful and sparkling to forbidding and painful, depending on where you are standing.

Other responses to this week’s Weekly Challenge:

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Photograph: Girl on a Stone Wall

She sits on a rounded stone wall, her pink t-shirted back turned, hunched over her notebook, pen in hand, trying to capture her surroundings in a picture constructed of words. Her jeans are faded, her knees pulled up so that her feet, clad in olive green and chocolate brown Doc Marten boots, grip the sides of the wall and hold her steady. Her hair, glinting red in the sunlight, is pulled back into a messy knot, out of the way. She is twenty-two.

Below her, tall grasses reach to the top of the near side of the wall. On the other side of the wall, seaweed drapes across the skeletons of bleached roots and branches, and further into the riverbed, green moss meets muddy flats. The tide is out.

On the opposite side of the wide rivermouth, trees dot the shore and the land slowly rolls up into gentle hills, a patchwork of fifteen shades of brilliant green, each separated by low stone walls.

The sky fades from pale blue, almost white, on the horizon, to a summer-deep shade high overhead, while soft cotton balls of clouds hang, static in the photograph – though undoubtedly skimming across the sky and out to sea on that day.

The girl is aware that the picture is being taken behind her and thinks that when she looks back at this photograph, she will remember how she felt sitting there, writing. And when she re-reads her writing, she will imagine the photograph being taken.

It is July 4, 1997.

I write this now, sixteen years later, without first reading the words I wrote that day. Opening that notebook from the past, I read my words from that day and am struck by the similarity of the two pieces of writing. It feels familiar and yet distant, like a song I once knew well but have not heard for many years.

July 4

We went exploring – here I sit on the other side of the river from Clonakilty. The tide’s still out here, not like in Kinsale, and the old bones of the river are left to bleach in the sun, draped with browning seaweed. THe sky is blue and the surrounding low-lying hills are, of course, millions of the best shades of green. Rising from the river is the wet seepage music of the water passing into cell after cell of the miles of seaweed. The songs of the fifty-odd types of birds who make their homes here echo through the sun-drenched land. I wonder how old this wall is on which I sit? I can’t believe I’m actually here.