The Bluebird of Perception

 

Each of us has our favorites in life.  Unlike the casual “favorites” overflowing our browsers, personal favorites often are life-affirming and life-changing preferences embedded  into our hearts by a process as subtle as it is mysterious.  Asked to reflect on a best-loved moment or reveal which cherished bit of beauty we’ve pulled from the world’s storeroom to decorate our lives, we may pretend to ponder, to anguish just a bit, but in truth we know the answers.  We’re just trying to ignore the world’s judgement on their merits.   

Perhaps because these favorites are so personal, so idiosyncratic, we seem to find them fascinating.  Yet another version of the old “choices” game was sent to me recently, a sign of that fascination.  Designed to invite self-revelation, this one banished us to the proverbial deserted island, allowing only one book, one song, one memory and one vision to sustain us in our solitude.  Responding wasn’t hard, as two of my choices have been fixed for years.  Lawrence Durrell gets the nod for his exquisite, four-volume  Alexandria Quartet, a palimpsest of the heart.  Enya’s Orinoco Flow may be as much memory as song, but years ago its melody and rhythms carried me across the Pacific, repetitive and comforting as the sea.  Hearing it today, I feel again the rise and falling of the deck. Leaning back against the insistent pull of imaginary sails I suffer the illusion, common after long passages, of once more being underway as earth herself begins to pitch and yaw like a green and verdant vessel.    

Books and music are easy choices, but choosing one special memory is harder.  There are as many memories as moments in life, but my final choice transports me to a room on Madrid’s Plaza Major, stretching out across the rough cotton spread and listening to the curtains breathe in the late afternoon silence.  Time contracts, then expands with the rising heat, reverberating with the great bells of the city.  I peel an orange, and watch a single bee hover near its sun-warmed skin.  Blown forward in time, the curtains billow into my vision from Andrew Wyeth’s Wind from the Sea. The painting carries salt and substance as lightly as a breeze, and if the vision recalls Anne Morrow Lindberg’s Gift from the Sea, if it somehow bends the rules by giving me yet another book and many more memories than the game allows, then I have chosen well. 

Andrew Wyeth ~ Wind From the Sea

Eventually, one of these little games will stipulate an island with a broadband connection and ask for a favorite blog.  How I would choose then, I can’t say. In the midst of the verbal clutter we call the blogosphere, there are writers serving up words that drip with the intensity and flavor of sun-ripened fruit.  Some blogs breathe as softly as a faltering Spanish breeze while others, layered and impenetrable as Cavafy’s City, trace the labyrinthine longings of the human heart with passion and persistence.

Dispatches from Kansas is such a blog.  Reading Tom Parker’s work, I walk the edge of consciousness just as I walked my childhood trestles, exhilarated by language, mesmerized by sentences unrolling like the hills.  His photography, straightforward as a Midwestern greeting, now and then shimmers like pooling mirages on August Kansas blacktop.  Browsing his site recently, I discovered this delightful photo.

It reminds me of my own first bicycle, despite those far-more-recent-than-the-1950s handlebars. It seems a perfect representation of childhood in a simpler, easier time - days when a child could abandon a bike on impulse without having to wrap it in chains and padlocks or remove a wheel.  Where is this child?  Playing ball, perhaps, distracted by a friend or fishing in a creek. It doesn’t matter. When hunger or darkness remind the child of home, the bike will be there, dependable as the cycle of days.

As I often do with images I enjoy, I went back to look at the photo again, and then two times more. When I returned to look at it a fourth time, I was utterly astonished.  There, on top of the bicycle handlebars, was a bluebird.  After a moment of disorientation – when had the bird flown in?  how did I miss it?  surely it wasn’t there before -  I succumbed to simple amusement.   Obviously Tom had added the bluebird to his bicycle with a little creative photoshopping, perhaps intending  to determine who really was looking at his photos.  I left a comment – an inquiry about the bird – and received a response.  The bird had been there from the beginning.  I simply hadn’t seen it.  In fact, the image of the bicyle without the bird is my photoshopping, done in order to create the image as I first saw it.  Here is the original photo, just as Tom posted it. 

 

Once past my astonishment, I became intensely curious.  On first view, and second and third, how had I missed the bird? What prevented me from seeing it?  Tom asked, “Did you click on the image to see the larger version, where the bird is more obvious?”   No, I hadn’t looked at the larger version.  But even in the image above, the bird isn’t exactly hidden.  It’s quite obvious, sitting there on its perch.  None of it made sense.

Days passed, and I continued to ponder the mystery.  One afternoon, I remembered an entry I’d posted recently on my own blog.  Concerned with the plight of those known as The Disappeared, it highlighted an exhibit currently on view at the University of Wyoming Art Museum in Laramie.  One piece which  moved me greatly was this street scene by Fernando Traverso.

 From the Exhibit “The Disappeared”
Fernando Traverso ~ Argentina

Looking again at Traverso’s photograph, I began to wonder.   Had the image of this bicycle so impressed itself on my unconscious that, looking at Tom Parker’s photo, I saw only the bicyle and not the bird, that extra bit of beauty perched in plain sight?   Had the emotional impact of one bicycle shaped my perception of another?

There are no firm answers, but questions raised by the experience are intriguing.  How do previous experiences shape our ability to “see” the world around us?   Are we sometimes oblivious to the presence of beauty because of  simple inattention?   How do we learn to focus on what is, rather than responding to our own preconceptions?  Should any work of art be judged after just one viewing, or are multiple viewings, multiple reads necessary?    How can we move from being passive consumers of art, to being active participants in the experience of art? 

Like the favorites we hold dear, answers to these questions will vary from person to person.   Perception, it seems,  is a tricky thing, and the world is not always what it seems.  But thanks to Tom Parker and his camera,  I intend to look a little more closely, a little more attentively at my world.  There are bluebirds abroad in the land, and every one is worth seeing.

 

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Published in: on April 10, 2009 at 9:32 pm  Comments (16)  
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  1. While scanning over the photos the first time through without having read your text I thought you’d accidently posted the same photo twice. :-)

    BTW Linda, thank you for dropping a link to my post about Twitter in your local forum. That’s the best form of compliment. They seem to like it, too!

    Ian,

    And I’m entirely capable of posting the same photo twice, so your thought was reasonable. Mr. Parker himself was a bit disoriented to see his bicycle without its bird, even though I’d asked permission to alter the photo and he knew it was coming. Interesting stuff.

    I’m always happy to pass on good satire, parody and word play, and yours is some of the best. Of course they liked it!

    Linda

  2. Happy Easter, shore, to you and your mom. May a bluebird always be in your world.

    Thanks, Ella!

    Bluebirds are special, for sure. I’d never seen one until my Kansas City aunt started shelling out a little cash here and there for mealworms. Once the birds found them and became regulars, we were the ones who were hooked. They’re a gorgeous reminder of all the beauties in the world, and a lovely sign of the season.

    Linda

  3. Another wonderful offering, made to stir up memories.

    What would be my favourite music? A piece that I can listen to time and time again, yet hear something extra on each hearing?
    It would have to be Beethoven’s 6th symphony, ‘The Pastoral’. The storm, the peasant’s merrymaking, the bird song all evoke pictures in my mind. The book I would take will probably shock you. Not the works of Shakespeare nor The Illiad by Homer.

    Whenever I am feeling low, or ill, I take to my bed with L.M. Mongomery’s Anne of Green Gables! There is just something comforting about this book, I probably know it off by heart now, but still get a “warm, happy” feeling when I read it.

    If I could take an ‘aroma’ to this deserted Island it would have to be that of freshly brewed coffee.
    I was just 13 years old when I first smelt real coffee, not the bottled “camp” coffee, with its chicory smell, but real ground beans. I had been selected to go to Austria with the school on a wildlife adventure. I was the youngest in the group and spoilt silly by the older girls, and boys! I had never been in a hotel before, and this was half way up an mountain in the Tyrol, overlooking Innsbruck. Wonderful! Walking in the front reception became something I did repeatedly during the 8 days we were there, as I became addicted to the aroma of the coffee brewing. Even today if I smell real coffee I am wafted back to warm sunshine, mountain air, wonderful views, innocent childhood and …… llya Kuryakin! The 18 year old girl who took me under her wing was a ‘Man From U.N.C.L.E.” fan, and talked non stop about her latest pin-up, David McCallum!

    I haven’t thought about that for years! LOL

    Sandi,

    Shocked by Anne of Green Gables? Not really – you’ll notice Shakespeare and the Illiad weren’t my choices, either. I appreciate both, but I don’t love either one like I do the Durrell. I’ve gone through two sets of the Alexandria Quartet – wore the first one out, partly because I get that same “warm, happy feeling” when I read it, and I read it at least twice a year.

    Aroma?! What a wonderful category. Coffee’s good, but for me it would be freshly cut, Iowa summertime grass. There is just nothing like the smell of cut grass to transport me back to the twisted, clicking blades of the push mower, and armies of robins following along behind to catch a grasshopper or bug. It was “real” grass, too – soft and silky, growing out of the earth, not the hard, spiky grass we have in Houston. Sometimes I catch a whiff of the scent here, but walking barefoot through it just isn’t the same.

    Sometimes I forget you’re British, until you say something like, “I was just 13 years old when I first smelt real coffee…” I never drank a cup of tea until I was in high school and started traveling in more cosmopolitan circles. In our Swedish household, I think all the kids were weaned on coffee – boiled, with an egg added to the grounds!

    Linda

  4. Your conclusion, Linda, summed it up perfectly, “Perception, it seems, is a tricky thing, and the world is not always what it seems.” When my sister and I talk about something from our childhood, it amazes me how she remembers an incident completely different from the one I remember. Or, she remembers an incident I have no recollection of whatsoever. Or, the best, something she says will remind me of a moment I hadn’t thought about since it occurred, and it’s like opening a neatly wrapped little gift.

    Your experience with the bird just shows we see what we want to see, we hear what we want to hear, we don’t always consciously choose what we remember. And isn’t that part of the beauty of being human? Every time I look at The Sorrowing Virgin (Dieric Bouts) at the Chicago Art Institute, a different emotion is evoked. I look at this painting every time I visit the museum, and I never tire of it. On my last visit, I realized there were more than three tears on the Madonna’s face. Imagine my surprise! If we took in everything at once, we would probably be so overwhelmed we’d pass out on the spot. I guess that’s why it is so much fun to go back and reread a beloved book, or listen to a favorite song.

    Thank you for another thought provoking post, Linda. I will come back and read it again in a few days, because I know something else will strike me, that didn’t come to me this time around.

    qugrainne,

    The vagaries of memory and perception are wonderful, although I’ve been thinking about even more significant ways prior experience can influence us. So many people love Paris, for example, and yet after one visit, I’ve never desired to return. I had an unfortunate encounter with a woman in the Gare du Nord, and she ended up screaming at me. I’ve never known why – by the time she got wound up, she was rattling away so fast my rudimentary French didn’t have a chance of catching her meaning. But that single experience shaped my vision of an entire city, reinforcing common prejudice and killing my desire to go back. Rational? No, of course not. But instructive. Now, when I catch someone in a reflexive response, I always try to take another look and see what might be lurking under the surface.

    Your first paragraph, by the way, is a lovely way of understanding so-called “discrepancies” in the synoptic Gospels. Quite apart from historical differences (date of authorship, etc) the fact is that a human process produced Matthew, Mark and Luke, and it makes perfect sense there would be variation in details, or the omission in one gospel of something found in the others. John is a different story, quite literally, but I can see the other three sitting around and telling stories about this guy who was their friend. “Hey,” says Mark, “remember when he…..” And then Matthew and Luke look at him and say, “Naw… we don’t remember that at all.” Now,two thousand years later, we’re scratching our heads like this should be surprising ;-)

    I love this: “If we took in everything at once, we would probably be so overwhelmed we’d pass out on the spot.” It’s precisely the reason I read Durrell twice a year. It’s always different.

    Linda

  5. Do you ever have a psychic moment? I had just come back to have another read of your wonderful words, arriving at the piece about the blue bird, when the song that began playing on the radio was Vera Lynn singing “There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover”!!

    Spooky or what!!

    Sandi,

    I sure do have those moments – I don’t think they’re psychic, exactly, but they’re worth noting. Remember Aunt Ina? Sometimes I’m sure that crazy great-aunt of mine still is lurking around, arranging things. I like Jung’s term, “synchronicity” – unprovable, but pointing to “meaningful coincidences”.

    Of course, we’ve always got Shakespeare to help us out, even though neither of us wanted to take him to the island. Remember when Horatio and Marcellus bump into Hamlet talking to his father’s ghost?

    Horatio:
    O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

    Hamlet:
    And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
    There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
    Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

    :-)

    Linda

  6. Ha! I love that you are the kind of person who, for a second, entertained the thought that the bluebird had flown into the picture.

    Jeannine,

    Make that a full six seconds. And of course, who’s to say I didn’t see him at first because he’d flown OUT of the photo for some reason?

    I repotted the Cape Honeysuckle this afternoon and thought of you.

    Linda

  7. …beautiful piece! Thanks for sharing!

    MLC,

    How good of you to take a minute to stop by. Thanks for the kind words, and best wishes for a wonderful Easter day.

    Linda

  8. Oh, my. First, I am wagging my finger and glaring at you: never again will I believe your claim that you are “not a reader.” The mere mention of The Alexandria Quartet, and your wonderful description of it as “a palimpsest of the heart,” give the lie to that statement. (I have only read Justine, and that so long ago that to do Durrell justice, I will have to start over.)

    Second, you have created another fan of Mr. Parker’s Dispatches from Kansas.

    Third, but not least, this is so rich, so interesting, and your questions about perception so apt that I, like qugrainne, will be back for more. Here is the other Alexandrian you mention, who says what I feel so much better than I can:
    …Let me submit to Art:
    Art knows how to shape forms of Beauty,
    almost imperceptibly completing life,
    blending impressions, blending day with day.

    Thank you, my friend, for your Art.

    ds,

    You’re more than kind, and you’re especially kind to bring Cavafy’s words along with you. We haven’t much time or patience for “imperceptible blending” these days, but that’s wholly our loss.

    And that line – Art knows how to shape forms of Beauty – reminds me of a sentence or two from Dissent Decree’s post, “On the Surface”. He says, “Art is human skill and imagination made manifest. A sunset may be beautiful but it is not art. Human hands do not make it. It may be enjoyed and shared, but an actual sunset cannot be created, collected and given as a gift from one human being to another or to all.” It’s Cavafy’s insight, differently phrased.

    It’s been a long time since anyone wagged their finger at me, but I remember who did, and I always shaped up! You’re welcome to wag that finger any old time.

    Linda

  9. Oops! The quote was C.P. Cavafy, from the poem “I’ve Brought to Art.”

    Thanks for the add – there’s no way to read Durrell without learning to appreciate Cavafy.

    Linda

  10. Hi Linda,

    Dropped by to let you know that I’ve created a new section on my MORE LINKS page – ‘Writers’sites-emphasising quality and originality’ featuring your site again and giving a little more detail. Let me know if you’re happy with what I’ve done.

    Is there such a thing as co-incidence? I chose this evocative post because it was the most recent, and found that we share a favourite book – Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet’. It may amuse you to know, as a seafaring woman, that I read the whole of this fantastic book on a summer holiday job during my university years whilst working as a merchant navy stewardess sailing round the Outer Hebrides on one of the local ferries. Durrell was my Friday evening distraction in my locked cabin whilst the 39 sailors I was working with prowled about, seeking female company!!

    Easter Greetings, Anne W

  11. Another essay with sharp insight if not sharp sight. Perception is not a passive activity. It is very easy to see what you expect (even if it’s not there) and fail to see what you don’t expect.

    You might be interested in the University of Illinois Visual Cognition Lab, especially their video demos.

    LowerCal,

    I just skimmed the page and it does look like something I’ll enjoy going back to. The relationship of all this to the study of visual rhetoric is especially interesting. Of course, Marshall McLuhan is roaming around just offstage, muttering something about the medium and the message, and there are those folk who insist that (even in science!) the presence of an observer changes the behavior/nature of what is observed.

    The mention of McLuhan combined with your reminder that perception is not a passive activity reminds me of his funny definition of duologue: two television sets, turned on and facing one another. Every now and then I see one of those discussions taking place, and the level of perceptivity isn’t very high on either side.

    Linda

  12. Oh, how I fell into this post — the “take one…” is a game I play with myself often — and of course the things change because as you so beautifully pointed out, in the whole they are fairly inconsequential things — compared to visions and memories, which are rather firm.

    There is a wonderful Japanese movie, the title of which I’m trying desperately to remember — I used to own it, loaned it and it was never returned, much to my chagrin. In the story, you meet this group of “people” whose job in the holding zone to the afterlife is to connect with each person and find the one memory they want preserved forever. Everything else will disappear except for this, but the “people” will make a movie that recreates this dream, down to the very detail of the color dress, the weather, the locale. It’s an amazing movie (and now I HAVE to find it again)!

    After I saw it, I knew my memory was of a warm summer afternoon at the cottage. The lake outside the window rang with the music of waves and the gentle breeze added rustling pines and gently blowing curtains to the mix. Rick and I decided to take a nap and were laying on the log cabin quilt on top of the bed. My dear Stimpy, the beloved orange and white cat, was on my other side. I remember thinking at that very moment, “I cannot be happier or more content than I am this very moment.”

    I think that’s still my thought.

    Your bluebird reminds me of something I often think about in terms of the oral tradition. Are the stories we know (and you can take that from family lore to long-held religious stories) what really and truly happened, or did they change as selective memory and creative thinking filled in the blanks. We see what we look for and then it can become “record,” if to no one else but ourselves. I must revisit this post again.

    Have you begun your travels yet? Soon, I hope — and I also hope you and your mum had a lovely holiday.

    jeanie,

    Your Japanese movie sounds fascinating, particularly the detail allowed. One of the things that fascinates me is that even our earliest memories can become available to us later in life. One of my own earliest memories is from the time when I was still pre-verbal, and in a high chair. I can remember sitting in our yellow and white kitchen at 8:15 in the morning, eating breakfast. I have only the visual memory of the clock – I didn’t know it was 8:15 at the time, but now can interpret it. Mom had found a tiny mouse in the cabinets under the sink, caught in a trap. She put a white enamel dishpan with a red edge over it to keep it secure until Dad came home. We’ve talked about it a lot, and I could go on and on with the details, all of which she’s confirmed. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how those get imprinted, and what brings them to consciousness?

    One of the things I’ve learned about oral tradition is how carefully it is passed on. Variation in details and creativity isn’t a virtue, there! That’s one reason oral tradition can be such a wonderful way to access the past – the unchanging details are preserved whole. Storytelling, on the other hand, allows for much more creativity, and leads to the kind of result you mention.

    As for the traveling – Thursday morning! and none too soon!

    Linda

  13. I just remembered the title of that movie and googled it. If you’re interested, visit here!
    http://www.sarudama.com/japanese_movies/afterlife.shtml

    I’ll visit, for sure! It sounds wonderful.

  14. What? bluebird on bicycle? A great, simple photo. Glad you shared. Strange, though, how it went, not seeing it the first time. It’s not like you’re a non-see-er. Hmmmm… but don’t we all do that from time to time?

    (btw, I fixed my Team Muse shirt, which I adore!)

    oh,

    Photographers amaze me – and equally astonishing is how a photo changes with one little addition or subtraction. Glad you enjoyed it! Just think of the birdie as my own, tangential addition to your “blue week”!

    Linda

  15. Exactly what I wanted to read when I returned to my work after a long and relaxed Easter holiday. Thank you.

    Interesting story about the photo with the bluebird and the bike. Kind of spooky in a way.

    Désirée,

    A little spooky, from one perspective, but awfully interesting. I think our minds must be up to things far beyond what we’re aware of – I’m going to try and pay more attention to mine.

    Glad your holiday was lovely – with Easter behind us, we’re really and truly moving toward full spring and summer!

    Linda

  16. I enjoy the way your mind works, Linda, and the way you share it with us. Yes, perception is a tricky thing, and so is memory. I sometimes wonder how much of what I remember is factual, and how much of it is my perception of what happened.

    Like one of your other commenters, I’ve experienced remembering a childhood incident in a completely different way than my sister. I finally decided we’re both entitled to our own perception. How big of me. Ha.

    My granddaughter falls asleep listening to Enya at night.


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