Glassed In

How we choose not to see

William Moreland

I got hit by a car the day after Christmas.

It happened more slowly than you are probably imagining: the car’s bumper pushing, pushing, pushing into my legs; my glasses soaring off my nose; my hands striking the pavement. I tried to get up and felt my legs crumple beneath me, and then the man in the car ran to my side, shouting in fear and horror. For several interminable moments, the sounds coming from his mouth refused to resolve into words.

“I can’t believe you hit me,” I said. The surprise of it hadn’t hit me yet. Neither had the pain in my legs.

“I didn’t see you,” he gasped. I thought he might start crying. “I just didn’t see you!”

 

I didn’t get my learner’s permit until I was an adult. I remember vividly the first day I practiced driving—sitting in my mother’s Buick on a driveway at a shuttered paper mill, the steering wheel leathery and a little warm in my grip. Outside, great swathes of concrete were comfortingly blocked off by walls of blackberry brambles six or seven feet tall and at least twice as wide. If the blackberries covered anything solid, it was so deeply buried that even I couldn’t plow a car into it.

Like the day I got hit by a car, it was overcast but not raining. Mom had kindly washed the windows inside and out to maximize visibility. But that slim piece of glass, faintly tinted for sun protection, somehow made it harder to see the world outside the car. I felt like I needed to wash my glasses, or to pull myself across the acre of dashboard and press my face against the glass.

Instead, I rolled down the window to make sure no one had crept up behind me that I might crush into pulp. Only the security guards and the nutria trapper came out to the mill anymore, but deer liked the old flower beds and the grass that had broken through the concrete. Herons prowled the edges of the water treatment lagoons, and otters played in them, too. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than backing over an otter.

I pulled my head back inside. The world closed off from me again. No matter how I turned my head, the windshield’s frame blocked some part of my view, and the gauges battled the blackberries for my attention.

Anxiously, I began to steer the car along the driveway’s turns. If I focused on lining up the hood ornament with the center of the road, I managed fine. But my eyes felt strange. Driving didn’t feel anything like riding in the passenger seat, where I could peer out at birds and read road signs. Driving felt like level fifteen in Tetris, where the blocks moved at a speed my hands could handle, but the parts of my mind that made words and feelings could not keep up with. Even at five slow miles per hour, I couldn’t look at the world and think about it; driving called for instant decisions based on criteria I had yet to internalize.

The world felt so far away from me, shut inside this enormous hunk of American metal. Claustrophobia tightened its grip in my chest. I couldn’t wait to finish my loop of driveways and get outside again. My knees shook when I got out of the car, and my mom brought me a hot cup of coffee from the security guard’s hut.

I did keep practicing, but despite my successful trips around the mill, I never learned how to drive. There are lots of reasons why—economics, childhood trauma, a move back to Portland where there was no car to borrow—but I think the biggest cause was that horrible feeling of not-seeing when I first got behind the wheel. I could not navigate the strangeness of responding to my surroundings without thinking about them.

 

I came away from getting hit by a car a lot luckier than most pedestrians, sustaining only a sprained knee, a broken foot, and an ankle broken in two places. I got crutches and a cast. I kept peeking at my toes beneath their knit toe-warmer, trying to read their color for signs of what my leg was doing within its fiberglass shroud. Only x-rays could penetrate the mysteries of my bones, shut away and hidden.

I, too, felt shut away. Before the accident, my world had been built around my feet. To see my neighborhood, I ran its culs-de-sac and quiet streets. To get anyplace farther, I would walk to mass transit. But getting around on crutches in winter was tricky and terrifying. After the accident, when I needed to leave the house, I got rides from my husband and my friends.

I really missed the bus. It’s always nice to climb on board and exchange pleasantries with the driver. It’s pleasant to sit surrounded by strangers, each of us minding our own business but usually happy to come together to coo over a cute baby or a well-mannered pet. And even though the windows are often dirty or covered by vinyl decals, in some ways riding the bus is more like being outside than in. You have no control over who will share the bus with you; you can’t shut anyone out, no matter how much you might want to.

I missed walking and running for many of the same reasons. A sense of community pervades the pedestrian experience—a community of ordinary people moving through the world, forced to see each other, forced to share space with each other.

For most of this pandemic year, we haven’t been allowed to share space with strangers, but even before lockdown, most of us spent a great deal of time avoiding them.  Our many virtual entertainment options make it so easy to stay in our homes, our needs met by our screens. We have a tremendous amount of control over our experiences within our screen worlds. They take us only to places we choose, and algorithms allow us to create bubbles that separate us from those who are different or might disagree with us. Even when we do go outside, most of us get there first by stepping into our cars, miniature homes with their own screens of security and entertainment.

It is very easy to get into a car and see only what we want to see.

 

Last spring my family hiked to Mirror Lake in the Mount Hood National Forest. After years of seeing photos of the lake on postcards, calendars, and travel sites, we expected an expansive body of water, the kind that fills you with awe. In reality, Mirror Lake is a large pond with swampy edges. We kept expecting some other lake to show up on the trail, something that would make our jaws drop, make us say, “Yes, this is special. This is worth our wonder.”

Instead of wonder, we found a sense of quiet playfulness. We watched kids and dogs get their toes in the water and play in the mud. Someone tossed a dirty snowball at someone else.

We sat down in a backcountry campsite and ate a picnic lunch of sandwiches and apple slices, enjoying the laughter floating up from the lake. As we rested there, a bee landed in front of me, exploring the dusty ground with her front legs. Her body was shorter and stockier than a honeybee’s; the hairs covering her were closer to silver than a bumblebee’s. She dug a tiny hole and then vanished into the ground, the silt falling behind her like curtains on a magician’s vanishing act.

Many kinds of bees dig nests in the ground, laying just an egg or two in underground tunnels. They stock the tunnels with packets of pollen and nectar—called ‘bee bread’—for their young to feed on until they are old enough to crawl out of the ground and begin their own life as solitary fliers. Digger bees are important pollinators, but if Google search results are indication, most people who think at all about these quiet creatures are just afraid the tiny holes they create will ruin their lawns.

Another digger bee landed not far from my foot. She sat still a moment, as if to make sure I was no danger to her. Then she spent a long five or six minutes surveying the ground, beginning several test holes in search of a good site. My family and I grew quieter and quieter as we watched her work. It was impossible not to admire the gloss of her eyes, the softness of her fur, the tenacity and thoroughness of her work. Finally, she found a spot without subterranean rocks or debris. She began to dig methodically, her thick legs throwing the dirt out behind her in a neat berm. Then, she, too, vanished beneath the ground.

We didn’t talk much as we repacked our Tupperware containers and water bottles. We had come to Mirror Lake with so many expectations about what we would see, but we never guessed we would witness anything as lovely as these two bees digging in the earth. For a moment, I felt like I was part of some kind of greater community—a community larger than humanity, larger than my town or the world-wide web.

Just as I put on my backpack, the first digger bee climbed out of her hole, her legs pushing the soil back in place to seal off her children’s nursery. She cleaned herself and flew away.

When we got home, we realized none of us had taken any photos of the bees.

 

When the cast tech cut off my final cast, my foot and leg dangled from the exam table, the skin discolored and puckered from weeks pressed against the folds of padding. The toes on my injured foot looked normal, but the line of the former cast stood out like a corseted waist. Every part below that line had shrunk, the muscles losing their energy stores, the tendons tightening around them. I could barely turn my foot from side to side, and my injured calf looked about two-thirds the size of my other leg.

While I waited for the orthopedist to arrive, I gave my foot a very cautious touch, brushing my fingers over my toes and the arch of my foot. The skin buzzed beneath that tiny touch. After weeks without stimuli, even the whisper of moving air felt shocking and wonderful.

We are not meant to live our lives closed off from sensation or from each other. Humans evolved in social groups that lived outside, moving freely in a world filled with plants and animals. We were meant to scan the horizon for danger, to peer into the smallest cavities for edible larvae, and to see the movement of predators and prey from across a clearing.

Today we spend most of our time looking into the middle distance of our vision, looking at screens and paper, not faces and forests. We get more eye strain and need more help seeing. But it’s not just our physical eyes that struggle to see in our modern world—we struggle to perceive each other and the world around us. The internet has brought the globe to our pockets, but it has also made it easy to connect only with our own, self-selected bubbles. It is easier than ever to plan a trip to a beautiful destination, but the preconceptions created by travelogues and social media influencers make it difficult to simply enjoy the experience of travel.

It’s hard to go to a beautiful place and just be there without feeling the pressure to photograph it and talk about it on the internet. Photography has never been so much a part of our social lives. In 2017, InfoTrends estimated that people took over 1.2 trillion photos, and we’re taking more every day.

I love photography. It’s a powerful art that allows us to see the world in new ways. But it’s just one way of seeing, like looking out the car window on a road trip is one way of seeing. In both cases, the person looking out at the world exerts a kind of control over what they see. In a photo, you choose the focus and shape of your vision. You crop out what you don’t want to see, whether it’s an extraneous flower or a piece of trash. In a car, you speed up your time looking at the world, compressing it into a windshield-sized rectangle—all the while choosing your soundtrack, your company, and your ambient temperature.

Lost in this curated view is the joy of letting go of control and just experiencing the world as it is. Not as we expect it to be, not as the travel blogs said it would be, but just as it is. To take the risk we might see a muddy pond instead of a majestic lake. To let awe and delight move us so much we forget to take any photos. To get out of our cars and walk amongst our neighbors, who might have dogs and babies who would love to see us.

Out on the sidewalk, you have no control over who you will walk with and what you will see. But I think that’s healthy. When we are always in control of our environment, we wrap the muscles of seeing and connecting in protection they don’t need. We put them in a cast and squeeze them tight. I fear that our abilities to see and connect with each other are withering like the muscles in my unused, casted leg. I fear that’s why, on a clear day, I stepped into a crosswalk wearing a bright blue jacket and I got hit by a car.

I just didn’t see you.

 

A few days after my cast removal, I put on my knee brace, tightened my plastic boot, and very cautiously crept down my driveway to stand on the sidewalk in front of my house. I want to say a bald eagle soared overhead or that a car drove by and the sound of its engine made my heart squeeze in my chest. But that walk, the first walk I took by myself outside my own house, happened with no melodrama.

I stepped over a squashed earthworm, chatted with the neighbor’s landscaper, and said hello to the obnoxious cat that likes to chase the birds in my yard. I noticed that a daffodil had opened in my front flower bed.

The sun was shining. I was walking. And I was outside.

I opened my eyes wide and tried to see everything.

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1 comments have been posted.

I read this essay about 10 days ago, and I am still thinking about it, still filling up with all the complex feelings it invited in me, again and again. I am grateful beyond words that Wendy found and shared these words, this set of reflections, that are so needed right now.

Tasha Harmon | January 2021 | Portland, OR

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