I should be ashamed to admit it, but I've fallen for a tree. It isn’t even a pretty tree. Every December, my husband and I drive out to Pete’s Tree Farm to browse the Charlie Brown section—trees with lopsided branches and wayward midsections, nature doling out its needles in unkind proportions. We play a game of finding the best version of a bad tree for the lowest price, bring it home, screw it into the metal stand, top it with a quail cut from a liquor box, string it with white lights—and just like that, it’s a glorious thing.
Not everyone would find it glorious, of course, but the point isn’t the tree so much as the way I could look into its branches for hours—and sometimes do—until my eyes glaze and I can barely speak for how lovely the world. It’s true that I often have a bottle of sherry by my side during the tree sessions, though the sherry isn’t the cause so much as an accompaniment to the wonder.
It’s surprising, the sustenance that comes from staring at a tree topped by liquor box fowl. But the simplest things are the hardest-hitting, so that given proper attention, certain unassuming objects begin to swell before our eyes, expanding the moment until we can nearly grab hold. Tree-staring is not the only means. Cutting into the fat pearl of an onion lends itself, as does the sudden view of the night sky, or happening upon stalks of milkweed in a frozen field, pods empty except for the most stubborn bit of silk clinging to the husk.
Winter is the season for such moments, something about the dark, the cold, the forced hunkering down. In fall, people welcome the cool with vigor, outfitting themselves in handsome sweaters and tossing around footballs. In spring, we awaken like a trail of ants to saw along peony buds with our tiny jaws, so that by summer we’re all slightly mad with desire. But in mid-December, the snow comes and the early blue of evening, and with it, the chance to regard the world more deeply, to behold.
Behold. A funny word, fussy-sounding and old. The sort of word I’d feel self-conscious speaking aloud and seldom hear outside of church: Behold! A virgin shall be with child!
From the Old English behealdan, meaning to keep or to hold, to gaze upon, to observe, and to perceive through sight or apprehension, or, when used in the imperative, to call attention to, to prepare others for something that must be seen: Behold!
It’s growing on me, this word that demands that we sit up and take note—a bossy word, but one that's redeemed by the fact that at its root is the tender verb to hold.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking of Judith Kitchen, the loss of her, the gift of her. Words like luminous, expansive, evocative, lyrical, generous swirl about my head, and now behold has come to join them in its various forms: beholder, beholding, beholden. The last one especially. To her, I am beholden.
I’ve been rereading Judith’s first essay collection, Only the Dance (1994), and more specifically, the opening essay, “Things of This Life,” which begins with a child in an Adirondack shop— her family is vacationing at Indian Lake—and the girl mulls over her choices for a souvenir, trying to decide while her parents wait. Her brother has chosen quickly, but the girl’s inclination is to look closely at things, wondering over each and every object. [Poky, we call such children, but in truth they are great contemplatives.] But back to the essay, and the girl pondering souvenirs. Her father, who has been patient, finally issues a time limit. She must choose and..picks a round box made of bark, decorated with porcupine quills. It smells like sweet grass, like countryside. “What are you going to do with that?” her brother asks, and she realizes she doesn’t know.
‘It feels nice,” she says.
The scene snags me. First, because the child understands that practicality (What are you going to do with that?) is a foreign language where longing is concerned (It feels nice). Secondly, because a souvenir shop is the perfect setting to open a book by a writer whose work concerns itself so beautifully with memory. But the main reason the scene hooks me is because the girl in the shop is the essayist herself, which tells me that Judith Kitchen was a born beholder.
Even as child, she can’t help herself as she ponders row upon row of plastic tomahawks and miniature moccasins and canoe key-chains, yielding to the desire to gaze, to examine and to touch with the power of her attention. Despite her father waiting at the door and the pull of practicality in the form of her brother, the child—who will one day become the master essayist—already understands that a.) anything is worthy of consideration, and b.) there is revelation (even merit) in the act of considering.
The essay folds back to present time, the child now grown, a woman in western New York waking to another morning in winter: There has been too much snow this winter and she is tired of it…tired of driving home on Tuesday nights with the wind in her face and the thin snakes of snow rippling fastforward out in front of the asphalt…tired of how the flakes flare briefly in the headlights, and how she can’t somehow see beyond them into the receding dark…almost tired of wondering why the tracks—footprints in the yard, snowmobile in the field—are whiter than the surrounding expanse of snow so that you see them as a trail of pure light…
Even in the exhaustion of snow, the writer locates light. But rather than rise from bed into the bright hard day, she lingers, as she did decades before at Indian Lake. With no one to prod her, she luxuriates in the moment, surveying the room, noticing the clutter atop her dresser and considering in turn each object before her—where it came from, the people and questions and unanswered desires it carries. She touches down first on a handcrafted jack-in-the-box, then a vase of wilting flowers, a bowl with fluted edges, painted baskets, a mug with a broken handle, a miniature porcelain piano containing a pair of earrings she will never wear—her ears are not pierced—yet she holds onto them, an impossible treasure she occasionally lifts to her ears, admiring their sparkle, wondering who she might become should she ever actually wear them.
Behold. Now the word has me. Lo, and behold. The eye of the beholder.
Is it the season of Advent that’s ushered in the word, the biblical sort of beholding that prepares us to be dazzled? Or is it Judith’s essay, the way she fixes her gaze first on one object, then another, the accretion of story and longing as she moves from vase to basket to box? In either case, the word has arisen to say that wonder is possible— even and especially in ordinary circumstances—if only we thrust a hand flat against the world from time to time and demand a moment to notice.
So much falls into the body. Despite our proclivity toward defense, the body is a permeable object and remains open as it winds its way through the world, so that I occasionally feel myself grown numb from the tangle and crunch of iphones and prepackaged cabbage, the silver-slick wrappers of peppermint patties and the relentless stream of talk, the heightened and hyperbolic, the constant chomp of sound and image and even laughter—all of it fine, all of it wonderful, in fact—and yet the proportions are off some days, and there’s the madness of attending to passwords and buzzwords lest we forget how to enter the various locked systems of our lives.
Attention is a precious thing. It matters how we use it. It matters which ideas and people and objects we hold before us and how deeply we sustain our gaze—it matters in every season, of course, but especially in mid-December, something about the creak of frozen trees reminding us of the shortened days.
I want to say a thousand things about Judith Kitchen, the beauty of beholding, the affection I have for the child at Indian Lake and the woman in her winter bed, but it comes down to this: I can’t get over my luck at finding the right teacher when I needed her, just like the fortune cookie says will happen. There she was, Queen of the Beholders, teaching workshops on the essay before most creative writers comfortably spoke the word. There she was, just a few towns over, composing exquisite braids of language, image and thought, creating essays that were lyric and lyrical, long before the rest of us began to figure out what that meant. Judith’s reverence for the form was infectious, as was her delight at its wildness and boundless flexibility.
I probably sat around Judith’s workshop table much like I now sit before the lit tree, reading and listening and occasionally shuffling my papers to show that I was among the living, but mainly coming undone by pieces that read like mashes of poetry and logic, only ‘truer’ somehow, more extended and plain-spoken by the fact of genre. How could I not be head over heels for the teacher? The writer? The form?
We never talked about publication or the business of writing in her workshop, and for that I’m grateful, because while we came to understand that with work our attempts might eventually result in art (objects worthy of their own consideration), Judith's attention was fixed on the pleasure and necessity of looking deeply, the whoosh of words falling onto the page, and the unexpected paths they would sometimes make, our words— illuminating the way across an open field.
Sonja Livingston's essay collection, Queen of the Fall, is forthcoming from University of Nebraska Press. Her first book, Ghostbread, won the AWP Prize for Creative Nonfiction. Her essays have earned an Iowa Review Award, a Susan Atefat Prize and fellowships from New York Foundation for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and the Deming Fund. Sonja splits her time between New York State and Tennessee, where she teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Memphis.