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Eye Contact


published in The New York Times, Op Ed page

One Sunday morning when I was 29, living for the winter in a cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan, I started getting phone calls that an unassuming ditty of mine that I’d sent the New York Times on a lark – for why would the NYTimes care to publish an article about something as small and intimate as eye contact? – had, in fact, been published.  On the center of the Sunday Times Op Ed page!  With a drawing that filled up the top half of the page!  I was frantic to see the bloody thing, but this was 1980 – before Internet, before fax, before anything, and I had to wait for the mail to deliver it full three days later. When I finally got it, I saw that they had left out my middle name, given it a fruity headline, made silly changes without checking with me … but you know what?  It was still nice to see.  –DAR

It may be true that to be a young man in his late 20's and never to have discovered eye contact until last weekend is to be a little slow. I won’t make any excuses; I’ve been a little slow. Not that I was shifty-eyed - I didn’t glance, avert my eyes, then glance again; I simply didn’t look at all. But the point is that a number of good things have been happening in my life recently, so I felt good enough about myself and about where I happened to be at the moment - Third Avenue between 54th and 55th - to suddenly begin looking strangers in the eye and allowing them to look back into mine. It happened on the sidewalk and in stores with, I would say, about half the people I passed: salesclerks, parking attendants, mothers with babies, even a security guard. Half of us were not initiated; half of us were.

Since this discovery I’ve enjoyed remembering all those new eyes, all the writhing warmth that was right there just waiting to be acknowledged. It’s hard for me to grasp the fact that such intimacy is available between any pair of eyes that has courage enough to encounter another pair of eyes. Discovering eye contact ranks as one of the major thrills of my life, right up there with learning to tell time in a flash of comprehension one day in second grade; staying up all night for the first time and seeing how short it really is; flying the Atlantic for the first time and seeing how small it really is; having a girl touch me for the first time; beating my uncle at chess for the first (and last) time; watching my child being born at 4 A.M. and then, all day, understanding that nearly everyone has children; buying a house in the morning and walking the land in the afternoon and skating by myself on my own pond for hours under a full moon that night; putting on a snorkel and mask and discovering that beneath the black tabletop surface of the ocean there are vast, unending tea parties of activity, or trying on a pair of contact lenses and for the first time glimpsing in sharp focus what my adult self looks like without glasses.

 It’s made my week. I’ve been in a great mood the whole time, thinking about the word “eye.” I’ve enjoyed writing it down and seeing how stirring it looks on the page, and “oeil,” too – it’s even more open and unblinking in French. All week I’ve enjoyed realizing that certain types of art and music and writing have eye contact and certain types don’t, and that I’ll be looking for the difference now. I’ve enjoyed acknowledging how much common beauty there is in eye contact, especially when walking across Third Avenue with the sun behind me so that the approaching irises are lit up in different colors and take on the texture of lion fur. I’ve enjoyed thinking that establishing eye contact with strangers from now on will bring a certain amount of peace to my daily encounters, whereas previously there has been a certain amount of chaos, a certain amount of thrashing about for the simple reason that I did not know eyes felt at home looking at other eyes, that that was where eyes belonged. And for the first time I feel ready to meet my mother's eyes, to hold her gaze, to see what I already know somehow: that her eyes are grayish-blue and small and have grown old and want to lean on me and partake of my strength. The funny thing is that this doesn’t make me sad; it makes me almost so excited that I can't stand it. I can’t wait to see her and give her strength. I can’t wait to get out and see some more salesclerks and find out what they’re up to and walk the sidewalk again and share whatever this thing is that’s going on.

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