“What are you playing?!”
“This is a harp! Wanna try it?”
My fingers licked their way up the strings and made an enchanting hiccup of sound. It’s called a glissando when you run your fingers up the harp strings, and to me it sounds like what drinking shattered stars would taste like. A fizziness so strong that you can’t help but giggle; a champagne to the soul. My new little friend’s bright eyes doubled in size as his fingers immediately started dancing all over the strings. I looked over at his mom, and her tired eyes smiled as she whispered a thank you to me. I told my little friend that he had just created the loveliest of noises. He was so excited. His joy glittered in my heart for the rest of that heavenly evening.
I was in absolute paradise. My amazing harp teacher, Lisa, and I were playing Christmas music at Tattered Cover bookstore, my favorite sanctuary of infinite inspiration. The towering shelves of books around me whispered their ages-long lullaby as I plucked away in their palace of words. I was connected with every human who had ever read a book, and I became an outlet of dreamy music surrounded by a billion stories burning furiously on delicate pages.
In that rich moment, I was struck by what beauty I was able to create with a part of me that had always felt so small. My thin fingers kept playing, and I loved that it didn’t matter what I looked like. My mind and heart blended deeply into the watercolor of sound that I was painting. I exhaled through the notes and pushed them towards the people listening. The more I played, the more the connection grew between us. At first, they were looking at me. Oh, a harp! they thought. How cool it looks! And then the more I played, the more their brains untangled, and some even closed their eyes. We weren’t necessarily looking at each other, but I was seeing them, seeing their restlessness during the hectic time of year, their sparkling eyes about to catch fire. When I played, I was able to give them a gift of momentary peace. A woman who had just gotten off the phone after what sounded like a stressful conversation came and sat near us and just listened. That’s the message Lisa and I were trying to send: it’s okay to just be. We all need a drink of pure water during the sticky syrup feasts of the season. I know this too, and playing was just as healing for me as it was for them. And they, too, saw me, not as a silly-looking 17 (18 on the 26th)-year-old in an ugly sweater, but as an outlet of soothing music that our raw hearts yearn for. It was connection.
Connection. Lately, that concept has kept popping up. Through the people I talk to and things I’ve read, I’ve come to realize that being looked at and being seen are not the same thing.
“There’s a difference between being looked at and being seen. When you are looked at, your eyes can be closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, and you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light.
One is exhibitionism, the other is connection.
Not everybody wants to be looked at.
Everybody wants to be seen.”
-Amanda Palmer, The Art of Asking
I’m tired of looking at others. It’s so superficial, so shallow. I’m also tired of others looking at me and judging what they see. I’ve been asking myself, how do I start seeing people? After lots of scrawling in my journal and reading, I found that it’s me that’s stopping me. I’m still so consumed with myself, with how I look, with how I’m perceived, with who I’ll be. I’ve battled long and hard with self-image, especially with my body. The first step for me is to recognize myself as Christ’s beloved and to work on humility. It is only when we accept ourselves as beloved that we can stop judging ourselves and others. And soon, people will feel safe with us. Truly seeing someone and connecting with them takes no intellectual knowledge, no profound insight. It takes utter vulnerability and simplicity to open up a world of love and real life, to meet a person exactly where they are and reveal God’s heart. We are all paperthin hymns of longing and lostness. Heartbreak is universal. Each one of us is just as lost as the other. Once we accept and acknowledge this, we can begin to destroy our own pride that stops us from connecting with those we’re afraid of or uncomfortable around. Because truth be told, we are just as, if not more, hungry for real connection than they are. Henri Nouwen says this beautifully in his reflective book Discernment: “I learned that once you can see another concretely, recognizing the similar struggles and unfilled needs, you can step back a bit from your own life and understand that, in true friendship, there is give and take as two people learn to dance.” Seeing someone is not looking at them but through them and into their heart.
My best friend Kaylee texted me something pretty profound a few weeks ago after I was stupidly complaining about how my body’s hormonal changes were making me breakout like crazy:
“Your imperfections don’t make you any lesser of a person. You’re beautiful inside and out and a little zit will never stop anyone from loving you. And I love you and will forever.”
She probably doesn’t even remember saying this, but I stared at my phone for a good 10 minutes as tears swam down my face. Why did I care so much about ME? None of this even matters! Kaylee, in her loving sometimes-so-truthful-it’s-annoying-best-friend-like way reminded me that the people who love me, really love me, don’t care if I have a breakout. They’ve seen me with no makeup, ridiculous hair, and when I pig out. They love me when I want to go everywhere on earth, and they love me when I want to stay in bed all day. They love me for the real conversations I have with them. They love my ideas, my dreams. They know me, they see me, they love me. And that’s beautiful.
This body isn’t mine. This skin and bones is a rental. I need to appreciate my body for all the wonderful things it can do, like write, play the harp, go on early morning jogs, do yoga, hug people, decorate cookies, and sing. Yes, sometimes I feel uncomfortably full or ugly or whatever and feel gross about myself, but in those moments it’s essential that I remember the things that matter: the relationships I have, the opportunities brimming each day, the hope for my future. Not a single one of these has to do with my weight or acne. I just need strength to step away from the mirror and start living. Start connecting. Start seeing people and not just looking at them.
I’ll end with one of my journal entries from when I was in Nebraska a few weeks ago:
Today at the farm. I brush my numb fingers over the champagne powder like froth on chocolatey grass. With the sky like frail guitar strings, rusty clouds humming over a fretboard of silver. The cold earth seeping through my boots and oozing between my toes, spreading the chill like honey. My rosy cheeks sting. The insides of my nose are an ice cave, crusty and sharp. My breath coils and burns against the drowsy prairie. I feel alive. My heartbeat reminds me that I have the capacity to love like thousand endless prairies. I long to be seen like the prairie sees me, like God sees me. I will see great things when I am willing to be seen. Take me Jesus, all of me. You alone are enough.
Let heaven and nature sing.