Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Visionary

In Celebration of My Wife’s 40th Birthday

visionary. n. 3. one having unusual foresight and imagination. (Merriam-Webster.com)

HERE ARE A FEW THINGS MY BRIDE, born forty years ago today, has loved her entire life:

Photographs. Maps. Graph paper. Floor plans. Watercolors. Natural light. Autumn colors. Beaches and coastlines. And Christ, the Name she tends to use when referring to the Son of God.

All of these things, save one, are linked by a common thread: they are visual. You encounter them directly through the eye. Except for Christ, whom none of us have seen with our eyes, who tells us in the Gospel that we are blessed by virtue of the very fact. Yet it is through her love of Him that she sees Him in all of these other things – in the beauty of nature; in the play of light and shadow; in smiles and facial expressions caught by cameras; in the ingenuity of human designs, our humble attempts to create order from chaos.

Kelly Elizabeth Lovell often describes herself as a “visual” person. She has an indisputable gift for seeing. It’s easy to overlook, yet few do it well. Those with the blessing of eyesight look at things easily enough, but not everyone sees them clearly. I am an example. I’m not very good at seeing things the way they are sometimes – from the most complex conceptual problem down to the smallest gaggle of objects.

Take clothing, or what others call “style.” Kelly and I are blessed with two beautiful daughters, as well as a son. A blind man can see that my girls are pretty, but their own father can’t select clothes for them to save his life. This won’t be much of a problem very soon, because these bright girls, though still quite young, are already learning that it is best to factor Dad completely out of this equation.

But up until now, I would try to choose outfits for them, often disastrously. I can look at them in an ensemble I chose a hundred times in a row and not see that the clothes do not match. But Kelly looks at them once, in a half-second, and declares whether the outfit works or not. It may not be very uncommon in a mother, but I still find this quality amazing because I do not have it.

Another example is home décor. I have no idea whatsoever how to design or decorate a room to make it appealing. But Kelly spends only a little time in a contained space that may need some help, and although she has no formal training, she quickly forms a vision in her mind of how wonderful the room could look.

If you watch her closely, you can literally see this vision develop. It’s fascinating. Her eyes narrow; she gets uncharacteristically silent, almost contemplative. The wheels start turning. She puts one finger on her bottom lip. Her eyes float across a surface or a plane. You give it about five minutes, maybe ten. Then she says something like, “I think that television cabinet would look better in the corner. Having it there is bothering me. The walls need a blue color, maybe a pale blue; I need to look at samples. I definitely want to put some shelves on this wall over here for framed pictures….”

I can stare at the same surfaces, and not only do I not understand what they ought to be “wearing,” but I can hardly see what she is even then meticulously describing. No matter. She can see it, quite vividly, as if it’s already there.

But the most striking example of Kelly’s visual acuity by far can be found in her photographs. Taking pictures is one of my wife’s most authentic forms of self-expression. She has a great passion for this simple activity, also surprisingly difficult to do well. It is hard to perfect because you must have an innate sense of what you want to capture.

I don’t mean that in terms of specifics: you don’t take your camera on a nature hike in the woods knowing ahead of time that you want to shoot this particular bird’s nest against that corner of the sky at exactly 4:00 p.m. I mean that you have to know a great visual arrangement when it comes together. You have to be able to see it. When you do, it is a matter of getting the camera ready and shooting. Over and over, if you are a perfectionist, like Kelly. This is not something you can learn or acquire; at least not with ease. It’s a gift.

One of my favorite examples of her gift is in a photograph Kelly took in November 2001, while we were visiting Ireland, a country to which both of us can trace some common ancestry. We had been in country for about five days, and our tour group had stopped in rural County Cavan, to spend the night at a place known as Cabra Castle. We reached the castle in the late afternoon and were given a little free time before reconvening for dinner. Everyone went off in their own direction.

I told Kelly that I needed to take a walk. She could tell that I was feeling restless, almost irritable, but she gave me some space. What she did not know was that I had been carrying around an engagement ring for five agonizing days and had found, up until that evening, no appropriate opportunity to propose. I was having trouble containing my nerves.

Anyway, while I was brooding and trying to orchestrate the correct moment, Kelly decided to take her camera around the castle grounds, to see if anything would stand out as a potential subject. She took numerous pictures of the castle and the natural beauty surrounding it. At one point, coming back towards the manor itself down the long entrance roadway, she spotted a little grove of tailored shrubbery with a flagstone path in front of one side of the castle. There were a few birdbaths and a large topiary archway, under which had been positioned a whitewashed, cast-iron bench. One could assume there would be many flowers in the summertime, but we were there on an overcast, cold day out of season.

When Kelly saw this bucolic little oasis, she promptly stopped and took a photo of the white bench from behind, capturing the arch, the flagstones, the rest of the garden, and the stately castle looming in the background. To her it must have simply felt like one of those images she would want to hold on to. But it seems to me that there was more to her snapping that picture at that moment. My theory is that she not only saw the beauty of what was there before her, but that she also had a kind of subconscious, preemptive vision of what could be at that particular place.

What Kelly could not know when she took the picture is that later that evening I would bring her to that exact spot, unaware that she had been there, and ask her to marry me on the same white bench. But I thank God for her vision, because to this day we have her wonderful image framed on a wall in our home. There is no way to prove to others that Kelly took the picture before we became engaged. But she and I know what happened, and I love that aspect of the story most of all – at least, up until the instant when she said “Yes,” the sort of moment that has a way of obscuring all others.

This story illustrates something fundamental about my wife, the way she expresses herself, and the way she understands and connects to the world and its Creator. It has to do with her gift for seeing, the one I have been attempting to describe. She has an innate ability not only to see things as they are, but also how they might become. She can see beauty as clearly as the rest of us, but she can also see promise.

Once she has done so, she has a desire, maybe even a need, to communicate it. She can take a few scattered photographs and arrange them in a scrapbook with colored paper to create the beautiful family heirloom that, to her, the pictures were always meant to become. She can assess an uninspiring, closed space and envision a haven, one you’d draw comfort and solace from when you walk in the door at night. To her that place is there from the start. It only needs to be coaxed from behind a veil that stands between it and the rest of us who are unable to see it.

She does this with people, too. If only we could see ourselves, I tell myself, the way Kelly sees us. For I have known very few people who can hone right in on a person’s inherent goodness, the light of God that shines out from all of us, the way my wife can. If you achieve something or some good fortune falls upon you, you may be inclined to cheer about it; maybe tell a few friends; post it on Facebook. My wife will celebrate it, take genuine joy from it, as if the achievement or blessing was her own. In one sense, it is: if someone she knows or loves finds their way to grace, then in a way I find profound and beautiful, so does she.

One of the things I admire the most about Kelly, to be sure, is the trust she has in her own vision. She knows things when she sees them. This has helped her overcome some painful tribulations at earlier points in her life, en route to uncovering a deep sense of Christian faith. Though she has had strong models to follow, Kelly largely found her own way to Christ, in large part because of her capacity to recognize Him. She saw Him; she knew Him upon sight; and she ran to Him, as an innocent daughter runs to her father’s arms.

And, Heaven knows, she has also trusted her vision when it comes to your scribe. Sometimes I wonder what she saw, almost ten years ago now, when she said “Yes” to me on that bench in Ireland. In weaker moments, I admit, I wonder if she is seeing it still.

At these times, I must remember what I have learned about Kelly. She knows what she sees, and she loves what she loves. Once she does, there is no turning it away. As one of her favorite songwriters once put it, she has “a love you can’t defeat.”

As someone who carries inside a flame to create against overpowering odds, I am aware that her vision of me is indispensable if I hope to achieve success. It is a gift I cannot repay, no matter how hard I try.

There is only one thing my wife sometimes has trouble seeing, ironically enough, and that is herself. But not too worry. I don’t always see everything around me with clarity; I don’t easily perceive the logic of arrangements; I can’t find my way sometimes through all the obscurities to love God or His children in the mother-hearted way that Kelly Lovell can.

But I can see Kelly Lovell – clear as a blazing fire miles ahead of a caravan winding its solitary way through the desert night. I’m the one who stood across from her and devoted myself to her. I can articulate what I saw then, and what I see and celebrate now. She is beautiful, precious, intelligent, and special; the mother of my babies; the bride of my dreams. She is forty years old today. And she is mine.

Jude Joseph Lovell
October 18, 2011