National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Starting Point
Issue Date:  July 18, 2003

Fresh sight on a summer walk


What a difference time makes, I thought, as I watched the youngest and oldest of my children explore the fruits of this season of warmth and life. What had begun as an errand had turned into a full-fledged romp along the river’s edge, and every flower, butterfly, stone and leaf was an occasion for wonder and joy. My toddler, Clare, was intrigued by the small details that surrounded us as we walked -- the grass that moved in harmony with the wind, the taut feeling of birches that lined our path, the ants that scurried and hoarded small pinpricks of food. Clare’s exuberance was deliciously tactile, an antidote to routines, schedules and adult preoccupations. She was pure motion as she ran ahead of her brother and me, her thin, black hair slapping her shoulders. I marveled at all the growth and change that have shaped her life since last summer -- with the development of her language and imagination, each day is fresh and undiscovered, full of many small joys.

Some paces back, my teenager, Christopher, was investigating nature on his own terms. He was on his hands and knees, sniffing the grass and seeing how far his breath would take a dandelion gone to seed. For 12 years we have known that Chris has autism, a disability that results in a wide splintering of skills and abilities in each person affected. Chris’ sensitivities to sound, smell and touch are extremely acute, so I wondered what he was experiencing as he bent down to examine the grass and weeds in the small patch nearby. Along our walk, Chris continued to pause when he found something that intrigued him. When I showed him a cluster of exquisite peonies, his response caught me by surprise. He chose not to smell them because he wanted to save the smell for others. “I can’t take away from the earth what isn’t mine, Mom,” he said with teenage impatience.

At other times, Chris’ appreciation for nature has led him to preserve the beauty of fresh-fallen snow by choosing not to walk on our yard, going to great lengths to leave the snow undisturbed. The perennials that are now emerging and blossoming have drawn him to explore their texture. He painstakingly saves seeds from his favorite fruits to plant in our backyard, hoping to coax them to grow.

Throughout Chris’ life there have been moments when it has been painful to observe the differences between him and his peers. Time and maturity have helped to smooth out those challenges, often turning them into strengths. Today, as Chris smells and sees things that I will never be able to perceive, I am grateful for his gentleness and the ways his example calls me to greater respect and care for all living things.

A coal pile gives each of my children something new to investigate. Clare wants to touch, crumble and climb; Chris picks up the scent of the coal and watches insects scaling the peaks of rock.

Such an array of gifts these two offered in the span of just a few hours -- an abundance of lessons in seeing the world with fresh sight, the gift of time itself.

Jan Pilarski directs the Justice Studies Program at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Ind., and is a co-author of Doing the Truth in Love: Conversations about God, Relationships, and Service (Paulist, 1995).

National Catholic Reporter, July 18, 2003

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