The Lookout

It was five in the afternoon when winter had dropped on the city and on our house with its dark gray icy teeth covering the almost leafless trees, roofs, sidewalks, streets, mountains, dog house and all that existed in my world at the time.

At age five, at five in the afternoon, at the end of the fifth month of 1955, the fifth day of a moment in the daily life of  a totally lost and ignored city by the rest of the world, a light that was fully independent of any external source, settled gently, lovingly in the center of my head and lit my understanding in a way that I will never forget. 

In that day I  not only learned that memory existed but I also knew that within me there was an extraordinary power that  left me immersed in the most absorbing fantasies I have experienced in my short life. Five years in the life of someone is nothing and much less when one is  scarcely perceived as an existing and thinking  entity. At that age one cannot aspire to anything more than being an insignificant  dot without resources in a society strapped by the senseless adult world.

Aunt Isabel had given me a book at the beginning of my elementary school year that I experienced with a boundless horror mixed with an inexplicable attraction. That was my first time going to school  and I would  finally learn to understand the inscrutable hieroglyphs of the newspaper. I would be able to decipher  all the unknown words written on the walls, in advertisements, in virtually every object perceived by my young eyes. So I would be able to understand  my beloved book that despite knowing by heart all the  drawings, the words were still as dark as that afternoon in May.

“Mom, can you read me the book?” I asked my mother  timidly for the twentieth time so far that year. It was an exercise  in futility since there were  always other much more important things in  her life and my demands were always doomed to an ambiguous wait  in an uncertain future

“One of these days I will, but now.  I’m very busy.”  It was the consistent response from my mother, but I had to keep insisting since adults usually only responded to the urgings, threats, and emergencies.

“Let’s see, which  book are you talking about?” said my mother suddenly and I quickly ran to my room, pulled the book out of my backpack and ran back to my mother’s room; breathless, expectant and barely able to talk.

I gave the book to her in silence and quietly sat at the foot of her bed as she flipped through the eighteen illustrated pages in full color.

“James the pearl diver,” said my mother casually reading the book title.

Time stopped. 

The musical voice of my mother reading the incomprehensible lyrics, the sound of the clock on the bedside table, the curtains open to let in the fading light at  a premature twilight, the distant barking of dogs, shadows reflected by the dim light of the lamp beside the clock, the sound of each word as if it was the only existing thing at that moment, remained etched in my memory forever.

The treasure chest  had opened and poured out its golden shapes in pictures, in color, in movement of pristine, phosphorescent pearls, kids diving into the depths of a calm, clear blue sea. All this and much more was in the words that my mom read without even realizing she was reading. Every word, every intonation of the voice said something meaningful that I translated nonstop in multicolored images until on page eighteen it all came to an end.

And my mother with an absent and carefree air asked me two things at once while putting the book on the nightstand.

“Are you happy now.?”

“Tell me what the book is about.?”

The first question I ignored completely because it was the second that opened the floodgates of the unexpected. Mentally I reviewed each word and quickly came to the conclusion that I had not heard them before, but that was not unusual as many words and situations were new to me every day.

What was unusual was the internal light that illuminated the process of trying to respond to something I did not exactly know what was  meant.

“She is asking for everything that I understood about the story,” I said to myself as I heard myself say.

“I’m pretty sure that’s what she meant with –  what is  the book about  – “

I continued with my inner monologue at the same time that the internal light kept illuminating this extraordinary event.

And suddenly with the absolute certainty of five years of age I knew I was thinking.

“I’m thinking,” I said to myself.

“This is what it means to think,”  I told myself again overwhelmed with the amazing discovery that an internal process was going on in my head that made me realize what was incomprehensible seconds ago. 

I joyfully described and explained to my mom in  detail the forms, colors and the whole concept of  the story which I carefully rebuilt from my memories as she was reading the book.  My description apparently made her  laugh and almost scream which was something rare for her.

“Wow,  that is extraordinary!.  You  memorized everything”  she said.

Nothing could be further from what had happened, but I said nothing, thanked her and ran to my room. With the book in my hands and the strange feeling that winter was no more dark and the light of my understanding could illuminate all dark corners and that the  words written on paper or any other material, were only the beginning of a much larger, attractive and challenging adventure than anything I knew so far.

For a while I was “thinking” about  the extraordinary “thinking process”. I took phrases I had heard and repeated them internally with my eyes closed while watching the light in my head lighting up the words and giving  them meaning, while another part of me was watching this process with curiosity, wonder and inner joy.  A part of me could see my thought processes and was capable of defining them. A part of me was installed as a permanent lookout on the heights of my being of only five years seeking to decipher the mysteries of the universe. And why not ?, After all, I had discovered the mechanism, I had been able to perceive without trying the very essence of what constitutes us as human beings beyond the physical, the emotional and all that is obvious.

And that watcher who was observing my learning winked his naughty little eye in the dark of winter and made me smile. That night I felt I had myself. That night I remember it with golden and warm tones, bundled in a blanket of serenity and understanding that absolutely had nothing to do with the  reality perceived by millions of objective and pragmatic observers who  declared that Friday of May in 1955 another day in one of the most cold, brutal and dark winters of the decade.


Portland November 23, 1999