“What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.” –Walt Whitman–
I’ve talked a lot about the importance of reading on my blog. In fact, I’ve devoted entire posts (here and here) to the importance of picking up a book and reading it. So when I came across this Whitman quote, I thought it would be a good one for me to tackle — if nothing else, to challenge my own thinking.
And even though I have (very) strong feelings about reading (lots and lots of) books, Whitman’s sentiment immediately resonates with me.
Because Whitman is talking about being human. He acknowledges that there is something elusive about being human that cannot be captured in words. We can try to capture the human (and we definitely do try), but I firmly believe that there is no way to accurately depict all of the nuances and complexities that make us human.
So in this game of “Capture the Human,” we’re losers.
There does not exist a book or even a poem that can get to the essence of expression in our eyes.
Cut to the scene from Stranger Things 3 when Erica is crawling through the air ducts with her flashlight headgear and My Little Pony backpack to find the secret Russian elevator.
(Spoiler: Erica does indeed find the secret Russian elevator.)
But I don’t think we’re quite as competent as Erica when it comes to crawling through the duct-work of human emotion.
Oddly, Whitman expresses a profound truth here using “print.” But he’s reminding us that while words help in this life, they are not the answer. And while Erica does actually find the elevator, she and her buddies realize that the elevator leads to even more questions.
Well isn’t that true of life and human emotion. We get to a point where we think we’ve figured out [insert human emotion here] only to realize that it’s simply a secret Russian elevator that leads us somewhere else where there are even more questions to be answered and even more mysteries to be solved.
Are you starting to feel the futility here?
Or are you starting to feel the excitement of the mystery?
Even though we probably feel the former sometimes, hopefully most times we feel the latter. Life is ultimately a mystery. We can plan and write and read and discover and think and discuss and work and play. But at the end of the day, Robert Burns states the tough truth in his poem “To a Mouse”:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
In other words, even the best plans can go awry and lead to grief and pain.
Well that sucks. But imagine how predictable life would be if we could predict what life would be.
Let’s explore the “more” Whitman references. What is the “more” expressed in our eyes? What is the “more” that cannot be explained in words? Now if you find Whitman’s sentence in context (find his excerpt from Leaves of Grass here), you’ll see that he’s actually talking about an ox’s eyes. I don’t know about your interest in oxen, but I actually have very little. Close to none, actually. Well, maybe none at all. But I think Whitman is certainly not limiting his commentary to oxen. The idea of eyes expressing more than print goes beyond oxen.
And this is where I take the leap from oxen . . .
Tomorrow marks 15 years being married to my husband. How I wish I could put into words the way I feel towards him. (I’ve tried writing love poetry and failed. MISERABLY.) As for capturing emotion in words, he’s much better. While we were still dating, we had to spend one (LONG) summer away from each other. Both working at summer camps — me: in the Redwoods of California, him: in the lakes and trails of Wisconsin — we stayed busy and happy, but we each experienced an emptiness that only the other could fill. We called when we could (not often). We wrote letters. I didn’t write as often as I would have liked. But my husband? He wrote me a letter every single day. Never was there a day at camp that I did not receive mail. I hung on to his words. They were my lifeline — keeping me safely tethered to my love.
But when camp ended and everything was packed up and we headed back to college for our junior year and I saw him . . .
No words could express the way I felt looking into his eyes. Somehow in those few seconds of looking into his eyes there was more than all the words in all the letters.
So maybe Whitman is talking about oxen. But the beauty of literature is that when we read it, we bring with us our life experiences, our opinions, our biases, and our needs. Who’s to say farmers don’t resonate with there being “more than all the print” in the ox’s eyes? And while I don’t necessarily think of my husband as an ox, when I read Whitman’s words, they are about emotion. And the most mysterious of all human emotions in my mind is love.
Maybe someday I’ll be able to write a love poem to my husband (I don’t have the audacity to predict), but for now, a Pablo Neruda poem will suffice (to an extent, that is):
Of everything I have seen,
it’s you I want to go on seeing:
of everything I’ve touched,
it’s your flesh I want to go on touching.
I love your orange laughter.
I am moved by the sight of you sleeping.
What am I to do, love, loved one?
I don’t know how others love
or how people loved in the past.
I live, watching you, loving you.
Being in love is my nature.
Life, love, and all human emotion — there is a mystery here that is unsolvable. And while we gobble up all the self-help books, frantically search for the algorithm of love, and read poetry for all the rest, there will always be more. (Notice that there is no link for that one.)
And I’m so glad. I’ve had 15 years of love. 15 years of growing and changing. 15 years of learning. 15 years of living life with my favorite human. I feel like I know the guy pretty well. But the fact that there’s more?
What an incredible gift.
So maybe (for once) put the book down, and look someone you care about in the eyes. Linger. Allow for vulnerability. Allow for love.
To my husband: I adore you. Words can’t express it.
But I’ll keep trying anyway. (And thank you for always reading what I have to say — even if you might be the only one.)
I look forward to there always being more with you.
Happy anniversary, my love.