I went to San Francisco last week to see as much as I could see.

I had that crazy good feeling, that so many of us feel, that makes us want to get up and go out and see it! So I did.

Standing in a narrow alley in Chinatown by the “Delicious Dim Sum” restaurant, I heard the noisy Mahjong tiles in the apartment above.

It was a moment of awareness, just as I had experienced shortly before, when I had seen the Chinese men in the park, talking over the newspaper together, gesturing and commenting and laughing. I saw them, and they seemed so perfectly typical to me, old men hanging out together in the morning, but I didn’t know what they were saying, or thinking or reading.

And standing in the alley, I couldn’t see the Mahjong game above, the players, the stories of the players, their lives and loves and their wins and losses, but I saw the alley, and the underware drying just outside of one window, and I heard the slap of the tiles on the table above.

I saw it, and I didn’t. It’s always this way, for all of us, but the thing is to keep on looking, and to take a second look.

Earlier, we had riden up Hyde Street in a cable car,  clanking and vibrating along up the hill. It felt good. The view of the street and bay out of the back of the old wood and metal was a perfect San Francisco scene, bright, and watery and sloped and lovely and charming. But when we rode the Powell line down to Market Street, and I stopped a moment and talked to the operator as I got off, the view changed.

“They’re screwing us!” he said. “We get no respect from the people who own the company. The police and firemen are treated better than us. But they just keep cutting us. We’re probably going to go on strike. It isn’t right.”

He was angry, frustrated,  embittered. His losses surfaced, and I saw them. The view from his car was different from the view from mine.

Interesting, reality, changes, according to the point of view.

One day in the city, we rode the ferry out to Alcatraz island. Everyone says to do this, so we did. They were right. Interesting, again. Here we saw another reality — prison life. I was particularly engaged by men that we met from the peeks we got between the bars.

The men’s stories, on the audio tour, brought the prison back to life. We heard from the prisoners themselves,  how dark the cell block was at night, but also how the sun would come in one end of the cell block in the early evening, and light the place with life and warmth and beauty in an ugly place, and  how at Christmas, the children of the guards would come sing Christmas carols to the prisoners that they never saw, and how on a summer evening, the prisoners could hear the sounds drifting across the bay from the city, a woman’s laugh, a snatch of music. 

The life they had before, for them, was out of reach here, but it was so very close. This is a  feeling that I too have known, close but so far too.

I was particularly struck by one snatch of story we heard on the audio tour of Alcatraz, how one prisoner was released from the prison, but free and on the street, he said he was lost because,  “the world was moving differently than I was used to, and I didn’t know how to move with it, and everyone had some place to go, but I didn’t have any place to go.”

He saw a different San Francisco that a tourist with a map and a friend and a destination and a place to go home to when the sites had been seen and enjoyed and marked off the must-see list. He had no map, and no list and no home to go to.

In the San Francisco Museum of Modern art, we stood and stared at Matisse’s Woman with a Hat. It is wildly colored picture, although we were told that the model, his wife, was dressed in black when she posed for the painting. Matisse saw it differently. When Woman with a Hat was exhibited at the 1905 Salon d’Automne in Paris, it caused and uproar and gave rise to the avant-garde movement Fauvism, from the French  fauves or “wild beasts.”

Matisse saw it differently, than he had before, life, wildly splashed and staring right at you with emotions bared.

I want to see, like Matisse, like the prisoners, like the cable car operators, like the Chinese families, see it all, know it all,  the stories within the stories, to really see and understand the world.

On Sunday, after we had returned from San Francisco to San Diego, I got to pray with Ishmael. He had never prayed before, never. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to, because he didn’t know how, but then he said he did want to. I prayed a short prayer, to help him, and he repeated it after me.  He wanted to do this, to know this, to have this experience, of God, of life, of all of life.

When we looked up, I asked Ishmael, who’s name means, “God hears,” how he felt. He said he felt good. Just an hour later, he was baptized. His choice, ten years old, his choice and no one elses, to stand up in front of the church and admit to being a God follower.

Stepping up half way out of the baptistery, he paused, and then he flipped his head down under the water again, one more time, a second look around, I guess.

He was learning, how to move, with the movements around and within him, and to pause, and to see, and to make the choice to take a second look around.

And this, I think,  is how it is done, and how one begins to begin to see more.

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