He saw the beauty of what wasn't there

It is late fall and once again the Palisades Parkway in New Jersey is alive with color. Maples, oaks, and sumacs paint the horizon with their autumn palettes and no one should miss this eye-drenching display - including children. So, on a bright, crisp Sunday I took my friends' three children on a foliage drive.

Two brothers and their sister, ages 8, 6, and 4, bounced on the back seat to a chorus of giggles.

"Look at the leaves," I told them. "Which colors can you see?"

"Red, orange, brown, green ..." they shouted, decibels rising in competition with one another.

"Clear!" yelled Jimmy, the oldest.

"Clear?" I asked, puzzled.

"Yeah, clear," he said, nodding his head with the absolute certainty of his 8-year-old convictions.

"Which ones are clear?" I asked. My imagination is usually pretty fertile, but he had me baffled.

"Those, over there," he said, pointing to a tree that had already shed most of its leaves.

Jimmy's eyes were focused on the naked brown-black branches etched like pen-and-ink drawings against a perfect blue sky.

But when he looked at those bald branches he did not see empty space, an absence of something that had been there before. He was not saddened by a tree bereft of its summer lush leaves as many of us often are.

Jimmy saw a positive image - of leaves still on a tree - displaying a color called "clear."

I wondered if this was a joke, if Jimmy was being his usual comical self. But gazing at his face, I realized that he was completely serious about his observation.

As I drove along, ruminating over childhood perceptions, I remembered a drawing class I had taken a long time ago.

Our assignment had been to choose an area in the room or hallway and draw the "positive space" between objects.

It was an eye-opener for me, and I was amazed at the variety of shapes and sizes that all this "space" produced. What I had always thought of as "emptiness" had considerable visual value. With this realization, I felt myself drawn to expand it, allow its cleanness and freedom to fill my page.

It is similar to silence, I thought - the auditory "positive space" between sounds that has volume and tone and beauty all of its own.

"Orange, brown, clear, red, green," I heard from the back seat, in staccato bursts of three joyful voices as we bounced down the road.

I wondered: Why are we so eager to fill up the "clear" with color, objects, and sounds?

When did we stop feeling the beauty of clear?

That evening I was regaling my friends with anecdotes of our foliage drive. Jimmy passed by just as I repeated his words of wisdom.

He was still bewildered by my response of surprise.

"But those leaves were clear. Doesn't everyone know that?"

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