I remember my daughter, Camilla, all of six years old when we were on a hike in southern Utah. She was a quiet and meditative child, one not prone to outbursts of excessive zeal, and she was squatted down at the edge of a stream bed in the dry sand. She scooped red sand repeatedly into her hand and let it sift slowly through her fingers. And then she said, with a maturity beyond her age, “I love the desert.” Sometimes I think that if it weren’t for children, our capacity to appreciate the gifts of life would be impoverished beyond recovery. Or if it weren’t for the arts. Both help us to regain that ability to open our eyes on the world and on experience as if for the first time, to awaken us from the slumber of lazy habits that characterize our adulthood.
Well over a decade ago I had the unique privilege to interview the great poet Derek Walcott. I was particularly interested in how he understood the function of poetry in relation to common experience, ordinary lives, and familiar and mundane environments. Somehow he had managed to transform what some might have considered a disadvantage into his greatest advantage as a poet. I refer specifically to the circumstances of being born and raised on a small Caribbean island, far from the metropolitan centers of culture and surrounded by the monotony of the sea and of tropical greenery, where he could easily have been condemned to a life of monotonous literary expression. Instead he managed to transform the ordinary qualities of life in the Caribbean, what others might see as unexceptional perhaps, into the substance of high art.
In an interview with me, he said the following in reference to the simple task of trying to pay attention to what the world around him offered:
“That’s what I consider to be the peak of effort. Not to render things as they are exactly, but to somehow illuminate them by the simplicity of what the vocabulary may be, or the thought may be. The simplicity I am talking about is a striving, that Rilke described in terms of saying that if I had the ability to name things over, I would be able to say “loaf,” “bread,”—it’s the same principle actually as the Adamic idea of renaming. That is a poetic principle. To name something. It takes a particular instant of illumination that might make those words suddenly have a clarity and a validity and a presence that they didn’t have before, even if they still sound the same, come from the same vocabulary. And that is what is the greatness and it is a gift actually. I think it is a special, and I think I am brave enough to say, almost divine gift that that illumination can happen with the simplicity of what we are given.”
Mundane life seems to us to be made up somewhat randomly of dull, unpatterned and uneven moments. There is no particularly obvious reason why things as they are, in all of their ordinary adornments, should be cause for wonder, surprise, or even exultation. What, in other words, is worthy of art in the humdrum, the steady pace of time? And why, for that matter, would it feel like a divine gift to be able to suddenly see into the life of things in this way? People and landscapes and experiences in our daily routines can seem so utterly normal that we scarcely notice them at all. And when enough time passes like this, life begins to exhaust us and weaken our confidence in life’s more-than-ordinary meaning.
The Christian prayer is always a plea that the ordinary might be transformed into the extraordinary, sanctified into something miraculous. This is the prayer over food, the prayer for healing, the plea that our efforts and activities—insufficient as they are— might be blessed, that they might obtain a kind of holiness that stands apart and above the mundane, crystallized into significance. This is the very core of the meaning of Christian hope in resurrection, in life after death. While we cannot see Christ among us, we Christians pray for eyes to see. We strive to live so as to make these moments of epiphany and wonder more likely. Our responsibility when life appears bland is to ask, “What is it I do not yet see, what is it I do not yet understand about what lies in front of me? In what consist the miracles of existence?” The Christian argument seems to be that miracles are omnipresent, but that it is only a lack of imagination, not the disappointing facts of reality, that is to blame for our failure to see aright. Our boredom with reality is our chastisement. As Annie Dillard once said, “What you see is what you get.” Seeing nothing but randomness in the world, seeing a landscape for what it lacks, or seeing another person as about as interesting as a doorstop is what we get for failing to understand that it is in the very routine substance of life—in our daily conversations, our quirky habits, our very localized conditions of speech, conduct, and weather, and in the very stuff of our embodied reality—where the miraculous lies.