“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel
In a few weeks my husband and I will be headed to Prague where we will be attending a workshop on creativity. To prepare for that workshop, we’ve been asked to go out in hunt for a variety of things we are to take photos of to bring to the conference– spirals in nature, human faces in man made objects, animals in clouds, inanimate objects that appear they are in love, living people who look like they belong to another century, and more. The past couple of weeks I’ve gone out for short walks around the area where I live, looking. Some things are just not easy to find. I thought human faces in man made objects, for instance, wouldn’t be so difficult. My husband’s family has a habit of looking for hidden objects in clouds, knots of wood, the trees. My father in law discovered the Virgin Mary in a whiskey bottle that he found in an abandon lot while out for a walk and had the neighborhood lined up to see it on his mantle. So, there’s a kind of family history in looking closely that we’ve practiced over the years. The results can be surprising.
I’ve had my students go on searches for things, given them a paint chip like ones you might find at the paint store and had them search for a week to see if they could match it with the exact color somewhere out in the world. Another thing I’ve asked them to find is something they think no one else would notice but that they think is interesting. A good part of a writer’s work is to notice things, I explain, things that are in plain sight but hidden because no one is taking time to notice them. A person can notice a lot of amazing things when paying attention. One of those things you might discover or rediscover is wonder. What you find is perhaps not really as important as the search. In the search you can find all kinds of wonders.
Eliot wrote “April is the cruelest month,” but February can definitely be difficult too. For many who live in cold countries, it’s a snowy month–snow stacked so high you’re blinded by the white on white emptiness. With windows blocked by icicles, you know spring is coming–color will eventually return to the streets–but that time seems far off. How do you get through those bleak times? This is where a search comes in. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” Give yourself something to search for, and wonder might turn the corner to greet you at an unexpected moment. The other afternoon, I was out walking the campus where I live, looking here and there at things I’ve seen a thousand times, hoping to find a hidden face in an object so I could take a photo to bring to the workshop I mentioned earlier, but I could find nothing. Over and over again, I scrutinized objects. Nothing. I was telling myself, “There are simply no faces anywhere.” I looked down. There on the sidewalk was a face smiling up at me with a grass strand for a lock of hair. I couldn’t believe it! It’s the only face I’ve found so far in various ventures.
February may be cruel in other parts of the world, but is actually the best month if the year in Delhi. Here, February has the least amount of smoke in the air, it’s not too hot or too cold, and there are no dengue carrying mosquitos. What Delhi has a lot of in February are flowers. As I went out hunting for spirals in nature to photograph, I enjoyed looking at the splendid variety of spirals flowers present. From fibonacci spirals to the mandalas of a dahlia, flowers can make your head spin.
It’s not always easy to find what you’re looking for, however. One thing I’ve learned from living in India is that the good and bad, the exquisitely beautiful and the horrible are often side by side, as if they are part of each other. You don’t often get the one with out the other near by. Living here in India also presents questions there are no easy answers for, as I’ve written about before in these blog posts. Suffering is visibly present here. All you have to do is leave your house and go out into the street and you will see it. How to respond to it is constantly challenging.
Today, as I walked through the INA market, I was on the lookout for images of people who look like they could be from another century, as that is one of the things we are to take photos of for our creativity workshop. I saw scenes there that could have been from a past time, but I also saw scenes that make a person very conscious of all the animals sacrificed to meet our hunger. Food is glorious, but it carries with it a great deal of blood, guts, and stench. Yes there is the beauty of flowers, the fabulous flavors of curried meat, but there is also some horror behind it all. Men torch feathers off fowl, and fur off goat heads. Boys scrub the goat heads in a plastic tub of water. Thwack, the butcher hacks a haunch of meat against a wooden block. A hundred or so chicken feet sit on a tray. Blood runs down the alleyway between shops. It’s all there, along with that beautiful cut of fish you are going to take home and barbecue.
Donald Hall’s poem, “Eating the Pig” describes well the complexity of the horrors that can come alongside the wonders,
and I am drawn to him, my brother the pig,
with his large ears cocked forward,
with his tight snout, with his small ferocious teeth
in a jaw propped open
by an apple. How bizarre, this raw apple clenched
in a cooked face! Then I see his eyes,
his eyes cramped shut, his no-eyes, his eyes like X’s
in a comic strip, when the character gets knocked out.
Then, there he is a few moments later, eating the pig and reveling in its flavor.
For myself, I scoop a portion of left thigh,
moist, tender, falling apart, fat, sweet.
We forage like an army starving in winter
After the pig has been devoured and just the head remains, he can’t help but feel a friendly affection for it and finds himself reaching out to pet it behind the ear as if might purr. As he does so, he sees his connection to the pig. He leans into the pig and whispers,
I take into myself, and digest,
wheat that grew between
the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers.
It’s not just this pig alone, it’s the way eating the pig connects him back to who we are before the time of empires–all the way back to prehistory. The poem ends by saying,
“Fire, brother and father,
twelve of us, in our different skins, older and younger,
opened your skin together
and tore your body apart, and took it
into our bodies.”
There is a reverence for the pig, a recognition for how consuming the animal roasted in this ancient, barbaric ritual connects him to both the pig and to human kind. Life is both full of wonder and horror simultaneously, and this poem clearly demonstrates the paradox.
One weekend morning a couple of weeks back, we opened the bedroom curtain and there sat a monkey eating the tomatoes off of our plant in the window box. (No wonder we’ve had so few tomatoes this year!) The other day a monkey got into our compost box that we have on our balcony and then smeared his hands across the kitchen window. Two days ago I looked out the window of my classroom to see two monkeys walking across the roof of the building opposite me, only to appear in the courtyard below a few minutes later. You can go along for years without barely a monkey surfacing anywhere. Things seem fine, and then suddenly, there they are, monkeys jumping on your roof, tramping through your garden, and getting into whatever they can. When a monkey is around you’ve got to be careful because you never know what they are up to.
It’s good to be aware of holding both the difficult things in balance–the days with the monkeys vs. the weeks and months without them, as well the truly wondrous moments that come along. Actually doing this takes practice. When things grow dull or difficult, when struggle or white snow is all that can be seen, we have to purposefully change our perspective so we don’t feel crushed under the weight. That’s hard. But we don’t have to wait until things become unbearable. For a few moments we can break the routine of work, we can lift ourselves out of a situation that feels full or sorrow or dread. There’s a variety of ways to do it. We can sing, walk out the door and notice the trees or birds, arrange some fruit in a bowl to give away, put on some music, dance around the room, push our hands in the garden soil, pull some weeds or pick some flowers. A paint chip or a spiral, a face in the cloud–it doesn’t have to be something big. It just needs to be something; something to take us out of ourselves and connect us to something bigger. Who knows what you will actually discover in the process. It might not be what you intended. Doing that something can help us nurture joy and wonder while at the same time continuing to recognize the realness of the struggle or sorrow that we continue to live alongside. Maybe it is this very sorrow and struggle we know so well that allows us to experience the depth of joy when we give ourselves to it, or when it comes along to surprise us like the smiling face in the cement. We know then how precious such joy truly is.