Among the saddest lines in literature are the ones with which Nick Carraway describes his last glance at the sprawling estate on Long Island from which Gatsby watched the green light on Daisy’s dock:
As the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.
Fitzgerald’s epitaph for wonder was surely apt in its characterization of the Lost Generation, their lives hollow and frenzied in the malaise that followed the Great War. But I believe it was premature. The capacity for wonder reawakened from a decades-long sleep as the 20th century became the American century. And it was certainly alive for the little girl growing up in Globe, Arizona, who found fossil seashells on the verge of the Sonoran Desert, who bound a book of her poems with wallpaper samples, began a novel under the pseudonym Jasmine Danreves, and produced a class newspaper whose premier edition included the story “Lloyd Fell in Water.” Mrs. Williamson, her third-grade teacher at Noftsger Hill School, had high praise for her essay entitled “What I Did Last Summer,” to which her mother–MY mother–responded, “But she did nothing.”
Oh, but I did. The details are a little fuzzy after 59 years, but I probably practiced the piano, sewed doll clothes, played jacks, watched soap operas and embroidered with my grandmother, attended Little League ballgames and then walked in the hills behind the ballpark searching for more fossils. I surely read all the books I could find, wrote letters to pen pals in Japan and Kentucky and saved the stamps in an album, and listened raptly to Daddy’s infrequent and thus treasured stories about being in Germany and France in World War II. I roller skated and rode my bicycle and and got brown as a berry while swimming at School Hill Park almost every day. I probably skinned my knees a few times. I looked at X-rays of my feet on Saturday mornings at Karl’s Shoe Store, listened to the Globe City Band playing on the courthouse steps, and when the wind was right, smelled the sulfuric acid from the copper smelters between Globe and Miami. I went to Sunday school and church every Sunday, drank Kool-Aid and sang “Thank God for America” at vacation Bible school, and received medals for memorizing scripture verses.
These activities, I would argue, represent the diametric opposite of nothing. Every day was new, and every breeze was fresh in the summer of 1961. And for all the offspring of the Greatest Generation who grew up in American small towns from sea to shining sea, all life was full of wonder. And so I found plenty to write about when Mrs. Williamson asked us what we did in the summer.
Another epitaph for the capacity for wonder now seems overdue. Even the most innocent and idealistic of students puts on the mantle of cynicism because it’s uncool to care too much. Every other song is a parody, and every other word is fuck. They learn far too much about the world far too fast, and they are so proud of their ennui and their satiety that they refuse to open themselves to doubt and its first cousin, discovery.
One of my main goals in English 111 is to convince my students to exercise their capacity for wonder–atrophied without even being used. On the first day of each semester, I ask them to introduce themselves and tell one thing that makes them unique. I start out by telling them that I have been on death row or that I have been baptized 52 times or that I played the bassoon in the band when the London Bridge was dedicated in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. And then they begin, usually with “I was born in South Carolina” or “I like playing computer games.” But every now and then, someone tells of seeing the Northern Lights or being one of 18 siblings or having a 4-year-old child with brain cancer. I want each of them to realize that he or she has a unique story and that the ability to live it and then tell it is the greatest gift we have been given. Sometimes they even believe me.
And now, as the result of an unexpected reunion over the Christmas break, I am resolving anew to see my own life and those around me with fresh eyes, full of wonder. Time and distance and circumstance had separated me from the dearest friend I ever had. But after a very long pause, we managed to resume at the comma and continue the long sentence we have not been able to articulate since late 1993. I made a seemingly endless series of photo albums about the trip to share on Facebook, and she responded, “[The albums] do more than just document a visit; they transform an ordinary event into an extraordinary, memorable experience.”
I suppose that has always been my goal. I pick up the most broken shell on the beach because I like to see the golden spiral inside the chambered nautilus. I photograph holes made by woodpeckers and am tempted to commemorate piles of unidentified scat the same way. I see art in the patterns of beach sand, shadows on the wall, and light playing on water. And now, I am beginning too to look back and rediscover the magic of past experiences that I was too impatient to notice.
My challenge for us all–especially myself–this new year of 2021 is to transform our lives by seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary, humdrum tedium of every day. And may we change the past in the same way into an undiscovered landscape full of potential because we are examining it with new eyes.
Look closely, see clearly, and make every word tell. The worlds around us–and inside us–are far more than commensurate with our capacity for wonder.
[Click on photos to enlarge.]
I often think I really do not think. Not that I am just a dessert in my mind, but I scan the internet for interesting things to discover. I scan the channels on television for something new to learn. I have always been a lifetime learner and continue to be so.
Introspection I am not guilty of. There is not one thing I can not change about my past. I do not want to relive it, see it, or even think about it. Not that it was that bad, but it should be left there. We have a web site on Facebook about my hometown of Amarillo, and I love to see the post and old photos of memories that people share of those places. Some talk about the elementary school where I attended as haunted. I loved that school and never found it haunted. I went back many years ago and was saddened by the disrepair it had come to. It was a place of safety and sanctuary for me and I believe my siblings. Life was hard, but I had safety. It was hard for the entire neighborhood so I did not feel as though we were singled out. Looking at your past is a good thing I guess, but I never think about it intentionally. I just lost my best friend from my childhood to Covid in December and my husband of 38 years earlier this year. That is why I think I don’t think. It is sometimes too painful for me, so I just look forward to what is to come. Each day is truly a gift and I stand with my hands out waiting to see what it will be. I have been blessed with a love of books, with the love of friends and family, so I guess there is no yesterday to even examine. I wish I could. I always love your stories and appreciate that you allow me to add mine.
I really appreciate the care and thought you put into this response. My mention of transforming the past came from a lecture by Jordan Peterson that Pavel was listening to. He was actually taking about the yin and yang and said that the yin or female principle is usually called chaos, but that chaos is actually potential. And then he discussed the past, which we generally see as fixed. But sometimes something that happens in the present changes what we think about the past, and then it becomes potential and has the capacity to be transformed. The illustration he used was a man finding out that his wife of nine years had had three affairs. This discovery, of course, would change everything he thought about the last nine years–probably in a bad way. But if he had been hoping to end the relationship, this transformation of the past would be a positive thing. I realize this information has nothing to do with your comment, but I thought the idea itself was very interesting.
I do agree with you strongly about the need to live in the moment and make each day matter. I am delighted that you have so many things to make you happy, and I am grateful that you read and comment on my blog–certainly one of the things that gives meaning and purpose to my life.
I wish you love, joy, and peace in the new year.