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.]