Tuesday, August 19, 2014

the romantic side of familiar things

"In Bleak House I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things."
~Charles Dickens~
I think that a large portion of what sets apart great artists is the ability to see the familiar and mundane with fresh eyes. Artists like Dickens study what is familiar as no one else bothers to - and discover beauty and romance in life that no one else takes the time to see. This study of the commonplace is what makes their work so spectacular, because it enables us for a moment to remove the blinders of familiarity and see the world with the vision of wonder.
"Familiarity breeds contempt." This saying has a great measure of truth to it. When we see and do the same things day after day, it is easy to stop caring about them and noticing the details. It's like our vision is unfocused: we see what we need to in order to function, but have lost or weakened our capacity to actually see the clear, bright, meticulous detail that surrounds us. Life can far too easily become monotonous for those who are easily disenchanted with the familiar. I don't want this to be true of me.
Although discovering new places and people and experiences is one of my favorite activities, and I certainly don't want to get stuck in a cozy little comfort zone that I am loathe to leave behind me, the fact is that most of my life will be lived with some measure of familiarity: familiar routines, places, people, conversations, and classes or a job. When I do the same thing day after day after day, it takes great effort to cultivate a habitual sense of wonder.
I want to make that effort. To not limit my experience of wonder and delight to the few opportunities a year that I have to travel and explore. Those times are precious gifts that are absolutely not to be taken lightly. But I want to experience wonder and delight every single day that I walk this earth - as I go from class to class in college just as much as when I hop from city to city on vacation; as I plug away at my job just as much as when I get to pursue special projects; as I do laundry for my family just as much as when I am enchanted by the laundry hanging from the lines in small towns in Europe. And that pursuit of wonder means refusing to gloss over my everyday experiences simply because they are everyday.
I have learned that a carefully cultivated sense of wonder in my home life in no way mitigates my enjoyment of the out-of-the ordinary: it enhances it. Because when I stare up at the Alps in awe or wander through a fishing village on the Mediterranean or ride a double-decker bus in London, my pleasure is not tainted by a dread of returning home to daily life. Instead, I am able to enjoy the unfamiliar fully, knowing that I am creating a treasure of memories to take home with me as I return to the more quiet, but just as important, wonders of home.
I will never be a great novelist like Dickens. but my life and the way I live it is in a sense a work of art. I want to be able to say at the end of my life that "I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things."
Or, as Mary Oliver says, "When it's over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement."

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