Tuesday, May 16, 2017

of stories and vision and wonder

A few weeks before I graduated, I was one of four seniors asked to share reflections on my time as an English major with the students, faculty, and staff of the English Department. I want to share those reflections with y'all as well. 

~ ~ ~

     The eyes open to a cry of pulleys,
And spirited from sleep, the astounded soul
Hangs for a moment bodiless and simple
As false dawn.
              Outside the open window 
The morning air is all awash with angels.

     Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses,
Some are in smocks: but truly there they are.
Now they are rising together in calm swells
Of halcyon feeling, filling whatever they wear 
With the deep joy of their impersonal breathing;

     Now they are flying in place, conveying
The terrible speed of their omnipresence, moving
And staying like white water; and now of a sudden
They swoon down into so rapt a quiet 
That nobody seems to be there.
               The soul shrinks

     From all that it is about to remember,
From the punctual rape of every bless├Ęd day,
And cries, 
               “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry,
Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam
And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.”

     Yet, as the sun acknowledges
With a warm look the world’s hunks and colors, 
The soul descends once more in bitter love
To accept the waking body, saying now
In a changed voice as the man yawns and rises,

     “Bring them down from their ruddy gallows;
Let there be clean linen for the backs of thieves; 
Let lovers go fresh and sweet to be undone,
And the heaviest nuns walk in a pure floating
Of dark habits,
              keeping their difficult balance.

~Richard Wilbur

~ ~ ~

When Dr. Coolidge asked me to speak for department chapel, I knew I had to read this poem by Richard Wilbur. Keep it in mind, because I am going to talk about it more in a few minutes. But before I do that, I want to share some advice that directly relates to why this poem is so important to me. This advice comes from Mary Oliver, another poet that I love. Her  “instructions for living a life” are “pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.” This is how we are called to live, to “always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder,” as E.B. White says. 

There’s a problem, though: it’s really easy to get stuck in the rut of routine and stop truly seeing. We approach the world pragmatically rather than enjoying the gift that it simply is. We become blinded by familiarity instead of seeing the world with the vision of wonder. I, for one, am always looking for ways to re-vision - ways to see the world with fresh eyes. My go-to aid for that is literature. 

This is one reason I love the above poem. It’s called “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World.” I love that Wilbur wrote a poem about laundry - a quotidian chore that is not in the least poetic to most people. He takes something familiar that we rarely pay attention to, defamiliarizes it, and asks us to reconsider how we see commonplace things. He uses ordinary imagery as an entry point into profound meditation.

I’d be willing to bet that many of you are English majors because you love the way that literature helps you engage with the world in new ways. Salmon Rushdie says that “Literature is in part the business of finding new angles at which to enter reality.” In studying literature, we receive new eyes to see what Dickens calls the “romantic side of familiar things.” 

One of my favorite moments as an English major was during sophomore year. It was fall, and one of the trees near my dorm was aflame with spectacular color. I’d been enjoying this in solitude for several days, when one day I encountered a friend en route between the dorm and cafeteria. I grabbed her and said, “Rachel! Finally someone who will understand!!! Look at that tree!!!” We stood there gazing at the tree, rejoicing in its glory and beauty. 

The next day in Victorian Literature we discussed Hopkins’ poem "God’s Grandeur". Dr. Colon talked about how Hopkins uses the techniques of inscape and instress as tools to help us recognize the “treeness” of each individual tree. She said, “most people look at a tree and think, it’s just a tree. But Hopkins tells us - GUYS! It’s not just a tree. It’s a TREE.” Rachel was in that class with me, and we just looked at each other and telepathically said “well, that was perfect timing.” 

One thing great authors do so well is study commonplace things that everyone else ignores in order to rediscover their beauty and power. But there is more to it than that. Good literature doesn’t just reveal the deep beauty of this world: it also reveals its deep brokenness, which is often equally easy to ignore. Great authors force us to come face to face with the pain that permeates the world. A good example of this is Toni Morrison’s recent novel Home. It is the narrative of an African American Korean War vet returning home to Georgia. Through it, Morrison pulls the scab off the 1950s, which we usually remember as a happy-go-lucky, leave-it-to-Beaver time. She explores with precision and poignancy the problems of systemic racism. Morrison refuses us the luxury of crafting an image of reality that isn’t true and instead uses her work to force us to face deep-seated brokenness.

The question then remains, as English majors, how do we use the renewed vision that literature gives us? Do we get to read the stories, close the books, and continue as if nothing had happened? I don’t think that’s adequate. Chip and Dan Heath, in their book Made to Stick, write that “a credible idea makes people believe. An emotional idea makes people care. And the right stories make people act.” Stories make people act.

We have a responsibility to act on the vision that literature gives us. This dovetails with our calling as Christians to see the world for what it truly is. We know that the world is good, because it was created by a good God as an expression of love. We can see goodness and beauty in places where other people see only the mundane. We are called to cultivate that beauty so other people can see and respond to it. On the flip side, we know that the world is deeply broken as a result of the fall. And we are called to see the world’s brokenness, wade into it, get our feet muddy, and begin the work of restoration that will culminate in the Kingdom of Christ. This is our calling - to cherish the world’s beauty and to rebuild the world’s brokenness. But in order to do that we have to have the kind of vision that can see beauty and brokenness. Through my time at Wheaton I have learned that literature is one of the most powerful tools there is to mold our vision. And vision leads to action. 

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