This week in lovely New England, we are having what the weathermen are calling the coldest days of the winter. Given that we are only one month into the three of the season, the quadrant of my mind where the skeptic lives smirks at that the sentence. When it feels like spring is far from our grasp, are we sure that this is the coldest we will feel before the blight of winter lifts its curse? Regardless of the skeptic’s questions, the air is cold. I’ve been inside most of the week, with no desire to do anything outdoorsy besides look out the window. I layer shirts, sweaters, scarves, coats, hats, and run from house to car to office and back again, slamming the doors behind me and shuddering as I begin to thaw upon each entrance. At home, we sit inside under blankets and stay away from windows and doors that send in blasts of drafty air. These are days when much feels the same. Get up, shiver, dress, work, drink hot beverages, sit under blankets at night, and then sleep. Repeat. With regular intervals of checking the weather to see when the cold is predicted to end it’s reign of terror.
I read an essay on the mundanity at the beginning of the week. About the sacredness of mundanity. How we shun the mundane in search of the sacred, the extraordinary. How both the mundane and the extraordinary are part of our lives and cannot be separated. One cannot be banished and the other kept.
Then while hovering under blankets with my child, watching Curious George for the three hundred and ninety-eighth time, I finished reading Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I love reading about creative philosophy; the analysis that describes the creation of writing, music, and visual art. She writes,
“Writing every book, the writer must solve two problems: Can it be done? And, Can I do it? Every book has an intrinsic impossibility, which its writer discovers as soon as his first excitement dwindles. The problem is structural; it is insoluble; it is why no one can ever write this book. Complex stories, essays, and poems have this problem, too – the prohibitive structural defect the writer wishes he had never noticed. He writes it in spite of that. He finds ways to minimize the difficulty; he strengthens other virtues; he cantilevers the whole narrative out into thin air, and it holds. And if it can be done, then he can do it, and only he. For there is nothing in the material for this book that suggests to anyone but him alone its possibilities for meaning and feeling.” (pp. 45-6)
She continues on, addressing the recipients’ expectations,
“Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed? Can the writer isolate and vivify all in experience that most deeply engages our intellects and our hearts? Can the writer renew our hope for literary forms? Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds, the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?” (p. 46)
The words I read reminded me of the snowflake picture I shared recently. Sometimes in my mind, repetition means lack of originality. The mundane becomes the structural deficiency. Again, this week, thanks to the winter’s cold air that sends white blankets, there are more pictures of whiteness, tree branches looking like fondant decked wedding cakes.
“Who but an artist fierce to know – not fierce to seem to know – would suppose that a live image possessed a secret? The artist is willing to give all his or her strength and life to probing with blunt instruments those same secrets no one can describe in any way but with those instruments’ faint tracks.” (p. 50)
Perhaps repetition is not mundane all of the time. Perhaps there are new secrets to be found within the mundane that are actually sacred. What makes us notice beauty in the routine of our days? What makes snow laden trees stand out, winter after winter, seeing the same branches colored white and coated in the same texture. While I personally hold that there are objectives in beauty, and have my own preferences, I think the real strength of artistry is being able to look beyond the mundane in our minds’ lens and to share that which our individual senses bring into being.
The experience of the extraordinary within the mundane is the sense of being brought up short, catching our breath, taking one more look, seeing something that we never noticed before. One day a the lighting, an angle, a phrase of music, a tone, a clause, a grouping of words in a poem, a piercing of light in a painting, a sentence on a page, may not strike the hammer of our mind’s keyboard. Another day, weeks later, it may startle us into a new realm of being like a secret, gilded entrance to a new, sacred existence. So whether we write, paint, play, compose, observe, think, photograph, build, design, heal, organize, categorize, or teach, we must never let repetition kill our joy. We work away through the mundane, carefully avoiding its miry swamps, keeping our senses alive, and we strike the mine that holds the sacred, the extraordinary, the beautiful.
Some people say that our pursuit and desire for beauty is because we are cursed to live apart from it, cursed to live in the mundane. Other people say that our pursuit and desire for beauty is because we crave the image and likeness of our Creator, who is perfect beauty, who gave us innate abilities to recognize Him through beauty. I think it’s sort of a glass half empty or glass half full conundrum. We are cursed by the mundane, the need to work, to shiver in the cold, to sweat in the heat, to repeat our days over and over. Simultaneously, we are beings who crave beauty, the original, the extraordinary, because we are made in the image of perfection and exact beauty. We are not defined by the mundane. We are rescued from the mundane by the Beautiful and the extraordinary. We are defined by the beauty we happen upon and in turn share. We are being drawn constantly, quietly, toward that Beauty, even as we wake, rise, work, shiver in winter’s chill, sleep and repeat.
(This post is a repost from my writing a few years ago. The weather this week has been slightly tolerable, although recently the -0 temperatures were not so fun!)