Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Cabbages and kings

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
—Lewis Carroll

My kids were playing quietly after their naps yesterday, I'd finished folding another load of laundry, and I'd gotten some small projects done. It had been a reasonably good day, but in the middle of another grimy-gray January afternoon, I was feeling a bit gray myself, and the second latté of the day wasn't infusing much energy into my veins. I always appreciate a good cuppa, especially now that I can smell again, but on this particular Monday, the java wasn't quite potent enough to cure the winter blahs. Caffeine can only do so much. I meandered into the kitchen in search of ideas for dinner and, after rummaging through the refrigerator for a while, resolved to whip up some coleslaw. Not much excitement there, but I had the ingredients on hand.

Then I sliced into this, and found the little splash of color I was looking for:

Ta-da! I bet you didn't know that cabbage is a natural mood enhancer.

Okay. Strictly speaking, it's not. At least not in the way you might think. But slicing into a red cabbage and looking at all that spiraling graphic artistry gave me reason enough to pause, kitchen knife in hand, and marvel—reason enough to call three-year-old Paul into the kitchen to share the marvel with me. "It looks like beautiful paint," he said.

Annie Dillard describes beauty as "a grace wholly gratuitous." "Gratuitous grace" may be redundant, but in that cross-section of cabbage, I could see again what she meant—the surprising discovery of beauty in the most unaccountable places—on my cutting board, next to a Wüsthof knife streaked with purple. Gratuitous grace it certainly was.

Beauty didn't need to be there. Truly, it didn't. I think we would eat cabbage even if it did not look like "beautiful paint." Some scientists hypothesize that we perceive beauty merely out of biological necessity; it's all about preservation of the species, they say. That kind of straight-faced silliness makes me want to laugh and taunt them with a cut cabbage. Clearly these scientists never made cole slaw. Clearly, they know nothing of grace. Grace was right there, lying in wet halves before my eyes on the kitchen counter. And if I can find this gratuitous grace there, I can, it seems, find it almost anywhere, provided I open my eyes widely enough to see it.

One of the delights of having small children is their high-pitched excitement at what, to the rest of us, seems like nothing much. I remember taking our oldest son, Jonah, to the Fort Worth Zoo when he was not yet two years old. We held him on our shoulders to give him a better view and pointed, telling him—with exaggerated zeal—to "look at the colorful birds!" At the "great-big elephants!" At the "tall giraffes!"  I was disheartened to see that, even after our enthusiastic drumroll, my little boy took a brief look at the wildlife and then gave his attention wholly to the industrial fans blowing above our heads.

After seeing countless National Geographic specials, it was all too easy for me to miss the fun in watching a herd of awkwardly galloping giraffes. But what excuse did my wide-eyed toddler have for failing to squeal with glee? I think the answer is simply that he could not have recognized that a giraffe was any less common in Texas than a cockroach. And, let's face it, cockroaches can move a lot quicker. For a person so new to the world, everything is fresh, and everything is astonishing, so the common things hold as much fascination as the exceptional, and a fan can be as captivating as the Grand Canyon. But at the time it bothered me that our son was missing the point of the zoo "experience." To be distracted by the bright tropical plants or the contrived animal "habitats" I could maybe understand. But c'mon, kid. A fan? We can see those at home. For free.

But that's exactly what I did not understand. My emphasis was all wrong. Why would I want my children to be bored with what they can see everyday? I can see a fan at home! For free! Why should I not be thrilled at the very idea? All four of my babies have been held transfixed by the sight of a slowly rotating ceiling fan. And why did that always strike me as funny? We sophisticated people know how to have contempt for the unexceptional. To be bored has almost become a mark of refinement, and  any American high schooler knows that it's not cool to be easily impressed. But why? That day at the zoo, Jonah was experiencing what we all could use a little more of: wonder in the ordinary.

I know that this idea is nothing new. This has all been said before by folks more eloquent than me. But if the idea is right, and I think it is, we must not despise it simply because we've "heard that before."  I could use a reminder almost daily to look—really look—at the jaw-dropping spectacle that surrounds me every waking moment.

Look at the way the sunlight refracts rainbows across the shiny side of a CD. Give your attention to the iridescent shimmer on the multiplied eyes and the microscopic veins tracing through the wings of an ordinary housefly. Watch the way the steam swirls and churns the air as it rises from your morning shower and turns to dew on the bathroom mirror. Make coleslaw, and call the whole family in to watch as you reveal the "beautiful paint" inside a cabbage. Open your eyes wide enough to see the gratuitous grace in everyday life. Because life, as someone once said, is beautiful.


KeriAnn said...


This is the first time I've visited your blog and wanted to tell you that I enjoyed your writing style along with the content, very much.

Thanks for sharing and for the reminder to open our eyes wide.

KeriAnn Rumrey

Christopher and Jackie said...

To beauty! Now if I could just open my eyes wide enough to SEE some!

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