A few weeks ago I went to see my buddy Silas House’s new play, A Long Time Traveling. One of my favorite lines from the play is “There’s plenty of ways to make a poem.” This is after one of the characters has just recited Edna Vincent Millay’s “God’s World”* and maintains that for her, the poem is a prayer. She goes on to tell her daughter that she might not be able to write a poem but she can make a melt-in-your-mouth pie. Her son-in-law, Adam, is a mechanic but has the heart of a dreamer and aspires to be a writer. Adam tells his wife of the time he was driving down the road one day and saw laundry hanging out to dry in someone’s yard, one white towel after another, and how it looked like a work of art to him. Everywhere, he says, are these little acts of beauty, but we fail to see them.
I had a similar experience one day in my car, waiting for the traffic light to turn green. I happened to turn my head and saw a gas station attendant sweeping up cigarette butts in the parking lot, and the way he performed this act--with complete concentration and immersion--struck me as a thing of beauty. Maybe his mind was someplace else, but nevertheless, he seemed at peace with where he was and what he was doing.
Another small incident: one morning I’d gotten up early and happened to see the recycling truck at the curb. The garbage truck had come just prior, and our garbage bin had been tossed aside and turned over. The worker for the recycling company, after performing his own job, was about to jump back on his truck, but suddenly turned back and took the extra time to set my garbage bin upright. It was the smallest of acts, but it was spontaneous and all the more special because it was done without the knowledge that anyone was watching, without any expectation of reward. Someone who took care and pride in his work, and who, at least in that moment, didn’t divide the world into mine and yours, but ours.
No doubt everyone reading this has had such experiences. My happiest moments are when I’m open and receptive and attentive and curious, experiencing life through the eyes of a poet. Thomas Merton wrote, “Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time.” Or as Erik Reece argues in his new book, An American Gospel, the kingdom of God is not something we have to wait for, but is right in our midst, here and now.
Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water that all children are artists. They have unfettered imaginations and lack self-consciousness. All of their senses are awake and alive to the world around them. But then, slowly over time, they are corrupted by this world and its “dirty devices.” Part of being creative, as we grow older, is unlearning those “dirty devices” and becoming like children again.
The janitor sweeping up the cigarette butts, the worker for the recycling company, the person who strung the white towels lovingly on the line—they all performed their work with reverence, intention, and a type of devotion, but also, and perhaps more importantly, with no thought to who was watching, what people would think, or where the work was going. The work itself was its own reward and was therefore transformed into a thing of beauty, a work of art.
O WORLD, I cannot hold thee close enough!
Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! That gaunt crag
To crush! To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,
But never knew I this;
Here such a passion is
As stretcheth me apart,--Lord, I do fear
Thou'st made the world too beautiful this year;
My soul is all but out of me,--let fall
No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.
--Edna St. Vincent Millay