Someone in my Monday night class read a Mary Oliver poem yesterday. The poem was called “Mindful,” and begins with the lines,
I see or hear
that more or less
In talking with Lydia recently about her reading of Marilynne Robinson’s “Gilead,” I remembered out loud with her about one of my favorite scenes in which the main character, an elderly minister, is walking down the street when he sees two young men.
“I really can’t tell what’s beautiful anymore. I passed two young fellows on the street the other day. I know who they are, they work at the garage. They’re not churchgoing, either one of them, just decent rascally young fellows who have to be joking all the time, and there they were, propped against the garage wall in the sunshine, lighting up their cigarettes. They’re always so black with grease and so strong with gasoline I don’t know why they don’t catch fire themselves. They were passing remarks back and forth and the way they do and laughing that wicked way they have. And it seemed beautiful to me. It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I supposed, except that laughter is much more easily spent.”
I went through today trying to keep my eye open for the moment that might kill me with delight. Not something spectacular, but something ordinary, normal, even mundane.
It found me while I was sitting at a table waiting for my afternoon class to start. A fellow classmate had brought his daughter to school. I had never seen her before. I would guess she was seven years old, wearing a pink corduroy dress with striped tights underneath and toting a pink tin lunchbox with a princess painted on the side who looked a lot like Audrey Hepburn. She walked up to the table next to mine and set the lunch box on the table in front of my friend Troy. Her dad opened it for her and she proceeded to take out an apple, a sandwich, and some crackers, set them on the table, and push them all towards Troy. That killed me.
But even seeing this moment of guileless, pure, hilarious selflessness was not as holy a moment as watching the faces of my fellow classmates as they watched this girl approach the table.
There is something about watching a child that often lights up the average adult’s face in this secret way. I’m not talking about the glow that comes when people know they’re being watched by other adults, as when talking about each other’s children, or watching them play together. I’m talking about the moment when someone is not self-conscious. When they are not aware of the delight they are experiencing so much as simply IN IT. These people were opening bags, typing on laptops, flipping through notebooks. Their faces were impassive, at rest, sometimes even frowning. And then this little girl swept by, oblivious of everyone except for Troy and her dad, weaving in amongst the tables and chairs. When they saw her their eyes lit up. It’s in reflecting on moments like this one, that I remember I am fully alive.