Driving the road one day to Dubuque something happened I hope to relive every day until I die.
I’d been traveling that road since the earliest days of my childhood, when I did so unrestrained in the back seat of my family’s panel-sided station wagon. I’d been down it countless times, and on this particular day, having taken a full time job in Dubuque several months before, I was forced to be on it more often than ever. This daily drudge was like if I had to brush my teeth twice a day for a half hour each time. I had to do it over and over again, and I was bored. Every single last thing on every last inch of that same old stretch of pavement felt tired, stale, and dull. My mind was numb. My heart ached for something more.
Drowning in emotionless moment after emotionless moment, something suddenly clicked inside. With a momentary glance out the passenger side window, my brain snagged on something, and it took but a second to yank my whole mind around. One moment of clarity was all it took to lay bare for me exactly what my heart was searching for. It’s as though this thing I saw were a deer that had suddenly jumped in front of me.
What I saw was the unquestionable beauty of our southwest Wisconsin landscape. Obviously, this was not hidden nor obscured nor in any way hard to find. I had just been overlooking it, and suddenly I saw it in exquisite detail. There were the cascading bluffs and the steep deep lush valleys and the 1,000 shades of green all around me. The fertile soil with the year’s bounty of crops pushed skyward. Deep cuts carved into the hillsides revealing rocks laid down a half trillion years ago (literally), and here I was driving straight through these cuts. All around me was a verdant and rich environment buzzing with abundant life of all kinds. Overhead stretched a big beautiful sky through which a star 93 million miles away was feeding everything in sight with bright rays of nourishing light. Had I pulled over and opened my door right then I would have felt the gentle summer breeze on my skin and breathed in the fresh clean oxygenated air into my lungs. And I surely would have heard the chirping of the red winged blackbirds that are always nesting in summer by the tens of thousands in our fields. Or, I’d have seen the yellow flits of tiny meadowlarks, those feathered miracles of flight that evolved over 150 million years or more from dinosaurs and now live somehow almost invisibly along a million miles of road. In essence, what jumped out and grabbed me that day is best described as the extraordinary within the ordinary.
And the stuff is everywhere. Almost every natural thing in our world, every location, every experience, and every single unique human being is bursting with infinite and wondrous detail. All any of us has to do at any moment is see it, hear it, taste it, feel it, and let our minds marvel. It was all there all along. Though I wasn’t exactly a stranger to it, I had been mindlessly ignoring it. The human brain, hooked on consumerism and the worries of the day has a way of pulling us continually away from what’s real.
But that day I had been yearning for something fresh and new and exciting. Anything. That’s when the light bulb went on, and I discovered an essential truth. I found what I did NOT need was the outside world to change for me. The simple change required to find this endless stream of conscious joy and emotion was available to me all along. I simply needed to pay attention, to exercise my natural curiosity, and to be intentional about it.
Bite into a crisp apple. Open your ears to the birds and the breeze. Revel in the simple joy of good coffee and listen (really listen) to a good friend. Slice an heirloom tomato and savor the nutritious red goodness inside. Take a few extra moments in the evening to watch the horizon glow red and yellow and purple. Look up at the night sky to contemplate the stars. Hold your dear one’s hand every chance you have. Look into their eyes. Feel their warmth and love. These simple pleasures and 10 million more are all free, all around us, and provide us infinite treasure that is all ours just by moving our minds into the present.
But don’t ignore pain and difficulty either, for that is a central part of the human experience and the necessary hard yang to the soft and easy yin. Extraordinary experiences lie in the unpleasant ordinary moments, too. Seek to understand others and their unique life experiences. Especially those whose lives differ in ways from yours. Sense when others are in pain, and feel their suffering. Crack open your emotions. Cut down deep to your empathy. Show those around you how to cry. Learn to express gratitude in moments when your problems seem easier than others’, yet open yourself to hardships and learn to stand in the midst of misery. You don’t have to feel good all the time. If you look carefully enough, you may even find a chance to help create positive change. Misery desperately needs a bridge to hope. Build bridges.
American poet Mary Oliver, who sought through her writing to understand both the wonder and the pain in nature, wrote this wonderfully simple yet exquisitely profound poem:
“Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.”
During this unusual summer, it’s now easier than ever to see that success isn’t measured merely in bank accounts and square footage. Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary is a gift we all have available to us, and it’s more precious than any THINGS any of us will ever accumulate during our lives. This gift is ours for the taking, and every moment we are mindfully present, it enriches us.
You can give it to others, too. Its supply is endless, so we can never run out no matter how much we have or how many of us have it. Share the astonishing things you see and feel and hear and taste and learn. Give this gift freely to those close to you. Share it especially with children. Teach them early by living it yourself every day. The extraordinary is not just found in endless striving and wanting, though that can be admirable in ways, too. It’s far more important that we see it in the most mundane of moments. Live that truth. Teach others. And we’ll all live extraordinary lives.