As a global tumbleweed finally come to rest in South Jeffco, Colorado (Southwest Denver suburbs), I appreciate all the more the wonders of my new home, the place where my seven-year-old daughter was born and is growing up. Even in my nomadic days, I knew that I would one day relish seeing the same houses and same trees, same walls and same garden, same faces and same places, day after day, year after year, recognizing the marvelous in the mundane. I’ve always savored the familiarity of those favorite haunts I’ve settled into for longer stretches, or returned to frequently, and sought that familiarity even in the briefest of one-time visits, recognizing that a traveler who does not connect with the world he wanders only brushes across its surface, forever passing it by.
I recall several times, on my travels, being in the most exotic of third world villages, watching local eyes widen in wonder when I told them that I was from Chicago (“Al Capone!” most would immediately shout, having an iconic character that is synonymous for them with that far-off place veiled in legends of its own). The world is a vast and richly colorful story, our own lives and locales no less so than any other. Like beauty, how fascinating a place or slice of life is is a matter of perception, and there is considerable value in perceiving it more rather than less liberally.
But I am well aware of how often we forget to see the world through the eyes of a traveler, or of an extraterrestrial anthropologist, or of a primordial human being animating his or her surroundings with spirits of the imagination. What a loss not to be able to see in a wilderness river the singing nymphs dancing their way from mountain springs to surging sea, or in the mist-shrouded woods the mystical forces whispering to the human soul! So too the human narrative of which we are a part, so full of subtlety and complexity, of passions and aspirations, of strife and folly and occasional triumphs of great courage and generosity, is our own shared Odyssey, as we navigate between the Charybdises and Scyllas of our voyage together through history.
It is difficult for me to see the world in any other way, as some mundane drudgery or mere slog through life. The sound of a gentle breeze fluttering the new leaves of spring, or the ferocious wind howling like a hungry giant; the chirping of birds and laughter of children; even the murmur of passing cars or jet stream of passing airliners overhead; all constantly awaken my sense of wonder, my sense of joy to be a part of this marvelous, ultimately inexplicable existence of ours.
I try to teach my daughter to see the world in the same way, with games and stories and humor and shared curiosity. We can bring our own surroundings to life, by imagining the red-rock formations just over the Hogback along Coyote Song Trail in Ken Caryl’s South Valley Park as magical creatures petrified during an ancient epic adventure, sentinels who will remain at their posts until eons of wind and water wipe them away.
As a teacher, too, in Denver and Jeffco and Littleton, I tried to inspire my students to see the world through wondering eyes. When we speak of public education policy and education reform, we need to remember how important this goal is, seeking to transcend the ritualism of education, the rote drilling and shallow aspirations so many consider to be its essence, and make it instead a celebration of life and an inspiration to the mind and soul. The mechanics of how to accomplish this are important, but they are more “organics” than “mechanics,” something that arises from an institution that we must have the wisdom to ensure remains much more than the sum of its parts.
When we reduce education to something less than that, to a mere factory of curriculum conveyer belts along which we shuttle our children, exposing them as much as possible to assembly line teachers performing automated functions, lost in the Kabuki Theater of professional development programs and faculty meetings and parent-teacher conferences and narrowly, mechanically, and generally dysfunctionally defined “accountability,” we reinforce and reproduce our loss of imagination and concommitant loss of the deeper intellectual talents that imagination alone can foster. For a sense of wonder provokes a hunger for knowledge and insight, one that grows only more ravenous the more it is satisfied.
Finally, as a politically engaged advocate for interacting with our social institutional landscape as conscious and compassionate participants in its endless formation and transformation, I am increasingly convinced that that same sense of wonder is what serves us best. Many dismiss politics as something squalid and base, some remote appendage to our shared existence that we have to hold our nose and reluctantly tolerate. But it can be a rich and delightful celebration of life, a vehicle for our imaginations and aspirations, a major keyboard accessing the “word processor” we vie to type our narratives into as we write our shared story together.
Here in Colorado, I discovered state and local politics for the first time, and have found it to be surprisingly intimate and accessible. While many seem to think of our government and its officers as some remote “other,” that is a matter of choice, for there are numerous opportunities to participate in it, to be a part of it, as responsible and motivated members of a popular sovereignty should be. Such participation should not just be a matter of making noise and clamoring for the respective conflicting false certainties we hold, but also listening and learning, becoming informed and developing increasing awareness of the nuances involved in governing ourselves wisely.
When Aristotle said that “man is a political animal,” he meant, in Greek (referring to the polis, the classical Greek form of the political state), that we thrive best by being active members of our community. We can do this by getting to know our city, county, and state representatives, by attending events and listening to speakers, by engaging both with those who think like us and those who don’t, and by embracing the multi-faceted wonder of our existence.
We humans have such an enormous capacity for creating either great beauty or great ugliness together, of realizing our potential in service to our expansive humanity or of surrendering it in service to our animalistic and destructive urges. Which we do in any given instance is less a function of whether our ideology is “the right one” or not, and more a function of whether we see the world through wondering eyes. Wisdom arises from wonder, and well-being arises from wisdom. Let’s all wonder our way into an ever-improving future.