Staring at the Curb

Music, art, and poetry could all be described as telling a story about something that can’t be explained. They are born from some of the our most profound and powerful experiences. And with them come a contradictory realization that they seem both entirely ineffable and yet somehow potentially accessible by thought and speech.

The more powerful the experience, the more powerful the urge to communicate it. 

I came away knowing there are gateways before me that lead into a magic gardens.

My  artistic expression sets itself to this task of doing the impossible thing. Strong motivations to create rise out of powerful experience, and those creations can in turn construct a path back to profound experience. If my work has any art to it, that is.

When I think of my own personal menagerie of powerful experiences, it turns out that many are born from experiencing works of art. I think particularly of music, which seems to most closely reflect the reality of a beauty beyond words.

The experience of nature is another effective gateway for me. I had an experience during my trip to Iceland where a particular landscape tore me up and laid me bare. Looking back at it, it’s easy to attribute that reaction to the imposing beauty and grandeur of that place. It’s an experience familiar to the 19th century Romantics who talked about the sublime.

But I want to talk about a different type of powerful experience. This is one that might have been calibrated by my experience in Iceland, but it’s an entirely different kind. This has to do with very small things.

I’m standing at the curb beside my car. I am set to the task of pumping up my car’s right rear tire. Again. We own an older car that is blessed with problematic aluminum wheels that can’t seem to hold a seal. My long suffering tire shop owner has resealed them frequently (often at no charge) but they always leak. “Those rims aren’t worth a damn” he tells me.

So here I go again, getting out my air pump, starting up the car, plugging it into the lighter jack for the umpteenth time. Tedious routine. As usual, I’m a little late getting to wherever I need to go.

The pump isn’t exactly technology’s finest hour either. It whirls and sputters argumentatively as the pressure slowly builds. Like me, it’s old and doesn’t have the kick it used to. I’m hunched over the project holding the pump and staring at the pressure gauge hard, trying to make it move.

I finally resign myself. This is gonna take a while.

I look past the pump at the curb and at the rain gutter. And then, a weird moment happens. My mind slips and releases. A calmness prevails. The fierce order of the task at hand fades. I’m looking at a plain everyday ordinary curb gutter… but what am I missing?

What was just a concrete step between the parkway and the street, one I know well and discount through habit shifts visually. It changes. It looks curious. It takes on interest. There are tiny specks of black there. The cracks in the concrete run in irregular ways. I see a small green patch of something alive that has eked out its existence where nothing of the sort should.  There are differences in shade, texture and color that weren’t there before. I begin to touch the texture with my eyes.

I’m suddenly aware that there’s an entire world right there in front of me that didn’t exist a few moments ago. It’s as if a plain brown wrapper has been unfolded to reveal a scintillating spectral object inside.

My eyes refocus and shift back to the dial on the pump. The gears of my brain re-engage with the task. The expansive moment closes.

But a warm light bathes me. The experience just ended is now observable as an event. I think about what just happened. The keen moment tied to this transitory shift of awareness seems like a small miracle.

It is in these moments that I become a total idiot. At least to the world. A casual observer would see me staring vacuously at the gutter, becoming that guy who drools and laughs at nothing. 

But that would be a misapprehension. Because what has happened here may appear senseless but is instead powerfully sensate, sensory, sensible. The purposelessness of staring at a curb was repurposed into wonder. It’s not so much that my heightened observational skills in that moment gave me a specific insight into life’s mysteries. I didn’t come away with some profound story to tell about my place in the universe. A curb is just a curb. Black specs of dust are just that after all.

Yet inside living moments like these are rewards. I came away from this experience knowing that similar moments lie everywhere. They surround me. Enfolded in their crevices are unfathomable riches hidden from our purpose filled lives. I came away knowing there are gateways before me that lead into a magic gardens.

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