“The world is full of obvious things, which no one by chance ever observed”
On Sunday evenings, my family goes for a walk. I am not sure when this tradition began, or who started it, although I have a sneaking suspicion it was my husband, and that he regularly dragged me along, as I half-heartedly protested the time of day, the heat, the distance, the toddlers underfoot, any number of things that I could think of to avoid getting sweaty and uncomfortable on a day that was meant to be relaxing and without demands on my time. I do know that it is now my oldest daughter who is frequently the one who drags us out of the door, right after dinner when you are still too full of good food and good conversation to be entirely comfortable walking at all, much less up a canyon or through a park or around the neighborhood, or any one of the places we frequent.
But in any case, on Sunday, we walk. And recently, as we were strolling up a carefully groomed path, through a shaded clearing, and past a waterfall in the mountains near our home (along with what seemed to be most of the student population of the nearby college), I stepped on a piece of gum. Now, if you have never had the misfortune of stepping on a fragment of discarded chewing gum, let me describe the experience for you. First, you notice the offensive item—maybe through a dragging tackiness as you take one step and then another, or maybe it is the sudden uneven gait that throws you off, as the lump attaches itself to the sole of your shoe, like stepping on a small pebble with every stride. Then, gulping back disgust, you attempt to dislodge it from its new home, stomping along with heavy strides, scraping your foot along the grass or the pavement, trying different surfaces to see if they will help and succeeding only in attracting small bits of gravel and dirt and weeds until the gum is now a knot of unidentifiable detritus glued resolutely to your footwear.
You do all this hoping no one notices you flapping about like an unhinged bird, listening to your companions while pausing every couple of steps to shuffle along while the tacky snip and snick of every step slowly drives you mad. Finally, you resort to the pry and dig method, grabbing anything close at hand, like a weathered stick or rock, to try and lever it loose. But this strategy necessitates stopping and hopping about on one foot while you poke and prod at your shoe, and eventually losing your balance and grasping the nearest person’s arm to avoid falling before the gum at last, finally, twists free with a pop and you fling it, stick and all, as far as you can. And then it is back to the walk, acting as if nothing had happened, as if you didn’t just spend whole minutes bouncing around in front of family and strangers like you were enacting the dance of the awkward pigeon.
Now, why, you might be asking yourself, am I telling you this? Here is my reason. Of all the walks we have taken, this is one I remember, vividly. Not just the way the dirt clung to my shoe and my children could not stop laughing, not just the other people walking by, wondering at the sight of a fully grown woman bounding around like I was on a demented pogo stick. No—I remember the sound of the water in the river beside the path, the slant of the light through the early autumn leaves, crisp and brown above our heads. I remember the smell of the grass and the faint tang of exhaust from the freeway nearby. The small flowers growing out of the cracks in the pavement where I was trying so desperately to scrape the gum off. In the years to come, out of all the walks we will have taken, I will remember this one distinctly—as a story to tell and to laugh over. And although the gum was disgusting and the walk was awkward, that right there, the telling of it, is beauty.
So often, we live uneventful lives, looking outside of us for beauty and peace and love, without stopping to realize that great stories are not grand epics, but slow sweeps of ordinary and awkward moments—great stretches of time that are made up of a million tiny moments.
We expect beauty to be easy, and people to be good, and are disappointed and disillusioned when this is not the case. When the car stalls or the dinner burns. When flowers wilt and arguments are had and angry words are spoken and frustrations pile up on ordinary walks through ordinary parks. And sometimes it is the gum on our shoe that forces us to stop. To hop around for a bit, and notice the world and the life around us. We lose so much if we fail to recognize this—if we fail to pause every once in a while and choose to notice the ordinary. The mundane. The things that are beautiful not despite the fact that we take them for granted, but because we take them for granted.
Things such as a good conversation with a friend on a street corner where you stand for far too long, meaning to leave but lingering. A rest stop on a road trip right where you need one, when the children are all full to bursting and you are desperate to stand and stretch until your back cracks in all the right places. The smudge on a pair of glasses that forces you to notice the way your vision is usually clear and fairly unencumbered and astonishingly undimmed by time and age. The moments we fail to recognize until they have piled up in enough awkward stories for us to acknowledge that the gum and the walks and the laughter and the conversations are a million ordinary moments more beautiful than anything we could have set out to notice if we had tried, and that…that is a beautiful life.