Where I live, the trees are in beautiful death swoons, immolating in falling flames of red and gold, orange and brown.
Last week, after I finished my morning run I walked the rest of the way home. A few feet from the front door I noticed—the glory all around me!
How had I run through that pied world, then walked slowly a half mile home—and not seen a thing?
It’s no great mystery. We don’t see anything unusual because we think we already know what’s there. It’s fall, what do you expect? Of course there will be changing leaves. The Maple out front will turn brilliant crimson. Already know that.
Once you’re sure you know something, you can’t be surprised. Which is to say, you can’t see what’s actually in front of you. We have to be surprised into reality.
We are all like Helen Keller. Blind, deaf.
I was reading about Keller the other day. Her parents hired a teacher from the Perkins Institution for children with disabilities, and Ann Sullivan showed up at the door.
Helen Keller’s overwhelming challenges had made her one angry and violent little girl. The day Anne Sullivan showed up for duty, Helen knocked out one of Sullivan’s front teeth. That didn’t deter Sullivan. She began teaching Helen the letters of the alphabet by signing them in the little girl’s palm. Helen was quite intelligent and learned quickly how to mimic the letter signs. She could spell w-a-t-e-r but she had no idea what the word signified.
Finally Sullivan spelled w-a-t-e-r into Helen’s palm as Sullivan held her hand submerged in water from the well. Later Helen Keller recalled that moment of enlightenment. “I stood still,” she wrote, “my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten, a thrill of returning thought, and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me”
In some way, our problem is the opposite of Helen Keller’s. We begin with vivid experiences for which we have no name. Then we are taught to name them, to categorize them, and the experience fades.
Very early a child will dance with delight when a splash of crimson flies through the air and lands on the porch railing. But as soon as he learns to name this “cardinal,” he no longer dances. It’s just—a cardinal. Bird. They fly. I know that. Big deal.
Something like this was blinding me, deafening me on my walk through autumn’s annual pageant. I had a name for this, it didn’t surprise me. What I needed on that walk was the simple wisdom of beginner’s mind.
I’ve never seen this before (not this particular scene).
It has never happened before.
I don’t know what to call this.
Then, perhaps, we could truly experience f-a-l-l.