On my recent visit to New Mexico, my parents and I drove to the Jemez State Monument. The drive from their home in Rio Rancho to the monument is gorgeous. As we passed one of several pueblos my father recalled stopping there once. He told the following story about that brief visit:
“We stopped at the visitor center, and there was this kid working there. He asked us where we were from, and I told him, ‘Rio Rancho now, but originally from Iowa.’ He said he hadn’t been many places, but he’d had the chance to visit Iowa the previous summer. Then he said, ‘And I saw something magical there. Something I thought only existed in books or movies – I honestly didn’t believe they were real.’ And you know what he was talking about? Fireflies! Course, it’s too dry down here for lightening bugs. Just imagine what that would be like – dusk on a June night in Iowa – if you’d never seen them before. No wonder he thought it was magic!”
A couple of weeks later, I was enjoying an incredible June dusk on the back patio of my friends, the Dennis’, in Iowa. As the fireflies began to light up the yard, I was remembering that conversation just as I heard a loud SMACK and the words, “Got it!” from one of the Dennis girls. In dismay, I asked why she killed the firefly, and her answer was, “I don’t like them.” A few minutes later, her sister joined us and the entire process was repeated – another lightning bug dispatched to a violent, early grave. At that point, I couldn’t refrain from sharing with them the whole story about the pueblo kid who saw something special in the insect’s beauty. I concluded my morality tale with the line, “Don’t you see? When you killed those creatures, you were killing the magic. Is that really what you want to do?” Two pairs of shoulders lifted in identical shrugs.
Fast forward another week, to the Fourth of July. Minneapolis, MN. To celebrate my first holiday as a Minneapolitan, my friend Mike and I spent the entire day on our bikes exploring the city: Lake of the Isles, Sculpture Garden, Loring Park and Greenway, Nicolett Mall, St. Anthony Main, Gold Medal Park, the Guthrie, Boom Island, University of Minnesota campus.
Late afternoon found us back on St. Anthony Main, thirsty and just a tad hungry. We stopped at an outdoor restaurant, with perfect seats to watch the crowd already gathering to stake out their fireworks-watching spots, though it was just striking 5:00 p.m. The server brought our menus, including the daily specials sheet, and Mike remarked that the flatbread on the normal menu looked good. I mentioned that there was another flatbread on the specials menu, to which Mike replied, “I saw it. Not interested, too complicated, too many ingredients.”
Now, I didn’t really care or have a stake in what Mike ordered for dinner. So there was no point in my follow-up to him, in which I pointed out that there were the same number of ingredients in both flatbreads. What I was trying to say, but not managing to spit out, was that the description of the special was more complicated and flowery, but that the actual ingredients were pretty basic. It completely came across as argumentative. Truly, it didn’t matter, yet I couldn’t seem to drop the subject, which quickly became (justifiably so) irritating to my companion. When I finally did stop talking, Mike and I sat in silence for a few minutes.
And that’s when I realized that there are lots of ways to kill magic. If our fun and easy 4th of July companionship had been a little bug with a phosphorescent butt, I would have just smashed it – but good! And while this moment was a very minor example (Mike was gracious enough to let it go and we were both able to enjoy our fish tacos), it is indicative of something I believe we all do, namely: failing to appreciate wonder when it occurs, so that we end up squashing it.
Sometimes it’s an issue of perspective. Like the Dennis girls, for whom fireflies have always been around, familiarity breeds contempt, or indifference. Someone for whom that thing, be it an insect, an experience, an emotion, is unusual or extraordinary is often more open to the wonder or magic of it. This is also true in relationships. Think about being a teenager and hearing someone say something complimentary about your parent(s) – shocking! Or when a new friend reminds you of a special quality in an old friend whom you’ve “gotten used to” and you suddenly realize you’ve taken that friend’s amazing quality for granted. The trick is to find ways to see things with new eyes, to keep refreshing your perspective. I never want to forget the wonder of bicycling, for example – how much I love that feeling of riding, of moving fast under my own steam, my body keeping a stick of metal attached to two wheels upright in an act that completely defies gravity. But training for endurance events, like RAGBRAI, can make the experience feel like a chore, rather than a joy. So I do my best to change things up, take new routes and trails – or like last night, jump on the chance to head out for a night ride (which is a completely different animal than daytime rides). Obviously, this would be impossible to do with everything in our lives. Keeping perspective fresh on household chores, or grocery shopping, may not be possible or even worth the effort. But something as amazing as little insects twinkling and sparkling in your backyard on a perfect June night – definitely worth a little effort to keep the magic alive.
At other times, though, it isn’t an issue of perspective, it’s one of awareness. It seems so often in life that I am caught up in my own inner dialogue instead of the moment in which I am living. I think of it as PMAD: Present Moment Awareness Deficit. Last week, I went to my first Minnesota Twins game at Target Field. I stubbed my toe tripping up the stairs and fell forward (luckily, not spilling much of my cold beer). By the time we had found and climbed to our seats, I was no longer in the stadium, I was in “Jenland” and my stream of consciousness went something like this: “I’m bleeding! I can’t believe I am bleeding. All over my sandal. The night is ruined. I’m bleeding, I smell like beer, I’m sweating, the kid behind me better stop kicking my seat, I wish I had worn something else, I hate my hair…” You get the picture – my body was sitting in an amazing location, with the Minneapolis skyline spread before me, but my head was literally not in the game. And social media contributes greatly to PMAD – it’s hard to notice the moment you’re having when you’re conversing via text and checking facebook statuses with/of people who aren’t in that same moment. Wonder and magic could be exploding like fireworks all around you, and you might miss it completely.
Looking back, this is what I regret most – the times I realized, too late, that marvelous, mystical, enchanting things were happening all around me and I was too busy being mentally snarky to notice or fully engage with them. Over time, I’ve been learning to recognize the signs of PMAD in myself and I’ve picked up a great technique to counteract it. I tell my muscles to relax, tell my lungs to breathe deeply, and tell my inner chatterbox to shut the hell up at least until I’ve relaxed and breathed. Usually, that gets me back into the moment – as long as I recognize that I’m experiencing a PMAD episode to begin with. (This technique worked beautifully at the Twins game, by the way! What a great night that turned out to be – including actual fireworks!)
One of my favorite Roald Dahl, a man who understood how to appreciate the magic in life (or at least how to get it down on paper), quotes says “And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it.” Whether I’m experiencing a stale, “blasé, blasé” perspective, or having a PMAD incident, I always hope to find my way back to watching with glittering eyes as the magic of this one, precious life unfolds around me. Unless I see it, I can’t fully experience it. And I think I’ve killed enough magic for one lifetime.