What's the most beautiful thing you've seen today?

9th February 2003

My mother had a question she tended to ask at the end of difficult days. "What's the most beautiful thing you've seen today?"

The question refocused the mind nicely. From being niggled by all the ways life had let us down we started searching for personal wonders.

I remember laughing at a speaker at our school speech day when I was a kid. He had a slight speech impediment which lengthened what already seemed a long talk. His grey eyes shone with the power he sensed in his own words. He was trying to get us to see beyond the realms of our narrow education, he was feeding us the wisdom of his many years. "Go out at night and look at the stars," he told us. "Pick up a rock and know how it feels." The advice seemed useless and sentimental at the time, yet something got through. Oddly his are the only verbatim lines I remember from my entire education.

The day has just started as I write this. It's Sunday and I long to write, yet must spend the day in lesson preparation and wading through a pile of school textbooks, assigning marks and advice. I dropped into a local pub on Friday night, not my usual quiet and ancient hostelry, oak beams and log fires, but a rowdier one. Loud men made obscene gestures at the barmaids, and bellowed obscenities at each other in their manic jovial way, belching tobacco fumes. "Shrink these men to thirteen years old and imagine teaching them Shakespeare," I said, sullen after a week of dragging reluctant kids through compulsory textual analysis of Macbeth.

Maybe it's all karmic revenge for my laughing at that old man at speech day. I share my sense of wonder with the kids I teach in school, and know that the attempt is boring or laughable to many. Perhaps some of it does stick though, as the man's words stuck with me though I greeted them with contempt. Like writing, teaching can lay lay some seed of a fresh idea in a developing mind. That seed matures in the darkness then bursts into light. Maybe the best that writing and teaching can do is to point us back to appreciation, to recovering a sense of wonder, and clearing away some murkiness so that clear light glances back down on life and amazes us.

So it's back to work I guess. But first to think about Mum's question. "What's the most beautiful thing you've seen today?"

Raindrops fell in the pool that fills the birdbath on the patio. Two goldfinches pecked from the base of their feeder while another watched them from its perch just above. A dozen siskins raided the ground beneath the other feeders while ten more waited their turn in the birch tree. We lit candles to make something stylish of the Sunday breakfast. All that and it's still morning. Now to find moments to marvel at in those school essays.

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