This morning I enjoyed a few moments gazing into my cutlery drawer. I can’t remember ever doing this before. Cutlery is not something one looks at, particularly, it’s just there—useful, shiny, not unattractive, but not noteworthy.
Today I noticed it. A whole drawerful of oddly-shaped little metal mirrors. Silverware. Not that it’s real silver, of course (who would polish it?), but it looks rich. For those few moments I felt like a king inspecting his treasure trove. Or someone caught in a time warp trying to remember what in tarnation all this flashy bling is for.
Does everybody do this? You look at a lampshade you’ve had for fifty years and suddenly you think—Huh? What the …? As G.K. Chesterton observed, “If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe; if you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.”
I get the Mirriam-Webster ‘Word for the Day’ in my email box, and often, even if it’s a common word, it strikes me in an odd way, as if I’m not quite sure I’ve ever seen this word before, or ever really knew what it meant. How on earth did this particular sound come to stand for what it purportedly represents? Say any common word to yourself enough times, and before long its familiarity will wobble, fade, and finally vanish into a haze of obscurity. You will be taken back to the time when, as a small child, you heard this word for the very first time, then felt it on your own tongue and pondered it, trying to connect this strange sound to what it might mean. You will be taken back to the very roots of language, to this miracle of articulate meaning possessed by humans alone of all animals. The world is strange, yes, but not so strange as words. Because the word came first; it is what lies behind the world; it is how the world was created.
We’ve grown used to being here on this old earth. Like the proverbial frogs in boiling water, we’ve settled down comfortably into the stew pot, and we forget how unutterably bizarre is this whole business. Except once in a while something—a spoon, a lampshade, a fragment of language—leaps out of the pleasant, gray, sleepy background into center stage and starts doing pirouettes and ciseaux and grands jetés.
I like the title of Sophia Joan Short’s book All Familiar Things Were Once Strange. Truth is, the familiar is a lie and strangeness is the truth. Gravity is an amazing thing, the way it holds everything in place. But every once in a while some one thing suddenly floats free, grabs your attention, and you say, Whoa! What’s this? What’s going on here? And then you look at this whole weird world through that one lens and it’s as if you were just born, or just arrived here from an alien planet. Indeed the more obvious an object seems, the more exotic it will appear upon extended contemplation.
Right now, go to your cutlery drawer and take a good look.
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