The exceptional in the ordinary: knit attack in Occidental Park

Mark Broadhead so accurately encapsulates my own struggles since returning from Italy that I’d swear he was looking inside my mind as he wrote this week’s Lonely Planet blog:

“Travel is an escape from the everyday. The everyday is that which I no longer see, feel, interrogate. Things in my daily life become so common to me that they disappear. The colour of my desk at work I cannot recall, the smell of my shampoo I do not notice, etc. Everything familiar becomes hidden to me. I become numb to the world around me, just as prisoners become numbed by the walls of their cells. My routines are the walls of my cell. To alleviate this daze I purchase new clothes, books, seek out new cafes, take on new hobbies, but these too are quickly absorbed by the everyday.”

These concepts are topical as I prepare to return to Civita and Venice this summer, hoping to study and, on some level, rechannel the magic I encountered last year with Helen, Iole, Tony, Josè, Denis, Gaia, and Bernardo.

More than that, though, is a desire to explore what returning to those scenes means to my evolution as a writer. For my second act, I hope not to imitate what I’ve done with CivitaVeritas, but to take my inspiration in new directions, to push boundaries that were not in reach last year.

When I think of what it means to challenge oneself as a writer or artist, I am reminded of the evolution of a yoga class: like any exercise, it begins with a melting, a stretching, a focus on fundamentals so that it’s possible to explode outward with intensity. My process as a writer is similar; I begin by quieting my self-centered chatter in order to absorb the world outside myself, the more pin-pointed the details, the better. As Mark suggests,

“Where at home I found the common things boring and international diplomacy intriguing, while travelling I find politics trivial and the lives of the locals important.”

Being awake enough to see reality—to perceive the exceptional in the everyday—is a basic building block, especially for a non-fiction writer like me. Yet, like forward bends in yoga, doing so can be the most challenging, the most neglected part of a practice because it is the most familiar and the most outwardly simple act.

I considered this while riding the bus—a favorite venue for pulling the exceptional from the ordinary. There are two realities contained within public transportation: the plugged-in current of private music flowing through half the ridership’s iPods, and that which everyone else collectively experiences.

Often, I resist the temptation to detach when it’s clear that I’m about to miss something by staring straight ahead like everyone else—such as a lanky, string-bean of a woman in pants so small that they’d fit a child, pushing her worldly possessions around in a baby stroller.

“Girl, you gotta get you one of those push carts instead of that stroller,” chided the bus driver gently as he brought the step lift up for her to exit.

“Shoot, what do I need one of those for?” she asked with a cackle. “When I see babies on the corner that their parents don’t want, I say, ‘Jump on in, child, and I’ll take ya!’”

As I absorbed this small scene, chuckling, I considered that moments like these, whether at home or abroad, are among the essential building blocks of great essays. Pitch-perfect and sweet, they are true slices of life and nearly impossible to produce artificially without sounding contrived.

Similarly, while riding the #36 downtown last week, I couldn’t take my eyes off the man across from me. Somewhere in his early 70s, he was dressed and groomed impeccably—not merely clean or well-heeled, he was clad in a sense of stylish self-respect. If I were in Paris or Rome, I’d expect to see men of his ilk everywhere.

As my eyes tripped up and down his frame, I wondered why African American men of a certain age are always the best dressed amongst their peers while white guys are likely to be caught wearing baggy, pleated khakis or stonewashed jeans that sag in the butt. This, plus white tennis shoes, baseball caps with plastic adjusters, and tent-sized untucked polo shirts. They amble about like disheveled mangoes with legs.

This gentleman, on the other hand, was the exceptional amongst the ordinary.

He wore a white pressed shirt with tiny purple pinstripes; his collar, ironed crisp, peered just above a soft v-neck sweater without a single pill. His midnight wool blazer, open in the front, hung smartly about his trim frame; he leaned forward on his antique wooden cane, tipped with a brushed silver handle.

As the bus shucked and jived over potholes on Third Avenue, he pondered something intently; perhaps he was on his way to the VA hospital, thinking about test results. My eyes followed his smooth, shaven skin up to his chin, pausing briefly at the tiny silver hoop that hung from his left ear before continuing to the black trilby hat that framed his face.

While I don’t often meddle with my subjects, I couldn’t stop myself from gathering his attention as I exited at Third and Main. “Sir, I must say that you look fantastic.”

Called away from his thoughts, his face lit up like a flower unfolding in the sunshine. “Why, thank you, young lady.”

Whatever I open myself to when I return to Civita and Venice this year, I know that my powers of perception will be happily tested once again—only, this time, I won’t be starting from scratch.