Monday, December 28, 2009

Through a Window

I came across this the other day, and realized the guy posting is a comment box visitor here. I love how he describes his early longing to be caught in a traffic jam--that resonated with me, and seemed very Chestertonian. Kind of like here now, how I long for snow storms, so I can visit with my neighbors and we can commiserate together about having to shovel snow, while secretly being glad of the chance to see each other and share some news.

So here, thanks to Maolsheachlann:
Through a Window

I can't remember the first time I heard of GK Chesterton, or the first time I read him. It may have been Lepanto, which I came across in an old school poetry anthology. But I do remember the first Chestertonian passage that spoke to me personally, that gave me that shock of surprised recognition which is a reader's greatest reward. I was flicking through his Autobiography, some nine years ago, and I hit upon this famous sentence: "All my life I have loved frames and limits; and I will maintain that the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window."

We are often warned not to reduce an author or a philosopher to a single phrase, or a single idea. But are we really doing Chesterton and injustice in perpetually returning to that single word, wonder, as his essential message?

Coming across that sentence, again, while reading Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy has led me to think about the ideas, the sights and sounds, that spark my own sense of wonder. I'm boundlessly grateful for them, as they are entirely a gift. I could make become a millionaire far more easily than I could be shown the wonder in an everyday sight or sound, and I mean that literally.

Chesterton's mention of a window suggests the first example to me. I grew up in a high-rise estate, on the seventh floor of an apartment block. Sometimes I would have dreams about figures floating outside the window, like the vampiric boy in the miniseries of Salem's Lot. I grew up with the idea that for somebody to be outside the window of your home (a situation I often encountered in books) was exotic, miraculous, unearthly.

For about nine years now I've been on ground level with everybody else, but the marvel of the voice outside the window remains. It can be a group of little girls skipping on a Saturday morning. It can be a crowd of teenagers lurching home from the pub on a Saturday night. It can simply be the creak of a bicycle wheel. Even now, they all seem as wondrous to me as the sight of a mammoth or a Roman chariot. That mysterious Other outside my window is only feet away; but the sheet of glass between us divides us into separate realms. I know that this sense of marvel at a voice outside my window will follow me to my dying day, and I am unspeakably grateful for it.

Because that's the thing about wonder; its inexhaustibility. If I were to inherit a fortune tomorrow, I would probably get over the excitement of living in a mansion. But I will never get over the excitement of the lights going down in the cinema, or the sound of water gurgling in a drain, or the view into an upstairs bedroom as I pass a house on the bus, and marvel at the living dolls in the life-size dollhouse.

Because I could write on this theme forever, I will be stern with myself and only mention one more, perhaps because it illustrates another of Chesterton's aphorisms; namely, that an inconvenience is only an adventure, rightly considered. I can remember reading a pamphlet on stress, issued by some health authority or other, when I was a child. The pamphlet described the various situations that lead to stress, and gave chirpy suggestions on how to deal with them.

One was a traffic jam. If I had a Chestertonian memory, I could reproduce the passage verbatim, but the essence of it was: "Try to smile at another driver caught in the traffic jam."

I had never been in a traffic jam. My family had never owned a car, and I had rarely travelled in one. My school was within walking distance. To my naive mind, the thought of a traffic jam was immensely pleasing. I liked the idea of complete strangers thrown together, like the kids in detention in The Breakfast Club, or-- pretty much-- every set of characters in every adventure story whatsoever. It had all the charm of a desert island captivity. I wondered how anyone could help smiling in such a situation.

I'd like to pretend that I exult in traffic jams now, just as I thrill to the sound of a voice outside my window. Unfortunately, my imagination has been less helpful on this occasion; I've found myself becoming as cross, frustrated and aggrieved as anybody else in my (subsequently vast) experience of traffic jams.

The memory of the pamphlet only occured to me recently, when I had started to think-- partly spurred by Chesterton's writing, partly by the course of my own thoughts-- how much we miss inconveniences when they are taken away, and how much human drama they add to our lives. Do you remember breakdowns in TV transmission? "Here is some music"? Have you ever heard a thirty-something wax nostalgic over how, when he was a kid, loading a game on his Amstrad of Spectrum computer took longer than playing it? Have you ever noticed how twenty-somethings who detested having to wear uniforms in school flock to nostalgia discos where school uniform is compulsory? Have you ever felt sorry for a teenager with her own car?

So now I try to exult in the traffic jam, and savour the queue. Maybe I'll never entirely succeed in that endeavour. But at least I know the voice outside the window will always be a voice from fairyland.


  1. Well done, Sir! I would buy you a drink if you were here. I find myself in similar situations. I actually used to work in sales and all I did was drive, and I guess I was in so many traffic jams that I stopped caring about them. It brought some variety to my day. Now I walk to the school that I teach at and now the few times I do take the car on a journey I am delightfully surprised at how very easy driving a car is, but my annoyance of traffic jams has arisen yet again. I've tried figuring out why, I think it comes down to if you have to be somewhere at a particular time and if you have people with you in the car. If I'm on the way to church or something then I'll be quite upset if I hit a lot of traffic unexpectedly. So, I just leave a lot earlier so that no matter what I can just enjoy the trip. Unfortunately, that's not always possible. I still walk to school every morning and that's much more of an adventure, especially when something fun happens like a rainstorm or snowstorm. Every day the weather is different and the earth is different and the people I see on the streets are different, nevertheless everyday the sun is there to greet me, and everyday mother earth is there for me, and everyday I say, "Hello" to the crossing guard. And it's the surprise of what's the same, and the surprise at what's different that makes the trip worth it.

  2. Thank you, sir! Don't worry, I had plenty of brandy and colas over the Christmas holidays, but I appreciate the hypothetical drink anyway! And I'm like you...sometimes it's a struggle but I tried to revel in the parade of humanity that is the daily commute. Also, getting up early and venturing out in the gloom of dawn is exciting. I have to admit that people whose job is "on the road" always seem very glamorous to me. Like long-distance lorry drivers.


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