Randomness, Years 3 & 4
Issue 74
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Issue 74


            It was Tuesday, September 9, 2003.  That night was the first Caithream rehearsal of the season.  Caithream Celtic Dance Fusion is the local Ottawa Highland Dance company to which I belong.  I was headed along Daly St., because that's the same street on which Arts Court, where we rehearse, is located.  I got to King Edward and realised my grave error on coming along Daly: there are no lights at the corner of King Edward and Daly; King Edward is also very busy.  So, at about 5:45 on a Tuesday night, I watched the traffic streaming by, vowing that next time I would use Stewart because it has lights.  Finally, the stop lights worked in my favour and I started across the wide avenue.  But just as I started, a big truck on the far lane started as well.  When he saw me, the driver stopped and I made my way through the intersection.  As I passed in front of the truck, I waved at the driver.  And fell off my bike onto the road, twisting my seat, knocking off my chain and tearing open my jeans and knee.  After a brief period of angry grumblings, I picked up my bike and walked over to St. Alban's, which is on the side of King Edward I was headed for.  I fixed the bike and took a few deep breaths before moving on.

            When I reached Arts Court I went immediately to the washroom and removed my pants.  I swabbed the knee with wet paper towel.  There was a bloody hole in it.  The skin had been torn from my knee, and some of it had been split open.  The bloody part of the wound was a couple of square centimetres large, with some damage circling it.  Furthermore, my jeans were torn and had chain grease all over the right leg.  Uncool.  I danced anyway.  Renée gave me a pink bandaid to put on the knee.  On Wednesday during class, I noticed that ooze was coming out of the bottom of the new bandaid.  Very uncool.  That afternoon, I visited Crystal who lives a few floors below me and borrowed some rubbing alcohol because I wanted to clean it properly.  I'm pretty sure bits of King Edward Avenue were still in my knee.  Using a shred from my old FWCI gymn-shirt, I cleaned the wound with the rubbing alcohol.  It hurt. It stung.  It burned.  But it worked.  I covered it again with three bandaids with polysporin on them.

            Slowly my wound healed.  On Thursday night, it would randomly get shooting pains through it.  On Friday night, I had an incident where I walked into Lyndsay.  My knee bonked her foot which was sticking off the front of a chair she was kneeling on.  It really, really hurt.  At some point the next week, I removed the bandaid.  And on Tuesday, September 23, two weeks later, there was a scab on the skin.  Indeed, the skin that was torn closed up.  And where it had been severed from knee, new skin had grown or is growing.  My knee had healed fine.  My jeans, on the other hand, are clean because I cleaned them, but there's still a hole in the knee.

            The fact that the skin grew back is really quite wondrous.  I suppose a biologist or dermatologist could explain to me the workings of cells and how they regenerate like that.  But how amazing is that?  A hole was torn in my body and now it's gone!  No matter how much a person knows about cell biology, I cannot see this ceasing to be a wondrous fact.  If you sever my foot, it will not grow back.  If my head is removed, I die.  If there's a hole in my stomach I have an ulcer and that doesn't fix itself without help.  If there's a hole in my heart, I'll probably have internal bleeding and possibly die.  If there's a hole in my lung, it might collapse.  But if there's a hole in my skin it will fix itself!  I realise that skin's ability to mend itself anew is part of its function on the body, because it is the protective layer that keeps all the goo from leaving my body.  Yet it is still a wonderful, marvellous thing.

            A materialist could possibly scoff at my wonder.  The world as perceived by a materialist, such as Hobbes, is as follows. The cosmos is purely physical, composed of nothing but matter.  The universe does not extend beyond the physical, making all our perceptions simply the results of chain reactions.  Hobbes' theory of how this worked was quite flawed, yet a new host of materialists has taken up his cause.  The "self" is nothing but neurons colliding off one another in the brain.  Nothing can be defined properly as the metaphysical concept of "mind", let alone the soul or the spirit.  In other words, what you see is what you get.  For many people of this mindset, the workings of the human body are simple processes and nothing at which to marvel. 

One such materialist would declare from his judgement seat that what the biologist sees beneath her microscope is everything--nothing more.  This materialist would thrust a finger of logic to the cell, proclaiming it the building-block of life.  Then he would declare that if I am filled with awe at something so small and trivial as that I must have a puny mind indeed.  The small things are not to be wondered at, he would say, listing his saints.  They would all be men and women of science and knowledge.(1)  We must be like Newton who laid the foundations of physics, or Darwin who saw small similarities and created a vast, new system of anthropogony.(2)  He would hail as his greatest heroes men such as Hawking.  The odes of this materialist would extol the virtues of men of big philosophies, like Nietzche, Marx, Hegel, who believed the world was progressing from glory to glory.  He would turn to me, uttering my own folly for this wonder, directing me to the true wonders, nebulae and quantum physics and synapses in the brain.  Wondering at cell regeneration is like looking at a piece of white paper and having a conniption.  Sadly, this materialist make a most fatal utterance: one ought not to wonder anyway.(3)

The scientists listed above are not all materialists, and materialists and scientists are not all bad people.  I recognise the brilliance of men like Newton and Hawking.  I acknowledge the reasonable thought of Darwin.  I see the greatness and scope of Nietzche, Marx, and Hegel as being useful, perhaps even brilliant.  Hobbes, although not on the mark in everything, made some acute observations regarding the manner in which we live.  The fault I see is that of regarding men as nothing more than utilitarian or embodying the greatness of that philosophy with which I agree most.  The work that Machiavelli, for example, concluded with and would be most appropriate to him in general is not The Prince, and is not "Machiavellian".  Therefore, we cannot necessarily equate a man himself with his work, even if all we have of him is his work.  Nietzche, in abandoning reason as a mode of argument, wrote conflicting facts, some of which have been twisted into a horrible way of living and thinking.  Thus, in living in a way that removes wonder from daily life, one removes humanity from other men.  Hegel is no longer a man, he is a philosophy.  Hawking is no longer a man (to some he never was), he is a theory or a brilliant mind.  Yet all of these people, the wondrous fact is, are men.  They are not ideas.  They ate, lived, breathed, cried, laughed.  Some of them raged at the world and God.  Others laughed at simplicity.  They had friends.  They were lonely.  And they were also terribly intelligent.  They were clever men.  Suddenly, when you look at them as men, as people with families, friends, a favourite pub, a favourite food, a favourite colour, a favourite bookshop, a favourite pen, they are wonderful to imagine.  Is it not a wondrous fact that humans just like us had big ideas, maybe even great ideas?  Is it not wondrous that humans just like us stared at the sky and figured out how far it is to the moon?  Even looking at the men with great philosophies and sciences, some of whom tried to remove the very concept of wonder from human experience, I cannot imagine someone who cannot be filled with wonder.  Such a person must lead a very dreadful experience indeed.  In a very different sense of the word, I wonder at such a human being.

Wonder, whether everyone likes it or not, is almost essential to the human experience.  If we wonder at how an aeroplane flies (especially since, apparently, Bernoulli was wrong...), or at spacial phenomena, or at the shapes clouds make on a summer's day, life is full of wonder.  Sometimes we just have to know where to look.  For example, one day at the end of work at Fort William Historical Park, another interpreter and I were walking from the Visitor's Centre back to the administration building.  To do so, we had to cross a large lawn.  Growing in the lawn were the remnants of dandelions, which earlier some of us had the fun of kicking the heads off as we rambled about the fort.  By this point, though, they were just the pointed leaves of the weeds.  As we walked, I was filled with wonder not just at those plants, but all plants.  Trees especially fill me with awe.  I mentioned to my co-worker how I wondered at plants and how cool they are.  He did not understand and asked me to elaborate.  He seemed to chuckle to himself that I was so easily overcome.  His tone implied that he didn't get what I meant, that maybe I was a little silly.  Thus I explained.  I pointed out that plants live on nothing but sunlight, water, and dirt.  And not even everything in the dirt is useful.  By photosynthesis they gain energy enough to live.  And on such fragile supports for their very life, they are very durable.  Cut off a branch, and the tree lives on.  Kick off a dandelion head with your moccasin and it will grow back.  In fact, in pruning a tree it will get bigger.  And trees!  Wow!  Trees are massive.  Trees are the biggest plants out there.  Some of them live to grow metres thick!  And all that just on water, sunlight, and dirt.  I explained this but more concisely and less exuberantly.  He conceded to my point.  I also pointed out that animals are wondrous, such as tiny, little ants.  He agreed that they're pretty neat.  All he needed to get at least an iota of wonder into him was perspective.  I gave him that perspective.

According to The Globe and Mail, perspective is everything.  In order to see the world as a place full of constant wonder, we may need the perspective of a child.  Through the eyes of a child, the world is a huge, intricate place.  A child can watch an insect crawling on her arm for a very long time.  One of the supreme joys of the life of a boy is galumphing through mud and swamps.  Boys like dirty things.  We are fascinated by things like water bugs,(4) and just what it's like to slodge through a marsh.  We are filled with wonder at what could go on in there.  The great battles of the world, we imagine, could happen in a place like that.  And that field just the other side of the bush--that's the perfect place for a showdown between the forces of good and evil.  And so we can be absorbed for hours on end with nothing but a pair of rubber boots and a murky bit of water.  For a little girl, horses are creatures of endless wonder.  Riding a horse for the first time is an event that brings enormous joy to so many girls.  For a child, everything is new.  The world itself is a new creation.  There is nothing old to it yet.  It is new to me, says the child.  Athabasca Falls are amazingly beautiful.  The rocks have been worn down into neat shapes in the chasm where the water falls by centuries of ceaseless water-flow.  There is an old channel there through which the water used to fall.  When I first beheld them I did not think to myself, "This is old.  This has been here for millennia."  All I saw was beauty.  And it was beauty that was new to me.  The beauty of the flowing water, the eroded rocks, the small trees, clinging for lifethe beauty of this scene of creation filled my heart with wonder.

Consider the sun.  To the child, it is this circle in the blue sky.  Where its light falls it is warm.  The shade cast by shadows the sun creates are cool.  In Alberta, when the sun sets, it casts a fiery red and orange tone across the horizon.(5)  The clouds are changed from billows of white and grey floating in the air to balls of fire, as when a barbecue is lit with too much propane out.  Only the beauty of this scene is more beautiful than almost any other.  A person can just stare at it.  The sun goes down for hours out there.  Slowly, slowly it goes, casting its fire upon the clouds.  As it gets lower, the shadows cast by the trees, the mountains, the moose, the Calgary Tower, get longer.  Night approaches, hailed by this event of utmost beauty.  And to a child, this imprints itself on the mind, and will never be forgotten.  When it is cloudy, the sun still penetrates the world with its light.  Through a foggy day, the hazy sun can be seen even though nothing else is visible.  From Mt. Mckay in Thunder Bay, I have witnessed the sun set quickly in a red ball of fire.  The sun is wondrous, especially to a child.  Not only children find the sun, wondrous, though.  In the earliest Greek myths, Helios is the sun itself.  He travels across the sky each day, from one end of the dome of the Sky to the other.  It is not Apollo pulling the chariot of the Sun, but Helios himself making the journey.  Many ancient cultures worshipped the sun, either because he was powerful and fearsome, commanding the respect of a desert people or because he was gentle and life-giving, earning the respect of a mountain people.  In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the sun is a symbol of eternity.  The sun was there before I was; it will be there after I am dead.  The Psalms ask for the king to endure as long as the sun.  The sun's light is pure.  The sun itself emanates light.  And for modern man, no matter what he believes, the sun ought to be a source of wonder.  The sun is a swirling mass of gases and stuff.  They are on fire.  This chaotic mass is large enough to keep nine (maybe ten) planets orbitting it as well as meteors.  It gives light and life to one.  It is wonderful to behold what the sun is and does.  The sun is powerful.  The sun is power.  Look at it with a child's eyes.  And wonder.

Jean Vanier says that one of the ways by which prejudice overcomes us is not believing that people have anything to offer.  A striking example he gives is that of mentally handicapped people.  He says that people are willing to feel compassion for handicapped people, to help handicapped people, but we will not see them as people who are not only loved by God, but created by God and as people who have something to offer, people who are somewhat prophetic.  If wonder is essential to life, then we have much to learn from so many of the people have cast to the verges of our society.  If you think the wonder expressed by a child the first time she alights upon a horse, imagine the joy and wonder of a handicapped woman who has spent too much of her life not being loved properly, not getting enough worthwhile experiences.  Imagine her first ride on a big and beautiful animal she has wondered and loved for her whole life.  It is an event of great joy and beauty, bringing tears to the eyes.  My friend's father worked for Wesway, and the people he was a caregiver for had such a startling view of the cosmos.  Everything was a thing of wonder.  This was not necessarily a wonder of admiration, though.  One man feared the dog, yet that was because the dog barked at him.  Perhaps dogs were previously beyond his experience.  Perhaps a dog had bitten him.  Who knows?  Yet that little dog reminds me that I take small things for granted too often.  My mother used to take care of a little boy named Aaron.  Aaron has cerebral palsy and downs syndrome.  He has these big, brown eyes that would just watch the world.  If anyone I have ever encountered had a heart full of wonder, Aaron was the one.  Do not be overcome with prejudice.  We can learn from even the "smallest" of people.  Indeed, these people can fill someone with awe and wonder just as well as the genii and scientists and philosophers and poets can.

When you go out today, go equipped with whatever knowledge you have.  And be prepared to be awed.  Look at a tree and say, "Wow."  Think of the roots sucking up nutrients deep in the ground and then those nutrients travelling all the way up to the top of the tree.  Wow.  Examine an ant.  Ants are very small, yet they move relatively swiftly and can carry many, many times their own weight.  They can cling to trees and walk upside down.  Wow.  Watch a leaf caught in the breeze as it blows about, tossed to and fro by the relentless wind, airborne against its own will.  Wow.  Listen to the birds.  Wow.  And listen--truly listen to music.  Hear the melodies, the harmonies, everything.  Absorb the beauty, the essence of music.  Wow.  Stare at a piece of art.  Wow.  Let your screensaver mesmerise you.  Whoa.  Like the football player on the commercial, stare at your fingers moving in awe.  Your brain is making them move instantaneously with the thought.  And they move because of independent tendons connected to muscles in your forearm.  Wow.  Don't look directly at the sun, but let it overcome you.  It's a big ball of fire in outer space.  Wow.  Eat.  Taste.  Digest.  Wow.  Just think about tasting and smelling.  Wow.  Consider love.  Wow.  Now, like the Saxon farmer who knew nothing but his field, farmhouse, and the nearest market, the world is a very big place full of very wondrous things.

Keep all these things in mind next time you have an idiotic accident.  Maybe someday you'll fall off your bike crossing King Edward Avenue or Edward Street or something.  And maybe you'll tear open your knee.  And you'll watch its progress in awe as the pain subsides, the oozing stops, and the skin regrows.  And your jeans will still have their hole two months later.



(1) Redundant!  Science comes from scientia, which means knowledge!

(2) A neologism for the birth of man.

(3) Of course, simply because one is a materialist does not exclude one from wonder.  I'm certain that a number of materialists have looked at a cut and wondered at how efficiently and cleanly skin cells regenerate.  Yet a number of others would dismiss it, saying that that is the unrealistic realm of "philosophers and poets."

(4) Okay, okay--they freak me out.  But I know Day Camp kids from the summer who loved them.

(5) Go to http://rmh-mountaineer.awna.com/ Click on "Recent Issues", then "Tuesday, October 7, 2003"

Copyright 2004, Matthew Hoskin