I had not considered, until shortly before I reached into the bag to draw it out, that the people to whom I was about to show the object might not know what it was. That’s how it is with familiar things – we unconsciously assume they are familiar to everyone and when, through circumstance or wondering, we stumble across the idea that they are not, well, things happen.
This particular circumstance was a recent Saturday morning on which I was giving a writer’s workshop to a group of Girl Scouts in Atlanta. After having given the obligatory inspirational talk and read a snippet of my own work, we’d begun a writing exercise, the workshop equivalent of audience participation. The object was to write an autobiographical paragraph, the subject of which did not necessarily have to be oneself.
The twist – and there is always a twist to writer’s workshop exercises – was that each sentence of the paragraph had to include an object that I would draw out of a bag. I reminded the participants that some words can be used in many difference ways. “For example,” I told them, “if I pull out a foot remember that foot can also be used to describe not just an actual foot, but also the foot of a bed or footing the bill.”
The first object to be withdrawn from the bag was a Tiffany blue die cast model car. The girls bent their heads and wrote furiously. The second object was a tarnished silver friendship heart on a red silk string. Once again they bent and wrote. The third and fourth objects, a large gray and white feather and an hourglass, received only slightly longer glances before the girls set to writing.
It was the fifth and final object that gave me pause as I reached into the bag. Curling my fingers around its smooth curves, I slowly pulled out a deer antler.
Immediately the whispering began. “What’s that?” echoed all over the room, front to back. One or two girls whispered back, “Antlers!” with an urgency normally associated with the warning of an approaching contagion.
“Y’all city girls don’t know what a deer antler looks like?” I asked and then laughed out loud. I walked up and down the aisle so the girls could see the antler more closely.
“You can tell a lot about the animal just from this antler.” I could feel the writing exercise morphing into a biology lecture. “It’s obviously male because female deer don’t have antlers and he was a young male because the antler is still pretty small. And see here at the bottom? You can see where the antler broke off. It didn’t just fall off as antlers normally do. He may have gotten into a fight or he may have gotten his head stuck in something and the antler broke off as he escaped.”
I watched their faces, so open, so fascinated by something that is completely common to me. I felt the way I feel when I’ve given someone the exactly right present.
Their hands went back to their pencils and the scribbling resumed. In just a few more minutes our time together was over. It is highly likely that I will never see any of those girls again, but driving home that afternoon, through traffic thick as cane syrup, I kept going back to the absolute delight I experienced in sharing with them my familiar, my everyday, my ordinary. And I realized that an equivalent delight always comes when someone shares his or hers with me.
We work very hard these days to dress-up the ordinary with special fonts and custom play-lists and signature cocktails. I wonder what would happen if we stopped playing dress-up. If we understood again and for the first time that the beauty of the world and of our lives needs no embellishment and that the ordinary is anything but.