“I hate to think that in twenty years Southern writers too may be writing about men in gray-flannel suits and may have lost their ability to see that these gentlemen are even great freaks than what we are writing about now.” –Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners
When a friend came to visit my home, she scoffed at the location—suburbia. What was I doing in a suburb? She turned her nose at the Stepford-Wife similarity between all the homes and implied that she herself would be stifled in such environment. Admittedly, I was nervous about moving into a brand new home because I feared it lacked story, character, and individuality. However, tonight, when walking around my neighborhood, I was struck by a Muse. Yes, Muses reach even suburbanites.
The sun was setting, a pale dusk settling on top of an orange and pink sky. Skeletal trees were reflecting so clearly in the ponds that I could not tell whether a fluttering bird was on the water or in the branches. Hordes of crows rested on the tops of the trees and appeared like black buds. I walked hurriedly to the edge of the subdivision and began imagining it as the edge of the world. Racing the oncoming night, I foresaw the closing of another world. If I did not reach the end of the subdivision, that portal would be closed forever. While Narnia and the world of the looking glass may have been epiphanies born in the idyllic Kilns of Lewis’s home or on the river Thames in Oxford, such prizes of the imagination may be delivered to anyone at anytime.
I have always been drawn to natural beauty—trees, rivers, mountains, beaches, and so forth. Litters of billboard ads and fast food chains feel soul-robbing rather than soul-enriching. Yet, I discovered tonight that my imagination could change the way the world looked. I could approach the edge of the suburb, the place where the sidewalk ends, to quote Shel Silverstein, as though it led to Narnia. The reflection in those hose-filled puddles around the neighborhood indicated a looking-glass wonderland on the other side. I could even peer at those so-called “trash birds” cluttering the dead trees and see them as a sign from the gods as they appear in The Odyssey.
In the same generation as O’Connor, Viktor Frankl observed first-hand that those who survived the concentration camps were not physically the strongest but those with the most active minds—those who sang tunes when there was no music, imagined artistic visions in the midst of ugliness, recited poetry and retold stories they remembered. When I taught that passage in Man’s Search for Meaning, I spontaneously decided to break class and walk the entire group of students to the choir concert going on across campus. There are opportunities everywhere to be inspired, but even in the world of “the Man,” a Muse might strike.