Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Finding and Appreciating Pennies

I've been having trouble getting into Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, so I just started flipping to random sections and reading. My hope was that either I'd finally be sucked into the text, or I'd be justified in giving up and declare the book isn't for me. While doing this, I came across this anecdote:

When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Pittsburgh, I used to take a precious penny of my own and hide it for someone else to find. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been seized by it since. For some reason I always “hid” the penny along the same stretch of sidewalk up the street. I would cradle it at the roots of a sycamore, say, or in a hole left by a chipped-off piece of sidewalk. Then I would take a piece of chalk, and, starting at either end of the block, draw huge arrows leading up to the penny from both directions. After I learned to write I labeled the arrows: SURPRISE AHEAD or MONEY THIS WAY. I was greatly excited, during all this arrow-drawing, at the thought of the first lucky passer-by who would receive in this way, regardless of merit, a free gift from the universe. But I never lurked about. I would go straight home and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would be gripped again by the impulse to hide another penny

Fair enough, that's a cute enough story. And then I read the next paragraph:

It is still the first week in January, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about seeing. There are lots of things to see, unwrapped gifts and free surprises. The world is fairly studded and strewn with pennies cast broadside from a generous hand. But—and this is the point—who gets excited by a mere penny? If you follow one arrow, if you crouch motionless on a bank to watch a tremulous ripple thrill on the water and are rewarded by the sight of a muskrat kid paddling from its den, will you count that sight a chip of copper only, and go your rueful way? It is dire poverty indeed when a man is so malnourished and fatigued that he won’t stoop to pick up a penny. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.

Whoa, the nice lady who's writing I don't totally get is profoundly right. First, there are 'pennies' casually hidden all around. Whether it's a a few tiny sprouts or a short section of recently discovered trail, or any of the other countless tiny wonders around us, they are indeed there.

And furthermore, her point is also right: who gets excited about a penny? In DC, where I'm less than 5 miles away from the US Botanic Garden, it's easy to dismiss the dandelion as just another weed.

Finally she nails it: if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that finding a penny will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in pennies, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days.

What a remarkable insight and something to strive for. Needless to say, I'm back to making my way through Dillard's book. Well played Dillard, well played.

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