Monday, October 14, 2013

Sweatiness, Repentance, and the Defamiliarization of Art

I am writing this from the top bunk in my tiled, white room in La'ie, Hawaii.  It is sweltering, probably 90 degrees with a press of humidity that would moisten even the Southernmost belle.  My roommate and I are both lying very still on our beds, positioning ourselves strategically under the ceiling fan and trying to type without our wrists sweating on the keyboards.

Lest you get the wrong impression about Hawaii, though, let me tell you.  Hawaii is a place where even the bad is good.  For instance, it's hot inside, but two blocks away a tree bends over the sidewalk with the weight of enormous grey- scaled fruit with white fleshy insides.  The fruit drop onto the concrete and rot there; I step over them on my way to the library.  I have no idea what kind of fruit it is, but I am thoroughly convinced that if it takes 90 percent humidity to create a climate in which basketball-sized fruit spontaneously grow and fall, then I'll take sweating any day.  It is a stinkin' rainforest out there, writhing with life and growth and rotting.  

I could write all night about the ocean, the beaches, the palm trees, the volcanic rock, the mountains, but let's not waste your time.  Instead, just type "Hawaii" into Google Image search and spend five minutes scrolling through the pictures.  While you do, let me tell you the secret, folks: 
It's all true.
Everything you're looking at is real.  Even the big guys in the lava-lavas and the ukeleles on the beach and the bright orange sunsets that looked photoshopped. 

 Every good thing you've heard about Hawaii is true.

I'll let that sink in for a minute.

Ok, now that that's out of the way, here's five minutes of lifethought.

On Friday I woke up earlyish and went for a run.  It was rainy and cool and I ran along a small paved path next to the Kamehameha Highway, which runs (mostly) around the perimeter of Oahu.  La'ie is very remote, so within minutes I was in farmland, looking out to some impressive windmills on the horizon looking like a gently revolving beacon from a Mihizaki film.  I ran until I found a state park and jogged in (another magical thing about Hawaii, state parks and beaches are ALL FREE) to the beautiful woods-meets-shrubs-meets-sand area that is common on this part of the island.  I ditched shoes, phone, keys and shirt and went for a quick swim in the blue surf before jogging back home along the beach.

As I ran home, dripping with sweat, tropical rain, and saltwater, I thought:
This could be the happiest day of my life.
 30 minutes later, I felt the same way.  I went home to eat a bowl of oatmeal with raisins, honey and banana and read my scriptures.  When I ate, I tasted the sweat on my lips because I had rubbed them with the back of one arm while running.  The small toe on my left foot had a blister because I had put my sandy feet barefoot into my shoes to run home, and the grit worked up a small hotspot on my toe.  I was puzzled that this was all it took to send me careening into euphoria: a good run,  sweat, tasty breakfast, a moment with God, a small blister.  

Two of my favorite people and life mentors, named Eve and Lori, view life this way.  They see joy in tiny, tiny things: plants pushing up through the snow in the spring.  A beautiful Hopkins poem.  A pink sash on a cream-colored dress.  Someone else's talent.  Because they look for it, they experience more and more catalysts for joy.  It's like God gives them their life back, every day.  And every day, it's new and surprising and beautiful.

In his oddly brilliant essay "Art as Technique," Viktor Schklovsky discusses how art gives us this chance to experience the ordinary over and over again, with new wonder and perspective.  Without art (and I argue nature, especially nature that is unfamiliar) everything quickly becomes routine, or "habitualized."  There is no need for us to listen and really EXPERIENCE when we seek only for economy.

And this is where art, and, I argue, faith, comes in.  Of this Schklovsky writes:
"Habitualization devours work, clothes, furniture, one's wife, and the fear of war. "If the whole complex lives of many people go on unconsciously, then such lives are as if they had never been." And art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony. The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects "unfamiliar," to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object: the object is not important..."

Faith, like art, allows us to have fresh experiences with the same world. Under the entry "Repentance' in the LDS Bible Dictionary, one reads, "The Greek word of which this is the translation denotes a change of mind, a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world." Repentance acts as art does by allowing us to recognize our own growth, and therefore, our change in understanding of the world. This became real to me this week as a friend forgave me for something I had done to hurt him, and as a result, my resolve to be a better friend increased and I gained new insight into my current friendships. The old friendships sharpened and gained clearer focus. In this way, faith and repentance (and, ultimately, the Atonement of Jesus Christ) allows us to re-experience the past and look to the future in a fresh way. We become "new creatures in Christ" and the world tastes differently.

I believe that change is possible.  I believe that we can "defamiliarize" our spiritual and physical selves.  This week, stretch.  Prolonge.  Struggle.  Feel the roughness of it.  Notice your own change.  Be grateful. Allow yourself to be an active participant in life, whether it is good or bad.  I'm lucky enough to be naturally defamiliarized by a new surrounding, but that too can become frighteningly habitual. (For instance, I now text on the bus around the island instead of shamelessly gawking out the window like the tourist I am.)  Let the day be new today.  God will give it back to us.

Love, Aloha, and until next time,



  1. "This could be the happiest day of my life." I LOVE Hawaii!!! ENJOY! And keep sharing! Thank you!

  2. Wonderful. "Stretch, prolong, struggle. Feel the roughness of it" reminded me of a neat presentation I just saw where the woman (a social scientist?) figured out that it really is in the struggle that we learn. Shouldn't we praise and glory in the difficult, unfamiliar, extended-perception experiences instead of what comes easily?
    Thank you for the thoughts, I loved it. I never thought I'd see Schklovsky connected to repentance!

    1. Seriously, right? Oddly enough, I think about that Crit class a ton. I should tell Dr. Hall...

  3. As we "defamiliarize" we will have more gratitude for the many, many things we take for granted. We need to count our many blessings including those "familiar" things that we encounter every day which we won't recognize unless we "defamiliarize." Great thought - thank you. Enjoy your loneliness . . . but you are never truly alone. Love you!