Have we Lost Our Senses?
By Santha Rama Rau
Years Ago, when I was a child living in my grandmother’s house in North India, the meat and fish for our very large household were brought around by traveling vendors. Whenever the fishmonger appeared, all the children of the family would rush to the courtyard in excitement. The reason was that the man kept his fish on large slabs of ice, and ice was a most exotic novelty to us.
He used to give us each a small fragment to hold in our hands and watch melt in the hot sun. once I found a fish scale caught in the piece I was given. That moment became indelible in my mind. Standing there in the sunlight, staring at the melting ice and all the colors of the rainbow imprisoned in the fish scale, I thought I would never again see anything so beautiful.
One summer, many years afterward I was reminded of that incident. My young son picked up what looked to me like a pebble and, spellbound with wonder, stood gazing at it. I peered over his shoulder to see what could absorb him so profoundly. By way of explanation, he said, “Look! It’s so white”
It occurred to me then that, as our complicated civilization claims us, we lose that sense of discovery and amazement with which children see the most everyday things. We lose the capacity for undiluted delight, the capacity to enjoy what used to be known as “the simple pleasures.” We are forgetting, gradually, to use and trust our senses. And I don’t think we need to.
One of the most sophisticated societies today is the Japanese. It is one, however, that has not lost its senses. By now, most Americans know about the rarefied pleasures that delight the Japanese: the wholesale exodus of young lovers, or school children, or grandparents into the country at cherry-blossom time, for instance. But did you know that in Japan you may be invited to a moon-viewing party, at which no conversation is expected? You merely sit in subdued but elegant surroundings and watch the moon rise, and stretch your appreciative abilities. You may be moved to write a poem, one of those brief, 17-syllable lyrics, a haiku, just to express some aspect of the experience. No matter if you don’t.
That an occasion like this is possible in America I learned from young American whom I met first in Tokyo. When I next saw him, he was teaching at a college in upper New York, where I was giving a lecture. He invited me and some of his students on that beautifully clear night to a moon-viewing party in his tiny garden. I should have been watching the perfect moonrise, but, interested in the expressions on the faces of the students, I looked at them instead. Evidently no one ever before had asked them truly to observe this ordinary miracle. They gazed entranced and without self-consciousness. More than anything, they seemed astonished that they could enjoy themselves without making a noise.
The Japanese, of course, in their controlled appreciation of nature go to some extremes that could well seem bizarre in the west. They have parties to watch and celebrate the fall of the first snow of winter-the suddenly different aspect it gives to the countryside, the softening of contours, the change in the quality of light and shadow. They go out to the country on a summer night to listen-not comment on, just listen-to ”insect-music.” I was once invited to a party where all the ladies sat around in a reverent hush while pieces of different kinds of wood were carefully brought to a glow over a charcoal brazier and then handed around on separate trays so that each of us could smell them. We caught the subtle differences in the fragrances of peach, cherry, pine, balsam and other woods. Some of us made a game of guessing which was which; the rest, more severe, paid no attention to such frivolity.
One scarcely needs to look for entertainments as exotic as this. The most cursory glance over the subjects of modern painting in the west, for instance, reminds us that the proper arrangement of, say, two apples, a piece of cheese and an empty bottle can make a beautiful picture and elicit an esthetic experience. But few of us ever use our faculties to produce such an experience in our daily lives, or to be aware of the looks, sounds and feels of the world about us, to delight in them.
Living in an old brownstone house in New York, I had opportunities to test these theories in surroundings that are generally considered deadening to excursions into the world of feeling and appreciation. The big town is known to be lavish with its manufactured entertainments, stingy with its minor joys. Yet it hadn’t seemed so to me.
From long training and habit in India, I woke up very early in the morning. To me it was the most appealing time of the day. The cool, spreading light of the dawn gradually brings into focus the tracery of the tree that shades our backyard-shivering lace against the white house with their dark, blinded windows opposite us. Soon the neighborhood cats start out, promenading arrogantly along the fences between the narrow city gardens, moving with the casual elegance of tightrope walkers, springing silently, in splendid arcs, onto the flagstones.
My favorite was a white and tabby called marbles, who lived two houses down from us and displayed both a sense of the absurd and the traditional prideful disdain that cats are supposed to have. Once he amused me for a full five minutes by batting with his paw at a dried autumn leaf. Little updrafts of breeze kept blowing the leaf out of his reach, but Marbles, with extreme virtuosity and concentration, kept after it. At last he trapped it in a flower bed, and then, realizing that the poor thing was dead, stalked away pretending he had never been fooled by such a trivial trick.
Later, the day’s characteristic sounds emerged. First they were hesitant, then more assured, finally positively aggressive, the stirrings of a huge city awakening-the shrill ring of alarm clocks across the street, the complaints of the first trucks blending finally into the surging sea-noise of the traffic. All of the sights, the lights, the colors, the movements, the sounds, projected delight into the rest of the day.
“What are you doing?” my son sometimes asked me when he came into the kitchen after he woke up. “Just looking out the window.” He joined me at the window. “Hey, “he said, “your friends are out. And look, there’s a new one. Same color as a palomino pony.” “Yes, it’s called a Siamese cat.” “Boy, they sure move! They’re in Dreamsville.” “Yes,” I say, deploring his phraseology but charmed by his eye for the graceful.
By then there was the seductive smell of coffee from the stove, the mild sizzle of bacon in the pan and the unpredictable and somehow endearing questions that children seem to like to ask early in the morning. (“What would happen if you put a piece of bubble gum the size of this house on the sun? Would it blow the biggest bubble in the universe?”)
At last there was the rapid, toothpasty kiss as he dashed off to school, the sloppy clatter down the stairs, the slam of the front door. That’s all. But such a morning was enough to last me for the rest of the day and longer. Entirely commonplace- it must happen in many a home. Entirely delightful.
A long time ago, my mother used to say to me, whenever any situation came up that daunted or upset me, “All you have to do is use your common sense.” Now I would like to change that familiar motto slightly to say, “All you have to do is use your common senses.”