By the time most of us reach adulthood, we have experienced enough to begin to understand our own personal narratives. It’s tempting to focus on discouragement or pessimism, even cynicism. But there’s a brighter, better way.
In this collection of heartwarming true stories, Christopher de Vinck reminds us of life’s many graces, and he challenges us to embrace our experiences with hope, humor, gratitude, and wonder. Whether revisiting a boyhood hobby of photographing the neighborhood raccoon or musing upon the possible uses of a decades-old Santa suit, de Vinck takes his readers to
scenes, sights, and sensations of the daily, ordinary gifts that are not so ordinary after all.
Read The Center Will Hold to stir your own poignant memories, or share it with family and friends as an invitation to simple joy. Its pages speak with eloquence, in language common to us all: wisdom, light, and love.
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Essay 1: Simplicity
For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience,
that we behaved in the world with simplicity
and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom
but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.
—2 Corinthians 1:12, ESV
In February 1948, my mother and father arrived in New York from Belgium on the Queen Elizabeth. They quickly settled into an apartment in New Jersey, and on his first day of work, my father returned home filled with enthusiasm and said to my mother, “I saw a blue bird! A blue bird!”
My mother, finding this to be incredulous, listened with eagerness as my father described the color of the bird’s wings and the blue cap of its head. Neither my mother nor my father had ever seen a blue bird before.
A few days later, my mother tells me, she too saw the blue bird, and was as amazed as my father. It turned out, of course, that the exotic bird they saw for the first time was the ordinary blue jay. The same thing happened when they saw a red bird. A red bird! They had never seen a cardinal before.
If you see an elephant every day, it is just an elephant. If you see an elephant for the first time, it is a giant cartoon with a tail at both ends and ears like pancakes.
Aesop wrote that familiarity breeds contempt. Mark Twain wrote that familiarity breeds children. For most of us, familiarity breeds complacency. We do not look at a tree with awe unless we see the giant redwoods for the first time.
But an oak tree in the backyard that is eight stories high with a trunk as wide as a washing machine is just a tree that sheds acorns and leaves in the fall.
Who looks at an oak tree? But it is a plant right out of a magician’s bag! Maple trees, pine trees—can you imagine seeing a tree for the first time? You would believe that we are still living in the age of the dinosaurs.
Do you remember the opening scene in the iconic movie Jurassic Park, when the paleontologist sees, for the first time, the brontosaurus? The man is so stunned that he falls to the ground, the very same reaction my son David had when he was a little boy and saw for the first time the gigantic whale hanging from the ceiling in the New York Museum of Natural History.
Sei Shonagon served as lady-in-waiting to the Empress Sadako in Japan a thousand years ago. Little else is known about this woman, except for her pillow book.
A pillow book was a collection of notes that captured the day’s events or the thoughts of the writer. Today we call that a diary. What makes Sei Shonagon’s pillow book distinctive is her vision, her wisdom, and her humor—and the fact that this collection of notes was written in the eleventh century. What stands out is her appreciation for ordinary, simple things: “Sparrows feeding their young. To pass a place where babies are playing.”
Shonagon admired nature and ordinary objects: “Dried hollyhock. Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.” She was easily revolted by what she called squalid things: “The back of a piece of embroidery. The inside of a cat’s ear.” Remember, she wrote these things a thousand years ago. She loved “white, purple, and black clouds, and rain clouds when they are driven by the wind.” And she celebrated that “in spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful.”
I was startled as I watched each of my children being born. I was startled when I touched a rock from the moon at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. I was startled when I helped carry my father’s coffin to the open grave in Vermont. The wood of the box brushed against my thigh.
When my cousin came to America for the first time, she called out with glee in the car on our way home from the airport, “Look! A yellow school bus!”
She had seen many movies from the United States, and that is how she learned that all school buses in America are yellow. There are no yellow school buses in Europe, so she was, with the same delight my parents expressed over the birds, charmed to see a yellow school bus. No one in America is excited about yellow school buses. They are everywhere and ordinary.
This is why we have artists. They take things that appear to be ordinary and remind us how extraordinary they really are: Robert Frost celebrating birches; William Carlos Williams praising a red wheelbarrow. Painters stop time with their images of the common day: Pieter Bruegel’s harvesters, the dancers of Degas, the children of Mary Cassatt.
Do you believe the earth is spinning around the sun! Can you imagine? We are all on a giant ball that is spinning in space!
A few years ago, in response to a media request, the people of Chicago recognized that the greatest wonder of the city was their lakefront view and the splendor of Lake Michigan, water they see every day.
Taylor Wang, an American astronaut, wrote about his experience in seeing the earth from space: “A Chinese tale tells of some men sent to harm a young girl who, upon seeing her beauty, become her protectors rather than her violators. That’s how I felt seeing the Earth for the first time. I could not help but love and cherish her.”
Cherish what is simple. Be in awe of what is great.
I found a blue jay feather on the grass under the bird feeder this morning. I picked up the feather and carefully attached it to a buttonhole on my yellow shirt.
The world is a flower in our hands.
Our food is a grain of wheat.
Our faith is a simple prayer:
“I believe in God the Father.”
Table of Contents
1 Simplicity 3
2 Gratitude 6
3 Play 8
4 The Catcher in the Rye 11
5 Laughter 14
6 The Arrival 17
7 All Creatures Great and Small 20
8 Husbands 23
9 Owl 26
10 Heritage 29
11 In Search of the Soul 32
12 Teach 36
13 Summer 41
14 Retirement 44
15 Memorial 47
16 Keys 50
17 Identity 52
18 Wisdom of the Father 55
19 Death 57
20 The Center Will Hold 60
21 Joy 63
22 Secrets 65
23 Continuity 68
24 The Praying Mantis 71
25 Heat 74
26 Home 77
27 Clap Your Hands 83
28 Excelsior 86
29 Our Potential 89
30 Vision 91
31 Rosie 94
32 Autumn 97
33 Teacher 100
34 Fear 102
35 Magical Pumpkins 105
36 Illumination 108
37 Soldier 111
38 The End of Something 114
39 Rosebud 119
40 Snow 122
41 Christmas 125
42 The True Light of Christmas 128
43 The Meaning of Christmas 130
44 O Holy Night 132
45 Who Are We? 134
46 The Warmest Place on Earth 137
47 The Bear 140
48 Silence 142
49 Communication 145
50 Gifts 148
51 Memories of the Crèche 151
52 Sitting with the Nostalgia of Winter 153
53 Angels 155
54 On Valentine's Day 158
55 Love 161
56 I'm Growing Old, I Delight in the Past 164
About the Author 169