Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Of Epiphanies and Other Shifts in Perspective

Today is officially the end of the Christmas season, the twelfth day of Christmas, the Feast of the Epiphany, the day that celebrates the Wise Men who visited the Baby Jesus. For an essay that contemplates the spiritual nature of this day, go here to visit my theology blog.

For those of us who aren't in the mood for a spiritual day, Epiphany still offers us a fine opportunity to think about our perspective and the kinds of insights we might wish to experience.

For example, yesterday I decided that the heat part of our new system just wasn't working. It took me some time to decide that we really didn't have heat. I turned the thermostat up to 70 degrees, and four hours later, the temperature inside the house had fallen four degrees.

Happily, it was an easy fix. One set of wires had been connected to the wrong place. A few simple turns of the screwdriver, and voila! We have heat.

This morning, as I made coffee, I thought about my parents, who left yesterday, and all the things I worried that might go wrong during their visit: noisy neighbors, the water being disconnected (I got a threatening bill the day before they arrived), one of us getting sick. It never occurred to me to worry that the heat wouldn't work. It's South Florida! We use the heat maybe two weeks a year at the most.

So, what happens? My parents visit during a record breaking cold snap, and we discover we have no heat.

If I was a character in a novel, this might be an epiphany moment. James Joyce, the master of the epiphany, would use it to show what a small, sad life I have. An inspirational writer would use my epiphany as a way to turn my life around: no more worries, since I'm always worrying for no good reason. A darker writer would be waiting to zap me with a bigger catastrophe, and readers could say, "Ha! Look at her, worrying over all the wrong things."

If you want to spend today thinking about epiphanies in literature, we might take a moment and read some of the masters of epiphany, like Flannery O'Connor or James Joyce. Here's what Garrison Keillor says about Joyce and epiphany on The Writer's Almanac:

"Around the time that Irish writer James Joyce was defecting from the Roman Catholic Church, he was investing secular meaning into the word "epiphany." In his early 20s, he drew up little sketches, sort of like "prose poems," in which he illustrated epiphanies. He explained to his brother Stanislaus that epiphanies were sort of 'inadvertent revelations' and said they were 'little errors and gestures — mere straws in the wind — by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal.' He also wrote that the epiphany was the sudden 'revelation of the whatness of a thing,' the moment when 'the soul of the commonest object ... seems to us radiant.'

It was a literary device that James Joyce would use in every story in his collection Dubliners (1914), a technique that he would become known for and that many modern writers would emulate. Joyce's Dubliners ends with a story set at a party for the Feast of the Epiphany, 'The Dead,' and the story ends: 'His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.'"

I will spend some of today thinking about epiphanies in poems. I tend to think of the use of epiphany as limited to fiction or essay writers, but I'm sure I'm wrong.

I also plan to write a poem about the Wise Women who visit the baby Jesus. Of course, they're erased from history because they realized the wisdom of Jesus, who would later instruct us to forgo housework so that we can focus on what's important and what might not be around us very long.

A few years ago I realized that I'm usually preparing syllabi on Epiphany proper. That led to great poem possibilities, which eventually became a poem--unpublished at this point, so I won't post it here.

Today is a great day to think about epiphanies, those moments of realization, those blips of insight. How can we be more alert to the possibility of epiphany, both in our writing and in our lives?

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