At this time of year I usually have some fake flowers on my desk at school, just to send me off on an occasional reverie about springtime, and this morning my life-like magnolias from Pier 1 brought me around to thinking about the literature we read in English class. The best-made artificial flowers, I realized, can do something similar to what good writing does – carry us away from our limited and occasionally mean-spirited lives so we can see the endless universe the imagination makes for us. I was sitting in my cold, unremarkable classroom in snowy Connecticut, but those fake flowers had me miles away somewhere in the sunlit south. I almost felt physically warmer as I stared at the flowers and envisioned myself resting in a summer field full of them. I guess this is the power of what we call the imagination – that strange gift we’ve all been given that enables us to be as big as the widespread universe itself. I see that power in Paradise Lost, which I’m rereading now and once again loving its scenic, musical lines that take me away from winter and into glades and gardens in daydream-land. I see it in A Tale of Two Cities, which every so often sweeps some of my 9th grade class away from their humdrum school lives and into lawless, fiery France in 1792. Even some little lines from a poem – perhaps these by Mary Oliver: “two mockingbirds /in the green field / were spinning and tossing / the white ribbons /of their songs / into the air” – can carry a few kids away from wintry days to a storybook summer paradise. It’s been happening for eons, this spiriting of people off on the wings of imagination (or fake classroom flowers) to worlds at least as real as the day-after-day one.
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