As this strange summer of a strange year comes to an end, I am reminded of ordinary realities and experiences that now appear in a new light. At our college, classes started back up, and I cannot recall a happier sense of new beginning, partly because this, too, has been defamiliarized.

On Sunday of this week, Wyoming Catholic College held its Convocation Mass and Matriculation Ceremony in an unusual venue, the horse barn near Sinks Canyon that our students use for their indoor horsemanship training. It is a huge space that allowed us to spread out in keeping with our COVID-19 protocols. During Mass and Matriculation, those on the platform were back-lit by a splendid view of the foothills climbing into the Wind River Mountains; a herd of black cattle grazed in the near distance.

During my brief remarks that afternoon, I said that this year “the usual becomes the exceptional, the familiar becomes the unfamiliar. Old things can be seen in a new light, stripped of their clichés and appreciated again for what they are and what they mean.” I was talking about things that we have taken for granted and ceased to notice. In these strange times, many ordinary things have been “defamiliarized,” to use a term introduced by Russian formalist critics a century ago to explain the effect of poetry. Experiences and perceptions that have become habitual now suddenly become new again.

In Lander, we can see the mountains from downtown—so much so that we tend to forget what a wonderful privilege it is to be here. On Sunday, when those of us at Wyoming Catholic saw that beautiful, soaring landscape freshly framed by the great rolled-back gates of the barn where the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was taking place, we spoke of it afterwards with wonder. All day, new perceptions kept coming because of the defamiliarized circumstances. At the end of the Matriculation Ceremony, as the full heat of the day was pressing upon us, the assembled student body and faculty sang our Alma Mater, which we do several times a year. Something caught my attention, and I happened to glance behind me out through the open gates. Two horses were at the nearby fence, jostling against each other. They were trying to get a better angle to hear this music pouring out of the riding arena, and I laughed out loud because it somehow captured in one scene the whole wonder of the day.

Monday of this week was given over to more mundane matters, including orientation sessions with each of the four classes. The freshman orientation took the most time because there were many new things to cover, but in each of the sessions, our Executive Vice President Jon Tonkowich had the duty to go over the COVID protocols for the college. Obviously, we need to have these in place, but obviously, too, we eagerly await the days when we do not have to look at our joyful students laughing on the sidewalks, talking about their classes or their plans, and worry whether townspeople are seeing them as dangers. We want to exercise all due caution, as we emphasized repeatedly on Monday; we want to be good citizens of Lander; but we also want, as much as possible, the full in-person experience of education. Classes started back up on Tuesday, and I cannot recall a happier sense of new beginning, partly because this, too, has been defamiliarized.

As this strange summer of a strange year comes to an end, I am reminded of other simple realities that now appear in a new light. These have more to do with America itself than with Wyoming Catholic College per se—for example, good summer fruits and vegetables. Every summer, a man drives up from Colorado to Lander a couple of days a week with his truck full of Palisades peaches, ripe tomatoes, fresh green beans, and ears of corn still in the husks. I grew up in middle Georgia, and I have a high standard for peaches and tomatoes, not to mention Southern-style green beans. The best corn on the cob our family has ever had before was in our New England years, but one night this past week, North and South were perfectly reconciled at supper in Wyoming. We had grilled pork chops, perfect corn on the cob, green beans made with bacon, and great red slices of tomato rich in flavor and texture, completely unlike the bland grocery-store things that sully the name of Solanum lycopersicum. And those near-perfect peaches—well, there were a few moments at our family table of high and simple happiness.

Occasions like these let us feel a spontaneous gratitude, not just for a good meal (or a great jump shot like the one that Jason Gay celebrated this week in the Wall Street Journal), but for everything that makes us human and free. They remind us of what we have taken too much for granted and might almost forget: the privilege of this good life under God in a nation like no other.

Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s weekly newsletter.

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