Saturday, 9 February 2019

Gobsmacked by Wonder

I came across these rules for living, and included them on my first blog post of the year, January 5:

Less than two weeks later, the poet who had written these words, Mary Oliver, died at the age of 83, having lived a life that fulfilled these rules admirably. She was the mistress of paying attention, noticing amazing things, and then putting her astonishment into words. Oliver’s verses had a power to evoke feelings of wonder and gladness as she contemplated simple things, like a blade of grass, or a goose flying overhead, or a grasshopper.

On a sunny morning shortly after Oliver’s death, I decided to pay attention...really, really pay attention... as I set out for a walk in the woods nearby. My camera was ready to capture what I might discover.

So many shades of green and brown, with flecks of red and yellow!

The sun’s rays shone through these dead leaves, so that they looked like gold.

And if I hadn’t been paying attention, I probably would have missed the tiny mushrooms just springing out of the earth.

I probably wouldn’t have noticed this enormous tree, with bright limey green moss at its base.

I would not have seen the woodpecker holes tapped into a trailside tree.

I came away astonished, invigorated, so much more appreciative of the beauty surrounding me. I felt at one with the natural world. The whole experience reminded me again that paying attention was good for growing the soul.

But why does it work that way? What is it about the tiny act of paying attention that enlarges you? Why wouldn’t it be just as effective if, instead of spending time in contemplation, we directed our energies toward meaningful, productive work? We live in a world with so many needs crying out to be heard. Shouldn’t we be up and about, contributing our gifts towards healing, reconciliation, and justice-making? Isn’t meditating on a blade of grass or watching ants build a nest just a waste of time? 

These are questions that do creep up and pounce on my conscience. I should be doing more, I should be more active, I should march for those things in which I believe. I should, I should, I should...

So it was a relief when I picked up a book that addressed these questions and more in a series of essays by leading environmental activists and philosophers. The book is called Hope Beneath Our Feet. What a great image that title conjures up; wouldn’t we all like to stand firmly planted in hope?

In her essay “Wonder: a Practice for Life”, author Munju Ravindra considers why paying attention and being astonished is so very necessary in these times of turmoil. She spent many years in the “sense of wonder” business as a Canadian park naturalist. That moment of wonder or astonishment that happens when you pay attention, when you really, really look, is a moment of transcendence and grace.  Wonder and astonishment, she writes, “re-instills in each of us a sense of what is ‘true’, thereby enhancing our resilience in time of crisis” and “connects me to something larger than myself, giving me the energy I need to keep agitating. It also gives me the reason.”

This strikes me as both a profound and practical truth. We need astonishment and wonder like a car needs fuel to run; without these essential ingredients, we will soon be running on empty and getting nowhere fast.

Ravindra goes further in her essay: she suggests we intentionally need to find ways daily to create these moments of wonder, since our busy world doesn’t encourage us to do so. We need to practice our wonder muscle, exercise it daily. “Especially when I am down or blue or lost, I just buckle down and practice wonder.”

How? Ravindra’s “wonder workout” suggestions include some simple things, like keeping something curious in your pocket to touch regularly, like an interesting pebble or an acorn; laying on your back in the grass and looking up, up, up; closing your eyes and sitting still for 10 minutes while listening to what goes on when you’re not looking; going outside at night and checking out the stars; and deliberately get uncomfortable – have you ever let a slug climb up your arm? If possible, go outside, alone, for 10 minutes every day.

And this one, which sums it up pretty well, in my experience – “Spend the day with a mystic, lunatic or writer. Or for that matter, a child (who, if schooling and society don’t manage to weld shut his door to amazement, will no doubt become a mystic, lunatic or writer). These people have their heads screwed on sideways and hobble around gobsmacked by the beauty and despair of the world. If you opt to spend the day with a child, try to find a small one, preferably raised by hippies on a commune on the coast, but really, any child will work, if you actually pay attention to what they have to show you.”

Our son so was so excited by what he saw at the seashore at age 6, he became a marine biologist!
My wish for you, dear reader, is that you are gobsmacked this week, full of wonder and astonishment at the beauty and despair of the world!

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