“He seemed to live in a state of uninterrupted marvel, and he encouraged them to do the same. He didn’t so much teach them how to write poetry, they said, but why: because of delight. Because of stubborn gladness. He told them that they must live their most creative lives as a means of fighting back against the ruthless furnace of this world.” –Elizabeth Gilbert
What would it be like to live life in a state of uninterrupted marvel? Have you known such a person? This past week I heard the words above describing the poet Jack Gilbert read aloud from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, Creative Living Beyond Fear. I felt a little jolt immediately, as I recognized in the words a way of being I want to draw nearer to–a person who amidst suffering and difficulty is still able to broaden my vision so those nearby enter a place of wider heart and greater receptivity to life’s wonder.
To live life with an attitude of uninterrupted marvel requires a certain capacity to walk in the world with a sense of expectancy, arms open to what one might encounter. It requires vulnerability. I’ve been thinking about this in relationship to my poem, “Puja for Sarswati,” recently published in the online literary journal, Canary. The poem describes a perfunctory religious ritual I saw on the Yamuna River banks while bicycling in New Delhi, India. The puja was for Saraswati, the goddess of the arts, wisdom, and learning.
…stocking-footed, the men held
the goddess above the bank, “Ek, do, teen,” a shove,
and in she fell, face first, kerplunk into the water
and mud. Then, splat, splat, splat, just like that,
three plastic bags stuffed with marigolds followed.
The men climbed into the rickshaw and drove away. Done.
The poem continues on from there, but as I recall the experience itself, I think about the ways of living in my own culture where efficiently completing duties is valued. Often, I see people walking down the street, phones held out as if they were an electronic cane or comforter. Living by the clock, obligations press against us and worry preoccupies us while we at the same time we long for affirmation and relationship. We move through one event to the next. We get things done, but how much do these behaviors allow us to feel we’re alive? Do they open us to wonder? At least once a day do we find ourselves marveling at the world, at the life we are given? How can the spirit breathe through us, moving where it will, while we live inside a Mondrian painting, so to speak, squeezing our lives into straight lines and corners–when so many of the aspects of our day are aimed to fit into a tidy containers? We are organic creatures. Rivers don’t run in straight lines. Inside, we long for expression and relationship–to be wrapped around and inside the world we flow through. We might want to consider more carefully how we want to live the rest of our days.
G.K. Chesterton writes, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.” It’s true. Wonders abound in the form of the aurora borealis leaping to gargantuan florescent green heights in the northern skies, the thundering Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, the fish shoals swarming and swirling in the sea’s vast fields, the Grand Canyon’s brilliant red and ochre water cut sandstone, the cascade of stars piercing the moonless, clear night, the silence inside a deep woods, the medicinal scent of bay trees lifting from leaves after a rainfall, and the single silver dew drop held by a violet petal in the front yard. As a child, I sang the hymn at summer camp, “How Great Thou Art,” praising God’s natural wonder. My mother loved the song, and her love for it nurtured in me a love for the world’s wonders, made me notice them with wonder. Currently, however, we humans as a whole are poor stewards of the natural world and its wonders. According to Newsweek, air pollution cause 5.5 million deaths annually. Live Science using data collected by the World Health Organization reports that 40% of the deaths worldwide are, in fact “attributed to environmental factors, particularly organic and chemical pollutants that accumulate in the air we breathe and the water we drink.” That is 12.6 million people, or nearly on in four people, says the WHO–yet we go on this way, counting down, “one, two, three–” heaving goddesses face first, one after the other into the river in order to get on with the rest of the day. The hymn declares God is great, but wonder is dying.
Joseph Bruchac, in his poem, “Birdfoot’s Grampa,” describes an old man repeatedly stopping the car they’re traveling in order to get out and save small toads on the roadway. Over and over the old, white-haired man helps the toads to safety, until the one waiting in the car gets restless, telling him they can’t save them all, and to get back in the car. They had places to go. The poem ends with these final lines,
But, leathery hands full
of wet brown life,
knee deep in the summer
he just smiled and said
they have places to go to
We can get to where we’re going to if these creatures can get to where they’re going to also, the poem suggests. The two events are related. The old man in the poem is aware of his fundamental connection to the natural world. Wonder is a companion to such awareness. Cultivating wonder engenders a respect for nature. It allows us to value and appreciate nature, and restores relationship to it. Wonder reawakens our spirit, allowing us to experience life as a presence within and around us. If we have a relationship with nature, as with other relationships, we value it for its presence. In our culture, we speak of natural resources. In particular, nature is valuable because we use it for utilitarian purposes. Distancing ourselves from nature, we’ve fallen out (of or at least short of ) our ability to wonder.
We are meant to experience life as a relationship, not as processed product. Connecting with the natural world, however, can be challenging when living in a city, and according to the UN, 54% of the world’s population lives in cities. Though we’re meant to experience life as a relationship, not as processed product, many urbanites simply can’t afford to own a piece of land where they can put their feet on the ground and grow a connection to earth. As a result, those of us living in cities need to purposefully seek ways to connect to wonder. Often when we do, the natural world that before was invisible becomes more visible. Michael L. Newell’s poem “Epiphany,” published on Verse Virtual, speaks powerfully about this sense of wonder from one who dares to look out his window and see what is there. Living in LaPaz, Boliva, the poem’s speaker awakens in the middle of the night and opens the curtain to view
where lightning’s fierce scrawl
is written and thunder reverberates
among barely visible peaks
wrapped round in clouds and sprinkled
with faint lights winking upwards
in sprawling chains toward the Altiplano.
I suddenly realize that in this ancient
towering land, my presence is irrelevant.
Man comes and goes. The mountains
define this place. The storms inhabit it.
I am only a tourist, a passing fancy
imagined by the land and then forgotten.
All night I dream a vast sky filled with wings.
My throat fills with sound which predates man.
The poem shows us how when we stand in wonder, we’re restored to a relationship with the world that allows us to see our place in it as temporal beings yet also part of something much larger than ourselves. Recognizing our limitations is an important understanding, allowing us to know who we are, and to live responsibly as a result. Oddly enough, the humility wonder engenders opens an awareness of the mystery moving in and through us, to “the vast sky filled with wings.” We recognize in the core of our inmost selves who we are, and our throats fill “with sound that predates man.”
Not all of us have mountains outside our window as does the speaker in Newell’s poem, but still we can find ways to educate our hearts. Many of us have the sky and moon to view. If we can’t see those because of pollution, possibly we have rocks, trees, morning’s mist. Something. If we don’t have practices that call us out of ourselves or places that cultivate wonder, we can look for them, allowing ourselves to move into a larger place of being.
As Newell’s poem reminds, the sky is vast. In the middle of whatever night we waken into, we can reach for the curtains that need opening so we can view the heavens filled with wonder.