During my Summer of Awe, I’ve done a lot of reading, walking, and thinking. I’ve realized that my summer beach ritual is a place where I find awe, and so is music. Knowing that awe “triggers the mind into a state of wonder,” and helps “counter the epidemic of our times, which is loneliness,” I know I need to keep searching for this connection. But where?
Well, my therapist’s voice keeps piping up in my head. “Let’s slow down for a minute. This is too good not to give it our attention. Take that in.” And we’ll spend the next 10 seconds to 30 minutes talking about or processing whatever I just noticed or felt. And sometimes 10 seconds of attention is all it takes. Really! Because how often do we stop and say, “this is so beautiful, I am so happy right now” and take just 10 seconds to appreciate it? Or even, “I’m really sad right now” and let yourself actually feel it for 10 seconds.
Honestly, we humans have such a need to not feel discomfort, we can spend enormous amounts of time and energy fighting off the “bad” emotions. This fighting creates a tensing-up that locks us inside ourselves, away from other people and the world around us. If we just spend that 10 seconds feeling it, it would be over. That 10 seconds of discomfort (provided we’re safe) can be good. To be able to sit in discomfort, to watch it and learn from it, and feel it teaches us a lot about ourselves and about empathy.
Because that’s life, isn’t it? In the book Wild & Precious: A Celebration of Mary Oliver, Cathleen Falsani says of Mary Oliver’s poems on owls, “It’s the nonduality she seemed to embrace. [Owls are] not good or bad, they’re not beautiful or dangerous—they’re all of that. And that’s life. Life is beautiful and terrible and breathtakingly gorgeous and heartbreaking.” Mary was attentive to it all.
Attentive to it all. We skip over a lot of beauty when we ignore or skip over the difficult stuff. When we recognize it, it makes our time here in the present so much more valuable and so much more meaningful.
It’s scary, but it’s kind of good scary. Or maybe we think it’s not worth our time or effort. Or that it’s just childish and silly.
Author Ross Gay spent a year writing down a daily delight. They’re collected in his book, The Book of Delights. Some are lovely, some are harder subject matter brought on by deeper reflections. As I listened, he’d list a small thing that caught his fancy that day and punctuate each with “delight!”: “She called me honey first (delight!), baby second (delight!), and almost smiled before I turned away.” Gay later writes, “one of life’s true delights is casting about in bed, drifting in and out of dream, as the warm hand of the sun falls through the blinds, moving ever so slowly across your body.” Yes!
Again, Katherine May says it beautifully:
We are awed in principle by what is out there, but we prefer to keep that awe theoretical unless it drops into our laps. Meteors sit perfectly on the cusp of the mundane and the rare. They are there, but only if we seek them out. We know that if we encounter them it will be a remarkable experience, perhaps even one we will remember for years to come, but because of that very ordinariness, we defer going out to look for them. After all, no one else is doing it. It’s not an event like a solar eclipse. We would feel silly making a fuss about it. It would be a childish thing, and we are adults. We don’t concern ourselves with shooting stars.
The act of seeking attuned my senses and primed my mind to make associations. I was open to magic, and I found some, although not the magic I was looking for. That’s what you find over and over again when you go looking: something else. An insight that surprises you. A connection that you would never have made. A new perspective. More often than not, I find that I already hold all the ideas from which my enchantment is made. The deliberate pursuit of attention, ritual, or reflection does not mystically draw in anything external to me. Instead, it creates experiences that rearrange what I know to find the insights I need today. This is how symbolic thought works, it offers you a repository of understanding that can be triggered by the everyday and which comes in a format that goes straight to the bloodstream. I don’t have words to describe… instead I feel it in my body. A kind of physical wonder at what there is waiting for me when I stop to notice.
It’s all here, in and around us. It’s simply about being present and noticing. Yeah, I’m rolling my eyes, too, at how “simple” that is. Paying attention takes work. Rainn Wilson (a longtime fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry) says, “she smells the divine in everything that she’s witnessing because she pays such close attention.” That’s hierophany, right there.
So I am making a commitment, here and now, to try. If my summer of awe has taught me anything, it’s the transformative power of feeling the awe, be it awful or awesome. We talk about finding balance, about increasing our healthspan, and more, but to me, none of those are even possible if I’m not attentive enough to recognize the life I’m living right now.
Just Around the House, Early in the Morning – Mary Oliver
Though I have been scorned for it
let me never be afraid to use the word beautiful.
For with is the shining leaf
and the blossoms of the geranium at the window.
And the eyes of the happy puppy as he wakes.
The colors of the old and beloved afghan lying
by itself, on the couch, in the morning sun.
The hummingbird’s nest perched now in a
corner of the bookshelf, in front of so many
books of so many colors.
the two poached eggs. The buttered toast.
The ream of brand-new paper just opened,
white as a block of snow.
The typewriter humming, ready to go.