12 Apr Wonder in the Time of Plague-Living
This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
— Gilead, Marilyn Robinson
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
–“Aurora Leigh,” Elizabeth Barrett Browning
That life on this planet is chock full of mystery and beauty—yes, even now—is a fact that is itself mysterious in at least two ways. First, despite the fact that humans seem naturally drawn to beauty, an appreciation for the exquisiteness of human life as we exist in the present on this insanely gorgeous planet is exceedingly rare. Not because the beauty of what exactly it means to be human on this rock at this moment in time is abstract or obscured from our knowing in any obvious way. Indeed, as I write these words, I am surrounded on all sides by one of the most breath-taking, magnificent mountain ranges in the world. It happens to be exactly the same place where I brush my teeth every morning, nag my children, and rinse out the French press, all without one thought in my head as to my extraordinary surroundings, nor to the beauty of nature, in general. The mystery of our world abounds, not just in nature, but in our homes, friendships, beautiful literature, timeless music, our bodies and minds, and on and on. Of course, I’ve seen your Instagram feeds, and I know that you have an appreciation for beauty. Your life is beautiful, and complex, and you dutifully and publicly express gratitude for it on a regular basis, lest anyone think you ungrateful or oblivious. But I want to say that although we frequently snapshot and post something that represents beauty to us (often, ourselves–guilty!), my hunch is that we are still not fully understanding what it is to be a human consciousness on this mysterious planet at full stretch. And that, I suspect, is because of the kinds of creatures we have made ourselves into and fashion ourselves after every day, not because of what we inherently are, and certainly not because life’s beauty is fundamentally hard to pin down.
The mysteries of life as they are given to us—and, wow, to understand something of its givenness!—wants a certain disposition (in us) to be experienced and, in some tenuous sense, known. Which brings me to the second strange fact about life’s beauty: it is less a quality of the universe than it is a quality relating to the moral imagination of those humans who would wonder at it in the first place. So that when a thoughtful and humane person like Pastor Ames in Gilead writes to his son, who is not yet old enough to understand the mysteries of life, “This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it,” what he means is not merely, “pay attention to the world, it’s pretty neat,” but rather something like: learn how to see the world with an open heart and to participate in life in such a way that allows you to experience the richness and mystery of your own being.
How does one learn to be in the world in this way? I suppose I have thoughts on how we might go about achieving that, and can say a bit about how I try to cultivate this disposition and orientation to the world. It involves practicing things like gratitude and wonder; choosing and being in friendships that are both pleasurable and make me a better person than I might otherwise have been; reading fine literature (I’m deeply persuaded by the view of James Wood that literature has the power to cultivate capacities for noticing that actual life cannot); being in nature more; being off of devices and screens as much as possible; and, of course, maintaining a steady and consistent yoga practice. None of these things are inherently culturally specific, require any material starting place, or are even that time-consuming, all things considered.
My old grad-school friends are rolling their eyes at me just now, trust. Hollie, this is just too precious, even for you, they will say. Perhaps. Nevertheless, these are the practices and norms that help me to better “pay attention to the world.” That somehow prepare me to better wonder at the world. Certainly more than reading Foucault ever did.
A curious thing about wonder is that it can only arise in us in the context of some dissonance, a moment in which something strikes us as wonder-full precisely because it appears completely extraordinary against the backdrop of ordinary life, as when a person looks into the eyes of the person they know they’re about to fall in love with for the first time, or, as is so often the case for me at home in Telluride, when the beauty and expansiveness of the natural world overwhelms a person in a way that makes apparent their own smallness.
More often, though, wonder arises out of dissonance when we see something that is, at least in one sense, ordinary in a completely new way that reveals to us its extraordinary nature, the delicateness and intricacy of a butterfly that has inadvertently lighted upon our arm, the history of an entire family lineage as seen in our sleeping child’s face. For me, it is always birth and death—two of the most ordinary and yet totally mysterious and wondrous aspects of human existence—that awakens me to the many mysteries of human life. I find these moments to be deeply pleasurable and also tinged with some heartache. One always feels a kind of aching in the face of real beauty. Wonder gives rise to a fleeting notion that life on earth really is extraordinary.
Then, being human, we fall back into our slumber.
Humans work hard to establish harmony and clarity in our lives, and we tend to fix the gaze on that which is knowable, and for which we can give an account. This has never been more true than at this particular moment in human history, when we are almost entirely future-oriented in our thinking. This, despite the fact that we probably know less about the future than any group of people has at any time before, precisely because science and technology have made a world for us that is totally in flux, always shifting, and where “all that is solid melts into air.” Not only does this form of contemporary thinking rob us of the pleasure of being in the present, of truly knowing beauty in the present, it creates a deep anxiety within us because we are, at once, compelled to prepare, plan, and fret for the future, while at the same time living in a world where the future is utterly unknowable. Even worse, I worry that in our desperate attempt to project every aspect of our knowing into a future that cannot even be imagined, we are robbing ourselves of all the wonder and mystery the world has to offer us right now. Worse still than missing out on the forms of beauty all around, we are robbing ourselves of becoming the kinds of creatures who know what it means to live in wonder.
Tragedies, even like the one we are experiencing at this particularly wild moment in human history, are never without their lovely and surprising gifts. One gift that this time of what I have called “national retreat,” is that we are learning, once more, to live with uncertainty. I cannot tell you how many times I have run into neighbors and friends, happily out for their hour or two of fresh air, and we have spontaneously said something like these words to one another: “so much is unknown” or “we just don’t know what the future holds.” And maybe it’s because we are just so grateful to be healthy and relatively okay for right now that we also seem to be okay with that not knowing, or perhaps we are simply giving one another some comfort and hope. Still, we even almost smile, not goofily but very earnestly, as we say these things. As though we are learning to live with a curiosity and wonder about what the future will be like, and maybe even to take some pleasure in it.
If ever there was a time to just be in the present, as trite as this sounds, it is now; if for no other reason, than simply because so much outside of our tiny little orbit and household is wildly, almost laughably, out of our control. And we might begin to pull ourselves out of the future a bit and come gently back into the present by reflecting, in a more directed way, on the unknowability of the future. One writer who has helped me to think more clearly about this is Rebecca Solnit, and she has done this by way of the concept of hope, on which she writes quite lucidly and beautifully:
To me, the grounds for hope are simply that we don’t know what happen next, and that the unlikely and the unimaginable transpire quite regularly. And that the unofficial history of the world shows that dedicated individuals and popular movements can shape history and have, though how and when we might win and how long it takes is not predictable.
How true this seems to be at this moment in time, as we both never could have imagined that Covid-19 would sweep across the planet (okay, okay some people in medicine, government, and science imagined it and even went so far as to urge preparedness for it—imagine!—but, in truth, the average person living in, say, Hillsborough, North Carolina never imagined it, and for good reason), nor could we have ever imagined the heroism, compassion, strength, and sheer love that it has brought out in so many individuals and communities all over the world. Although it has been a time of deep sorrow and fear, we are also hard pressed to find a person who has been unmoved by humanity at its very finest. And even more inspiring, is the way in which this pandemic will bring about entirely new movements—social and political—that demand better and more equitable heath care and social safety nets for the poor, as well as better (or just some, for goodness sake) epidemic preparedness and public health policy. As Solnit suggests, to despair of the future, is to wrongly imagine that we have a memory of the future, and we simply do not. Despair and optimism are both dangerous impulses, for they are both “grounds for not acting. Hope can be the knowledge that we don’t have that memory and that reality doesn’t necessarily match our plans.”
A certain form of thinking, one that I find in the very best writers, is expressive of this doubt, curiosity, and wonder. Not just wonder in the sense above, but also in the more literal meaning; as in, I wonder what the future holds. The poet John Keats referred to this quality in a writer as “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (Keats, as is evident in so much of his work but most strongly in his narrative poem “Laima,” believed that philosophy and science posed an imminent threat to the moral imagination and a certain reverence for mystery. I confess, I am not unsympathetic to the idea.)
One contemporary writer who has this quality of Negative Capability is George Saunders. (Friend, if you’ve not read Lincoln at the Bardo, please see that you do. It is a stirring meditation on grief and loss, written with such humor and humanity that the reader is brought to tears and laughter, sometimes in just one page.) Recently, he wrote a letter to his students—lucky bunch!—at Syracuse University and it has since been published in the New Yorker. He is trying to comfort them, of course, as a good friend and mentor would, but he is also reminding them that this is precisely the time at which they must sharpen their skills and adapt to the moment at hand. To them, he writes many beautiful and funny things, but this one passage, to me, reflects this quality of Negative Capability, so well:
What will convince that future kid is what you are able to write about this, and what you’re able to write about it will depend on how much sharp attention you are paying now, and what records you keep.
Also, I think, with how open you can keep your heart. I’m trying to practice feeling something like, “Ah, so this is happening now,” or “Hmm, so this, too, is part of life on Earth. Did not know that, universe. Thanks so much, stinker.”
And then I real quick try to pretend that I didn’t just call the universe a “stinker.”
There is something so delightful in the way he lets us into his ordinary thinking, and his practice of staying awake to the world, and urging his students to keep that awakeness going long after the “tiger,” as he refers to the world, falls back to sleep. It entails a kind of curiosity about what is unfolding, a serious noticing, and a goodly bit of humor, too.
To those whom I have encountered during this time of darkness, where by that is meant only that so much of what will happen is unknown, who have been curious, perceptive, and especially funny, and have inspired the same in me, thank you. I owe you a debt of gratitude you cannot possibly imagine, not least of all because these qualities are hard won for a serious and all-too-knowing person like me. And these times are, let’s face it, hard and deeply confusing. But they are not hopeless.
Saunders is giving good advice to writers, dutifully encouraging them to keep homing the craft during their time apart. I’m more inclined to tell people to take a break from it all, to be honest. But I appreciated immensely the specific advice for how we might write this time in history, and the new forms he suggest could arise out of its strangeness and uncertainty.
But Saunders’ advice is useful for anyone interested in giving the planet all of the attention it deserves, so that we can become better stewards of it and of our own souls. When we learn to see the world in this way, seriously noticing all that is happening around us—especially the global groundswell of goodness that we never could have imagined before this moment in history; when we hold fast to the idea that the future is unknown; when our forms of thinking encourage a genuine openness and curiosity about what the future might hold, for us personally, for our communities, and for the wider world, well, then we are never entirely without hope. This is the gentle push we need to go on, instead of to wallow in our despair. So, for whatever it is worth, here is my advice to you in this time of plague-living: rather than letting fear and anxiety, or worse still, a Pollyannaish optimism, paralyze you, let mystery and wonder be an animating force in whatever it is that you do just now. Keep your eyes open to the beauty that is still all around, and remember that it comes in many forms—joy and sorrow, in equal measure. Notice and feel everything as it unfolds. Keep a record of it, even, as you never know when that might prove useful or pleasurable. Finally, keep the faith by way of the sound judgment that tomorrow is now, as it ever was, completely unknown. Don’t squander the loveliest of gifts life has to offer, even at such a time as this, for a future you cannot possibly imagine and of which you have no memory.
 James Wood. Serious Noticing: Selected Essays, 1999 – 2019 . New York. Macmillan. April 2020.
 This quote is taken from the book title by: Marshal Berman. All that is Solid Melts Into Air. London. Penguin Books. 1982.
 Rebecca Solnit. Men Explain Things to Me. “Woolf’s Darkness,” pp. 87 – 88. Chicago. Haymarket Books. 2014.
 Ibid., 88.
 George Saunders. “A Letter to My Students as We Face the Pandemic.” New Yorker. 8 April, 2020.