Today I want to celebrate wonder and the power of writing, storytelling, and art.
A dear friend from my MFA program sent me a sticker for Christmas. (Thank you, Hannah!) I put it on my laptop so that every day when I open my computer to write, I am reminded of the poet Mary Oliver's beautiful and pithy instructions for living:
Tell about it.
These instructions aren't just for life. In short, I think Oliver's lines capture also what storytelling is all about. Observation, emotional response, and sharing the whole thing. How wonderful.
I love the notion of "wonder."
Wonder as in possessing curiosity. Wonder as in questioning. Wonder as in admiring. Wonder as in being rendered speechless. Wonder as in savoring a moment over and over. Wonder everywhere, from the common to the sacred and all stops in between.
Admittedly, wonder is hard to maintain. Wonder feels easier to summon in youth (at least, in my experience; I don't want to speak for everyone). The younger I was, the less experience I had, how easily everything seemed surprising and new and outside my realm of knowledge. Wonder happened all the time in childhood, the spontaneous overflow of surprise and delight... and then I let myself outgrow it.
That little girl felt so much and was excited by everything.
Time passed. Eventually, it seemed cool to not be excited by anything. To be blasé in the face of everything.
If you asked me just a few months ago if I liked surprises, the unexpected, I would tell you adamantly, without hesitation, no. No no no no no. However, I've been trying something new since the beginning of the year: being open to transformation. That reconsideration of what I am willing to try and how much I am willing to stretch myself out of my comfort zone has changed so much.
And in being careful with reconsidering what I am and am not open to, I had to ask myself...when did "surprise" become a bad thing? I don't mean "surprise" like pranks. (I am not a fan of those. In the least.) I mean "surprise" like an openness to thrilling uncertainty and a willingness to feel that magical frisson of nerves and joy, to let yourself be open-mouthed with absolute childlike wonder.
There were a couple of relationships I had with people who made me feel like getting excited about things to the degree I did was deeply embarrassing. My astonishment at new things? Lame. My thrill at exciting things? Childish. They were not prone to big displays of emotion, to clapping their hands in delight, to jumping up and down with happiness. And you know, that high-spirited physical expression is just me. You don't have to express yourself like that. You don't have to enjoy things in the full body, little kid kinetic energy sort of way that I do.
But utter astonishment—letting yourself be wildly surprised by the world around you and letting yourself feel the elated wonder of those moments—is not uncool. Mary Oliver included "be astonished" in her poem for a reason.
It is the antidote to boredom. It prevents existential dread, prevents how experience accretes and hardens into a carapace around the eyes of our hearts and souls. Sometimes I survey the state of the world in the last few years and wonder how humans could possibly avoid curling into ourselves and raising our cold walls and armor ourselves in harsh spikes. It happens. Sometimes by design, sometimes by accident, but we can harden into less empathetic, less soft, less permeable versions of ourselves. But astonishment is as vital to me for a full life as having a heartbeat.
Being full of magical wonder means vulnerability. Things can move you— a book, a movie, a song, a sight outside your window, the softness of your cat's fur, the look in someone's eyes or their smile. Wonder is letting yourself stay soft, letting yourself stay permeable to feel outside things seeping into your insides. It's an easy recipe for getting hurt.
That's terrifying. I don't blame people for closing up the wonder shop. I don't blame myself for the spans of time in which I found it difficult to access wonder or stopped looking for the good in the world.
I forgive myself for believing that indifference was cooler than delight. I forgive myself for not always tending to the leak in my soul that let some astonishment leach away with age and heartbreak and time. I remember that the little girl inside of me isn't dead, just delayed and processing things bigger than her capacity sometimes.
In forgiving myself, I know also that the person I want to be, the person who feels most fully myself, is easily excited, swayed by all manner of wonderful things and open to being moved. (An exuberant, easily excitable creature: I am not everyone's cup of tea. That is just fine.) And so I return to my youngest self and slip into that wide-open mindset and try on that wonder over and over and over in life.
Right now, I am the youngest I will ever be again. That is young enough for all the wonder in the world.
And as art imitates life and life imitates art, this mindful wonder is also the way I've tried to keep my creativity and keep surviving.
When I was much younger, I used to think that I was a better creator when I was depressed. I'm not sure where I got this notion: maybe the stereotype of the tortured artist? I have no idea. What I know now is that everyone's mileage may vary, but when I'm far from my ability to "be astonished," I'm far from my art. Nothing distances me from my creativity like pain, which is a cruel catch-22 because being in touch with my whimsy, wonder, and creativity can be very healing.
I have to remind myself when I am far from feeling the delight of everyday magic that trauma is a liar. It tells us that its darkness is all-powerful and utterly inescapable. It tells us there is no magic left in the world, or if there is, it belongs to other people. The way forward, however, isn't comfortable or pleasant. The only way out of trauma is through it. There is no magical cure-all. But on the other side, the wonder awaits.
The instructions are deceptively simple for something so difficult.
Tell about it.
How easy. How impossible. Walk forward. Pay attention. Let yourself be awed by all manner of things. And come back out the other side with a story.
When you're experiencing trauma or in the immediate aftermath, though, it's nearly impossible to see that there is such thing as being "through" at all. I refer to this space as "the long, dark teatime of the soul."
In keeping with how storytelling and life are entwined, this is a phrase I borrowed from Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series. In the book Life, the Universe, and Everything, Adams describes this feeling of overwhelming bleak pointlessness experienced by an immortal character:
"In the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn't cope with, and that terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know that you've had all the baths you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it, or use the revolutionary new pruning technique it describes, and that as you stare at the clock the hands will move relentlessly on to four o'clock, and you will enter the long dark teatime of the soul."
Being in sustained, enduring pain can feel a lot like boredom, a lot like a meaningless void. And that extended boredom can feel like a lack of interest and engagement in the world. A fatal lack of wonder.
I'm very grateful for Douglas Adams—not only because I find his writing funny and enjoyable, but because in writing about "the long dark tea-time of the soul" he gave me language to describe an experience I didn't have a great way of explaining before, and also in writing about it he showed me that I wasn't alone. That we all have these spaces where we fall out of love with life.
Storytelling is important not least because it can draw lines between our most isolated, interior experiences and the lived experiences of others. Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors, said, "Fiction is the lie that tells the truth."
And so it is. Art holds up a mirror to life.
Even when Douglas Adams was writing completely absurd fiction about a comical immortal character named Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged who got tired of outliving everyone and stopped enjoying funerals, he was capturing something meaningful about the nature of human existence.
Even that—finding myself in a character named Wowbagger—is a little fragment of wonder. (I didn't recognize it at the time. But it was there. Faint moonglow leading me forward. A story, a character, a silly name, a little light in the darkness.)
So I spent a few years in the long dark teatime of the soul. And now I'm back with a story to tell. I don't know how I'll tell it yet, but I will turn it all into a story of some kind. Eventually, it will all become art. In the meantime, I promise I'll keep trying to follow the instructions for living.
Tell about it.