Have we forgotten how to marvel at the smallest, simplest things? Emma Johnson says it’s time to start rekindling our relationship with wonder…
For me, this is what rekindling my relationship with wonder looks like. Stopping in the stillness to marvel at something simple. Take this tiny spider crawling across the back of the chair in my garden, for instance. She is so small I have to take my glasses off to see her up close. She has brown legs and a dark blonde body, with smudgy black markings. One of her front legs looks a bit crooked. Maybe she’s hurt it, or maybe she’s just going slow, and anyway eight legs is a lot to keep track of. She stops for a moment. The fabric on the chair is a rough blue weave that looks chunky and almost hilly compared to her tiny size. She must feel as if she’s walking across undulating ground, such are the endless peaks and troughs of machine-stitched cotton to navigate. She must be exhausted.
A small beam of morning sunlight breaks through the canopy of the place I’m sitting. For a moment it illuminates the spider, who seems to scrunch lower on the cushion, before suddenly changing direction and hurling herself off the back of the chair, a gossamer-thin strand of webbing flying out behind her. She twirls and falls and floats and flies, her legs gracefully fanning out around her as she surrenders to gravity. I watch her spinning body, the way she slows and speeds up again, sometimes caught by the smallest breath of wind. But there is no fear: she’s just falling, as she has always done. It looks fun, playful, free. Such a joyful, wonderous way to journey through life. She settles on the chair leg, making contact with solid ground again. And then she is gone, sneaking over the edge of the chair and off to new adventures.
‘Observe the wonders as they occur around you,’ said Rumi, more than eight hundred years ago. ‘Don’t claim them. Feel the artistry moving through and be silent.’ Did he too wonder at the steady march and magic of a tiny spider? Was life slower then? Did simple things feel more extraordinary?
‘If there were a spirit of this age, it would look a lot like fear,’ says Katherine May in her book Enchantment: Reawakening Wonder in an Exhausted Age. ‘We are in the business of running now. It is all so urgent. Every year, it seems, we must run harder.’
And yet, every year, nature circles through an incredible display of creation and life, blooming and expansion, then surrender, decay, death and rebirth. Green shoots poke through frosty soil; birds lay eggs in nests of twigs, perched impossibly high in the swaying branches of trees; hedgehogs wake from a sleep that has lasted months to waddle across the garden looking for worms. Peonies unfurl to reveal layers of colour, acer trees turn blistering red, spiderwebs hang in corners, glistening with morning dew; bees feast on lavender and produce sweet, sticky honey.
We live amid this wonder all the time. But we don’t see it. We rush by as we are late for the train; we brush past the flowers as we reply to an email on-the-go; we turn on lights in the dark so we blot out the stars. We marvel at discounts and good deals, at celebrity weight loss and new technology. We buy cushions and caviar. We drink and eat and consume our way through life. And, in doing so, we miss so much.
‘We sense a kind of absence,’ says May. ‘I increasingly feel a part of me is missing… It’s not just the world that needs to change, I need to change too… The subtle magic of the world offers comfort, but I don’t know how to receive it.’
In her book, May considers how finding our sense of wonder and enchantment again can help us return to ourselves, to the deep intuitive sense of knowing what we have lost. ‘Enchantment is small wonder magnified through meaning, fascination caught in the web of fable and memory. It relies on small doses of awe… It is the sense that we are joined together with the elements… It is the ability to sense magic in the everyday, to channel it through our minds and bodies, to be sustained by it.’
For May, enchantment is the medicine that will heal our exhausted souls; wonder the salve that will soothe our sense of despair. And it’s no accident that she, and others, have focused on the power of nature and folklore to awaken this dormant sensation of being in the presence of ordinary magic.
‘Enchantment, by my definition, has nothing to do with fantasy, or escapism, or magical thinking,’ writes Sharon Blackie in her vital book The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday. ‘It is founded on a vivid sense of belongingness to a rich and many-layered world; a profound and whole-hearted participation in the adventure of life.’
Blackie’s book is a clarion call to our sense of wonder, asking that we start to slow down enough to see the little things that surround us, and to engage with everyday magic and mystery. ‘The enchanted life understands the myths we live by; thrives on poetry, song and dance. It loves the folkloric, the handcrafted, the practice of traditional skills. It respects wild things, recognises the wisdom of the crow, seeks out the medicine of plants. It rummages and roots on the wild edges, but comes home to an enchanted home and garden. It is engaged with the small, the local, the ethical; enchanted living is slow living.’
It is also, as she reminds us, about connecting with the memory of what it was like to be children” delighted by tiny things, fascinated by the turning of a wheel on a tractor, the buzz of a bee, colour of a ball. ‘The enchanted life,’ Blackie writes, ‘flourishes on work that has heart and meaning; it respects the instinctive knowledge and playfulness of children.’
If you have ever gone for a walk with a toddler, you’ll know how slow and repetitive it is. Toddlers don’t walk in straight lines. They turn back, and round. They crouch down. They find beetles in the grass and spot tiny little planes in the sky, and marvel over and over again at their ability to jump on and off a tree stump. They are not busy, they are not late, they do not need to do anything or be anywhere. They are deeply mindful and intentional in the way they engage with the world around them. They are full of wonder and enchantment for all the things they see and touch and hear and feel.
‘Enchantment came so easily to me as a child, but I wrongly thought it was small, parochial, a shameful thing to be put away in the rush towards adulthood,’ writes May. ‘It turns out it had nothing to do with beauty at all… It came from a deep engagement with the world around me… the sense of contact that comes from noticing.’
Sometimes, to shift our blocked energy, the stagnant ennui that floods our lives, we need to change the way we engage with the world by simply stopping long enough to notice things, to make a conscious effort to be in the noticing. We need to rekindle our relationship with wonder.
‘This is what human beings bring to the world – the ability to take notice,’ says Kathleen Dean Moore in her beautiful book Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature. ‘To be grateful and glad, glad for the river swinging by, for the sun warming my shoulders, for the breeze lifting the hairs on a butterfly’s back.’
Moore’s book was written as a response to the deaths of close friends and family members in quick succession. Her world suddenly shaky and fearful, she sought the lessons of nature and the world around her for solace.
In one chapter she recalls the simple beauty she found in a beachside bar with her husband and children, marvelling at the effect of the fading sunlight on a bottle of chilli, a flickering candle and a glass of something delicious. Over two pages she describes the ‘glow of light through the liquid, the shine of the waiter’s glass’. She evokes the colours of the bottles and sunset, ‘flaring red against chipotle pepper sauce… blue fire, sand on fire, red sun fire becomes green fruits… again the sparks – matter and energy dancing in the dark’.
It is so simple, and yet this description perfectly captures rekindling our relationship with wonder, the joy of an ordinary moment. ‘Have I never seen candlelight before, or a bottle of chilli sauce?’ she asks. ‘Something has snapped the bonds of the familiar… Is candlelight caught in a bottle any less [than] the star-rimmed edge of an angel’s wing? The glass in the bottle is sand, fused by fire into something that still glitters. And what is sand? – black urchin spines, fallen stars, unimaginable time.’
Standing in our stillness and seeing the familiar anew is very powerful. If you look out of a train window as the world rushes past, you see nothing. The world becomes a blur of colour and nothing more. But if you stand still wherever you are, what do you start to see? You don’t need a beautiful garden, a stunning vista or a sublime meadow filled with wild flowers. You just have to start looking.
‘To be worthy of the astonishing world,’ Moore writes, ‘a sense of wonder will be a way of life, in every place and time, no matter how familiar: to listen in the dark of every night, to praise the mystery of every returning day, to be astonished again and again, to be grateful with an intensity that cannot be distinguished from joy.’