A Tendency toward Awe

A tendency toward awe. It is something I have known since childhood—and something I shared aloud before I had full grasp of both recording it on a page and how to moderate my offerings. My father regularly enjoyed recalling a family trip from Ohio to North Carolina where, apparently, I chattered nearly non-stop about everything I was noticing out the back seat window of the VW Bug that was our family car. I find this hard to imagine given my extraordinary ability to fall sound asleep in a car within twenty minutes when traveling as passenger; but, it is a story he liked to tell to emphasize the extent of my running commentary.

Then came a place to direct this stream—with the oar of my pencil, the open page was my sea and the river flowed in to fill it. First in print and then in third grade Mrs. Bailey did her best to teach us all how to precisely curl our way through cursive writing. My success with that is best measured in her grade card comment, “Kim has such great stories to tell. What a pity no one can read them.” The current of my thought was too great for what felt like the fussy precision of looping up to the dashed line and down to the solid line and connecting… I have printed or typed ever since.

Somewhere in here I read Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh and knew I had found a kindred soul on any number of levels. She watched, she thought, she wrote—though fortunately I never had my notebook stolen and had to recant my words. My proclivity for preferring to watch, to read, to be solitary, to write, though, did earn me the derision of my classmates and much social misunderstanding. I didn’t understand why my way of being was a problem—I was leaving them alone—and I wasn’t interested in doing much of what my classmates were doing during times like recess.

Between late Middle and High School I met a group of people who, for the first time ever, were genuinely curious about what I was writing—not because of being nosy or scared that it was about them, but actual curiosity about the way I saw, took note of, and made sense of, the universe around me. I did also happen to write a handful of episodes of a soap opera that featured each friend with a different last name having all kinds of adventures.

In my adulthood I was given a copy of the picture book Frederick by Leo Lionni. In a note in the front, the person who gifted it wrote— “You and Frederick are kindred souls.” He is a mouse that gathers words, colours, memories, descriptions, while others are gathering corn and nuts for the winter—and when those food stores are depleted the mice ask him for his offering. Frederick sustains his community with story, painting pictures with a palette of words that help them hold on until the coming of spring. They acknowledged his way of harvesting and saw that it too was good.

My relationship to awe began as a freely experienced orientation toward the world around me. I don’t remember being taught ‘awe’ specifically. Though, I was surrounded by adults who took my questions seriously and a public library where answers were a Dewey number away. I also had plenty of time and space to be on my own, exploring the world around me— discovering things and also being away and able to think about situations, truths, that hurt, confused, scared, etc.

I was drawn to the way awe held me and allowed for my curiosities, questions, and marvel. And I intuitively knew that it was not, as some proposed, a PollyAnna approach to life or a way of ignoring the harsher truths that life can bring. Seeking out awe was in fact a way of being able to cope with what was real and true. It was about believing that no matter what, there was also Beauty, Bigger, Elsewhere, Beyond. In the midst of confusion, there was the order of a sunflower’s petals and seeds. There was the feeling of freedom and security when reading in a friend’s Winnebago; and the Huzzah of what happens when baking soda and vinegar mix in an old graduated cylinder set in the kitchen sink. It didn’t take away the truth; it gave me the distance of perspective and the hope of sunrise.

Firmly within the grasp of middle age, I am still captivated by the awe within the ordinary. I have pictures from the last eight years worth of dahlias that get planted in the public gardens. Are they really any different from year to year? No. But nonetheless, the showing is an absolute riot of colour, texture, and design and I can not help myself. The focusing in with the bare eye or with the camera; the pause for the wind to still; the glint on the back of a beetle or the damp fuzz of a morning bee…it all feels like such a delicious absolutely accessible indulgence in the freedom to focus, to Be With, to stare, to be for a moment inside the awareness of awe…

While my handwriting has not improved with time, my vocabulary, my system of expression, has—if not improved, at least become much more nuanced with experience. The Beauty-Bigger-Elsewhere-Beyond of youth has become a sense of God from which I can not be parted. Within me, surrounding me, within the whole of creation…God. Living, breathing, having being. All that nourishes my sense of awe teaches me about the extraordinary wonder, diversity, creativity, generosity, of God. It “loosens my molecules” and expands mind and heart, both opening and fine-tuning each sense.

Far from promoting a blindness to truth, this expansiveness brought on by the direct experience of awe is precisely what allows me to bear the fullness of reality. The hot-mess, confusion, systemic break-down, uncertainty, and fragility of the world is clear—could hardly Be Clearer. And God is in the midst of it all…loving creation and fully aware of humanity’s capacity for greatness, for indifference, and for evil…loving and entirely aware, all at the same time. Such is the greatness of God. Me? I find that gets a bit challenging sometimes. An exclusive diet of the evening world news would stop inspiring me in short order. Being attentive to awe reminds me in ways subtle and overt that it too is real. It is the grounding counterbalance that allows me to spin, to see, to know and be intimately aware of the mess while not being lost to it.

The spaciousness that is created by awe allows room for the other to come in, to abide with, to pass through, to learn from…and in turn, I learn to love more too…in the midst of it all… Fibonacci flower arrangements, school shootings, injustice of all kinds, war, inflation, systemic breakdowns, and the first sip of morning tea that radiates a bloom within and says ‘See? Look…Sunrise. Pay attention. Someone might need to know its story to make it through winter.’

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