Rediscovering Wonder

This article was originally published by Matthew DeVille on Medium.

Spring is a time of renewal and rejoicing for many. For some, however, it is a time of turmoil. Why? Maybe it has to do with pollen, but it likely has more to do with expectations. After hunkering down for the winter months, which usually means less outdoor time, less contact with the natural world, less contact with our loved ones, our expectations are high. We hunger for something new, for change, for growth.

And frankly, sometimes none of those things we hunger for show up.

I hardly consider myself a T.S. Eliot acolyte, but his oft-quoted line “April is the cruelest month” has always felt like gospel to me.

Let’s consider a few more. There’s always Berryman: “Life, friends, is boring.” And Beckett: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

As much as I find amusement in these pronouncements, they are hardly sustaining as an outlook. Fortunately, not all of literature is so dour.

Last night, too exhausted to read Dune (it’s not a difficult book, but holding it aloft while reclining in bed is exercise when you’re truly depleted), I read a chapter of Cioran. “What do you do from morning to night? I endure myself.”

I laughed. Accurate enough, but it wasn’t what I needed.

Look Eastward

Scanning the bookshelf, I found a slim volume of Bashō, and I’m thankful.

Bashō lived a short enough life from 1644 to 1694. He was a poet and like many poets ended up going off the grid, as we would say today. Nature dominates as a subject and his haiku are highly satisfying for someone needing respite from the unease of Spring.

Here’s an example:

My humble hut
rake up the leaves
make some tea

When I read this, I felt a sense of calm. Somehow, these words say to me: “life doesn’t need to be complicated. You can enjoy simple tasks. Work has value, but enjoying rest has value too.”

Okay, it’s been a long time since I’ve written a close reading of any piece of literature, but that’s what the poem meant to me as I got ready to sleep.

Frankly, it had been an annoying day. Work has been a wee bit slow, the typical ebb and flow of projects. Nothing to worry about, but annoying nonetheless because I seem to thrive when I am busy. I had felt hot all day because I’ve had a fever since being vaxxed two days ago. Not to mention that being sequestered at home is getting extraordinarily boring after over a year in seclusion. I often fantasize about going off the grid and being a poet by some stream in the mountains, but perhaps this past year has taught me something different.

What is the grass?

Although I thought to myself I should go slower and savor each haiku, I read half the book last night. I was thrilled by the form. The pairing of image + image + insight felt fresh and new. Every fifth poem or so, I paused and reflected. Wow. Damn! Beautiful…

I was feeling a sense of wonder, not unlike my first encounter with this verse from Whitman:

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

What strikes me about Whitman is two-fold: 1) as an adult he admits an almost willful naiveté when it comes to the nature of nature 2) he hints at the importance of letting children explore the world and figure things out for themselves. Of course, he goes on at some length trying to define the grass, but it is a marvelous caesura that has become a definition of wonder for me.

Simply put, wonder is the ability to say to oneself and of oneself, “I don’t know.”

All of this has led me to a conclusion: rediscovering wonder is an essential practice for creatives. Hell, rediscovering wonder is essential for all of us.

Define your own practice

What does rediscovering wonder look like? Like Whitman, how can I answer that? It will vary depending on a multitude of factors. What do you do in your life for work? What gives you pleasure? A thousand other questions could follow.

The important thing is to figure out a practice for yourself, and to keep figuring it out. Your practice might and probably should change… annually, seasonally, or even daily if need be.

The point is to take a step back and see what has become boring—or what seems to have become boring—and look at it with a new sense of wonder.

For example, years ago, Steve Smallman told me I should find a way to fall in love with the web again. My initial response was indignation. Of course I was still in love with the web! Sure, I complained daily about the annoyances of development hurdles, misunderstood or undocumented requirements, the idiocy of users, etc., but I still loved the web.

Driving home, I thought about it. True enough, after 15 odd years of designing, talking about, and coding the web, the wonder of it all had been stripped away.

I thought about the first time I uploaded some simple HTML to a server in 2000 and saw the results of my typing (and I had a hard time typing back then). It was a simple, goofy design by today’s standards, but to me it was the Mona Lisa of the web. Pride swelled within me and I was soaring.

Of course, we can’t always be soaring. Daily routines keep us grounded. Life is, at times, boring. But remembering that sense of wonder from my early experiments helped me reframe my outlook.

Feeling burned out? Bored? Want an exciting change but can’t stop sneezing (Spring brings plenty of pollen-based turmoil). Redefine your practice. For me, it has meant looking at the small details, finding wonder in simple things, like moving a pile of compost, making tea (more often, in my case, two shots of espresso), or lying in a hammock, gazing at the wide open sky.

Here’s one more from Bashō:

Moon woke me up
nine times
—still just 4 a.m.


Here is the translation of Bashō I’m reading:
The School of Life has a nice video about Bashō:

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