Note: Since so many new readers have come on board during the past year, I thought it important to put this Tracking Wonder project into full perspective again. This essay aims to do so. (1,434 words – no apologies)
The other day, my little girl – exhausted from hours of exploring,
kite-flying, and tree-climbing with her papa – was crumbling into evening whines with her mother. With little to eat but chocolate snagged in Woodstock earlier that day, I was disintegrating, too.
The first warm evening of the year approaching, something in my primal spring body said, “You need the hammock.” Guided by my gut, I headed for the farmhouse basement. The hammock was stored in a bag somewhere in the dank barracks. I thought.
“Have you seen the hammock? Has anyone seen the hammock?” I barked. I’m fairly certain I barked. No one had seen it. No one being namely my wife since the little girl did not keep up with such things, and the new born babe’s eyes couldn’t yet compute a face let alone a hammock’s whereabouts. I could hear my little girl’s whines up a notch.
I stomped to the screened porch. No hammock. Back to the basement to flip through every storage bag and box. No hammock. My wife was negotiating but readying for battle with the child.
I marched to the barn to sit and chill out. There was the hammock, rolled up and tossed next to the campfire furniture. Saved!
In minutes, I secured the hammock’s hooks on the naval ropes tied on the oaks outside my study, plopped into the net bed, and – slam! – my back hit on the ground, my head jarred on the fall. The hook had come unfastened.
I forget what inventive invective I uttered, but I’m certain it was clever.
The hook firmly re-secured this time, I slid into the cotton net originally invented for far more practical purposes than to help a privileged poet unravel and sky-gaze.
In these moments of petulance – emphasis on the petty – I feel a wee bit hypocritical being the Chief Tracker and founder of Tracking Wonder. If you’ve glimpsed my personal Facebook posts about my daily adventures and my outings with my older little girl, you’d think my life charmed.
But my life is not charmed if by “charmed” you mean free from heart break, house fire, chronic Lyme Disease, family death, and other personal disruptions within a few years’ time. I have my own ample share of daily irritations and impatience.
“If I had integrity, I would be in the business of Irritation Tracking,” I thought.
And then right in front of me, the sky still faint blue, the blood moon appeared, plump and pale, blemished like an albino apple. The bare oak limbs above me, whatever tension had mounted in the past 15 minutes unraveled between the hammock holes.
The sky proffered a white apple, opened its passenger door, and took my mind for a quick spin.
In a small way, for a few moments, life felt tender and radiant.
After a few minutes, the farmhouse back door opened, foot steps pattered down the back stairs, and the four-year-old crawled onto the hammock and buried her nose into her papa’s chest.
“You need the hammock,” my primal spring body had said. And I listened and followed. Even in irritability meltdown, I mustered the means to track wonder, and it tracked me. Integrity reclaimed.
Four years ago, I had looked into my little girl’s eyes when she was a wide-eyed toddler and renewed my vows to track wonder.
True, I’ve been on the tracks of wonder since a tow-headed boy. At 17, 18 years old, I secretly desired to keep alive what then I could only call “imagination.” To stay on wonder’s tracks partially drove me to devote much of my adult life to being a writer, to teaching, and to mentoring others around and outside of the United States.
Wonder has been a reliable – dare I say, “awe-some” – ally in learning to live in, not escape from, this world. I’m not a silly, skipping Peter Pan of a man who insists we have birthday parties every day. Wonder is quieter than that. Something, though, has shifted in my perception. I respond more than react to all the crap that inevitably “happens.” Those shifts coupled with my innate curiosity and concern for other human beings are enough to keep me on its tracks and to keep living in some key questions.
What is wonder exactly? Can adults actually cultivate something so evasive yet pervasive? Why do we have so many misconceptions of what it is? What’s it for?
Before my first little girl was born, those questions sent me many places in search of wonder’s origins in the human experience: to tour with an archaeologist through what may well be North America’s largest and oldest cave art and rock shelter art sites; to India where members of the longest living Yoga tradition, Kashmir Shaivism, have “spelunkered” through the mind’s darkest caves; to the Texas Panhandle to sniff out what a young Georgia O’Keeffe might have felt during two seminal years that shaped her artistic vision.
My findings are clear. From Greece to the Netherlands to California to China to India, wonder matters. Wonder is the beginning of all wisdom. Wonder is the first of all passions. Wonder is the beginning of all writing. Wisdom, emotions, and creativity – all borne from wonder.
It’s led me to confirm what one Western thinker said of wonder in the 17th century – it is the first of all human emotions. Before curiosity is wonder. Before compassion is wonder. Before the creative impulse is wonder.
Wonder is the window to our original genius.
More than any other intellectual, spiritual, or emotional experience we humans have, wonder opens us to what is real, true, and beautiful – and on the smallest, most ordinary scale.
We’re talking about beetles, snails, and baby toe nails. Not the Grand Canyon.
A handful of psychologists are following the tracks that Western and Eastern teachers have left behind. A few biologists have insisted scientists restore wonder before it’s too late for the planet. Some religious thinkers have called for its revival if religion is to be relevant this century. At least one academic has called upon humanities professors to renew its place on college campuses to save higher education from the marketplace of gadgetry.
None of these people are speaking to my little girl or her friends. They’re reaching out to you and me.
Wonder is not kid’s stuff. It is stuff for you and me.
Maybe you remember your nine-year-old self – that last year to live in single digits. Maybe you remember how the best in that nine-year-old self engaged the world and made something joyful and marvelous and simple seemingly out of nothing. How an afternoon was an adventure. How your heart and the sky shared the same mouth-gaping openness to possibility. How you vowed to make each day new again.
Maybe it’s time to renew that vow.
The Lakota people have a word itonpa. It means “to wonder.” It also means “to care.” And “to thank.”
That’s the vow I made to my little girl when she was just a few months old – that I would track wonder every day, for better or worse, so that she would want to grow up with her original genius.
I vowed that I will care. Her nose nuzzled in my chest bone four years later, that vow felt firm.