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The Gift of WonderBy Lucy Strandlund
A couple of weeks ago, I had just gotten out of my car in the parking lot of a World Market when my phone buzzed with a news alert. It was there, standing in the midst of concrete and cars, that I learned that Mary Oliver had died. My stomach sank, and I felt as though a longtime friend or mentor had died. I have lived with Mary Oliver’s words since I was in high school, and fragments of her poems float around in my brain, reminding me to look around and pay attention to lilies, geese, grasshoppers, and happy, tail-wagging dogs. It felt wrong to be mourning her death in a flat expanse of asphalt with the only trees in sight evenly spaced and boxed in by cement.
I was soon comforted, however, by the fact that I was not alone in my mourning. Never have I seen on social media people from so many different spheres of my life posting about (and agreeing on!) the same subject: people of different ages, geographic locations, and faiths were expressing their profound gratitude for her and her words. I came to realize and appreciate what a broad swath of people have been affected by her simple, often spare poems. It seems she struck a chord deep within us with her way of communicating in few words the wonder that is the only conceivable response to a close study of creation. Her poems are distilled from her observations of the beauty and complexity around her: the construction of a grasshopper’s leg, the barnacles that cling to humpbacks, the “whirring music” made by ducklings as they tumble into a pond.1
I hope it is this practice of responding to the world with wonder that we retain as our inheritance from Mary Oliver. She was not oblivious, after all, to the challenges of the world. She rarely spoke about her personal life, but she alluded to her difficult childhood, and she later weathered the death of her longtime and beloved partner, Molly Malone Cook, in 2005. But in an interview with Krista Tippett in an episode of On Being, Oliver said, “I got saved by poetry. I got saved by the beauty of the world.”2 In other words, her close study of the world, instead of retreat from it, was her response to hardship. Instead of disenchantment, she returned again and again to curiosity, to reverence, to awe, and to the humility of paying attention.
Paying attention and practicing wonder open our eyes to the world around us to notice what we might have missed, whether it’s the brisk, diligent work of an ant or the perspective of someone we find unreasonable or bewildering. Wonder slows us down and maybe even lowers our defenses. It opens us up to lead with curiosity rather than with those things and those opinions we want to hold onto at all costs. When I remember to do so, practicing wonder saves me from seeing my daily routines as drudgery. It reminds me to delight in the people around me and to practice curiosity about the people with whom I struggle. Above all, it reminds me that when I’m lost in hurt or worry or anger or pride, it is best to start walking and to start noticing the world that is right in front of my face. It is in noticing the tangible that I remember myself as a creature made for awe and for praise, simply one creature of many in the beautiful and complex web of creation.
If you were to pause and practice wonder while carrying out a daily routine such as commuting to work, cooking dinner, or walking your dog, what might you notice for the very first time?
What ignites reverence for you in creation and in other human beings?
What ignites curiosity for you in creation and in other human beings?
1. References to humpbacks and “whirring music” from poems “Humpbacks” and “Little Sister Pond” in American Primitive (New York: Back Bay Books, 1983)
2. Mary Oliver, “Listening to the World,” interviewed by Krista Tippett, On Being, February 5, 2015, https://onbeing.org/programs/mary-oliver-listening-to-the-world-jan2019/#transcript
Lucy Strandlund is in her second year of the Master of Divinity program at Seminary of the Southwest. She also holds a Master of Arts in spiritual formation from the seminary. She and her husband Daniel are from Alabama and enjoy exploring Austin and the Hill Country with their dog, Zooby.
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