Awe and the Ordinary

Author’s Note ~ Slow Road Home:

I know this from my photographer’s experience: any image I take is one of a kind. Each composition in light or in words is unique. The light will never be that color from that angle on that exact configuration of barn, tree or wildflower ever again.

And this: that we too often take for granted the extraordinary senses of vision and hearing, touch and smell that are our gifts– opportunities given us by which we could know the familiar beauties too often missed or dismissed in our hurried lives. We have so little time in the present and there is so very much to take in and share.

There are wonders all around. From our everyday lives, these familiar things may seem unremarkable to us. But in these precious instants in time, if we keep our eyes open and our hearts ready to know it, there is nothing ordinary.

This topic could, and maybe will, become a too-long-didn’t-read essay someday, since it is AWE that might have been the single strongest driver over the 17 years of my writing life–to expect it, to search for it, to nurture it, and to understand its implications for the good it can do towards keeping one’s eyes and mind open to the largeness and wonder of the every-day fragments that make up our lives.

There is much to say about the gift and experience of awe. And much of it is said in this recent research study on the subject that is so underlined in yellow marker on my copy that WHY BOTHER?

Why scientists say experiencing awe can help you live your best life

For all but a few who will actually read the article, here are some selections that describe the human experience of awe and its consequences:

” the emotion we feel in response to something vast that defies our existing frame of reference in one area or another, and leads us to change our perception of that frame of reference.

“It’s how we respond when we see something new or novel that doesn’t fit with our understanding of the world,”

“…One important distinction between awe and other emotions (like inspiration or surprise) is that awe makes us feel small — or feel a sense of “self-diminishment” in science-speak. And that’s good for us, Stellar explains.

Feeling small makes us feel humbled (thereby lessening selfish tendencies like entitlement, arrogance, and narcissism). And feeling small and humbled makes us want to engage with others and feel more connected to others, Gordon adds.“All of that is important for wellbeing,” she says.”

“Other research from Anderson’s group (which he notes is currently undergoing peer review and is not yet published) suggests that more awe-prone people are more curious — as deemed by both themselves and their friends — and that this awe-curiosity duo may bolster academic achievement in grade-school children (as it has been linked to higher self-efficacy, work ethic, and academic performance).”

Think about how the experience of awe, at its best, creates a state of generosity, charity, curiosity and humility so infrequently seen today among our “greatest” public figures.

In a climate of fear; in an inward-focused, self-absorbed view of the world; in a world that is concerned obsessively with me-here-now, there is little place for awe to take us beyond our small worlds and bring us back to more solid grounding, with gratitude and joy, in the places and times of our lives.

Awe is epiphany; the AHA! that gives us perspective. It says YES to the cosmos. Faced with possibilities, it says YES, enter in. The climate of mistrust and deception, of hubris and fear says NO. Build a wall.

The Personal Origins of Awe

In another life, if I could pull the threads together, from beginning to end (well, not all the way to finish at which point I won’t be doing any typing) I would start and end that tapestry with AWE.

I distinctly remember the first time I felt it—at maybe three or four. Not uncommonly, awe is manufactured by bigger-than-life stories, or stories of bigger-than-life monsters or stronger-than-life superheroes. And Superman certainly contributed to the conviction that the world was stranger and more complex than it seemed, me at my sandbox.

But I wandered off into the rough. Sandboxes were for sissies. I was going to dig my way to China, in a hole I had started behind the garage in a Birmingham suburb, miles from the closest woodland or park. That digging hole would connect me, I was told, to a land of pigtailed Chinamen, in bathrobes and pointy hats. All it would take was persistence, and from time to time, a new spoon to dig with. I know it sounds trivial, but that the world was ROUND and my place in it connected by a straight line through the center of the planet to a people so unlike those in Woodlawn made the hair on my arms stand up. Or would have, if I’d had any.

And then, there were the quartz crystal and mica and feldspar and fool’s gold that came out of that random pit being slowly carved into what must have been excavated house foundation diggings, pushed into place a few decades earlier than the early 50s when I began my world travels.

Each nugget was a treasure, a doubloon from a pirate treasure chest. But more than that, the quartz: It was just translucent enough that vision penetrated it, imagined something faintly there inside it—another world found in my diggings to China’s other world.

Lastly, I remember a toy that became an object lesson with far-reaching philosophical overtones. We visited a childless family relative most Sundays, and while the adults chatted, my brother and I were sequestered in a room off to the side (if not climbing the sticky plum tree out back.) One of the few “play things” we were allowed to play with was a set of Russian stacking dolls. The largest hid the next largest, which hid an even smaller one, down to a tiny one the size of a peanut.

And I may be embellishing this backwards through the lens of adult understanding, but I believe that it was in these stacking dolls—these holons within the whole—that it dawned on me that at every level of truth, one could go deeper; could stare more deeply into the translucent haze with enough force of will to reach yet another embedded truth. And again, and again.

A few years later, a quarter acre woodlot was the microcosm of wilderness. In the part, I could imagine the whole, and it gave me shivers.

And in all these anecdotal personal remembrances, the common thread was a sense of being a small part of a much greater whole. This was a nascent feeling of AWE—a thrill of smallness that hinted of what could be found, known, seen, discovered, realized.

Small wonder I wanted a microscope from the time I was in the second grade. Or that I majored in biology.

I relate all of this to you, dear diary, so that soon I can offer a discourse by others on the potential consequences of awe—happening naturally more in some lives than in others; often coupled with curiosity; and held up as a desirable and intentionally achieved strength that, once acquired, could make us a better animal than what we presently appear to be in this brutish zoo of the early 21st Century.

So if I can pull it off, I’ll post the followup soon. No promises. Life in the trenches. And regarding the other end of this awe-some life of 70-plus years (the oft-mentioned third book), I wouldn’t wait up for that one.

Old Yeller Comes Home

Part Five of Five

And so in anticipation of these prolonged agonizing escaped-convict chases, we’d take two leashes, two walkie-talkies, and two containers of useless treats, knowing we might be at the task for far more time than we wanted, generating way more angst than was fitting for our once-bucolic lives in the era of Gandy, Tsuga or Buster. 

And in the end, one of two things would happen. One, he’d surprisingly show up in the vicinity of one of us, after we had split up to go different directions that the dog might go. Rarely, after as little as ten minutes, he would let us leash him and get him back home. Or the more likely second outcome, he would be totally missing for an hour; then appear over by the barn or down in Yucca Flats; or be walking down the road and out of sight; or heard barking from the neighbor’s house. That was the last straw—when he began to go bother the neighbors. We couldn’t have that.

When he was in full escape mode, the only thing that worked was to leave the front and side doors open. And after an average of an  hour and fifteen minutes (depending on the heat) he would reach a level of sheer exhaustion and walk in the door like nothing had happened. We wanted to wring his neck!

I used to joke that the likelihood of him giving up his freedom was directly proportional to the length of his tongue. The longer it drooped as he panted, the closer he was to surrendering to the authorities.

Except that is the point: WE were not the authorities. He had no allegiance or obligation or desire to please us when he was in his feral state. He acted as if he could not hear or smell or see us at all. We ceased to be a part of his consciousness, even as he ran in front of a passing truck while we waited helplessly for this tedious episode to end—until it was repeated just the same way the next day. 

Why? What made him so affectionate indoors but bolt and then totally fail to listen or care the instant he was off-leash? My theory was that, in his first life, the only time he was free-ranging was when he escaped. And when he was recaptured, he was NOT praised for coming back but punished for the aggravation he’d caused. We tried very hard NOT express our true feelings when the dog finally drug his sorry self through the open doors after a tense and fretful hour or more of being on the loose.

And it was at this point that I began writing the emails to shelters explaining why we must reluctantly “rehome” Scout. But there was one last thing to try.

I still had a “stim collar” (or e-collar) I had purchased for Dingo, a blue heeler who we reluctantly took in back last fall when he showed up and would not take no for an answer.  He was probably the smartest dog I’ve ever attempted to train—indoors. But he was freaked at passing cars. He actually was run over once, front to back of a passing truck full of good ole boys, and only lost a little fur. But the e-collar was my desperate hope to break Dingo of his car-chasing habit. The collar arrived a week before he bit me, unprovoked, the second time, just before the grandkids were coming. With great reluctance, we decided we could no longer keep him. 

So, this frowned-upon training tool was my last hope. I probably spent an entire work-week watching training videos for how to use an e-collar correctly. This was another training tool that could be and had been misused, and so there are a lot of haters—for prong collars and e-collars. And I understand that. But the point was made again that used properly, the stim collar was to be a means of communication, not punishment. And what I liked about the current crop of devices was that they offered a variety of modes of communication, with a hundred levels for vibration and electrical stimulation. 

And yet I worried that unless this negative reinforcement was applied at just the right time and with just the right cues and then positive rewards, it could make the dog want to run AWAY from us to get away from the tingle. I put it off as long as I could, knowing this was Scout’s last chance to succeed. Frankly, I was not hopeful.

I combined the retractable leash with the stim collar over a month or more, mostly using mid-range vibration (like a smartphone vibration that signals information without making you wet your pants) or very low stim levels (less than 20 out of 100). Over and over, Scout would be walking ahead almost to the full extent of the leash. I’d call COME! and press and hold the Vibration button until the instant he turned and looked my way and started in my direction. At that point, I’d gently pull him my direction, even walking quickly backwards to let him cover more ground until he reached me. I’d offer a treat, but he generally preferred GOOD BOY! And a pat on the head.

In early November, the moment of truth had come. We took the dog—with no small dread—to the end of the pasture. We allowed him sit calmly for a minute. I unclasped the leash as gently as possible so he couldn’t even tell at first the he was free to bolt. But he bolted. He ran—in big sweeping, joyful circles around us, then back and forth between Nameless Creek and the New Road, and then back to us for approval. We wanted to cry. He understood. He heard us. He wanted to follow. Leading is a lot of work, and it’s lonely at the top.

Scout is now a member–and not the leader–of the pack!

There have been the occasional lapses requiring more than verbal commands while he still wears the orange collar with the black box on it. But in late January, a typical day includes a half-dozen outings off leash—sometimes over short distances even without the stim collar. I will make a video hopefully to include with this final story—final for now at least. 

And what you’ll see is that Scout looks up frequently from his mousing to see where we are. “This way!” I tell him and he knows we’re changing direction. “Let’s go home” and he knows play time is over. “Let’s go to the garden” and he goes to the gait and waits for us to open it. 

What remains is the weakest link—a critical and absolutely necessary lesson yet to come. We (I) have to train him to NOT chase cars or trucks; bicycles or motorcycles; horses or people walking down the road. Never. Ever. I used to tell Ann, who was less worried about his great escapes than I was: “If he’s loose we’re liable.”

So this will be a challenge. And the opportunities to train him to not chase cars is made more difficult by the fact that we have very few cars, and they come at unpredictable times each day; and fewer horses or cyclists. But they will come, more and more as the weather moderates. And I will have to somehow reinforce SIT-STAY no matter what it is that you want to do, pup.

Our other dogs have learned this, more or less. But of course they were with us from 8 weeks on. If we succeed here, coming from where we were in the summer, it will seem miraculous. We came so close to giving up, to losing hope, to sending this dog back into a crate, waiting for one more chance to fit in.

1-Outside of a Dog 
2-Finding Old Yeller
3-And I Am Not The Alpha Male
4- Old Yeller Comes Home

Not Exactly Bored

I am plagued or blessed—depending on the way I squint my eyes when I reflect on the things that fill my vision at various moments on any day of the week—with a lot of interests.

I guess I just don’t want to miss anything before the lights go out.

One of the current spinning plates in the Vaudeville Act of Life is a resurrected interest in playing the piano—and this after giving away our old family upright that, in this moist location with drying woodstoves, would never hold a tuning.

Shortly thereafter, I had occasion to sit down at a nicely tuned old piano and was able to resurrect just enough of my ancient muscle memory to enjoy playing again, and not have that too terribly painful to listening ears.

And so, after two weeks of dinking around with a borrowed Yamaha keyboard, I ordered one this morning. Finally! An end to the empty hours when I can’t find a single thing to occupy my idle mind and hands–the Devil’s workshop, you know!

Oh—and there is Scout, our 13 month old canine with us now two weeks tomorrow. Ann entreated me to not post anything about the dog, since, for a few days there, we were not certain we were equal to the task of training a dog who had already had a former life we knew nothing of.

I think—think—we are past that uncertainty. So Scout, the pup, is another thing to stave off boredom. And more about that new hobby, soon.

April 16, 2007 and the Problem of Pain

Deep Creek near Thomas Amis House and Inn near Rogersville TN. Click image to enlarge

This is a far more weighty subject than anyone should jump into casually. So forgive me for doing just that, in a way, with a brief morning post.

For so many families, the sting of this day remains sharp and deep. And many still feel the weight of the evil that befell so many innocents at Virginia Tech at the hand of an unbalanced shooter.

I happened across this essay/sermon by Philip Yancey, who shortly after the event, addressed the students and faculty on campus after having just suffered his own near-death pain and injury in an accident.

Where is God When it Hurts?

His understanding expressed in this text of how a universe exists in which God is both good and omnipotent AND evil and pain exist might be helpful to some who make the effort to read it through.

Christians ask the same question, but like Yancey, find sufficient understanding, though “through a glass, darkly” for this life. And with that understanding, they don’t shake their fist at God (like more than a few of our friends) for creating a world where free will leads to lies and deceit, anger and vengeance, suffering and injustice.

As C S Lewis describes such a world, a knife could be used to spread butter on bread, but should it be used to threaten injury, it would turn into a blade of grass.

We live in a consequential world. And in it, perhaps the most astounding fact is that love and beauty abounds. And life is precious. And something is most definitely broken here.