Friday, December 21, 2007


Of all the gifts granted human beings, wonder is surely one of the greatest, and one of the most defining characteristics of humanity. The ability to be awed by the simplest of things…a butterfly, the petals of a flower, the lines in one’s own hand…is truly, well, wonderful. I consider myself really lucky that much of my sense of wonder is intact, though occasionally I’ll have to prime it a bit. (Who today remembers the red cast-iron hand operated pumps standing in the back yard from which the family took its water? Later, some of them moved inside, into the kitchen, but they always remained the same, and it always took two or three vigorous up-and-downs of the handle before the first of the water would gush out.) Even the nebulous links between totally unrelated thoughts is amazing.

The other day, as I sat on the el watching the other passengers as the train rumbled and swayed and squeaked its way from station to station, it occurred to me that not one out of ten thousand people who ride the city’s elevated and subway trains ever stop to marvel at them…of the forces which created their use or the work that went into constructing them. I cannot recall anyone other than me ever expressing awe at humanity’s achievements: how and why cities evolved. To most people, things just are. Period.

And I can stand in my 9th floor window and look down at the elevated tracks half a block away and pretend I’m a kid with the greatest train set in the world. Last night, I happened to look out just as the Santa Train rumbled by, a fantasy of lights outlining each car and every window, with Santa on his sleigh on his special flatcar. Who can see that and not experience wonder?

I find wonder in words…what they mean, where they came from, how they are related to other words, how switching just one letter around can totally change the meaning of some words. It still fascinates me that the word “breakfast” is in fact what it means: to break the fast of the night before. Yet how many people ever think of that? Or would care if they did?

Children love looking at clouds and seeing wondrous things in them. Why don’t, or can’t, adults. Wonder seems to be ground out of us as we “grow up.” To wonder is to question. Why do so few adults question? “Iraq has weapons of mass destruction!” Oh. Okay. “Our soldiers must fight. Therefore, gays cannot be in the military.” Oh. Okay. “Jesus (or Mohammed or Senator So and So or Congressman Whomever, or President What’s-his-name) says blah-blah” and therefore it is so simply because they say it is so and they have more power than we have.” Oh.

Look a word. Any word will do, the more common the better. “The”, for example. Stare at it. Really, really hard. Concentrate on it with all your might, and suddenly you have never seen that word before in your entire life. An odd sensation, to be sure, but real.

Pick up a pebble on the beach (chances are you’ll pick the prettiest one, for humans are built that way, which is another blog entirely). Hold it and look at it. Really look. How long has it been on that beach? How long has it been a pebble. Just try to imagine how it was formed and how long it took to be formed and where it came from and how it arrived at the exact spot you picked it up. If that doesn’t fill you with wonder, I’m not sure what will. Except, perhaps, a baby, skin softer than the finest silk, crystal blue eyes, absolutely perfect little fingers and toes, with that new-baby smell to which nothing else on earth can be compared.

We’re a wondrous species, with all our faults. Too bad we never take the time to realize it.

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