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A Lost Sense of Wonder
They said it was impossible to hear a meteor. But I heard it.
Earlier this weekend, I found myself outside of a bar with a friend. As we stood outside on the sidewalk, we remarked how funny it is to see all the people out, walking around, going to one place after another, clearly anticipating a great night ahead.
“I remember what that used to be like — that excitement,” I said. “Sure, it was just a bar or a club we were heading to, but it represented a kind of energy.” I personally never went out to bars to meet new people, just to meet up with my people. So that feeling wasn’t so much a sense of possibility at serendipitous encounters with strangers as it was being surrounded by an electric charge. Drinking in loud crowded places amplifies the inherent buzz of alcohol. And for whatever reason, the novelty of that amplified buzz felt like it would never wear off.
But wear off it did. I don’t drink much these days, as it makes me slow the next day. And as I grow older, I don’t want to squander days on useless things like recovery. Beyond being more gun-shy, however, is a more banal truth: it got repetitive. All senses, if overstimulated, dull out.
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Looking at all the happy buzzing people out on 14th street that night, it struck me that what separated me from them is a sense of wonder. When you’re younger, you have more capacity for it. You don’t recognize patterns quite so well, so you believe that things are more mutable than they are. As you discover the world, it seems limitless, and limitlessly astonishing.
But as you experience more and more of it, you start to figure out how things work. Not in the sense of gaining ultimate and total knowledge — that’s hubris. Hard-won wisdom is the opposite: figuring out what is unknowable, and appreciating how chance works. Still, as the patterns become a little more recognizable, the world becomes a little less enchanted.
To live is to hold on to enchantment. Friends and loved ones are critical. They are our comfort, and our measure. It’s through experiencing things with them that we know we are in the world, and not just trapped alone in some never-ending dream. (I’m not terribly prone to loneliness, but without my people around me, I think my sanity would start to go.) And shared memories — unlike new experiences — don’t seem to dull. Even if some details get foggy with time, that sense of the moment and the accompanying emotions remain vivid.
Being in nature is critical too. City living is organized living, and its patterned existence makes us prone to making our lives into patterns, and imposing patterns on everything. Getting out to the country disabuses us of such things.
I used to sail regularly with my parents, and being out on the sea was a balm. On the water, you see that nature has patterns, too, and you do well to recognize and heed them. Once you fall into nature’s rhythm, however, a kind of peace envelops you. But the uncertainty of the sea, and its capacity for unpredictable violence, is ever-present. It’s a constant reminder of nature’s endless stock of the sublime, the truly astonishing — and a reminder that disenchantment is the product of civilization.
A few weeks ago, I went out to Shenandoah to try to catch the Perseid meteor shower at its peak. I took my camera with me to try to do some astrophotography. I came up short on actually capturing any meteors. A few hours into trying — I saw a few, but didn’t have the camera ready — I gave up and just laid back in the grass of the field I was sitting in and stared into the heavens. All of a sudden, a bright purple-orange fireball streaked above me, much thicker and brighter than the other fleeting trails I had seen earlier that night. And, dear reader, I swear to you that it was accompanied by a kind of sizzling sound as it went by.
It’s impossible to hear a meteor, you might say. The internet says it’s maybe not impossible, but I certainly thought I had experienced the impossible just after it happened. No friends were with me, so I couldn’t ask if they had heard anything. And my camera was put away at that point, so I had no visual proof.
It was a solid dose of re-enchantment, one that I desperately needed.
Still, age does its thing. The electric thrill of going out is, I think, permanently lost to me. Similarly, if meteor showers were a regular occurrence, maybe they too would lose their charge. (True friendships, by contrast, only deepen with time. They only fray and dissipate from neglect.)
So what’s to be done? “Have kids,” some say. “You get to experience innocence and surprise at the world once again through their eyes.” Maybe that’s right, though if I’m honest I’ll admit I don’t find myself moved by seeing other people’s kids discover the world. I’m sure it’s different if they’re your own.
The reliable way for me to stay enchanted is the creative process. Writing, if done right, can re-enchant. I’m lucky to get to earn a living trying to get other people’s words to evoke at least a faint electricity in readers. And writing itself, like these occasional Monday Notes, can be rejuvenating. It’s an exercise in breaking through my own thought-patterns, in pushing through until I surprise myself a little.
I’ve always liked photography, too. I bought a flash this past week. I have been thinking about pushing my little hobby in a direction I’ve not previously been drawn to: I want to take portraits of the people around me. I’ve noticed I have been pretty bad at it throughout my life. I have taken a lot of photographs, but not many of people. The handful of portraits that I did manage to take have by and large been very evocative. They have been a catalyst for fond memories. I don’t quite know why I never figured it out and haven’t taken more.
In any case, I’m remedying it now. To better capture the moment, to keep the fog at bay.