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How to hold onto a sense of wonder

Katherine May's new book examines the idea of awakening wonder in an "anxious age."
Alexa Loy Dent
Katherine May's new book examines the idea of awakening wonder in an "anxious age."

I didn't know what was under the train tracks, but that was the point. The track was elevated on top of a small bluff that ran parallel to West Yellowstone Highway, a road that ran right through my hometown of Idaho Falls in eastern Idaho. The highway made it possible for tourists to pretty much bypass our town altogether as they made their way on to their actual destinations like Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and Yellowstone Park.

We drove that road all the time, on our way to our dad's law firm or the arts center where my mom worked, or to pick up KFC to take to our grandparents' house on Sundays after church. And every time we did I would glue my face to the window of our blue GMC suburban, because if you weren't looking closely you'd miss it, an opening in the bluff under the train tracks. It was a half-moon shape with stones framing the edge. It seemed to have no discernable purpose, but every time I caught a glimpse I could see light coming through from the other side, light that was dancing off of a cross-stitch of thin trees with light green leaves, the delicate kind of green of something new in the world.

I can still see that opening in the bluffs so clearly in my mind. It felt like the door to a secret world where all kinds of wood nymphs and fairies lived and I imagined that if I could ever get inside I'd be wrapped in the most beautiful light and feel totally safe and understood.

When I was a teenager with a driver's license, I often thought about just driving over there and walking through the opening once and for all. But of course I didn't, because I knew the second I got up close to my fantasy it was all going to fall away.

Even in adulthood I was pretty good at conjuring a sense of enchantment. I could stare up at clouds and see magic in how they move. I could feel some sort of wisdom in old forests or something mystical in things others just called coincidences. But the pandemic knocked it out of me. We were stuck at home, the kids were crying, and they needed me to teach them how to read and how to do fractions, and then I was crying. And weeks stretched into months, stretched into years. And any previous ability I had to find enchantment in the everyday evaporated into the COVID-infected ether.

So when I picked up Katherine May's newest book and read this bit, it felt really familiar:

I have lost some fundamental part of my knowing, some elemental human feeling. Without it, the world feels like tap water left overnight, flat and chemical, devoid of life. I am like lightning seeking earth. Uneasy. I carry the prickle of potential energy in my limbs, ever deferred from the point of contact, the moment of release. Instead, it gathers in me, massing like a storm that never comes. I lack the language to even describe it, this vast unsettled sense that I'm slipping over the glassy surface of things, afraid of what lurks beneath. I need a better way to walk through this life. I want to be enchanted again.

It's like we were all locked away for two-plus years and when it was all over and we entered the world again we thought we could just pick up where we left off. But it didn't work that way. We can't go back again, we're different now. It's like we have to relearn certain things we took for granted.

May has written an entire book about this appropriately titled Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age. And when I tell you that I dog-eared almost every page in this book, I'm telling God's honest truth. I didn't know how much I needed someone else to validate what I was going through. The sense that I had lost my curiosity, my imagination, my ability to make meaning.

May's new book.
/ Riverhead Books
Riverhead Books
May's new book.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rachel Martin: Do you remember being enchanted as a child? Like a specific image or event that mesmerized you in that way?

Katherine May: Yes, and in fact the memories from childhood are actually very small things, but they felt so important to me. We didn't have iPads in those days so I used to spend a lot of time sitting in my back garden, smashing rocks open with a hammer.

Martin: A very enchanting activity.

May: It probably says a lot about my childhood. But you know, like every 10th or 20th stone would have a little geode of crystals inside it. And that was absolutely magical to me. I could uncover this tiny cave that was millions of years old and which nobody had ever seen before. There were loads of small things like that and I guess there's that time when everything feels heightened and everything feels very possible. And I think we almost deliberately shut that down as we get older.

Martin: You did not grow up in a religious household, is that right?

May: No, not at all. In fact, probably the opposite of a religious household. A household that felt very resistant to the idea of organized religion. And which equally thought that people with more vague spiritual beliefs were a little bit cringeworthy. So I do worry what my family thinks of me these days. But I did go to a church school. It's really common in the U.K. to go to church schools. And I always actually loved the religious bits of my church schools without believing in it.

Martin: The notion of God is complicated, right? But for many of us it's the word, the term, the idea that we use to connote something bigger. What does that mean to you?

May: Oh, I'd love to be able to answer that question. If only. This huge word, this huge three letter word, God, which I've never felt a connection with in any definition that I've been given. And yet as I've gone through life, I've also felt like there is something there that I can't define and that nobody else's definition does it for me, and I begin to think that it's the questing after that, that's the point of this actually. Rather than knowing, rather than the certainty and the solidification of this idea, the thing that is most enlightening to me is that constant search for connection with this ineffable thing. I wouldn't even call it a being, it's like a force that I sense sometimes.

May says she put a lot of work into how she thinks about prayer.
/ Alexa Loy Dent
Alexa Loy Dent
May says she put a lot of work into how she thinks about prayer.

Martin: Do you pray?

May: Yeah, I do, and I always have actually. It's something I learned to do when I was at school and I did it by rote then, but I've never stopped. And for the longest time I haven't known who I'm talking to.

Martin: I went to a religious school growing up too, and prayer was kind of the deal. Like you learned how to do it. There were like very specific things that you were supposed to say, or in my tradition, it was like a Presbyterian church school, you just freeform, you know, you're just like, "Dear God, this is what is on my mind."

May: Like, "I'm gonna have a nice little chat with you."

Martin: Yeah. As an adult I haven't figured out that language. I will admit it feels silly to me. Like I can't get over my own self-consciousness about it. Have you faced some of that too?

May: Oh my goodness, so much of that. It was something I decided to work on about a decade ago, actually. I realized I had this urge in me to pray, and yet I felt silly about every single instance of trying to do it.

I'd learned all these formulas for saying a group of words together and it didn't make any sense to me at all. Also, I was really troubled by how I'd been taught to pray, which was to ask for stuff in lots of ways. And I began to think of it as entering a state of prayerfulness rather than of praying. It was an act of communion and an act of trying to share what was in my mind and my heart in as honest and direct a way as I could. Because to me, what this greater being could do was know me in a way that no one else could know me.

Martin: Can you tell me about the well? Because that anecdote feels prayerful in a way.

May: So I'm lucky enough to live near Canterbury, which is an ancient site of pilgrimage and it's part of a far greater pilgrim's way that stretches all the way across Europe. A friend of mine told me that she had found this pilgrims well that she'd been visiting, and she took me to see it and I didn't really know what to expect. It's actually quite forgotten, that well, it's probably a thousand years old and it's hidden behind a giant overgrown rosebush. We crawled through the bush and I lost my coat in the process and then we came to this beautiful stone surrounding with a little pool at the bottom and a well was springing up into that pool. So every now and then you'd see bubbles coming up into this beautiful still, pool of water. And then there were several steps down to that pool.

That was such, I don't know, a magical moment for me. Because the thing with those steps was that you could only go down there alone. And as you went down the steps, You felt your sense of intention changing. Like our ancestors have worked out how to create this perfect little environment for reflection, and literal reflection. Because you get down there and you see your face reflected in the pool as well as all of nature around you as well. And there's something about the quality of that place that you knew that other people had come down there in the same frame of mind as you had, but over centuries.

Martin: What was especially profound for me in reading that part is the responsibility you have, that the individual has to make the meaning, right? Like the well won't do it for you. You write, "Once you're there, you're on your own. It offers no clues for what to do, no liturgy or ceremony. At the bottom of those steps you must confront your own yearning to make meaning. The water reflects only your troubled face. You are the one who fills the well."

That felt a little sad to me. I mean, empowering, yes, great, I get to create my own meaning. But, really?

May: Dammit, I just wanted it to tell me what to do.

Martin: Yes! Yes, Katherine. Sometimes you do want the well to tell you or to make all that is, you know, enigmatic, mysterious, complicated, difficult, clear in its reflection.

May: Ah, but Rachel, you know you don't like that already.

Martin: I know, it's true.

May: All of your contact with religion so far has told you that actually you hate that bit. You hate being told what meaning to make.

Martin: It's true.

May: That's the change that I had to undergo, and that I do think loads of us would benefit from undergoing, is this dropping of wanting to be told the answers because they're just not there. There are no answers. And simple answers quickly turn into horrible generalized strictures on our lives as soon as we start taking them in. And the learning for us is to sit with mystery. And to be able to get comfortable with not knowing and not understanding and feeling a little lost quite often, and going out and looking for spontaneous truths because actually there's very few universe ones.

Martin: Can you tell me about the moon shadow?

May: Yeah, so I dunno about everybody else, but I didn't know that there is a regular schedule of meteor storms happening above our heads all through the year and they are totally predictable and most of us will never go outside and watch them. And so I went with my family to a dark skies zone in the U.K. where I was most likely to see a certain meteor storm.

Martin: These are designed areas where you can't have artificial light.

May: That's right. They're normally in national parks, for example. And I thought I had a really good chance of seeing these meteors. But what I found instead was a supermoon. And the supermoon was so bright that it blocked out all other points of light in the sky. But what it showed me instead was my own moon shadow. I'm not sure I realized they were real, and I was so enchanted by this incredibly fragile apparition of myself being cast by the moon. Like a shadow within a shadow. A shadow onto night.

And it made me realize, I guess, exactly what I've been saying, which is we rarely get the answers we are looking for. We often get completely different answers about a completely different thing. Seeing my own moon shadow, it was magical to me, completely magical. And to play with my own shadow just like a child might do, I just had no idea it was out there waiting for me.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.