Apologies for not posting much last week. Between readjusting to work and the news of the world, I found myself rather tuckered out.  I am sorry, and I will do better.

To make amends, I offer you my best, my only, really, bit of wisdom: You can find wonder anywhere  (safe), if you look for it. All you need  is your attention.

It helps to read Annie Dillard.

Catch it if you can. The present is an invisible electron; its lightning path traced faintly on a blackened screen is fleet, and fleeing, and gone.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

My world, like yours, probably, has grown small in the last ten months. But for a few precious exceptions, I have not wandered further than my two feet can take me since March 6, 2020, the day after the Biogen Covid story broke in Boston. I planned on going to the Balkans and to Vietnam last year. Instead, I traveled to my parents’ house a hundred miles north of here in New Hampshire for a couple months to escape a plague.

This isn’t the first time my life has grown small against my will in my adult life, yet this time is different in that, unlike the other times, the cause has an impact on almost everyone on Earth, and certainly everyone in my country. 

When I was stuck, I cultivated learning to be present and notice

My world grew small for the first time after I graduated from college, when I found myself back in my hometown, living with my parents in a small town in New Hampshire’s Lakes Region. I planned to start graduate school the following year, and I needed to try to save some money.

That year, I had a shitty job as a deli clerk at a failing supermarket and no car. My friends who returned home found themselves in similar circumstances, and together, I think we managed to drink most of the beer in the world that year. Bookish and angry, I felt caged, desperate to break free and experience something, anything, other than small-town, bourgeois America. At twenty-two, I felt older than I have ever felt since.

Luckily for me, my reading list contained my salvation. I learned how to notice, I mean really be present and notice, the world around me that year. I learned to do this, or I should really say re-learn, because children instinctively notice, at a small, humble, public boat launch on Lake Winnisquam at the end of a residential street, and I learned it because I read Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Old paperback copy of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
My ancient copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Somerville, Massachusetts, USA

If the day is fine, any walk will do; it all looks good. Water in particular looks its best, reflecting blue sky in the flat, chopping it into graveled shadows and white chute and foam in the riffles. On a dark day, or a hazy one, everything is washed-out or lack-luster but the water. It carries its own lights.

Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Gale Avenue

Annie Dillard spent a year stalking nature and wrestling with god and what it means to be human while she lived alone in a cabin on Tinker Creek in rural Virginia. She watched muskrats and mantises, and lost herself at the foot of a sycamore tree. She wrote of theology, the contemplative life, and the pact we make with the devil, because in order to live, we also have to die. 

Stay with the present, she dared her reader, me. Observe. 

Lake Winnisquam, Summer. Laconia, New Hampshire, USA

Within easy walking distance, I had a sort-of wild spot, the boat launch at the end of Gale Avenue. I found myself walking there often. I’d pull my nervous Teddy (my childhood dog) onto the dock (which no longer exists), trying to wring an existence worth living from my small world by carefully observing the lake.

Softened hills at the far shore.  Waves rippling. Rocks revealed beneath the clear water.

I’d listen, sometimes to the cars passing by, or people going about their lives, but more often to moving water, the buzz and chirp of bugs and birds, and the wind in the trees and shrubs.

In deep summer, we walked early enough to watch the sun rise. I sat  at the waters edge and ran my hands on the pebbles. Later in lazy summer days, I’d plop down on the grass, observing the weeds, and catching glimpses of the bugs rushing about their lives. 

Learning to be present and notice

As I learned to be present and notice, I witnessed changes. On stormy days the water grew rough, and I couldn’t see the bottom. Bright sun bounced off the water in summer. Seasons turned. Hills exploded for a few weeks in autumn and then faded to a muted evergreen and blue before the snow fell. In winter, there was stillness and quiet. I listened to the ice break up in spring, filled with hope. Buds, and then leaves, appeared.

And, in summer, a couple of times without our dog (who did not like the water), I’d swim in the cold lake, looking up at the sky, hurting my feet on the rocky bottom as I quickly scrambled to shore.

Earthbound wonder

Unlike Dillard, I wasn’t looking for god, and I found no eternal insights at the end of Gale Ave.

What I found instead was thoroughly earthbound wonder, not ten minutes from where I grew up. I still had a shitty job; I was still angry much of the time. Lord knows I still drank all the beer. But I found something to give me hope, to make my small world enough.

And it wasn’t just at the end of Gale Ave. I spotted little delights more easily everywhere I went. Not just in nature, especially when I moved to the city (not very Annie Dillard. She had things to say about cities). Sometimes I catch the colors of a garage, or random lawn art. Ivy growing on buildings.  Train tracks at sunset. Rebellious dandelions springing out of the pavement.

I use these same skills in my travels, taking wild delight in so many strange and amazing details.

My small observations have filled my life with wonder almost every day for the last twenty-five years.

March
May

When my world grew small again, I drew upon my small wonders

When Covid-19 first hit, my crowded building made me nervous, and so I left in March and spent the first couple of months of the pandemic at my parents’ house. To preserve my sanity in such a time,  I walked every day with Ollie, and I found myself often at the end of Gale Ave, getting to know it again as I had when I was young. I stared out at the ice and dark water near shore the day I heard my friend had Covid and was on a ventilator. When he woke up a month later, I tromped down there with joy and relief.

On an afternoon walk on the first day of May, spring broke through the clouds, the water a palette. I stopped and stared, amazed to witness such a sight.

Noticing gives me hope in a small world

Here at home again, with sickness still raging and democracy under attack, I find myself often on the grounds of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, an unexpected wood in one of the most densely populated areas in the country. I notice the treetops change with the seasons and find comfort in the stillness and the crunch of the leaves.

Terry Tempest Williams, author of Refugeanother book that shaped me in my youth, spoke at an event last January about how as a writer in residence at Harvard Divinity School, away from her beloved Utah desert, she too found these grounds a haven. I felt rather pleased that we had the same sanctuary.

Until the world grows big again

Are my small wonders close to home the same as a trip to Vietnam? No, of course not. I can’t wait to get out there in the great big beautiful, crowded world again. My bags are practically packed.

Do my small wonders take away my anger and fear and sadness at the current state of my country? No. And they should not. As much as I want to hide, I must remain engaged, and with engagement, comes pain.

Yet the moments of delight that my wonders bring when my world grows small give me hope. And we need hope. 

What about you? How do you sustain yourself when your world grows small? Please let me know in the comments at the bottom of this post.