Awe Wonder Water
Had me a little adventure, Doc! I went to sea on a sailing ship to try to understand the three-part concept that I think of as “Awe Wonder Water.”
It was a research trip. The book I’m working on is about a woman who spent six years of her childhood living on her father’s 19th century sailing ship.
The Making of A Mystic
I’m convinced that experience was crucial in making her a mystic and an artist.
Then too, I’m entranced by salt water, having spent most Sunday afternoons of my early years riding on the bow of the family’s 18-foot motorboat, holding onto the metal cleat, gazing at water and horizon ahead.
That experience was crucial to forming me.
All my novels are about the presence of spirit in the physical world.
For writing the story of Elisabeth Chant, I wanted to come as close as I could to sailing on a 19th century ship.
A Short Sail on a Tall Ship
So with my husband Bob, I signed on for a short sail on a tall ship, the two-masted schooner Liberty Clipper, built in 1983, a replica of the Baltimore Clippers that took fortune-seekers around Cape Horn to the Gold Rush.
It was to be a four-night trip from New York to Baltimore. I was going in search of child-like awe and whatever I could surmise of the young Chant’s life on the ocean.
Coincidence or Synchronicity
Bob and I arrived in New York a day in advance and, as it happened, I’d discovered that the New York Academy of Sciences was that evening hosting a panel discussion on the science of awe and wonder. A glorious coincidence, a bit of synchronicity—or perhaps one can find most anything on a Thursday night in Manhattan. I wanted to know more about awe, how it works, how it lingers in the soul.
A panel discussion on awe seemed at first to me like an oxymoron. But then came the second synchronous coincidence. In my online research on water and awe, I’d found an artist, Ran Ortner, who paints enormous canvases of ocean, close-up.
He has a studio in Brooklyn and I was so wowed by his work that the thought crossed my mind to go knock on his door and plead for just a peek.
Turned out I didn’t need to. His paintings filled a downstairs hall of the building where the awe talks were to be held. Take a look. Are you as wowed as I am?
And then upstairs, the setting for the meeting, the 40th floor of 7 World Trade Center, opened onto an awe-provoking view for a flat-lander like me. Lower Manhattan lay dark and dazzling outside the wide windows, the beauty of it, the fact of its spangled existence, too large to take in at once.
Awe, I learned in the course of the presentation, is the feeling when the mind is shocked into momentary silence. Wonder is when the questioning begins: how can such an awesome thing be?
Small and Yet Connected
The awed feeling, said social psychologist Michelle Shiota, comes from sensing one’s self as small and yet connected to vastness. It’s “self-worth without ego” and “enriching rather than diminishing.” While the connected-ness insures one’s value, the smallness can take some of the pressure off, can ease the burden of responsibility. “It’s deeply soothing.”
It’s true that when I’ve seen a view such as the one from the 40th floor or the one on sailing out of New York Harbor that I think: I am proud of all us humans for having any part in such a creation. And it’s a burstingly joyful feeling. “Joy is an important aspect of that experience,” said Caspar Henderson, author of A New Map of Wonders, “joy and surprise.”
To my surprise, laboratory researchers are studying this feeling. The work is tricky to perform, said Shiota, who published the first paper on the subject of awe, and the experiences created are “a pale echo” of what happens spontaneously in our lives outside the lab. However, the work is revealing, An important finding: immediately after an awe experience, people are more attentive and their memory more accurate. They don’t add data to what is present.
How Awe Seems to Work
And here is what I feel is key to the character of Elisabeth Chant and other awed seekers and believers: those who are fresh from the experience of awe “seem to be suppressing their preconceptions…..Awe might promote some flexibility in the mind.” The awe reaction, Shiota said, is close to the spiritual experience of being connected to a larger whole.
I had to ask in the Q-and-A session: what is it about the ocean that makes it such a reliable producer of awe. All talk of lab work vanished: one scientist said, “it’s really big!” Another added, “It’s deep!” The third referred me to Rachel Carson’s book, The Sense of Wonder. I’d read Carson as a child, but a different book. I remember clearly the cover and the falling-out pages of the child’s version of The Sea Around Us. We were not a book-buying family; we were sensible people who went to the library. But Carson’s book of the ocean was an exception; it lived in the cabinet in our hall and I visited it often.
On the opening page of her Sense of Wonder, I found a vignette of woman and child in awe of the ocean. On a rainy stormy night at the coast, Carson had wrapped her twenty-month-old nephew in a blanket and carried him to the water’s edge,
“…Big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy…I think we felt the same spine-tingling response to the vast, roaring ocean and the wild night around us.”
Late the next afternoon, a mid-October day, Bob and I stepped aboard the Liberty Clipper. And I will continue this tale of “awe wonder water” here next week.
BTW, what’s your view of synchronicity vs. coincidence?
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