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Awe Wonder Water

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. 

a boat a lot like this (note bow cleat with line)

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.


cora linn elisabeth chant

Cora Linn, captained by James Chant

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.

awe wonder water

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?

awe wonder water

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.”

awe wonder

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. 

elisabeth chant

Elisabeth Chant

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,

awe wonder water

“…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?


awe wonder water

awe wonder water



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  • October 22, 2019 at 11:21 pm Reply

    I was there with you for this stuff, and can experience it now, differently through your perceptions and words and photos. I’m glad I tagged along – the trip was a strong change of frame for me.
    The colors of Ortner’s gigantitic canvases, some yellows in particular, may have to be experienced directly for the full experience – my laptop fell far short, but when I made your photos just bigger enough, I got a much more oceanic experience.
    And I think synchronicity is when you make meaning out of coincidence.

    • Peggy Payne
      October 23, 2019 at 1:40 am Reply

      Once again, you received the post a day before it’s schedule to go out. You must be someone special. I agree about the full impact of the Ortner paintings. Not sure how I feel about synchronicity. I think there’s maybe a little something to it–perhaps a subterranean attraction of like with like. Don’t know how to say more about that.

  • October 23, 2019 at 7:46 pm Reply

    The boat pix is especialy strikig . Mystic Pizza synchronicity, & yes, I’m quite special.

    • Peggy Payne
      October 23, 2019 at 7:48 pm Reply

      I’ve always known it, Bob

  • Lee Grohse
    October 24, 2019 at 12:34 pm Reply

    Love this topic! Waiting eagerly for next week’s sailing report!

    • Peggy Payne
      October 24, 2019 at 1:45 pm Reply

      Thanks, Lee! I’m working on that…

  • Judy Carrino
    October 29, 2019 at 3:15 pm Reply

    I don’t think there is such a thing as coincidence. It is all synchronicity – meant to be.
    Is the Cora Linn a real boat? I had a cousin named Cora Lynn. Now there’s a synchronicity for you!

    (I love your back and forth with Bob!)

    • Peggy Payne
      October 29, 2019 at 5:37 pm Reply

      The Cora Linn is real–it’s the ship my biography subject Elisabeth Chant grew up on. And you are apparently semi-related to her.

      And everything meant to be? Even husbands getting sick? I have a hard time believing that. I’d prefer that only some things are meant to be and that there are also accidents and misfires.

  • George Wingate
    October 31, 2019 at 3:41 am Reply

    Ran Ortner
    The Sublime
    Grand Canyon
    Herman Melville
    2001 A Space Odyssey

    • Peggy Payne
      October 31, 2019 at 4:08 am Reply

      An excellent list, George Wingate. It makes me think of all the places and art that feel to me sublime. Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia for one.

    • October 31, 2019 at 4:13 am Reply


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