State of Bewonderment Ep. 4: Wander-thinking
When I lived on the west coast, one of the things I missed most was thunder; for all the rain Seattle gets, it usually happens at a slow drip rather than a deluge. I grew up in the middle of the country, and I have been back for the last six years. One of the hallmarks of summer is the thunderstorm, and I have reveled in it. I have never, however, been through a tornado. As a kid I got real familiar with the “get to the basement” routine. I know the things that hint at tornado rather than your garden variety severe thunderstorm: high winds, the sound of a freight train, the color of the sky.
Last week a series of storms ripped through our corner of Minnesota. My little town of 650 got hit with a tornado. How do I know? Aside from the aforementioned characteristics, someone’s Ring camera caught video of a waterspout forming over our lake and the path of uprooted trees, blown out windows and missing roofs tracked along with it.
The thing is, there is so very little you can do when faced with the oncoming storm. You prepare as best you can, you close the windows and move to safety, but then you are forced to simply wait it out. In the moment of onslaught, there is no doing. There is only waiting.
In a similar but unrelated incident a few days later, my cat went missing. Steve is an indoor/outdoor cat, the first of this persuasion I’ve ever had. Regardless of what you think of cats belonging inside or outside, this cat neededto be outside. As evidenced by the dozen or so rolls of toilet paper he’s rooted out and shredded (despite the lengths to which I go to place them out of his reach, he is a toilet paper ninja), Steve needs the stimulation the outside brings, and now that he moves more freely, everyone is happier.
Steve is, despite his wandering ways, a people cat. He, possibly more than Mina, my dog, is quite attached to his humans and likes to be near them. He comes home in the evenings and meows at top volume to announce his return and talk about his day. He mows down some kibble then promptly curls at the foot of my bed and purrs himself to sleep. Like cats do.
Actually, I don’t know what cats do. Do any of us really know what cats do? isn’t that part of their appeal? Their enigmatic personalities make them attractive mysteries that make us feel lucky to be graced with their occasional affections. I definitely don’t understand the cat world, having really only owned one other feline. Her name was Grizzle and she was far more canine-like, so she doesn’t count. Brian, my husband, has owned countless cats and considers himself to be a cat person. I depend on him for insights into cat-parentage.
Anyway, Steve went out one morning, bounced around the yard as normal, sat in my lap while I read on the patio and then didn’t return home that evening. No matter, he has occasionally stayed out too late and missed his window to come back inside. Usually he shows up on the porch angry and loud in the wee hours. But this time, he didn’t. Another day went by, and another night. And another day.
We were worried. Even Brian, the self-proclaimed Cat Guy was concerned. We posted on our neighborhood Facebook page and on Next Door (ahh, technology), we put his unused litter box outside so he could sniff his way home, as advised by the comments from our neighbors. I walked around calling his name and asking the neighborhood kids to keep a look out for an orange cat wearing a bowtie collar. They obliged, but had no information. Brian drove around looking for Steve-shaped roadkill, but there was no trace of him.
The thing is, Steve doesn’t come when he’s called on a good day. Most cats don’t. He, like any normal feline, will find a cozy spot tucked away in a rafter or a closet and stay there until he is good and damn ready to come out. And so, having done all the things we could think of to do, we were stuck sadly twiddling our thumbs until Steve returned. Waiting.
(He did return, by the by, nonchalantly smelling of someone else’s house.)
The next day, my dad started experiencing vision problems again. He and my mom made the two-and-half hour trek back to the specialist’s office in St. Louis. Dr. Spec delivered the unwelcome news that the antifungal drugs Dad has been taking aren’t working, so the infection is worse. He prescribed a new drug, a “nasty” drug that would require admission to the hospital and close observation for a week or two.
Sidebar: Why are all the drugs we take to save our lives so impossibly nasty? I believe one day in the future our grandchildren will look back and shake their heads at the inhuman treatments we put ourselves through in the name of a cure. For now, though, it is the best we’ve got and so we do it.
So, he sits in the hospital, while the professionals watch changes in his body and adjust the dosage of the drugs. He waits to see if or when the nasty drug will make him feel, well, nasty, and to see some improvement.
“Do you want me to come?” I asked.
“For what? So, you can sit around here and wait? No.”
And so, we wait. They wait in St. Louis, I wait in Minnesota. Wait. Wait. Wait. There is nothing to do but wait.
(If you are wondering, yes, these three instances have had a less that desirable impact on my nervous system. I’m wearing out, but I’m also doing all the things I know how to do to take really good care of myself. Some days, though, it feels like my skin has been removed and all the nerve-endings are exposed and alight.)
It is mid-May, and we’ve reached the time of the year when I go to bed before the sun because the sun stays up extra late partying this far north and I like to go to sleep early. So, I get in my bed while the sun is still well above the horizon. I drink my tea, read, and sometimes just stare out the window at the light on the lake, the boats and the birds and bats dance.
I lay in bed the other night thinking about this essay. Each month when my self-imposed deadline approaches, I think about what has inspired a bit of wonder or awe or curiosity in my life. These essays are a reflection on where I am, what has caught my attention and are meant to be an impetus for others to do the same. But as I lay there, too exhausted to sleep, I thought “Fuck that. There is no room for wonder right now.” Which brought about a few tears, because it is a rare thing for me to be without wonder. “How am I supposed to gaze upon anything in wonder when I feel like I am carting around a two-ton boulder on my back and I can barely see the next step in front of me?”
So, I sat there, staring at the orange light filtering through the evergreen tree on the hill, casting it’s spell on the lake. I just stared until the light turned from orange to pink to dusky purple. My tea grew cold and the boulder felt lighter.
My friend Maria told us once that her favorite hobby was lying in the grass and staring at the sky. We all tittered a bit. The sentiment was a bit yeah, okay, weirdo.
“I am not weird! I mean, I am weird, but not about this,” she yelled, indignant. “Just-just go try it sometime.”
Turns out, she was brilliant and we all owe her an apology, because she was onto something. In the 1990’s, a researcher at Washington University in St. Louis found that a variety of brain regions begin to fire in synchrony when someone was simply lying down in an MRI machine, letting their thoughts wander. This complex circuitry of the brain that lights up when we are daydreaming has become known as the default mode network (DMN).
The DMN is essential to the mental processes that manage identity, understand human behavior, and instill a code of ethics. These moments of introspection are the way we begin to understand ourselves and the world around us. The seed of creating is happening on low in the background while we take a walk, fold laundry or doodle in the margins.
Researchers are quick to remind us that this type of downtime is not the same as Netflix binging or scrolling through social media. While that may be restorative on some level, they are not giving the brain the space to launch into DMN mode.
Similarly, this is not quite the same as meditation. While quite healthy and good for the creative process in its own way, meditation is a process meant to find a quiet space to notice our minds. It is the opposite of letting the mind wander.
This wander-thinking lights up when we are doing something rote enough that it isn’t taking a lot of brain space, think a long slow jog or driving across Kansas). It is in those moments that our brains have the opportunity to wander into creative territory.
As I sat in my bed and felt the pressure of my to-do’s, then let my mind simply flit and light from thing to thing like a butterfly, something began to take shape. I can’t tell you where my mind wandered, or how I got to where I did, but I got all the way back around to this revelation:
Write about the wonder in nothing.
Our culture asks, no, demands that we live in action. Our culture tells us that our value and worth are defined by how productive we are. If we are not producing, doing, acting, moving, we are less worthy of all sorts of things: money, safety, housing, approval, even affection. And yet, there are times when we simply cannot do any more.
I work out through a virtual membership program that will remain nameless. The CEO is a young, blonde woman and she leads one work out a week. If I’m honest, I tend to avoid those days, but occasionally I end up with her on my screen as I huff and puff away. The other day I was horrified by her rallying speech. Most of it was the typical “you’ve got to give 1000%, work hard, grind, blah blah.” But then she said, “I didn’t get to where I am today by focusing on self-care, by resting, by slowing down…!” I was appalled but not surprised.
I thought of the marketing messages I was inundated with as an impressionable young person: “just do it,” “work hard play hard,” “no excuses.” I thought about how shameful it felt (feels) to not be the hardest working person in a room. It has taken years of re-programming to recognize that working hard is all well and good, but probably not all that effective. Researchers in psychology, anthropology, sociology and economics have noted the diminishing returns of working more hours to produce greater outcomes. The truth is, humans are not machines, we don’t actually produce more when we work longer. Spiritual leaders, philosophers and poets remind us of the benefits of stillness to our bodies and minds, but capitalism doesn’t recognize the effect of stillness on the bottom line. The culture of work and western society still values busyness and views overwork and overplay as a badge of honor.
What happens when we are forced, by nature or circumstance to be motionless? To do nothing? To wait?
Many of you are reading this and saying, um, yeah, no. What a waste of time. I get it. Most of us are out of practice.
What would happen if we had more practice? Would we be better able to soothe our frayed nervous systems? More readily tap into our creative reserves? Develop greater resilience?
I’m bringing back time to wander-think. Since my dad’s first stay in the hospital, I’ve started keeping my phone nearby all the time. It’s a slippery slope—I start engaging with it earlier, responding to messages later, the connection and activity creeping into the times I typically try to cultivate quiet. This week, rather than picking up my phone to check email and social media when I drink my coffee, I practice staring out the window at the birds at the feeder. For just twenty minutes, I do nothing but watch and sip and lose myself.
State of Bewonderment is a written and visual exploration into moments of bewonderment. What is bewonderment? It is the space where awestruckness inspires action, where wonder pivots us and curiosity shifts the world. These essays are made possible by a Mid-Career Artist Grant from the East Central Regional Arts Council of the great state of Minnesota.