Small Awe

I heard a program on the radio as I was driving back from Albuquerque today. It was about “Awe.” What is it? Where does it come from? What does it mean? How does it make you feel? It was interesting to hear the wide range of awe-inspiring things that people all over the world identify as giving them that spine-tingling, teary, jaw-dropping, out-of-body feeling that we call awe. Here are a few of the categories that I remember:

  • Nature: rainbows, clouds, mountain peaks, ocean waves, hurricanes, a mother doe and fawn
  • Art and music:  a Michelangelo, Mozart, an elegant building, dance, choral singing
  • Huge life moments:  being present at a birth, or a death, feeling the enormity and fragility of the miracle of life
  • A greater power:  the sense that there is something bigger than ourselves, something that is guiding us, something that binds us all together

I can’t argue with any of the above. I can imagine being awestruck by any of those experiences. But interestingly, the moments that came to mind were small, very small.

It was a wintry March in Santa Fe, snowflakes swirling in a bitter wind as I hurried from the house to the car. I looked down and saw a tiny flower, the tiniest daisy imaginable, the size of my pinky finger nail. There it was, alive, brave, determined to offer the world a speck of beauty. It was peeking up, all alone, next to a rock at the edge of the driveway. I was stunned. I stooped down and spoke: “Who are you?” A strange question, but I meant it. I felt I was meeting a remarkable fellow inhabitant of the planet.  I spent time getting to know my little comrade, crouching, staring, watching the snow flakes land on its tiny face. It is amazing how vivid this is, decades later. Surely that was awe.

Of course this is not my daisy. But imagine just one, as tiny as this, with snowflakes flying.

And just yesterday, another moment. It is unbearably hot here in Santa Fe. No matter we are at 7,200 feet, it is in the 90s day after day, we even reached 100 last week. For whatever reason, along with the heat came a huge squadron of flies, inside the house, buzzing at the windows, landing on the counter, driving us crazy. The sticky flycatcher caught one, by accident I’m sure. So we resorted to old-fashioned fly swatters. I had trouble with the first one, even muttered an apology before smashing it on the wall. After that it was easy and I swatted dozens of them every morning with no remorse. Roberto followed me with a hand-held vacuum sucking up the corpses. Then yesterday afternoon I saw one that he missed…and it was moving along the tiled floor! How could this be? I knelt down and saw an ant – much smaller than the fly — carting its treasure across the floor to some unknown destination. 

I was filled with awe. Again, a fellow inhabitant of this planet was at work, carrying out a mission, the details of which I couldn’t understand, but the commitment, the determination, the belief that was the best use of its short life — that I could definitely relate to. I talked to the little laborer, as I did the flower, expressing admiration, and asked permission to take his (or her) picture.

I know I will remember that exchange for a long time, as I have the conversation with the flower. Small moments, tiny creatures, insignificant by many measures, can be just as awesome as the big, flashy ones. It just takes a sharp eye and the willingness to think small. And come to think of it, connecting on an intimate level with another species so far from our own feels…huge.


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Face to Face

Maybe it’s because I was raised an atheist, but when I saw the total eclipse I burst into tears.

My anticipation had reached a fever pitch as we drove from New Mexico to the center of the path of totality in Wyoming. I had seen TV and newspaper coverage and understood that this was going to be a remarkable sight and well worth traveling for. As those of you who were not in the path of totality are probably sick of hearing, the total eclipse bears no relation to the partial. It is an entirely different experience. I was prepared for it, at least intellectually.

getting ready, looking at the partial

We arrived at a city park in Riverton in plenty of time, before the moon had begun its journey across the sun. With our special eclipse glasses we watched as the moon crept into view, taking the tiniest possible bite out of the upper right corner of the sun. It took over an hour for it to reach totality, and every minute my excitement mounted. The inevitability of it (science told me it was going to happen) and the suspense (what if it didn’t happen for whatever reason) were an almost unbearable combination. (more…)

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I was on my way…

I was on my way to saying no thanks. In fact I had said “no thanks, I would rather just stay in the house.” I would really be perfectly fine if Roberto went by himself. He looked at me questioningly, hesitated, then picked up the phone and dialed.

“Yes. I’d like to make a reservation to go on your snorkeling trip – at night – the one with the manta rays.” Pause. “Um. How about tomorrow?” Pause  “Good. That’s great.” Pause “4:30? Yes, I know where that is. And do you provide wetsuits and gear and everything?” Pause  “Sounds good. Here’s the credit card number.” He read the card number, expiration date, etc. another pause, and then he said, “Just one – I just need one reservation.”

“Wait” I shouted across the room. “I want to go, too!” I realized that if he went without me and came back so excited about some adventure he’d had, I would feel bad. Worse, I would feel like a wimp. I am a happy, comfortable swimmer and love the ocean. I just don’t want to see what’s down there. It’s all too scary, and the thought of looking down there at night just multiplied the fear factor.

“Just a minute, please,” and Roberto covered the receiver with his hand. “You don’t have to, really. If you don’t want to it’s ok –“

“No! Get two tickets. I want to go.”

And so I did.

The boat was noisy and smelled of fuel, but I was encouraged by the crew who were young, jolly, and clearly used to handling all kinds of tourists, all shapes, sizes, and attitudes. It was late afternoon when we arrived at the manta ray feeding grounds and took our first dip. I was determined to be a good sport. I pushed off from the boat and peeked into the water. Nothing remarkable. Then in the distance, I saw a manta ray-shaped thing. I was excited, gurgled through the mask to Roberto to look in that direction and he confirmed it. I stayed out a few more minutes and clambered back onto the boat, well satisfied.

The main event, of course, was snorkeling at night, but I felt sure that I had seen enough, and so I munched on my box dinner relatively anxiety free. With the sun dropping into the sea behind us, a cheery crew member told us a bit about the remarkable manta ray and explained the drill. We –  there were about 8 of us – would get in the water and swim a hundred yards to a spot where our snorkeler wrangler would be waiting with a giant hula hoop floating on top of the water. We would grab onto the hula hoop with one hand and point our flashlights downward into the water. This would create a column of light, which would be matched by the scuba divers already on the bottom about 40 feet down, shining their flashlights up toward us. The column of light would attract the plankton and the mantas would come to dine. We were setting their dinner table for them.

I listened to all this with detached interest. When Jack, one of the crew, said it was time to go in, I said I would be staying on the boat. A grandmother and grandson had already made that decision and I thought they looked like good company.

“Why don’t you want to go?” Jack asked.

“I’m afraid”

“Of what?”

“Of the manta rays. They’re so big.”

“What do you think is going to happen?”

“One might touch me, hit me with his arm – his wing – whatever.”

“And then what would happen?”

“Well, it might flip me up in the air”

“And then what would happen?”

“I might die of a heart attack.”

“Lucy,” he said gently. “You are not going to die of a heart attack or anything else out there.”

I thought for a few seconds. OK, if I wasn’t going to die….how bad could it be? And if I did die, it would all be Jack’s fault. Anxiety rising, I jumped in the water before I could change my mind.

We swam out to the hula hoop and grabbed on. I was next to Roberto, who put his hand over mine reassuringly. I put my head down, let my body float out in back of me and looked down. There were manta rays! They were huge – 14 feet wing spans – they were wheeling and somersaulting under me, sucking up the billions of tiny plankton meals drawn to the light. Their wings were frilly at the edges,  and they glided and swooped from bottom to top in arcs and circles, their mouths like car grills, huge wide slits. They were so graceful, so beautiful, so grand and so natural, weaving in and out, avoiding each other and us, coming close – two feet sometimes, but never touching us.

I was so overwhelmed, I turned to Roberto whose eyes were bugging out of his mask, and got his attention. I gurgled and spluttered and squealed through my snorkel tube in my excitement, and he nodded violently. I stayed there clinging to the hula hoop for a half hour. I can’t explain the depth of the feeling, but I was moved to tears at times…. my own salty tears inside the mask…the ocean outside. They were so beautiful, like ballerinas, huge ballerinas of nature, ocean dwelling acrobats. I felt so lucky to be there, to see this wonder of the planet. I felt so small. It was inspiring, overwhelming. I swam back to the boat a different person.

I had been on my way to fear and dread, and I had found peace, a deep and awesome peace.

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