Investing in wonder

I often ponder why we go to all the trouble of celebrating holidays – decorating our homes, preparing and sharing special meals, travelling long distances, planning over the course of a month just for one special day. We don’t just bake Christmas cookies – we cut them in the shape of stars and decorate them. We don’t just give gifts, we wrap them in pretty papers and ribbons. We don’t just leave a light on, we illuminate the house inside and out with shiny ornaments and strings of lights. Over and over we play special music, everything from Handel’s Messiah to Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas to the Dreidel Song. We brave the cold to skate under a starry sky or watch mummers with paper lanterns burn an effigy of Old Man Winter in the town square. The whole sensory extravaganza is essential to the experience. And more often than not, despite the assaults of the commercial world, it’s the box of slightly tarnished ornaments passed down through a family, the homemade gifts and sweets, the community gatherings, the time set aside to appreciate nature, the rituals that repeat year after year that give a season its meaning and magic.

And I believe going to all that trouble is worth it, if it renews our sense of wonder. We recognize that other-worldly look in a child’s eyes and even if we ourselves feel stale and jaded, we will go to great lengths just to ensure that others can experience wonder.

For the last few years I have been finding wonder in Peterborough’s annual youth shelter fundraiser, the In from the Cold concert. This year it was a bitterly cold and snowy night but the house was full. The Market Hall stage was draped with greenery and great swaths of red and gold tartan; Susan Newman’s crystalline voice, so wholly without artifice, restores my soul; Curtis Driedger, outfitted in a lemon yellow tux, offers a droll self-reflection on what it’s like to be a ghost (only Driedger could write a song that rhymes “melancholy” with “holly”); rich male voices counterpoint the lilting, melting female voices of the Convivio Chorus in a rendition of Howard Blake’s Walking in the Air; Beau Dixon wails soulfully on the harmonica in a tribute to Mandela.

When Mandela said that the worst thing about being imprisoned for nearly 3 decades was being denied seeing children for sixteen years, I infer that not having access to a child’s sense of wonder and suspension of disbelief was part of this deprivation.

New Snow Lithograph by Ernest Fiene, 1946

New Snow Lithograph by Ernest Fiene, 1946

My parents weren’t given to religion, but on Christmas eve until I was 10 my mother would bundle us in the car and drive the dark snowy roads under a canopy of stars to attend a midnight service at the First Congregational Church of Canton, Connecticut. The meeting house, whose history goes back to 1750, was lit solely by candles in the high windows, while a choir sang carols in the loft and the scent of balsam fir was in the air.  More than any promise of redemption or the receiving of a coveted bike or chiffon swaddled doll, this image brings wonder to my heart whenever I think of it.

Wonder is not just for children. True wonder is tinged with sadness but not hopelessness. There is nothing fanciful, frivolous or childish about it. It humbles without diminishing us. We feel safe in its presence even as we experience a nearly inexpressible magnitude that extends beyond ourselves, spiritual or not. It reminds us what we’re truly capable of. And for those who can, through their creative acts, evoke wonder in my life, I feel a profound gratitude.

You might say wonder is our birthright, an act of rebellion against human-bred cynicism. And this year I  hope no one ever extinguishes your sense of it. I wish you nothing less than a life of continuous wonder.

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