Early this winter, I was startled by a flock of starlings. They had been nesting in the cypress tree which flanks the garage, and when I came around the corner with the trash cans they flew out from hiding. They hadn’t been there until the moment I came upon them. And, even for a moment after, they weren’t there. Only, they seemed the intense and violent thunder of wings. I watched as they circled the house. A group of those black bodies lit first curiously in the bare maple, and a few on the roof to watch me. I could feel their eyes on me. Each of those speckled bodies seemed to have a hundred eyes, and the tree itself seemed alive with eyes. When I first realized, or perhaps it was a moment before I realized, what they were, I raised my arms over my head, as if to praise the miracle of flight. I was as much praising the miracle of wonder, which seems the best part of consciousness. It springs from us and startles, too.
Even in the worst of moods and times, I don’t tend to lose this capacity. Wonder may not lift me from what troubles me most, but I feel it nevertheless. No numbness numbs enough that, when out walking in the field, I don’t feel elated at the sight of the hawk circling or perched in a dark limb. And the snake, when it appears suddenly at my feet, parts the obscuring blades of my heart, too, when I see it and recoil and watch as it darts away. It had been wondering at the sun. Its belly had found its desire there on the beaten earth of the path, and now a new necessity leads it away.
There is the sense, now that I’m old enough to look back on my childhood with a certain wonder usually reserved for things outside the self, that I may have drunk my portion of astonishment. But it doesn’t seem to work like this. Perhaps there are some who become filled with less and less wonder – what would the antithesis of wonder be, anyway? – and it is they who venerate childhood, and say those were the best times of their lives. Erroneously, they conclude that things were simpler then. Nothing is simple about childhood. The world is too large and we too small. Now I walk out underneath the moon, and see it. And I say, Hello! And it seems as if she would answer. I know she doesn’t follow me, but I relish a visit midnight when I am restless and can’t sleep. She fills the house. I am not alone.
But what if I woke tomorrow, and no matter how loudly they thundered, the wings failed to lift me away from my chores and my responsibilities? I have had the great and solemn privilege – I call it this because of what comfort came as the result of the experiences – to watch two close friends die from disease, and both experiences taught me that death isn’t a threshold we cross. One day we are alive, the next dead. Rather, we die in stages. One friend lost the power of speech over the course of an hour. When I called to say, I’m coming to see you, he could answer, was sentient and happy to greet me, but when I arrived, he couldn’t say anymore, though he seemed to recognize me and liked it that I stroked his hair. The other did the most peculiar thing. Even after he was bedridden and couldn’t articulate sense, he continued to drag on an invisible cigarette and comb his hair with his hand to cover a bald spot. These gestures, I concluded, were so deeply ingrained they were the hardest to shake loose, though eventually they were shaken and, like leaves, flew away.
If wonder goes from me, I hope that it should be the last, and that if my tongues fails first, some gesture, like praying hands or a crooking of my finger, remains to suggest I find this world as miraculous as any imagined one. I can’t believe in an afterlife, but that isn’t because I lack faith. I don’t. But to me faith is action, and so when my body ceases to move and do, and my will evaporates, then there will be nothing left of me but a few words scribbled on a few happy pages. Let these then be the testament not only that I felt wonder, but that wonder is the best part of life. It was the best part of my life because when all else abandoned me, wonder remained close, a friend. The callus that grows to protect us from what would kill us kills us, too. How can I say, I am alive, if when I see the groundhog emerge in spring, I don’t swell with the sense that at least one species of wonder rises from the ground, as if from death.