Making Stew from Sticks
...and other gifts of wonder.
We have all bemoaned the change to Daylight Saving Time. But what I cherish about the dark mornings is the chance to witness the unexpected. The “when no one’s watching.”
This morning, I brushed past construction cones and paused to look at the menu for a new salad-based lunch place. In the reflection of the café’s windows, two people were hugging. One, a security guard at the Contemporary Arts Center, the other a street ambassador wearing neon-yellow gear. The gear worked. I took notice.
My gait shifted and I felt lighter on feet. Why? It was simply the wonder of the moment.
A few weeks ago, I stepped outside my door to chomp on an apple, my lunch whenever I don’t want to miss the magic happening at my fingertips. Engrossed in the story I worked on and the stark silence of the late winter afternoon, I was suddenly alarmed.
Birds sang out from all four corners of the rooftops, surrounding me with sound. My bones, heavy from winter, settled in for the impromptu concert. I had found wonder, then, after the elongated months of cold.
The very best writers, and a few average ones like me, know that wonder doesn’t last unless it’s fed. In the same way our stomachs let us know it’s time for lunch, our souls inform us about wonder. We must feed it to keep it alive.
That day in the courtyard, I fed an apple to my body and nurtured my soul with little wonder.
Early in the pandemic, walkers abounded and bounded through Spring Grove Cemetery, through the neighborhoods of Cincinnati, along riverways and downtowns. We were desperate to get out, to see and be seen. It was springtime. We snapped photos of lilacs blooming over the steps to Mt. Adams. We captured every angle of sunset blasting out behind Music Hall. We became civilian diarists, as I wrote in the story of British citizens during WWII who documented their every days lives. We too documented everything, via social media, the mantel on which we set all our pieces.
We were relearning the gift of wonder.
Two years is a long time to continuously nourish that wonder. Now, you have the slightest inclination of what it’s like to be a writer, to constantly curate your curiosity, mold it into some sort of coherent form, because it’s only instinct that causes one to veer off the path and figure out what that sparkly thing is beneath the highway overpass, an instinct honed over many years’ time.
After this past weekend staying at a sister’s home in the suburbs, yet commuting everyday into Cleveland, I happily to returned to my little corner of Over-the-Rhine. Bags unpacked, our first chore is always laundry. The second is to walk, as if the city might have changed while we were away. It did. It always does. A plethora of daffodils bloomed. Dogwoods blossomed early. The scent of peaty mulch tickled my nose hairs. Kids and adults were playing again on the lawn of Washington Park, complete with leaping dogs and floating frisbees and half-eaten picnics and satiated people.
Wonder was everywhere.
When I walk the city, I’m like a kid. I see things no one else sees. Recently, I was reminded of a walk with friends about a year ago, when I discovered a $100 bill on the ground. I pledged to buy us dinner at Salazar to celebrate when we were all vaccinated. What a wonder that was too.
When my son, Davis, was little, I made him take walks with me. Little kids know their stuff. They relish in the smallest of details. He would pick up sticks that later became stew (like “stone soup”) and included green ong-ions, as he called them. He didn’t know the walk was for me, and not just for his health and well-being. For us to talk about the hard stuff. About his daddy. About life without his daddy. About life with new people. In the dark reaches of my mind, a line from the 1991 movie Little Man Tate rises. My son’s father called him “Little Man” all the time. What stood out for me was the quote: “It’s not what he knows, it’s what he understands.”
This is true of all children. Then we grow up. We no longer have the luxury of wonder. We take it away from ourselves, or someone else takes it away. In Karen Joy Fowler’s latest work of fiction, Booth, one of the adult characters says, “Children can snatch happiness from even the darkest of times. That’s God’s gift. That’s how God loves children. You grow up. You can’t do that no more. You don’t have that gift. God’s taken it back.”
Right now, I think of the children in Ukraine. I don’t want to co-opt their tragedy, but a young girl sings “Let It Go” in a bomb shelter, and in the next moment, she’s on stage before a live audience to share her gift of wonder. There’s a little kid making stew from sticks, finding the greatest joy in the smallest of things.
Kate DiCamillo, a beloved children’s book author, says, “When you talk about the magic in books, the magic is just looking and wondering.” Being seen. Making stew. Singing Disney songs. “Like, who knows what’s inside that squirrel? That squirrel could write poetry.” (Just in time for Poetry Month in April, I will never look at my pesky squirrels nesting near our attic in the same way again).
Does it ever hurt to experience how alive our world is? Sometimes. Perhaps that’s how a writer documents all that is sentient. Perhaps that’s why my mother said to me once, “You feel things so deeply.” I never knew that quality would enable me as a writer.
While up north, I had driven to my childhood home on Ridgeland Drive. A red cardinal flew across my window and landed in the forest green of the sprawling woodland newer owners had planted years ago in the front yard. I cried. Not because they had obliterated our memories. Not because the cardinal was a sign, a message from a loved one. But it was the wonder of being. The Italians have a beautiful word for experiencing something this marvelous - meravigliosa. I was experiencing the synchronicity of the moment. Of feeling all the childhood feels, of a time my mother would later reflect on and say, “We were happier there.” In the old house versus the one they eventually built. Perhaps it was the liveliness of five kids, whose ages spanned seven years, rambling over fields and across creeks, up apple trees and down the sledding hill.
We were her wonder. Now, in that moment with the cardinal, my mother was feeding me—with wonder, that is. Wonder that had been transferred to me.
What’s your gift of wonder today? As always, thanks for reading! If you’re not already subscribed, please consider doing so. This post is also public, so feel free to share!