Cultivating Wonder

A wonderous wood

"A lone figure nurtures a garden of wonders." Mark Riechers/Midjourney (TTBOOK)

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Original Air Date: 
March 18, 2023

Do you ever feel like there’s something missing in your life? You don’t know exactly what it is. And there’s never enough time to really think about it. You might get a glimpse of it if you slow down, or look deeply at something (or someone), or remember some childhood joy. What if that thing you’re missing is a sense of wonder?

Lulu Miller

Lulu Miller's latest project is a "Radiolab" podcast series for children: "Terrestrials." She explains for how nature and child-like sensibility can help adults rediscover a sense of wonder.

Dacher Keltner

Psychologist Dacher Keltner says that awe is a unique experience, distinct from all other emotions, and it can make us feel better in a lot of ways.

Jennifer Michael Hecht

When it comes to wonder and awe, historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht, the author of “Doubt” and “The End of the Soul,” says there’s another, even older tradition we can all access – poetry.


Show Details 📻
March 18, 2023
December 23, 2023
Author and Public Radio Reporter/Host
Psychologist, Professor and Author
Full Transcript 📄

- It's "To The Best Of Our Knowledge." I'm Anne Strainchamps. Where do you find wonder these days? What sparks it for you? Nature, religion, poetry? Lately, Shannon Henry Kleiber has been getting her dose of wonder from a kids' podcast that tells stories about creatures like Inky the Octopus.

- How did you find Inky's story, and how did it become so right for this show?

- Yeah, okay, so I'll admit, Inky was the laziest story. I found this through the arduous work of reading a lovely children's book.

- Lulu Miller is known for her curiosity-driven radio and podcast work for shows like "Invisibilia" and "Radiolab", where she's a co-host. But she has another project you might not have heard of, because she didn't make it for you. It's a "Radiolab" spinoff for kids called "Terrestrials".

- Okay, now is where I make you sing the theme song with me.

- Okay. ♪ Terrestrials, terrestrials ♪ ♪ We are not the worst, we are the ♪ ♪ Best-Rials ♪ ♪ Best-rials ♪

- You got it! I don't know man.

- Sy Montgomery had written about Inky the Octopus.

- Deep in the ocean off the coast of New Zealand--

- This wild octopus is accidentally caught by a fisherman, a lobsterman, and he brings it to an aquarium.

- So they had him in a tank, and there was plenty for him to do and he had toys to play with.

- And then it does something really shocking.

- One morning, the keepers came in and Inky wasn't there. They saw a slime track going from his tank eight feet across the floor, which led to a drain pipe. And this drain pipe was 164 feet long. And it dropped directly into Hawks Bay.

- It escapes the aquarium. It gets out of its tank. It's already made "Finding Nemo" story.

- So it looks like Inky went home.

- Wow.

- And no human has ever seen him again. But it's so exciting and there's so much hope in it.

- Yeah.

- I was rooting for Inky, as I'm sure we all were.

- Yeah, oh, totally, yeah, yeah.

- It is time now for the mix. This octopus Inky actually made a break for it.

- The world freaked out when they heard about Inky's story.

- Inky the Octopus making a break for it, slipping out of a New Zealand aquarium.

- The Shawtank Redemption.

- Inky is having a party right now.

- But Sy says the most incredible thing about Inky's escape is that it's not incredible.

- There are many, many instances of octopuses that have gotten out of their tanks.

- It makes us also think, well maybe I can do something unusual or unexpected too.

- Yeah, totally. And just that we as humans and as scientists kind of parsing the world, we missed the intelligence of the octopus for so long because when they lost their shells, like other mollusks, they had to evolve something else to protect themselves, and it was a kind of cognitive superpower.

- Lulu Miller has been on the Wonder Beat for years as a science and nature reporter, radio hosts and podcast producer, and while she designed "Terrestrials" for kids, that might be just what grownups need too, because so many of us live wonder-deficient lives, too busy or overwhelmed or stressed out to even remember what childlike wonder really feels like.

- Shannon Henry Kleiber can relate.

- So Lulu, what inspired you to create Terrestrials?

- I became a mom. I now have two young boys, and I started to find the minds of kids really interesting. I hadn't grown up around kids and then I suddenly realized, oh, they're a demanding audience. They want real humor. They can think really deep thoughts. They're not all locked in with assumptions yet. I was finding myself having these really almost like psychedelic conversations with my son about what things are in the world. But then it was also partly selfish. It was partly my own craving. I started it about a year into the pandemic and I suddenly just felt really hungry to think about nature.

- I love that. How old are your kids and what were they asking you?

- So now they're four and one and a half. The older one, there were like interesting mashups of words and understandings. He was calling anything that was kind of green and scaly, he would call a fish. So it would be like a turtle was a fish, but a plant moving, the leaf moving was a fish, and anything that, it was kind of a little land animal, dogs were dogs and cats were dogs and little ants were dogs. And then anything that flew was a duck. And watching his mind try to group the world and see what went together and try to make associations and understand things just felt like, oh, I just wanna have this conversation again and again and test my own assumptions.

- I so relate to that as a parent. My kids are teenagers now, but I remember when they were really little. I would sometimes see things through their eyes suddenly, you know, staring at an icicle or they're looking at this tongue on a goat in the zoo and they, you know, nothing that I would've maybe noticed, a ripple on the sand on the beach.

- Absolutely, or even, it's like we were at the beach on a cold night and we were talking about the word horizon and we were looking out and he said, You know, maybe if we go in Uncle Jim's boat, we could touch the horizon. I don't know, so it just, it's an audience who is thrillingly alive?

- Lulu, how do you think about wonder? What is your understanding of wonder?

- Oh, well, so I think of it as, yeah, it's this thing that's often kind of eye rolled into the corner and dismissed as trivial or twee or just for children, and you picture it with bubbles all around and there's a naivete or an innocence. But interestingly, I don't know, I'm an etymology nerd. And so the root of wonder is kind of deliciously and fittingly unknown. So if you go to its cousin, it's synonym, Ah. The root of that is old English, EH-GEH, for terror. And I think these moments of wonder, these bubbling up feelings of, whoa, there is a terror in it. There is a feeling small before the world. And I think moments of wonder are being kind of, you're brushed up with this feeling that, wait, maybe you don't have everything figured out yet. And that feeling for me is the best feeling 'cause it opens up an authentic sense of hope, an authentic sense of possibility. And so you have to like have faith that there might be a surprise.

- Three, two, one.

- Imagine you are a liquid creature. No bones and you are so pliable that you can literally pour your body through a tiny opening.

- You can change colors.

- Blue and green and red and yellow and even metallic.

- You can taste with your skin.

- And you have blue blood and you have three hearts. And if you're threatened, if you feel scared, you can shoot ink.

- Into a silhouette in the shape of you. So the predator is fooled into believing you're still there.

- Now look down at your arms and watch them slowly sprouting into eight.

- You are an octopus now.

- Why do you think that sometimes adults lose this sense of wonder, these, I don't know, moments of total not worrying about what anyone else says out in the natural world. How can we get that back?

- It's hard. I mean I think it's, of course we have to, we gotta lock it up sometimes, you know, like there are jobs to get and confidence to project and taxes to pay. You know, like if we were always in a state of wonder, is this a couch or is it maybe a bomb, like you have to just sometimes parse the world and move forward. It's a stilling process where you stop and pause. We can't always pause. I have complete empathy for why you've gotta put it away just to go be an adult, but to get it back. I think it's, the practice of noticing whatever is authentic to you. Like when you feel that little tickle on your heart, you feel that little pull, huh, what does that mean? Or you read a headline that that just gives you that eerie feeling of wanting to know more or being surprised that something worked that way. I think it's just getting better and better at trusting that and not judging it and just thinking, huh, wow, stories about math really interest me, or stories about breakdowns really interest me, or stories about how money works really interest me. Or maybe it's nature or maybe it's poetry, but just like, don't judge it. I don't know, I think it's just noticing when you get that tickle and then cherishing it and following it. But just, it's sacred when that tickle comes because that feeling is reminding you, oh, you care about something.

- And sometimes it can be really, it can be really little. Like, actually one of my teenagers, one of 'em was saying, I just really like this particular color of green so much now. And I said, Oh wow, that's really cool. And she showed me the color and we started seeing it different places. And so now when we go places, we're looking for that particular color of green. It's got a little blue in it. It's got, it's hard to even describe.

- Is it like teal?

- It is, but it's greener.

- Hmm.

- I don't know, it seems small. But I was really happy for her that in this realm of everything else, you know, going to school and everything she's doing, that she's thinking about this color that she's interested in.

- Like having a hunt is so fun. Just whatever the hunt of the gifts the world gives you, I think that's a very liberating, rejuvenating feeling to have sort of like an engine, to feel the engine in you that wants to go out into the world, that wants to ask questions.

- Right.

- Hi, my name is FAI-VEHL. I'm five years old and my question is, What's your weirdest thought you've ever had in the water by yourself?

- Kind of a gross side note, but yeah, I would think traveling as when I was young, like we'd go to Niagara Falls and like I would just spit in the water, and be like, it's traveling all over the world now. Like I'm all over the world and...

- Like through the waterways 'cause it's going out to the ocean and then some waves will pull it over there to the continent of Africa and some will go up to the arctic and AJ is now connected with everyone.

- Yeah.

- You really thought that you were just like, ha, here's a lougie. No, like I was an introspective four year old. I would think about where we would travel and eventually maybe it'll come back to me after it's gone around the entire world and--

- You'll be taking a shower someday and you're like, Four year old me saying Hi.

- Yeah, exactly.

- So I was wondering too about your childhood.

- Yes.

- So were there experiences that were formative or memorable for you growing up that you're seeing this through your kids' eyes now, but what about your own childhood?

- I mean, yeah, I think that mainly nature was just this hugely perpetually safe place. I am someone with a lot of feelings, therefore the human world can sometimes be this just like minefield of, oops, I made someone mad, or, I feel guilty, or oops, you know, my oldest sister was bullied horrifically, and just watching that in like the eighties where especially kids, there was just less awareness about cognitive differences and she struggled with certain stuff, and just, I remember watching that as a kid and just thinking, oh, the human world can be so brutal. And I think I always, I just always, my dad would take me hiking all the time, and he's a scientist so he was very into pointing things. Oh, fungi, that Allie Algae met a fun-gi, and they took a lichen to each other. Lichens made of fungi and algae.

- Oh.

- Anyway, it just was always this place where there was interest, there was beauty, the air changed. It's more oxygenated. There are all these smells, there's pines and flowers and lakes to jump into and pull up a rock and find a beetle and a worm. And I just, throughout my childhood and then just throughout my whole life, it just is this realm where I feel safe, I feel rejuvenated and I feel it's easier to access my wonder and my questions. And again, as much as you think about Linnaeus who named the world in this giant book, "Systema Naturae", like there's a sense everything is known, but it's not, there are so many questions, and that's why I love science reporting.

- Yeah.

- There are just so many questions left and nature to me feels like a reliable place to kind of encounter those questions. Now as for the end of the story of what happened to those gravitational waves from those two black holes that collided long ago, well after they literally rocked our world, get it 'cause they like rocked the planet when they hit well, they just kept rippling out into the universe, passing by stars and moons.

- What I imagine is the amount of unimaginable things those ripples may find on their way as they're traveling to, into infinity, right, the wonderful things that they will find.

- In like what, like planets and comets and suns--

- Unimaginable.

- As I was listening to your episodes, I was thinking about Rachel Carson and I found this quote that you probably know, it's one of her famous quotes, "If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, "he needs the companionship of at least one adult "who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, "excitement, and mystery of the world we live in."

- That really moves me. I think, yeah, I love that. My wife is a psychologist. She works in the NICU at a hospital where parents are dealing with very scary stuff. What she works on is kind of how giving parents even just a little bit of mental health care can help improve the baby's outcome. She was practicing a presentation to me and she started with this quote by Winnicott, this famous child psychologist who said, basically, it said, babies don't exist. They are always in relationship with an adult. Like a baby in particular, you know, would it last a day without an adult? Like it cannot exist without a relationship, and I feel like this Rachel Carson thing gets at it too, where maybe a kid is a little bit older and they could survive for a little bit without an adult. But to keep the wonder alive, you need the conversation. And just that I think increasingly, as I get older, I don't know, I think relationships and conversation, real conversation, confusion, maybe even conflict resolution, like that is the real stuff on earth. It's so exciting. It's like there's sparks there. ♪ I don't care if I'm alone in this ♪ ♪ And nobody believes ♪ ♪ I will swim this sky forever ♪ ♪ I will always feel the breeze ♪ ♪ When everything that is familiar ♪ ♪ Fades to black and turns to cold ♪ ♪ I will listen on and wonder ♪ ♪ Unimaginable ♪

- That was Lulu Miller talking with Shannon Henry Kleiber. So did you know there's a science of wonder and awe.

- And I think people are a little worried like, God, if I study awe, will I be a hippie scientist, or you know, a new age scientist. So we didn't study it even though it's fundamental to things like our appreciation of music, spirituality. And I couldn't help but be interested in a scientific approach to awe.

- Meet the man who founded the new science of awe next on "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. You know, that feeling of standing at a concert when everybody's singing together and you suddenly feel euphoric. Or looking over the edge of a canyon and getting goosebumps. Well that feeling is awe. And you might be surprised to learn there is actually a new science of awe. Dacher Keltner is the UC Berkeley psychologist who's pioneered this new field and he says awe is a unique emotion, different from the rest, and it's really, really good for us. Steve Paulson wanted to know more.

- So you say at the beginning your book that you have taught hundreds of thousands of people all around the world about happiness.

- Yeah.

- And you've been sort of looking at this subject for a long time trying to figure out, is there a secret to happiness? And you say it comes down to awe, which is a pretty sweeping thing to say.

- Yeah, well there are many secrets to happiness, Steve, and it really depends on who you are and what your cultural background is. But we live in a particular moment culturally, right, and I think that there is a search for meaning and purpose right now in young people. You think about the climate crisis and the pandemic, 30% rise in depression, anxiety around the world. And you know, we could go on, the digital issues of our times call for a new view of happiness, and happiness is always evolving historically. And I put those together and say, Awe is the emotion of our times. People are very self-focused, they're very narrowly focused on matters of materialism and self. We have these issues of loneliness and the breakdown of community, and awe is an antidote to a lot of those conditions.

- You have a definition, you say it is the emotion we experience when we encounter vast mysteries we don't understand. What do you mean?

- Yeah, that took a lot of work, and you're right to ask that question. Awe, by its very nature is mysterious, and it's hard to really pinpoint its its essence. But to arrive at that definition, I read a lot of the literature on mystical experiences where there's a rich attempt to define awe. I read philosophers, in particular Edmund Burke, who's really important. And at the age of 27 in the 1750s, he publishes this book on the sublime, and he said, "What's sublime? "That is that which produces awe is powerful and obscure." And so I translated that to it's vast, so it's big in size, it's big in time. When I stand near an old oak tree and you think it's 150, 200 years old, you're like, wow, this was around when my great-grandparents around. That's vast in time. And then, and I call it mystery, but what it means is your current way of perceiving reality can't make sense of it. For example, there's a whole literature on extraordinary, what we would call almost supernatural experiences. A lot of Americans have had them. Like you feel the presence of somebody who's passed away or the hand on your back or someone like that, and it transcends your understanding of the world, so it's mysterious and that is awe at its core.

- You're saying that an experience of awe is by definition good. It's a very positive experience that does all kinds of good work for us.

- Man, you know, I wrote this book in a time, pandemic, people feeling lonely, historic depression, historic levels. You know, I was in a personal period of life of losing my brother and it was hard. And ironically I was starting to publish these papers on awe. It does such good work for the human being and our communities. It reduces daily stress for older people. Makes 'em feel less pain. It makes you feel that you have a greater sense of community and less lonely. And that's amazing when you think about like, you can go out in Wisconsin and see an incredible storm coming over, you know, the plains and feel awe, and that makes you feel like you have stronger community with people. That's striking to me. Very compellingly, it tends to quiet down the default mode network, which is the self-critical, self-focused regions of the brain. So it is really good news for our lives.

- So we should talk about wonder and the connection between awe and wonder. Because I think they're often used interchangeably. But they're actually different.

- Yeah, that was tough work, and it's hard to study experience, and wonder in the philosophical tradition, is more of a knowledge state, and it's really where you are really in the realm, less of the body, less of expressive behavior like emotion, and more in the realm of, you know, probably the prefrontal cortex and reason.

- You're trying to figure something out. I don't know, you're walking along the beach and you sort of notice some weird shell and it's like, wow, but then there's sort of this next step of, huh, how did that ever evolve? That second experience would be wonder then.

- Exactly right. And it really is the aftermath of awe where you're like, I don't get this. What is that shell? What species produced that? And then your mind gets to work and it starts to form hypotheses and consult other knowledge domains and imagine alternatives to reality. If you have a supernatural experience and then you're like, how would I make sense of that? You know, Mark Twain dreamed that his brother would die, and then two weeks later, I think his brother died in a way that he dreamed, and he is left to wonder. What framework would help explain that dream?

- So if I had to say that, what would be the most common experiences that would bring awe, it would be being in nature.

- Yeah.

- Standing above a canyon, watching a whale rise out of the water, watching a beautiful sunset. You actually say the most universal experience of awe that cuts across cultures is actually witnessing moral bravery.

- Yeah, yeah, you know, it caught us totally off guard. And this is why we do science, right? You ask people in particular the United States or Western European cultures what gives you awe, and often it's nature. The mountains you've seen, or the ocean or big trees. And you know, that's what I thought, and so we gathered awe stories from 26 countries as diverse as India and Mexico and China, and parts of Africa and US and all over the world, and then we classify the stories, and the most common one is moral beauty. And it's a few different things. One is acts of kindness, especially strangers being kind to each other out in the streets. Courage when you put your life on the line for other people. And then overcoming obstacles and self-sacrifice are acts that have some element of virtue in them that benefit other people. And it astonished us that just this ordinary goodness of humans is really what gives us the chills.

- So I'm curious about where all of this comes from for you personally. You're a California kid.

- Yeah.

- Is there anything in particular about your background, your circumstances of how you grew up, or as you were sort of trying to figure out your place in the world that made you wanna study this?

- You know, in the book I cite this incredible essay by Rachel Carson, "How to Teach Your Child to Wonder", where she talks about just go out in a mysterious places and don't name things and let experience happen and get wild and observe nature and, or what you're near, and that was my life. I had these two counterculture parents. My mom taught awe, she taught Virginia Woolf and consciousness and romanticism and poetry and Blake and my dad painted like Goya, just wild stuff. And they took me to art museums as a kid, and then I got obsessed with dinosaurs. We did the wildest campy trips, you know, driving a VW bus straight into the Rockies, not knowing where you're gonna land. And I grew up in Laurel Canyon, which in 1968, which was on the Hollywood Hills, tons of music, historic music, Joni Mitchell, The Birds, Frank Zappa, The Mamas and Papas, The Doors were all there. And you could feel it, and you know, the political times of the assassination of Martin Luther King and the like, and protests. And so I truly believe those experiences opened me up. And that the interesting thing for me, Steve, was that I was always predisposed to science. And so here I was raised by these wild parents, and then I was like, yeah, but can you prove that? So I was meant to do this work in many ways.

- You mentioned the death of your brother, Rolf, who you write about in your book, and I know you're very close growing up and later in life as well. And my sense is somehow dealing with that, dealing with this tragic loss is part of this personal story for you in understanding awe.

- Yeah, Thank you for asking that. You know, my brother Rolf was my companion or guide to awe. And every consequential awe moment in much of my life was with him, you know, be it backpacking in the Sierras or going to concerts or traveling in Mexico. And he got colon cancer, which is a horrifying disease, and then he passed away. And on the night that he passed away, we went up to his house. He was living in the foothills of the Sierras with his family, and he entered into this state that was very peaceful, and I hear is very common as you approach death. And we were all around him, you know, my mom, dad, daughters, his family, and touching him and saying things to him. And it just started to become this sublime moment of feeling his breathing change. And, you know, I'm a scientist. Before that experience, I really felt like if you can't measure it, it doesn't exist, which was naive, and watching him pass, like I just felt his, there was a soul in him that was moving elsewhere, spatially and temporarily. And I was awestruck, truly. And a lot of people in our research, you know, across the world, one of the major sources of awe, I call them the eight wonders is dying, is watching people die. It's this big mystery. It's vast, it's, it's astonishing and mind blowing. But then I really frankly, entered into a very complicated psychological space in grief that Joan Didion writes about. Just like really had trouble making sense of things and not sleeping and wound up. And I had to go find awe in listening to new kinds of music and hiking in the mountains we went to, and reading the people like Walt Whitman who helped me think about life. So it really became the catalyst of writing the book, and then it also taught me a lot about awe.

- So I wanna ask you about how we can have more awe in our life. If it's an emotion, it's not something we can necessarily just go out and grab, and yet we can put ourselves in situations where we're much more likely to have experiences of awe.

- Yeah, you know, one of the big surprises of this literature on awe is how easy it is to find. Prior to the research, when you ask people, they'd be like, I've got to go see the Northern Lights or go to the Arctic and you know, do this expensive trip just to find awe. But in fact, we find in our research, people feel it a couple times a week and it can be cultivated. Go try things that are novel or surprising or mysterious. Don't name everything and conceptualize it. Just let experience happen to you. There are a lot of ways to find awe. We developed an awe walk. You know, instead of just going and checking your Fitbit, go out there, pause, breathe, look to the small things that you're seeing, like the shadows, and then pan out and look at the vast things. Look at one cloud, look at the system of clouds, and that can produce awe. So it's an easy emotion to find.

- What is your go-to awe walk?

- Oh man, I have a few. I like doing awe walks through Berkeley, which is kind of this intense, noisy, angst ridden place with a lot of humanity. I walk through this park and maybe I'll see the elderly doing their tai chi. And then I walk by this tennis court and the romantic couples playing tennis and swearing at each other, and I'd laugh about the absurdity of marriage. You know, and then I walk by this little preschool and the kids are playing their games and singing little songs that I sang in my childhood. Next thing you know, that's seven minutes, right? Wow, humanity is great. And I love the quote of Soren Kierkegaard, who said that walking this way, it really brings you into contact with the significance of insignificant things. And I feel like so much of humanity, there's a lot of goodness that's holding us together. You just gotta stop and look at it.

- Dacher Keltner directs the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. He hosts the "Science of Happiness" podcast and he's the author of "Awe: The New Science "of Everyday Wonder and How it Can Transform Your Life". He talked with Steve Paulson. In 2003, Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote a book about the history of religious unbelief called "Doubt".

- It is my very great pleasure to introduce Jennifer Michael Hecht.

- It was a bestseller. Jennifer was doing a lot of talks and book signings.

- What a delight to be here. It's lovely.

- At one of them, this very nice young couple comes up to her with a question.

- She's very pregnant and they know that it's gonna be a boy and they ask if it would be okay if they have a bris, even though they're both atheists, but their families want this.

- For Jennifer, this is a no-brainer.

- I just said to them, you know, mazeltov, you wanna have a party and celebrate your baby, there's nothing wrong with that. But I said to them as they were almost walking away, but include some poetry, maybe some Whitman.

- Walt Whitman for a bris. Specifically, it was, I have it right here, even though I know it by heart. Yeah. It's from this incredible poem that we often call, "Oh, me, Oh, Life" that's in "Leaves of Grass".

- Oh, me, oh, life.

- I mean, "Oh, me, Oh, Life" is a pretty depressing poem.

- The endless trains of the faithless of cities filled with the foolish.

- In seven short lines, Whitman summarizes the tawdry, sordid awfulness of the world.

- The poor results of all of the clouding and sorted crowds I see around me.

- And asks himself, what's the use of living?

- What good amid these, oh, me, oh, life.

- And then he gives an answer that's just two lines. Answer, that you are here.

- That life exists and identity.

- That the powerful play goes on and you--

- And you may contribute a verse.

- May contribute a verse.

- And that is what Jennifer Michael Hecht calls the Wonder Paradox. She'll tell you why after this. It's "To the Best of Our Knowledge" from Wisconsin Public Radio.

- Life...

- And PRX. Where do you go when you wanna feel small in the face of something vast and mysterious, when you wanna feel your soul shiver open, or fall into a state of awe or wonder. The world's religions are full of language and ceremony designed to spark those feelings. But the old sacred traditions don't speak to many of us today. Historian and poet Jennifer Michael Hecht, the author of "Doubt" and "The End of the Soul", says there is another even older tradition we can all access: Poetry. I have loved reading her book, "The Wonder Paradox", embracing the Weirdness of Existence and the poetry of our lives and I bet you would too. In the introduction to your book, there's a line I love. You say, "Poetry can help us make up "for the loss of the supernatural." And I wanted to ask you about that phrase, loss of the supernatural 'cause it really resonated. You're suggesting that there's a kind of void many of us experience in our lives today, an emptiness, a feeling that something's missing, but what?

- Yeah, I think there's an old philosophical term of a God-shaped hole in people. But I think that that's a sort of historically short-term idea because there was poetry before there was a one God, there was poetry that made sense of life. And what I was doing with this book was really realizing that a lot of people who aren't religious, who either don't believe in God or don't believe in organized religion are standing around at different rituals, just being there for family or friends or for the party of it but feeling maybe a little left out. So one of the messages I'm giving people is go ahead and do the rituals from the religions that you grew up in and add a little meaning to it by adding a poem. Yeah.

- I guess I was thinking wonder and superstition--

- Well, supernatural.

- I guess I was thinking a sense of enchantment.

- Yes.

- A sense of wonder. Plenty has been written about the concept of the disenchantment of the modern world.

- That's right.

- And it seems to me that one of the big cases you're making for making poetry a bigger part of our lives is that poetry is a kind of language that can, for whatever reason, help open us up to an experience of wonder.

- That was so well said.

- So why?

- Yeah.

- What is it about poetry that has that kind of power?

- Well, I would say that a lot of art has that kind of power, but poetry, it's a condensed, small little machine for feeling things. And the way that it works is by keeping its meanings changeable, to have a sentence that reads half on one line and half on the other line, and you can understand the first line as its own little meaning, and the second line as its own little meaning and the sentence as its meaning. And that's in almost any poem, there is at least one of these kinds of line breaks that when you spend time with it, you notice there are a couple of messages in there. And they can be paradoxical. They can contradict themselves. Whereas if we're talking about many other forms of knowledge contradiction means wrong. Find out what went wrong. There's a contradiction here. Two opposite things can't be true. But the human experience is constantly ambivalent. We always both wanna be there at the party and to go home. We always feel love and also narcissism. We always balance emotional contradictions. Some of them we can never put into words.

- Yeah, we should have an example. Is there a poem you love that you could read that you think is a good example of what you're talking about?

- Absolutely. This is a tiny poem called "Islands" by Muriel Rukeyser. And she is speaking really to this old philosophical idea that without God sort of connecting us all, human beings are all these little separate islands and how desperate that is. So Rukeyser's poem, it was published in 1976, "Islands". "Oh, for God's sake, they are connected underneath. "They look at each other across the glittering sea. "Some keep a low profile, some are cliffs. "The bathers think islands are separate like them." It's such a wonderful poem, partially because I think it packs such a punch in those first lines, oh, for God's sake, they're connected underneath. And then the rest of the poem kind of takes that apart a little bit and tries to figure out the bathers feel separate, the islands feel separate, but that we are all together.

- So going back to your comment about how poetry is the one language we have really that specializes in paradox, that holds these two things together that don't seem like they would fit or that we can't make fit logically, but a poem can do it somehow, I don't know, with image, metaphor--

- And it's so crucial because we need to think in terms of straightforward logic in order to get through our day. But the truth is we are living in such an outrageously ridiculous situation, I mean, the idea that this gray, squishy matter in the bone bowl of human skulls built the Brooklyn Bridge and the whole modern world was all invented by meat. Gray, squishy meat made everything, it's impossible. The idea of virgin birth is a lot less bizarre than consciousness. And then add to it the incredible paradoxes within that experience, how permanent we feel while knowing about death.

- So I think that religions evolved and were created over time to make space for us to have those feelings.

- Yes.

- We often simply don't make the space. You have this concept that you talk about a cultural liturgy or a secular liturgy. Tell me more about that and how and what, what you mean by that.

- Well, when I started this project, one of the things I was really thinking about was the way that poetry is used at weddings and funerals. It can be there when there's prayer or as a substitute for prayer, and it creates that moment of quiet and calm and thinking, and when you notice the prayers that they're alongside or replacing, they often mention death, more than you'd think. If you're like at a wedding, why would you mention death? Well, til death do you part. Why mention that at that happy moment? Well, because what religion has done is combine tried and true rituals and some beautiful words that, yes, remind you of death, but also reminds you of a flower that blooms and is never seen. To remind you of the paradox of the strangeness of beauty, but also to remember what an incredible lucky thing it was for you to get in one life at all, you know, with all the chances it took for us to be here talking to each other right now. And it's just so different when you take a moment to notice, ooh, that's a little magical.

- So another example, let's say, the concept of saying grace before a meal.

- Yeah, yeah.

- Something like that is in so many different religions. But for those of us who are leading largely secular lives, saying grace before a meal seems a little old fashioned, quaint. So if we were gonna revive that idea, is there a poem?

- Yeah, I think that the first step is to think of prayers for, what I call banquet prayers, because that's what they'll often call them at conferences or something. But I talk in this chapter about finding a short piece of poetry that you might wanna say privately before you eat, just to slow yourself down and have a moment, not just rushing into the food or--

- Do you have that, do you do that yourself?

- There are times when I'll say an Emily Dickinson, couple of lines before I eat, which does slow me down.

- What's the Emily Dickinson line?

- It's, "A bird came down the walk. "He did not know I saw. "He bit an EHN-GEHLS worm in half and ate the fellow raw." It goes on a little bit. It's such an odd little poem, but it puts me back into this sort of natural world moment. The rhythm of it just holds me and slows me down.

- But just that look, that one little line. The bird comes down, pluck a worm, and at the fellow raw.

- Yes.

- So that before you're eating is reconnecting you, it seems to me.

- That's right, yes.

- My reading of it would be, you're reconnecting to the primal experience of eating. You're remembering that everything alive must eat, you and the bird are the same. That eating often involves removing another creature's life. There's a rawness to our lives.

- I love that. You gave me more reason to this little poem than, yeah, yeah. There's a poem, I'll read it quickly. It's by the great Mary Oliver, who we lost recently. It's called "Wild Geese", and I've read this at banquet poem moments because it's just such a beauty and it brings us together. "Wild geese, you do not have to be good. "You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles "through the desert repenting. "You only have to let the soft animal of your body love "what it loves. "Tell me about despair, yours. "I will tell you mine. "Meanwhile, the world goes on. "Meanwhile, the sun and the clear pebbles "of the rain are moving across the landscapes, "over the prairies and the deep trees, "the mountains and the rivers. "Meanwhile, the wild geese high and the clean blue air "are heading home again. "Whoever you are, "no matter how lonely the world offers itself "to your imagination, "calls to you like the wild geese, "harsh and exciting, "over and over announcing your place "in the family of things."

- What's that last line again? Announcing your place--

- Your place in the family of things.

- Oh, love that.

- You know, poetry, I don't know exactly how it works, but you know, ask any poet, there's a version that comes out of us first, and you don't even know how your brain and your heart did that. And then you edit. You know, most of us do have to edit even our best things. I mean, I can think of one of the poems that I love that I wrote that I always think how, where, you wanna hear that real quick?

- Yeah, I'd love to.

- It's called "History". It's from my first book of poetry. "Even Eve, the only soul in all of time "to never have to wait for love, "must have leaned some sleepless nights alone "against the Garden wall and wailed, "cold, stupefied and wild, and wished to trade "in Eden to have but been a child. "In fact, I gather that is why she left and fell from Grace, "that she might have a story of herself to tell "in some other place."

- Thank you for giving us so, so much to think about and so much beauty.

- Thank you. This is just a beautiful conversation. I really appreciate it.

- Oh, me too. Jennifer Michael Hecht is a poet and an historian, and her book is "The Wonder Paradox: "Embracing the Weirdness of Existence "and the Poetry of our Lives". "To the best of our Knowledge" comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio in Madison, Wisconsin. This episode was produced by Shannon Henry Kleiber with help from Mark Rickers, Charles Monroe Cain, and Angelo Batista. Our technical director and sound designer is Joe Harkey with help from Sarah Hopeful. Additional music this week comes from Element Perspective, KAHT-SUH, BUR-ROW Music, Scott Holmes and Rumbas MAIR-EE-LEHGS. The executive producer of "To the Best of Our Knowledge" is Steve Paulson and I'm Anne Strainchamps, wishing you more wonder today and every day.

- PRX.

Last modified: 
December 21, 2023