Writing Awe

In April I hiked through Zion National Park. I stood gape-mouthed, staring at the burnt orange, gold, and greens in the walls of a canyon so deep it made me dizzy. Layers of sedimentary rock rose up in swirling stripes of compressed time around me. It felt as if I could actually see time trapped in the striations.

I experienced awe.

I wanted to capture that feeling, write it down, and share it. But how? Awe is enormous and minuscule at the same time. It is the entire universe. And a grain of sand. It lives in mountains, people, and meteors. But what exactly is awe?

After centuries of studying fear, love, and happiness, scientists only started seriously studying awe about ten years ago. That state of transfixion with something greater than the self. An experience so beautiful or powerful that it alters the chemistry in our brains. Scientist have proven that experiencing awe makes us long to preserve beauty, to be better human beings. It makes us kinder.

The sensation of awe comes to us in the form of unexpected moments, sights, sounds, events, and people. It moves us and becomes a permanent part of us.

In 1992, as South Africa struggled to dismantle Apartheid, I attended a private ceremony where the first white landowner voluntarily gave his land back to a black family whose ancestors once owned the property. The white man’s family, generations earlier, had confiscated the land. The white man legally owned that real estate in 1992, according to the law —but not according to his conscience. Bishop Desmond Tutu presided over the land transfer with only a few handfuls of people in attendance. I did not know the white family or the black family. In truth, I had no business being there. (I happened to be sleeping on the couch of a person who had once been arrested with Bishop Tutu.) But I am so grateful happenstance landed me in that room.

I felt the world shift under my feet. These families. Desmond Tutu. Peace and Reconciliation. They were altering the course of history right in front of me. That ceremony opened a flood gate for more land transfers. That day permanently changed my view of what is possible. One bold person, one righteous action, can disrupt the system. It was awe inspiring. How could I possibly contain that feeling in words?

Awe does not necessarily produce an intellectual response, although it can. When I stare up at the fading tail of a shooting star from the mountains of New Hampshire, I question everything. Is there other life out there? Or are we alone in this giant universe? How long had that burning rock been traveling before it burst through our atmosphere at the precise moment I looked up? And what are the statistical chances that I, an insignificant life form on this tiny island planet, would happen to look at the sky the very moment that thousand-year-old shooting star died?

Other moments of awe don’t make me think at all. They just make me feel. The sensation of nursing my child in the dark at three am. Warm. Exhausted. Calm. No thoughts. Just the creaking of the rocking chair my grandmother gave me. The caress of my child’s tiny fingers on my skin.

As a writer, what greater thing could I wish for than to touch someone so deeply that they experience awe? I know it’s possible because I’ve experienced it while reading the words of Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Hoffman, and Celeste Ng. Literature can chemically alter brains and change hearts.

As a writer, I want to elicit that chemical response in my readers. But how? Is it the use of quiet syllables, and varying the length of my sentences? Is it the grandeur or simplicity of the verbs I choose? Incorporating the sense of taste into my descriptions and cutting out adverbs? I don’t know the answer. But I know it when I read it. I find it in the opening passages of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and Jesmyn Ward’s sparse, but poignant dialog. I’ve found it embedded in the slam poetry performed by GrubStreet’s youngest writers and the lyrics of Billy Bragg songs.

Moments of awe are gifts. It is our responsibility as writers to share them. I want everyone to feel the way I do about Zion and the precious National Parks our president wants to open up to coal mining and oil drilling. I want to preserve the awe, so I write about mountains and geology and forests. Is it awe inspiring? Probably not, but I will keep trying.

What if we as writers and readers — as human beings — flexed our collective awe against that evil gathering like a storm cloud over our country? We could stoke our slow-simmering belly fire to find the best in ourselves and others. Would the thin-skinned evil shrivel up like a slug doused in the salt of our awe-inspired tears? Would the sky alight with a million shooting stars if we all looked up at the same time?

I’m not going to offer any prescriptive advice on how to capture a sense of awe in words because I don’t know how to harness that kind of magic. But I ask that when you find that moment of wonder in a sunset, a resonant chord played by a guitarist in a subway station, or the sound of waves pounding the shore, let it wash over you. Record the way it makes you feel and share it as best you can.

Be bold. Be irreverent. Be brave with your words. Your moment of awe might be the shooting star someone else needs to see when they look up into the dark night.

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