On my desk right now is a gorgeous little collection of essays called Wonder and Other Survival Skills, put together by the editors of Orion magazine. On its cover, a young girl presses her hand against the surface of a lake: skin of girl meeting skin of lake. From this meeting, a ripple moves.
“Is wonder a survival skill?” H. Emerson Blake asks in the foreword. “The din of modern life pulls our attention away from anything that is slight, or subtle, or ephemeral. We might look briefly at a slant of light in the sky while walking through a parking lot, but then we’re on to the next thing: the next appointment, the next flickering headline, the next task…Maybe it’s just for that reason—how busy we are and distracted and disconnected we are—that wonder really is a survival skill. It might be the thing that reminds us of what really matters, and of the greater systems that our lives are completely dependant on. It might be the thing that helps us build an emotional connection—an intimacy—with our surroundings that, in turn, would make us want to do anything we can to protect them.”
By my own definition, wonder is the ability to travel beyond attention, beyond mindfulness–to truly make an encounter with the world in a way that, for the slenderest of moments, lifts us out of ourselves and returns us back with something more. Something of the ‘other’ we’ve encountered travels with us. A little of the world comes into the interiority of us and lodges there. Permeates.
Winter is a season of rest for most of us land-based folks. A season of living in a place of dreams and visioning (literally, as we get caught up on sleep, and plan for the year ahead.) This is the first season I’ve stopped teaching completely. I felt the need to let the work do a deep dive into silence, and (beyond the day-to-day chores of keeping animals, which never go away), to truly let myself drop out of time. I sleep when I’m tired. I wake up when I wake up. I have breakfast and a cup of coffee, before I go out to do chores. Which sometimes makes me feel like a slacker, but it also feels… luxurious. Luxurious in a simple way I haven’t allowed into my life before. A spaciousness that holds its own kind of wonder.
The other reason I decided to stop teaching completely once the snow hit in December, was I wanted my horses to feel like they belonged to me again. 2018 was our busiest year teaching together (THANK YOU, PEMBERTON!) but I wanted a chance to ride when I wanted to again, instead of working a horse so they would be ready to say ‘yes’ to a student. I wanted to WANT to ride again. To wander about aimlessly bareback with nothing but a lead rope joining me to my horse’s mind. I wanted the horses to be able to choose who came out to play with me, whenever I showed up at the gate with a halter or a bridle.
What’s emerged out of this unravelling is that I was finally able to back Besa, my big paint/Friesian mare. When she came to me 18 months ago, she was an untrained 6-year-old, freshly weaned from being a mamma to a feisty filly. She made it very clear to me- in her lack of desire to be caught and her extreme reactivity, power and athleticism- that I’d have to take my time with her. Given space and the permission to approach me (instead of me expecting to approach her and do what I wanted), she decided that humans were worth being curious about. Her curiosity flowered into full-blown affection. She’s the first horse to come to anyone out of the field now, and she sometimes chooses to pull me (or whoever I’m accompanying into the field) in against her chest with her muzzle, the closest a horse can come to giving a hug.
Besa’s been asking me to do things with her for months (Proper things! With a bridle and tack like all the other horses!) and all summer and fall I just didn’t have the capacity. But these last few weeks I’ve slipped onto her back and let her carry me around our little maze of snow paths in a mutual exchange of trust: I will trust you with my body, if you will trust me with your body. The ‘training’ part of it can come later. For now, all I want is her to turn her head to me, so she can look at me fully out of her huge dark eye: Oh. So now you’re up there now. So that she can yawn and snort and let all the tension go out of her nervous system, and get used to this strange new way that horses and humans can be together.
Perhaps it’s me she’s been waiting for all along. Perhaps I needed to drop into this spaciousness for us to find this way to trust each other.
There’s one essay that stands out for me in this slim little collection that sits on my desk. It’s Chris Dombrowski’s Kana: a father grasps at the nature of wonder. In it, he defines Kana as “a word or figure the Japanese haiku poets used as a kind of wonder-inducing syllable (it translates loosely into English as an exclamation point.)… that heart-stutter we receive when an image of the world takes root in us…”
His essay shares the spell of a day spent morel hunting with his twenty month old son. The way the boy wanders across the face of the burn, trailing a whitetail’s antler behind him, carelessly decapitating the very mushrooms he’s hunting for:
…he is either in a daze of boredom or he is walking kana, penetrated each step by the world, not penetrating it. It’s tempting to call this spirit naïveté, but it’s not: it’s wisdom we lose along the way.”
Perhaps that’s what I’ve been courting this winter: wisdom I’ve lost along the way as I’ve been coerced into ascribing to linear time, to capitalism, to the many demands the constructs of being human impose upon us. There is gentleness here, in this wonder, that doesn’t feel rushed or imposed. A hand resting against the surface of a lake.
I’ve wanted to broaden the scope of my horse and nature based teaching practice to include workshops for adults since I started Mountain Horse School in 2012, but I’ve shied away for a long time. I’ve always felt comfortable with kids because they’re so immediate, so open still to this touch of the world upon them. Grown-ups’ responses are layered. More conditioned. We need more language to access understanding, and experiences that can operate like keys opening the locks of ways of perceiving we’ve long put away. Grown-ups want reasons to pacify our rational, linear ways of thinking, and we want to know if playing with opening the doors to wonder, if walking Kana is ‘worth the investment’ of our time. We’ve become used to being sold meditation through a list of its benefits. A walk in the woods has become a thing we could pay for. Forest bathing, it’s called in the brochures.
What if wonder is the gateway to possibility? What if it’s the only skill that will give us the tools, insight, and power we need to move into (here I am, throwing another book title at you!) The More Beautiful World That our Hearts Know is Possible? What if the benefits of wonder—similar to its more lauded cousin, gratitude—might be the resurrection of a life woven into belonging with the wider world that sustains us?
It’s not up to me to answer these questions. I can only speak from the lens of my own experience, my own perceptions. In lieu of that, I can say with certainty that this winter’s dreaming I’ve been luxuriating in, this kana I’ve been walking in my own life, feels absolutely essential to the future that comes next. I can say—if I may speak with authority based on the way things feel from the intergalactic spaceship that is my writing desk this afternoon—that it HAS been absolutely necessary. That nothing is currently more important. Oh, the great irony that ‘doing the work’ this winter has actually meant ‘doing less work—!’ (Is that an exclamation mark or is it kana? You decide.)
So, in the spirit of wonder being the gateway to possibility, I’m issuing a little dare to myself. Actually, it’s not little at all. On Feb 17, I’m offering a one day workshop called Lightning Seeds: Opening the Gateway of what’s Possible, in collaboration with my dear friend, animal listener and translator Guliz Unlu. Come play with us as we walk kana in the company of the horses and other animals at Mountain Horse School, and court wonder through a combination of equine guided learning, animal communication, intuitive herbalism, earth wisdom, and soul craft. Curious to know more? Please visit our website or facebook page for all the juicy details!