Wonder really is a survival skill

I read this quote as I skimmed The Curious Nature Guide: Explore the Natural Wonders All Around You, by Clare Walker Leslie and it stuck with me. It’s at the heart of what I hope my kids get out of school… and life, really. 

But maybe it’s for just 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 of what really matters, and of the greater systems that our lives are completely dependent 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. ~ H. Emerson Blake in the foreword to Wonder and Other Survival Skills

It’s wonder that helped me survive the last year, too.

Exactly a year ago, I quit my decade-long secure government job, launched myself into self-employment and simultaneously became really ill. I left work and needed my first of many blood transfusions a few weeks later. I’d been struggling with severe anemia for years and my condition had eluded a definitive diagnosis.  

By February I received a lymphoma diagnosis and in March I was receiving life-giving and equally barbaric chemo and antibody treatments. 

I worked in bed for the winter–one of the luxuries of self-employment– and in the spring began a slower version of gardening. 

My year was all about survival, but also wonder. Wonder at the drugs that saved me, and the plants they were originally derived from. Wonder at my family, who I would love to live with for a long time, and would grieve so much to leave. Wonder at how sick I had become, how I’d fallen between cracks in the medical system, how I looked “fine” and pale when I was barely floating through my days with dangerously low hemoglobin– the oxygen carrying component of blood.

And there was wonder at how ridiculously great and high I felt the first time I received a blood transfusion. Wonder at how my fingers and lips turned pink–how I was reanimated with blood. Wonder that strangers literally gave me the gift of life. Wonder at the cost of my drugs–$10,000 for two days’ treatment every month. Wonder that our health care system paid for them. Wonder at how much care was missing in treatment, and also wonder at how much care was offered from lab techs, ER and chemo nurses, and angel friends.


And my wonder garden grew in spite of me, and continued to offer gifts: the wonder of harvesting garlic in between summer rain storms, celebrating epic and endless dahlia blooms, eating broccoli and peas for days, and enjoying such a bounty of tomatoes that the last batch sat ripening in egg cartons on my counter even last week. Wonder at the soil–lush, rich, buttery and black that I’ve been building in my garden for the last few years. Wonder at the sunflowers that provided so many blooms abuzz with bees and then food for weeks to so many different kinds of birds. 


I also experienced confusion and wonder at the suffering of so many people I saw in treatment and in our community. I felt the sadness of illness and accidents and the losses of loved ones.  Wonder at the gaping holes and the ways we try to soothe and patch them.

I had a few days after my second round of treatment when I entered a black pit of despair. Nothing made sense. I saw no reason for my suffering or anyone’s suffering and no reason for living or sickness or treatment for it. But then tulips bloomed and that made sense. It a crack of enchantment. A thread of wonder. A signal that something small was still right in the world. 

It’s foggy and cold today. There are cracked chestnuts, a precarious pile of birch logs, a dull axe, a frosty table and a barbeque abandoned for the season on our deck. The leaves are still hanging onto the overhanging chestnut tree, now wilted and brown. I’ve been harvesting the last scrubby bits of kale, chard, parsley, chives and celery leaves sticking out of straw mulch, as I surrender to buying greens over the winter.


I survived the year, along with my garden, along with my kids, along with my partner, along with my dog, along with my work, thanks, in part, to the balm of wonder.