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On Wonder (Or, Listening to Unwound in Cars)


I always seem to say this a lot these days, but how can it be May already? This year is flying by so quickly. It just seemed like New Years not so long ago, and we had a spandy-new year to fill with experiences, emotions, projects and meaning. So far I have been humming along in life — my work and job situation has shifted and evolved, I (FINALLY!) finished writing the novel I started in the fall, and life has felt very rich and full in many ways in terms of friendship, community, and expansive new experiences. Yes, there have been lots of tumult, but it bulldozed a lot of unnecessary attachments out of my life and forced me to look at deep underlying emotions and patterns within myself, and I can truly say I’ve learned a lot.

But I’ve been thinking about my original New Year’s intention, which was to have a simple yet profound experience of wonder. Of course, that was kind of a nutsy resolution to begin with…because WTF is wonder, anyway? What makes it profound? It’s definitely way more amorphous, ambiguous and elusive than the usual “Exercise more” routine you pledge to follow starting January 1. It was a fun thing to announce — and a sincere wish and longing — but taking it apart to really analyze what wonder is and how to create experiences of it seemed so big and unwieldy. And honestly, life got so crazy and nutso right at the beginning of the year that I just forgot.

And then I read Arianna Huffington’s new book Thrive Overall a pretty average book about the need to incorporate wisdom and well-being into our definitions of what constitutes success — nice message, but with about as much depth as, yes, a HuffPo article. But she has a chapter about wonder in there, which functioned as a kind of pinch, a wakeup call, a Post-It to remember and ask, “Oh yeah, how is that whole wonder thing going for you, Kat?”

Wonder, according to the book, is basically a feeling of astonishment or admiration, often brought about by a change in perspective — in other words, feeling the immensity of the world around you, or feeling the utter smallness of yourself in a way that is both awe-inspiring and humbling. And when I looked at it this way, I realized how narrow and humdrum my perspective has been lately — my tumult had made me focus on my 99 problems, so to speak, and while I had to attend or else life would fall apart, it came at the expense of a larger, broader perspective on everything.

But what provokes wonder? For me, it’s been: seeing the ocean, or any immense, beautiful nature scene; seeing sublimely stunning art; listening to breathtakingly moving music. I remember feeling wonder in the redwood groves of Muir Woods, or seeing the Pacific for the first time. I felt wonder when I held my newborn niece in my arms and she first opened her eyes, or holding my nephew after he was born and feeling amazed at having a whole new member of my family to love. Wonder often sneaks up on you, often in the eddies of quiet and silence, so you just can’t go out and think, “Oh, yeah, let’s go out and experience some wonder!”

So I’d been thinking about all this, thinking wonder is out of my reach…and then I had an experience of it, in the most unexpected way: in a car, listening to a band.

I’ve been on this big kick lately of listening to music I loved in my college years in the car. I never owned a car in college and through most of my adulthood, and most of my memories of listening to music in college are often on my room’s or apartment’s stereo, or on my headphones. So it’s been a real pleasure to listen to a lot of the old hardcore and punk stuff I used to listen to in my car now.

One of those bands was Unwound. Unwound was basically MY college band. Their prime touring and recording years coincided with my college career; I seriously think I saw them about 15-20 times live, in various cities up and down the East Coast. Every year in college and post-college found Unwound with a new record and tour, so they were a pretty regular ritual in my life.

But I rarely listened to them in a car. But this spring I got it in my head to break out Fake Train in the car, and hearing those opening chords of “Dragnalus” was one of those Proustian moments when the entirety of the past seeps into your present in this full-bodied, voluptuous way — and suddenly it felt like I was both 38 and 18 once again, all at once.

I drove out to the countryside where I was headed to my riding barn listening to Unwound, remembering what it was like to be young and full of energy, hope and anticipation. But it wasn’t just remembering — it wasn’t nostalgia tinged with melancholy that so often accompanies remembering something from being younger. Instead, I was full of the same energy, hope and anticipation that filled me on the cusp of adulthood. I could feel the harmonics of the guitar chords, but also those between my past and present — vibrating at the same frequency across time and history. That hope and energy wasn’t confined to being young, at all — it wasn’t confined to my college, or New York. It was a note that formed an essential melody in who I was, and it was exciting to feel it thrum in the same way as it did when I was young. And if life held true, I would still feel this at age 58, and 78, and beyond if I’m lucky enough. That kind of hope and excitement was life always had something new for me to learn and cherish — that was what fueled energy and hope, not some innate quality tied only to being young or being in a particular place. Certain ages and place facilitate accessing that state of mind, but in the end, it really was just a state of mind, after all.

And then it hit me: this was wonder. This was a shift in perspective, only the scale was physical or spatial, but temporal. It was about seeing the resonances between your past and present and future selves — being a creature both evolving and staying true, both sculpted by yet unbound by time.

It made me smile. Not only to discover an essential part of myself, but to know that wonder could be accessed in the strangest of places and ways. The result felt the same, though: feeling both immense and cosmic, yet human and humble — all the dimensions of time and scale at once, without limits or borders or boundaries, if only for a moment.

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