Standing Still and Learning to be Astonished

photo by Steve Givens

We are all waiting patiently, but spring has not fully sprung here in eastern Missouri. It has teased us a bit, has shown us a few sprouts and given us a handful of warm days, but it’s not quite ready to fully bloom. Or if it is, it’s keeping that secret to itself.

Yesterday, despite the gloom and the threat of rain, I decided to go for a walk, camera-in-hand, through a small conservation area just a mile or so from my house. It’s a beautifully simple piece of land dedicated to the state in the name of someone’s loved one (August G. Beckemeier) that occupies a virtually untouched 54 acres that lies between a busy north-south road and the bottom lands that edge the Missouri River as it cuts between St. Louis and St. Charles Counties. As I got out of my car in the parking lot and walked toward the footpath, I remembered well the last time I was there, late last fall, when most of the flowers had ceased blooming and the green was gone from the trees and grasses. Despite my spring-filled thoughts and hopes, it didn’t look that much different yesterday.  That thought, combined with the fact that the sun was hidden behind thick, menacing clouds, didn’t bode well for me as a photographer. Still, I trudged on, hopeful for moments of brightness and illumination, recalling the words of the wonderful Cape Cod poet, Mary Oliver:

photo by Steve Givens

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.

The older I get, the more I think that is exactly my work and my call — to stand still and learn to be astonished a little more often. For our lives and our work rushes by us and whirls around us at dizzying speeds, and when we don’t stop to pay attention and be mindful the world around us never comes fully into focus. We may see well enough to get through our daily work without hurting others and ourselves but, oh, we miss so much.

If winter and early spring teach us anything, it’s that there’s so much out there that can only be seen when the world is trimmed back a bit. We see things this time a year that we never noticed before because they were buried in the underbrush, like a long ago abandoned piece of farm machinery now turned a miraculous shade of orange by the magic of time, water and air. Or the exquisite dried husk of a once beautiful wild flower. Or immaculately white fungi growing on a log far off the beaten path. Or distant water-filled tractor tracks streaming like molten metal through a farm field. All these gifted moments were mine just because I took the time to stand still and be astonished.

All of this led me to yet another poet, this one long dead, that priest-poet of the Oxford Movement, Gerard Manley Hopkins. In his poem, “God’s Grandeur,” he writes:

photo by Steve GIvens

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed.

And later in the poem…

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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