Thursday, March 03, 2011

Sand and salt waters' edge

astonish |əˈstäni sh |verb [ trans. ]surprise or impress (someone) greatly you never fail to astonish me [ trans. it astonished her that Mrs. Browing could seem so anxious [as adj. ( astonishing) an astonishing achievement.DERIVATIVESastonishingly |əˈstɑnɪʃɪŋli| adverb [as submodifier an astonishingly successful program.ORIGIN early 16th cent. (as astonished, in the sense [stunned, bewildered, dismayed] ): from obsolete astone [stun, stupefy,] from Old French estoner, based on Latin ex- ‘out’ tonare ‘to thunder.’

Some years ago, in a moment of glowing idealism, a dear friend sent these words in a letter "When in doubt, opt for the astonishing". With what I see now as a combination of naivete, youth, foolishness and good faith, I adopted this phrase as a kind of 'live-by' mantra. We have since talked about the paradox inherent in this statement - its weight and promise  -  arriving at what feels like a deeper reading and fuller understanding of both.  The dictionary definition for 'astonish', pasted at the top of this entry, took me a little by surprise. It makes frequent mention of the word 'success' which seems to me incongruous, a miss fit/mis-fit/misfit.  I wonder what associations the word 'astonish' awakens in you? 

On 13 October 2009, I posted the 'astonishing' phrase on my blog here. Mary McCallum (TP curator who blogs at O Audacious Book) put forward a challenging comment for which I was grateful; she asked, 'what if opting for the astonishing is not an option?' A brief but worthwhile discussion ensued. 

To 'opt for the astonishing' - as far as I understand these words today - speaks to me about 'staying open' and present, awake to life in a state of alertness and anticipation.  This can be easier said than done, of course. Sometimes prevailing circumstances - our own and others' - are shocking, bewildering, 'whelming, seemingly impossible or insurmountable. What then? 

Who amongst us is not living with an ever-increasing raft of uncertainty and questions? I know I am. And I cannot profess to have answers to very many of them. I do know that when I feel perplexed, mystified or tossed about, I find it helpful to bundle the questions - both those I am able to give shape to, and those I'm not - into a metaphorical knapsack, and to take them down to sand and salt waters' edge... 

On Tuesday, when I walked the Aramoana coastline with my daughter, it seemed  The Astonishing had run up ahead of us, was there on the beach, waiting to meet us. The Astonishing can, it seems to me, reside in unexpected places, regardless of whether or not that leads us to flashes of insight or neatly-outlined conclusions.

Sometimes it turns up unexpectedly, as a haphazard arrangement - 

and sometimes in a more considered and organized fashion -  

Ali and I walked and talked and talked and walked, amongst red-billed oyster catchers, strutting gulls, muscular kelp, driftwood sculpture - this temporary screen, vulnerable to weather - spiral shells, a decaying seal. On our return home, I was prompted to go on-line to re-read Scott London's interview with ecologist/philosopher David Abram.  I warmly recommend their subtly-nuanced conversation and, too, suggest you allow a goodly chunk of time to explore Scott London's generous and wide-ranging website. In this particular interview, Abram said ". . . so many of the ways we speak in our culture continually deny the reciprocity between our senses and the rest of the sensuous world, between our bodies and the vast body of the earth. When we speak of the earth as an object, we are denying our relationship with the earth. When we speak of nature as a set of objects, rather than a community of subjects, we basically close our senses to all of the other voices that surround us. . . "

And then of course, there's Rainer Maria Rilke who offers us his particular wisdom -


           Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart
           and try to love the questions themselves,
           like locked rooms and like books that are written
           in a foreign tongue.
           Do not now seek the answers, which cannot yet be given you
           because you would not yet be able to live them.
           And the point is, to live everything.
           Live the questions now. 
           Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it,
           live along some distant day into the answer.

              Rainer Maria Rilke

Aramoana - Open Heart for Christchurch xo


  1. Opting for the astonishing means, to me, surrendering expectation that I need to know the answer. It is a way of deferring to greater wisdom; if possible taking a step away from the mind and into the heart. I find there are far more questions than answers and I am coming to have greater trust in my sense of knowing, which does not rely on an intellectual solution. And as I experience it, the astonishing ONLY resides in unexpected places or brings with it an aspect of the unexpected, without which it would not astonish.

  2. Astonishing is order forming out of chaos, or noticing a well-camouflaged fledgling falcon in a tree.

    That we EXIST and PERCEIVE is astonishing to me.

    Or that this is one of those wonderful reminder posts at just the right time. Astonishing. Thank you.

  3. The Rilke poem is just what I needed to read at exactly this moment in time on this planet. And that, in itself astonishes me.

    I thank you, twice over.


  4. It's astonishing that we're the answer to all the questions we ever ask ... but we defer knowing.

  5. What a wonderfully inspiring post Claire. What is interesting for me is that the original meaning of 'astonish' seems to lean toward negative emotions;'bewildered, stunned, dismayed'. For me 'astonish'has a very positve vibe. Your linking of 'astonishment' with your walk on the beach resonated strongly with me. I wholly agree that a landscape can astonish.
    Appropos David Abram's thoughts; 'When we speak of the earth as an object we are denying our relationship with the earth', I am just re-reading a wonderful book called The Zen of Seeing, sub-titled Seeing/Drawing as meditation, hand-written and illustrated by Frederick Franck. You may know it.He suggests that through unpretentious seeing/drawing of the world around us, we can become one with it, or at least come close to sensing that oneness. It makes for absorbing reading and his drawings are superb.

  6. This is just beautiful all around. Coming here is always so calming. It's a deep breath or drink of cool water.
    I love seeing hearts in unexpected places. I took a picture of a sea creature in California and it opened up like a heart. Your open heart is beautiful.
    and thank you for the Rilke.

  7. Some bits of wisdom and a nice set of photos. I envy you being so close to the ocean.

  8. BTW, you appeared in a dream last night!

  9. Hi Claire,
    at first I thought your friend was advising one of those very easy -- chose the most shocking action -- which would apply to one's work (make the most outrageous) or one's life style (shock those suckers with your unconventional choices.

    Astonishing always meant shocking to amazing to look at that you were stopped in place, starring...or a once definitely surprising action -- having a child, being not married...or all sorts of other sexual stuff...defying assumed norms...

    like -- go out and give 'em in the way you truly want to live -- don't think about what anyone else would say about your choices...

    anyway, astonishing is a word I hardly ever think about so thank you for allowing me to think about it..

  10. Marylinn - what I hear you saying is that opting for the astonishing is an act of faith and courage requiring our surrender into the heart's domain?

    Somewhere on my travels (virtual or otherwise; I find it hard to differentiate these days), I came across a discussion re; the conversation/relationship between head and heart. The gist of it was that all head and no heart creates havoc and imbalance, as does all heart and no head. I couldn't help wondering whether the notion of 'head OR heart' tumbles us back into the limitations of dualism? (And please be assured, I know you are not speaking here of 'either/or' since we both well know 'either/or' serves neither us nor any creative expansion well? Rather, it tends towards shutting down our options?)

    Perhaps - as with art & science - mind and heart are inseparable, in much the same way the energy centres in the body are one system, each part having its specific and essential role to play in the healthy functioning of the whole? On their own, each centre may be remarkable, but how much more so when they're acting in synch with their companion parts?

    Can knowing equal not knowing, I wonder? Not knowing can - as you so astutely sugest - lead us leads us into the realm of the unexpected (wherever it is located - heart & mind?) and it is there and then that we are surprised, astonished, awed - and further opened?

    Do you sometimes wonder how it is we came to be so separated out from our instinctual knowing? From intuition, impulse and telepathy? Once upon a time those understandings seemed inherent, but somewhere along the way we seem to have lost our connection to this part of ourselves? One great gift that is surely emerging out of our global disarray is a reconnection to this part of ourselves; as individuals as well as as communities within communities. I don't think I'm making this up, am I? I really do think we are in an accelerated recovery mode where the primary impulse now is towards healing, reconciliation, restoration. (Apologies if I am waffling. . . this is coming up unexpectedly in the moment).

    Perhaps it is in deferring to greater wisdom that 'real' contact and connection becomes possible?

    Love and thanks, Claire x

  11. Antares Cryptos - do you mean we are surrounded by the astonishing? To be, to think, to see, to perceive. . . all of it forms an arc, an arch, a mighty shade tree? Yes, I think so, too.

    (I love the image of a camouflaged falcon fledgeling - the attention required to notice it's there. . . ). Thanks, AC ; )

  12. Dear John - we are building a puzzle here, each of us adding another essential piece. What I understand you to be saying is that 'it' (the astonishing, the shocking, the abhorrent, the marvelous - i.e the entire spectrum/all the ingredients) is not out there/in the other/beyond reach/elsewhere . . . but in here/embedded/reliable/within reach/present and available? All we have to do is reach in and recognize it? Perhaps I'm being a little simplistic here - this is too vast a subject to synthesize in a comments box. Suffice to say, as always, you get us thinking outside the square. Thanks for that, JG. L< C

  13. Dear T - the right things find us as the right time, don't they? I remember feeling exactly this when you posted Theodore Roethke's 'The Waking' some months ago - and your FB photograph of the rainbow escorting you across the bridge towards home had the same effect the day I saw it. (I really needed to be reminded of rainbows that day), so thank you, too. L, C xo

  14. Dear Claire, Be back tomorrow. )O( xo

  15. Astonishing photographs. I'm not capable of surmising what it means or if its meaning can or should be arrived at as a piece of driftwood or a beautiful care worn rock.

  16. The balance of heart and mind, with each contributing its essential best, includes, for me, a continual state of surrendering all that I can't control or answer or sometimes understand. Letting go is my gateway to surprise; expectations, as I hold them, are inflexible things and generally bring disappointment. I think both heart and mind experience, absorb and process the astonishing, the miraculous, the result of deferring to a greater wisdom.

    I stopped trusting intuition - which I might have done anyway as part of the collective - when, as I child, I was told continually that my perceptions were wrong. Reclaiming it is an ongoing task. And no, you are not making this up, or if you are, so am I. There is accelerated recovery, of ourselves, of what we truly value; who was it that told us nothing is ever really lost? xo

  17. Claire, sudden wonder, amazement...from the microcosm to the macrocosm = "astonished".

    That we have evolved to perceive beauty, that nature fills niches, that our organs "work" 24/7 and repair themselves, that our planet has won the most improbable number of lotteries, that we connect........the list of astonishing and amazing seems endless. I know, you get it.