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The capacity for astonishment

The village on a clear September day.

A quiet morning. The sky has cleared at last and Tilly is filled with joy. After a week of illness, she's well again and our morning walks through the hills resume.

Crunchings and munchings behind us.

But wait. What's this? Behind her, something is crashing and splashing through the undergrowth, moving up the stream bed in the shadow of the trees.

A friend? A foe? A monster? Tilly stands alert. Will barking be required?

A gentle apparition appears.

Ah, but it's only a shy young calf, as surprised by us as we are by her.

What say you, calf? Shall we be friends?

Tilly throws me a glance over her shoulder, tail wagging briskly. A friend! What fun!

Uh oh...

She trots up the stony bank eagerly... 

Retreat! Retreat!

...and then backs up fast, for the calf is not alone.

There are monsters coming...

A whole herd of cows is climbing upstream, scrambling up the rocks of the waterfall like enormous mountain goats, pushed up the slope by a big black bull. He is moving them from one field to another...and we are in the way.

and they're heading our way!

"Bark, bark, bark!" cries Tilly, excited. Monsters! Monsters! Run quick as you can!

I grab my book, my thermos, my jacket, and follow behind her, laughing as I run.

Run! Run! Run like the wind!

We run the entire length of the field, the cows and the bull bellowing  behind...and flop in the grass by the field's rusty gate, hearts racing and grinning like fools. I settle back against an ancient oak, my book in hand, fresh coffee in my cup. Tilly sits close, ears cocked, alert and on guard. Just in case there are any more monsters.

Whew! That was close! But valor has triumphed.

She's perfectly happy. The cows and the bull had startled her, astonished her, and perhaps even frightened her a little, but it was all part of a good morning's adventure. (She'll be hoping for cows in the waterfall now when we walk this way again.)

I'd like to be more like Tilly myself, when life throws up unexpected things and bulls emerge to block the path ahead. Far better to be astonished than anxious; far better to move in new directions than stand there frozen by dismay. As Mary Oliver says in her exquisite poem titled "When Death Comes":

When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms....

I want to say that I walked through life with rapt attention, like the eager, clear-eyed little creature at my side.

My work here is done.

I'm reminded of these words from graphic designer Milton Glaser on value of astonishment:

"If you can sustain your interest in what you’re doing, you’re an extremely fortunate person. What you see very frequently in people’s professional lives, and perhaps in their emotional life as well, is that they lose interest in the third act. You sort of get tired, and indifferent, and, sometimes, defensive. And you kind of lose your capacity for astonishment -- and that’s a great loss, because the world is a very astonishing place. What I feel fortunate about is that I’m still astonished, that things still amaze me. And I think that that’s the great benefit of being in the arts, where the possibility for learning never disappears, where you basically have to admit you never fully learn it."

The lesson for today: Be astonished.

The reward of art is not fame or success but intoxication.'' - Cyril Connolly