Slice of Life: Be Astonished

“You were made and set her to give voice to this, your own astonishment.”
~ Annie Dillard ~

When I took my dog outside one morning not long ago, I gasped when I looked up. The moon was a glowing, golden egg hanging in the western sky. Just to the south, his sword raised for eternity, his quarry just out of reach, Orion stood tall. A scattering of fainter stars dotted the sky around him. It was an astonishing sight.

It occurred to me how rare the word astonish has become. In fact, Merriam-Webster ranks it in the bottom 50% of words. This is a shame, and a fate this word doesn’t deserve. Defined as “to strike with sudden and usually great wonder or surprise,” astonish arrived in our vocabulary from the Middle English words astonen or astonien. These, in turn, are derived from the Anglo-French word estoner, “to stun,” which comes from the Latin ex- + tonare, “to thunder.” An obsolete meaning is “to strike with sudden fear.” I prefer our modern definition,  

And although Mary Oliver instructs us to “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it,” modern life throws so many distractions at us, it’s easy to forget even these simple steps.

Each day as I come and go to my classroom, I pass a wall of windows that looks out over the playground. At the far end is a maple tree whose leaves turn the most gorgeous red I’ve ever seen. I’ve always felt a kinship with that tree, that I was the only one who appreciated its beauty.   Yesterday, two teachers were standing by the windows deep in conversation about a student. They paused and said hello as I walked by. With Mary Oliver’s words in my mind, after returning their greeting, I pointed out the flaming red leaves of the tree. One of the teachers hadn’t ever noticed the tree’s beauty and thanked me for pointing it out to her.

I want my students to be astonished by the world around them. I want them to notice the wooly bear scurrying off toward his winter hiding spot. I want them to astonish themselves, like one of my first grade students. After reading a sentence perfectly, he looked up at me and exclaimed, “I read that!” He was truly astonished that he had such power within himself.

Writing also gives us access to that power. My writing practice has been in the doldrums lately, for all the reasons you already know. But I miss writing about small astonishments I see each day. This rather scattered slice is a first step in returning to this practice. One of the profound lessons of writing each day is that those small astonishments lead to larger insights and discoveries. And like Orion, always on the hunt, I don’t ever want to stop searching for those bigger insights about who I am and my place in the world.

Thank you also to StaceyBetsyBeth, KathleenDeb, Melanie, and Lanny for creating this community and providing this space for teachers and others to share their stories each Tuesday. Be sure to visit Two Writing Teachers to read more Slice of Life posts.

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Poetry Friday: Ladybugs


Today is NCTE’s National Day on Writing. This year’s theme is #Why I Write. As I thought about how to respond to this, I realized there isn’t just one reason. There are as many reasons as stars in the sky. I write to remember the moon winking at me in the morning as I stand at my kitchen sink. I write to feel the warmth of my grandmother’s hand in mine once more, and the sweet smell of her kitchen when she baked pies. I could go on and on. Or maybe there is only one reason: love. I write because I love watching people and the world around me and trying to capture the beauty of it all in words. 

This poem was inspired by a lone ladybug crawling along my porch railing last weekend. As I watched, I realized it’s just about time for the invasion of the ladybugs.

As red as ripe berries,
a horde of ladybugs
swarm every room,
crawling on walls,
buzzing over chairs,
scuttling into corners
where walls meet ceiling
nestling into beams of warm October sun,
punctuating autumn’s golden days,
declaring summer’s end.

Photo by bazzo2006 via Morguefile

© Catherine Flynn, 2017

Please be sure to visit Leigh Ann Eck at A Day in the Life for the Poetry Friday Roundup.

Poetry Friday: Embracing Nature

“Our task must be to free ourselves by widening our circles of compassion
to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
~ Albert Einstein ~

I recently finished reading The Invention of Nature: Alexander Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf. At 400 pages, this book isn’t a quick read, but it’s worthwhile and enlightening. Born in 1769, “Humboldt gave us our concept of nature itself.” In this amazing book, Wulf describes Humboldt’s life and work as well as his influence on Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir, and countless other scientists, artists, and writers. In fact, Wulf writes, “Humboldt’s views have become so self-evident that we have largely forgotten the man behind them.”

A “sense of wonder for the natural world” lay at the heart of Humboldt’s work and writings, and is also found in the work of his followers. The importance of sharing and nurturing this wonder feels more urgent today than ever.

With Wulf’s words about Humboldt still swirling in my brain, it felt like serendipity when I came across these much-loved lines from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself:

Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the
 origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun—there are
  millions of suns left,
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand,
  nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
  specters in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
  from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

Here’s to listening to the world from all sides and learning the lessons nature is desperately trying to teach us.

Please be sure to visit Violet Nesdoly for the Poetry Friday Roundup.