My wife and I were the only Americans that night staying at the Gotemba hut on Mt. Fuji. We lay next to each other in darkness, listening. There was the shuffling of gear and backpacks. The creak of the wooden floor. A woman's voice—her words, quiet and unfamiliar. Then silence and finally sleep under musty flannel blankets.
I don't know when the man came into the hut or why he chose to place his bedding next to mine. When I woke up in darkness, his arm was on my shoulder, and his knee was on the back of my thigh. I could hear the slight whistle of his breathing. I could feel his breath on my neck.
A small floor lamp near the door was the only light. I inched toward my wife and sat up. I let my eyes adjust then I began a cautious inventory: He was old. He hardly stirred when I moved. He had the look of calm that comes with deep sleep. His cheeks were high and angular, his hair white under a fisherman’s wool cap. His hand was now resting on the fleece jacket that I was using as a pillow
What was his name? What had brought him to this hut so late at night? Did he know he had been spooning with a foreigner, a gaijin? Was he dreaming of his wife when he drew close to me? His mistress? I knew I couldn’t fall back to sleep, but what should I do? Waking my wife seemed an overreaction. Waking the man would only make matters worse. What would I say? I knew little Japanese. I could move my bedding, but to where?
"What was his name? What had brought him to this hut so late at night? Did he know I was a foreigner, a gaijin? Was he dreaming of his wife when he drew close to me? His mistress?"
In the end, I leaned back against the wall and stared into the darkness, resigned to wait out the arrival of dawn.
It’s strange how the mind works. I forget things all the time—numbers and dates and names—but I can remember the details of that night with a remarkable clarity. What I remember most is the feeling of wonder that came to me then in the dark. Sometimes wonder blindsides us. Other times, it arrives gradually—cumulatively—and we appreciate it only in retrospect. A color combines with a taste and then with a sound and so on until the sum of each singular part leaves us reeling with astonishment. That night, wonder came to me like this: I remembered a woman in a rice paddy staring back at the train. Then there was the smell of grilled eel. The moments came back to me as if I were watching them projected on a screen. An old Koi in a mossy pond. A vending machine selling socks. A winding path up a moonscape of rock and scree. Fuji's shadow stretching east across the cloud deck, lazy as a sun dial. And of course, the weird, uninvited touch of an affectionate old man.
Wonder, Awe, and the Hum of the Universe
When wonder takes hold, the world feels different. There is clarity, and there is gratitude. Wonder is related to awe, but it’s not the same—awe makes us feel respect while wonder connects us to the hum of the universe.
"Wonder is related to awe, but it’s not the same—awe makes us feel respect while wonder connects us to the hum of the universe."
Each moment of wonder is unique, so wonder fascinates and sometimes overwhelms. For some, wonder is spiritual. For others, philosophical. Descartes claimed that wonder was our most fundamental emotion. William Blake found it in a grain of sand. If wonder had a sound, it would be the harmony of the spheres—the musica universalis—the mythical sound the celestial bodies make as they move in the heavens. Lao Tzu spoke of seeing the world through the eyes of a child. Socrates said that wisdom begins with wonder. Siddhartha’s last sermon was a flower and smile, but no words.
The Art of Raft Building
I reread Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon-Tiki recently and I was struck by his take on wonder, particularly his opening sentence: “Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.”
He is 850 miles off the coast of Peru and 3,500 miles to the nearest island. He is at the rudder of a hand-built bamboo raft, listening to the hiss of the waves. Suddenly, the sea and the raft and the flying fish that have landed on the deck all astonish him. He’s dumbfounded. It’s a moment of pure and simple wonder. If we tease the moment out a bit, it also bears an implicit lesson: The chance of wonder increases when we take the time to build rafts.
Raft building isn’t easy. Often, it is tedious and unremarkable. Sometimes the outcome is uncertain. It’s a series of small victories in the daily battle against routine. It’s not wondering if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence; it’s climbing the fence and jumping over. Sometimes a raft’s success hinges simply on saying yes more often than no.
My wife, who has always understood my heart better than anyone, one day announced that we were moving to another country. Mexico, she said at first, and then it was Thailand. Eventually we settled on Japan. And there it was—she had tightened the first lashing on a raft.
When we stop building rafts, we set ourselves up for the inverse of wonder—an ugly combination of surprise and despair. It usually strikes us when we least expect it: While idling at a streetlight or standing in sweatpants at Trader Joe's. For me, it came twenty-one years into a career that had finally run its course. I was teaching 10th graders the difference between a “among” and “between” and I suddenly felt as if I were wearing someone else’s clothes. The details are different for everyone but the reality is always the same. When it arrives, there is no joy. No gratitude. There is no vast sea or hissing waves or high mountain vistas. There is only the grim realization that life is passing us by and we need to get our shit together.
"There is only the grim realization that life is passing us by and we need to get our shit together."
The best raft builders, people like my wife, are a unique clan. The rest of us lack their courage. We map out our lives to avoid surprises (when in truth surprises are what we need the most). We say that we are too busy, that we we’ll get to it next week or the week after that. Often, we pretend comfort is happiness and do nothing at all. Then, since we neglect our rafts, we end up settling into a hum-drum life the way a slouch-backed teenager settles into a broken couch.
Wonder Begets Wonder
Thankfully, though, we don’t always need to travel 5,000 miles from home or climb a volcano to find wonder. Nor do we need an old man to wake us up in the middle of the night to remind us that wonder is everywhere if we'd just learn to pay attention. Wonder is often kind enough to visit us even when we have done nothing to warrant its arrival. It appears in a child’s smile. A human achievement. A sudden slant of sunlight on a placid lake. Wonder is infinite and ubiquitous, and better still—wonder often begets more wonder.
But waiting on wonder to arrive is ultimately an arrangement of diminishing returns. Wonder rewards conscious effort. It’s what we earn when we put faith in the promise that building rafts will someday take us out to sea.
Wonder-filled experiences, like that night on Mt. Fuji, are easy to remember. Now, when I think back on it, I wish I hadn’t fallen back asleep leaning against the wall. Had I stayed awake, maybe I could have watched the sunrise with that old man when he awoke, introducing myself with gestures and broken Japanese. Maybe we could have shared a cup of tea. Instead, sometime during the night as I slept there next to him, he rose without a sound, leaving his blanket beside me—folded perfectly like a present.