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How to hold onto a sense of wonder

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

And for this week's Enlighten Me segment, we're revisiting a conversation Rachel Martin had with the author Katherine May. Her most recent book is about facing life's uncertainties by tapping into a sense of enchantment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

RACHEL MARTIN: Do you remember being enchanted as a child - like, a specific image, event, conversation that mesmerized you in that way?

KATHERINE MAY: Yes. And, in fact, the memories from childhood are actually very small things. But they felt so important to me. So I used to spend a lot of time sitting in my back garden, smashing rocks open with a hammer. We didn't have iPads in those days. Like, life was hard.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Very enchanting activity.

MAY: Yeah. I mean, yeah, it probably says a lot about my childhood. But, you know, like, every - I don't know - 10th or 20th stone would have, like, a little geode of crystals inside it.

MARTIN: Ah.

MAY: And that was absolutely magical to me.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MAY: I could uncover this little tiny cave that was millions of years old and which nobody had ever seen before. And there were loads of small things like that. And I guess there's that time when everything feels heightened and everything feels very possible. And I think we almost deliberately shut that down as we get older.

MARTIN: You did not grow up in a religious household. Is that right?

MAY: No, not at all. And, in fact, probably the opposite of a religious household, if that's possible - like, a household that felt very resistant to the idea of organized religion and which equally thought that people with more vague spiritual beliefs were a little bit cringeworthy. So I do worry what my family thinks of me these days. But I did go to church schools. Like, it's really common in the U.K. to go to church schools. And I always actually loved the religious bits of my church schools without believing in it.

MARTIN: The notion of God is complicated, right? But for many of us, it's the word, the term, the idea that we use to connote something bigger. What does that mean to you?

MAY: Oh, I'd love to be able to answer that question. If only - (laughter). This huge word, this huge three-letter word - God - which I've never felt a connection with in any definition that I've been given. And yet, as I've gone through life, I've also felt like there is something there that I can't define and that nobody else's definition does it for me. And I begin to think that it's the questing after that that's the point of this, actually. Like, rather than the knowing, rather than the certainty and the solidification of this idea, the thing that is most enlightening to me is that constant search for connection with this ineffable thing. For me, I wouldn't even say being. It's like a force that I sense sometimes.

MARTIN: Yeah. Do you pray?

MAY: Yeah. I do. And I always have, actually. It's something I learnt to do when I was at school. And I did it by rote then, but I've never stopped.

MARTIN: Really.

MAY: And I - for the longest time, I haven't known who I'm talking to...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: (Inaudible) question. Like, I went to, you know, a religious school growing up, too, and prayer was kind of the deal. Like, you learned how to do it. There were, like, very specific things that you were supposed to say. Or, you know, in our tradition - it was, like, a Presbyterian church school - you just freeform, you know? You just - dear God, this is what's on my mind...

MAY: Good to have a nice little chat with you.

MARTIN: ...Super cas (ph). Yeah. Yeah. As an adult, I haven't figured out that language. I will admit that it feels, like, silly to me. Like, I can't get over my own self-consciousness about it.

MAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah. You have faced some of that, too?

MAY: Oh, my goodness. So much of that. It was something I decided to kind of work on about a decade ago, actually, that I realized I had this urge in me to pray. And yet I felt silly about every single instance of trying to do it. You know, like, I'd learnt all these formulas for saying a group of words together, and it didn't make any sense to me at all. And I also - I was really troubled by how I'd been taught to pray, which was kind of to ask for stuff in lots of ways.

MARTIN: Right.

MAY: And I began to think of it as entering a state of prayerfulness rather than of praying. It was an act of communion and an act of kind of trying to share what was in my mind and my heart in as honest and direct a way as I could, because to me, what this greater being could do was know me in a way that no one else could know me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Can you tell me about the well? Because that anecdote feels prayerful in a way.

MAY: So I'm lucky enough to live near Canterbury, which is an ancient site of pilgrimage, and it's part of a far greater pilgrim's way that stretches all the way across Europe. A friend of mine told me that she had found this well - this pilgrim's well that she'd been visiting, and she took me to see it. And I didn't really know what to expect, but it's actually quite a forgotten little well. It's - you know, it's a thousand years old probably, and it's hidden behind a giant, overgrown rosebush. And so we crawled through the bush - I lost my coat in the process - and came to this beautiful stone surrounding with a little pool at the bottom, and a well was springing up into that pool. So every now and then, you'd see bubbles coming up into this beautiful still pool of water. And then there were several steps down to that pool.

And that was such a - I don't know - a magical moment for me because the thing with those little set of steps was that you could only go down there alone. And as you went down the steps, you felt your sense of intention changing, like our ancestors had worked out how to create this perfect little environment for reflection - and literal reflection because you get down there, and you see your face reflected in the pool as well as all of nature around you as well. And there's something about the quality of that place that you knew that other people had come down there in the same frame of mind as you had, but over centuries. And, yeah, it's an absolutely beautiful, magical place. And I hesitate to tell you all about it in case you want to go there, too (laughter).

MARTIN: You don't have to give me the GPS coordinates (laughter).

MAY: Oh, all right then. Maybe just for you.

MARTIN: But what was especially profound for me in reading that part is the responsibility that you have, that the individual has, to make the meaning, right? Like, the well won't do it for you. I'm reading now - this is from the section of the book about this. (Reading) Once you're there, you're on your own. It offers no clues for what to do, no liturgy or ceremony. At the bottom of those steps, you must confront your own yearning to make meaning. The water reflects only your troubled face. You are the one who fills the well.

And that felt, like, a little sad to me. I mean, empowering, yes, great. I get to create my own meaning, but, like, really? I have to do it?

MAY: Damn it. I just want it to tell me what to do (laughter).

MARTIN: Yes, Katherine. Yes. Sometimes you do want the well to tell you or to make all that is, you know, enigmatic, mysterious, complicated, difficult, clear in its reflection. But that's the whole point - right? - is it's sort of...

MAY: But, Rachel, you know you don't like that already, right (laughter)?

MARTIN: I know. It's true.

MAY: All of your contact with religion so far has told you that actually you hate that bit. You hate being told what meanings to make.

MARTIN: It's true. It's true.

MAY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah.

MAY: Yeah. No, it's...

MARTIN: But that is...

MAY: And that's the change that I had to undergo and that I do think loads of us would benefit from undergoing is this dropping of wanting to be told the answers because they're just not there. There are no answers. And simple answers quickly turn into horrible, generalized strictures on our lives as soon as we start taking them in. And the learning for us is to sit with mystery and to be able to get comfortable with not knowing and not understanding and feeling a bit lost quite often and going out and looking for spontaneous truths because actually there's very few universal ones.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Before I let you go, can you tell me about the moon shadow?

MAY: Ah, yes.

MARTIN: I love this story.

MAY: Yeah. So I didn't realize that there is a regular schedule of meteor storms happening above our heads all through the year. And so I went with my family to a dark skies zone in the U.K. where I was most likely to see a certain meteor storm.

MARTIN: These are designated areas where you can't have artificial light.

MAY: Yes, that's right. I thought I had a really good chance of seeing these meteors. And what I found instead was a supermoon. And the supermoon was so bright that it blocked out all other points of light in the sky.

(LAUGHTER)

MAY: But what it showed me instead was my own moon shadow. I'm not sure I really realized that they were real. And I was so enchanted by this incredibly fragile apparition of myself being cast by the moon, like a shadow within a shadow. It was a shadow onto night, you know. And it made me realize, I guess, you know, exactly what I've just been saying, which is that we rarely get the answers we're looking for. We often get a completely different answer about a completely different thing. And seeing my own moon shadow was magical to me - completely magical. And to play in that - you know, to play with my own shadow, just like a child might do. And I - yeah, I had no idea it was out there waiting for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The book is called "Enchantment: Awakening Wonder In An Anxious Age." It's written by Katherine May. Katherine, what a pleasure to talk with you about these things. Thank you so much.

MAY: Oh, thank you. That was so lovely.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOONSHADOW")

CAT STEVENS: (Singing) Yes, I'm being followed by a moonshadow, moonshadow, moonshadow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.