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.

10 thoughts on “Slice of Life: Be Astonished

  1. Our maple tree (a Mother’s Day present to my wife) held its leaves for a LONG time this year, and just looked gorgeous. Of course, all good things must come to an end and it dropped the leaves over the weekend, but they were so beautiful and yes, astonishing! 🙂

    Thank you for sharing your astonishing slice (and picture) with us! 🙂


  2. Astonished is a word that needs to be part of our lives. A double rainbow astonished me yesterday as I exited my car before a concert. I almost missed the second one. Observation and astonishment are critical!


  3. Thank you for sharing your reconnection with astonishment in our lives. I never thought about my awesome moments in nature as “astonishing,” but you are right. They truly are. And you are right that it begins with “noticing.” We have to truly see “the thing” to let the astonishment take over. It’s moments like your red tree moment that truly make our lives “astonishing.” A beautiful post…lots to think about.


  4. You are right! Astonishment and what I call the Science of Awe should be used more everyday. For years, I have found it successful to teach my garden club students things that might inspire “awe” in them… is highly successful to use this emotion/technique.


  5. Astonishment feels so good! It’s a wonder we don’t seek it out more often. Looks like your writing winds may be picking up to lift you from the doldrums. May you have a fair breeze.


  6. What a beautifully structured post, Catherine! So much begins with noticing. I love your ending: “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.”


  7. I am putting astonished at the top of my list of possible One Little Word choices. We should be astonished every day. I love it when a student is astonished by their own writing. “I wrote that!” One of my students was sharing with me her new knowledge about why leaves turn colors in the fall. Students are sponges for astonishment.


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