The Wonder Report: February 5, 2021
The Way of Imagination
The Wonder Report is coming to you from a new venue and in a slightly different format; I’ll explain more below. But don’t worry: you can still find all the features you’ve come to expect in this weekly letter, and as always, it’s available to you at no cost.
In his book The Way of Imagination, author Scott Russell Sanders talks about meeting a retired banker who decided to use some of the vast wealth he had accumulated to buy a heavily forested woodland, hire people to replant the forest with native hardwoods, and place the property in a conservation trust so that “the trees would grow unmolested as long as the sun shines and the rain falls.”
Curious about what might motivate such an act of stewardship, Sanders asked the man if he grew up near a forest of the kind he hoped to recreate. But the man had not. Instead, he’d read about them “as settings for the adventures of fictional characters such as Natty Bumppo or historical figures such as Daniel Boone.” He also had memorized a line of poetry by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Evangeline that perfectly described what he hoped to recreate, and he recited it to Sanders: “This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks” and so on.
From this conversation, Sanders recognized three “leaps of mind” that allowed the man to forge a vision of his reclaimed forest. First, he had to picture a place he’d never actually been but had only encountered in books … “the transfer of vision from the writer’s mind to a reader’s mind.” Second, he had to move both backward and forward in time … envisioning a past glory that he hoped to recreate. Finally, he had to care about people he did not know and would never meet … an “active form of empathy we call compassion.”
In these three leaps of mind, the banker found the way of imagination, that allowed him to solve multiple problems by means he’d never actually witnessed or experienced himself.
“Consider what a mysterious power this is,” Sanders writes. “Imagination keeps us from being trapped in the present arrangement of things,” while “those who lack imagination accept the present arrangement of things as unalterable.”
In a year when I’ve spent far too much time feeling trapped in the house, stuck behind a mask, hidden from those I love, the invitation to imagine something better feels like a mysterious power indeed.
Of course our circumstances create real limits that often can’t be changed. The Christian life is nothing if not an exercise in learning to be content, like the Apostle Paul, who knew what it was like to live in plenty and in want. And there’s also the way Scripture invites us to reframe or revise how we see our circumstances, like in James’ admonition to “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds.” Why? Because “the testing of your faith produces perseverance,” which leads to maturity.
But there’s also the reality that God himself is that mysterious power, who works in and through and even beyond our imaginations to take those same circumstances that leave us feeling trapped and does “abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us.”
It’s like Jesus told the disciples about the chances of the rich young ruler giving all he has to the poor in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
After years of sending out a monthly-ish author newsletter, one year ago today, I began something new. Rather than use this letter to tell you about me and my work, I began to imagine this as a space where we could think together what it means to chase wonder wherever we could find it.
The Wonder Report started out as a once-a-month missive, but last summer, I decided to try a weekly format, mostly because there was so much I wanted to share … and so many of you seemed hungry for more. With the weekly format, I was able to better develop themes and go more deeply into the nuance of chasing wonder through both the abstract and concrete realities of our lives.
Like Sanders’ banker from the story above, I began to take leaps of mind into what this little newsletter could become. After a year, I moved so far beyond thinking of it as a marketing tool to tell readers about my work … instead, I now see it as the publishing tool where I create my best writing, as the hub of all the other writing and thinking I do, and as fertile ground for growing it into a place where more conversation, more wonder, can actually be fostered.
But as my imagination began to lead me further and further down the road, I also began to recite to myself the pragmatic question of author and entrepreneur Tim Ferris, who keeps himself from overthinking things by asking “What would this look like if it were easy?”
What you are reading today is the product of my imagination working within the reality of the “present reality of things”: The Wonder Report is now part of the Substack subscription platform.
What does this move offer to you as readers? For one, you get the exact same newsletter you’ve been receiving for the last year still delivered directly to your inbox. And also still for free. You also will have the ability to comment on posts and engage with me and others about the content. I’ll be moving monthly blog posts to this platform as well, along with a few other types of posts that will help us discuss and consider books and articles and monthly themes. Eventually, some additional content may get delivered directly to your inbox, but for now, you’ll just see links in the Wonder Report that will bring you back to this space.
It also gives readers who are willing and able the chance to support this work, which takes considerable time, effort and attention on my part. I’m committed to continuing this work because I see how it’s benefitting me and others (thanks for telling me so each week!). But because I’m also a full-time writer, paying subscribers can help subsidize this work so that I can continue to make the vast majority of it free to everyone.
Of course the way of imagination is about more than just rethinking The Wonder Report. In fact, it’s at the very heart of my vision of chasing wonder. “What we call imagination,” Sanders writes, “is a human expression of the shaping force at work in the universe,” the way we join God in his creative, sustaining, and generative work.
I’m glad you’re here for it … for all of it … both The Wonder Report and for the chasing wonder in general. It’s good to be on this journey together.
It was great to get outside last weekend and go for a hike with my sister Sierra and her family. This is state park #2 for 2021 for Steve and me so far.
Where are you feeling “trapped in the present arrangement of things”?
How can Sanders’ three “leaps of mind” — picturing a reality only encountered in books or art; moving backward and forward in time; and caring about people you do not know and will never meet — help you see your present arrangement of things as alterable, if not by you than by the mysterious power of God?
Dream big … let your imagination run wild!
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
Living a chronic life in a fix-it-now world by Kate Bowler for The Washington Post. I’m a fan of just about anything Kate Bowler writes or says, but I especially loved this piece for the way it helps us reimagine life from the perspective of suffering and our eventual death.
From the essay: “Our society finds it especially difficult to talk about anything chronic — meaning, any kind of pain, emotional or physical, that abides and lives with us constantly. The sustaining myth of the American Dream rests on a hearty can-do spirit, but not all problems can be overcome. So often, we are defined by the things we live with rather than the things we conquer. Any persistent suffering requires being afraid — but we hang our fears in the balance of our great loves and act, each day, as though love will outweigh them all.”
Living with a Visionary by John Matthias for The New Yorker. Similar to the article above, this one considers a reframing of life that includes the terminal illness of the author’s wife. What I especially loved, however, is the way one of Sanders’ leaps of mind — namely, picturing a reality only encountered in books or art — helps sustain Matthias wife even through the hallucinations of Parkinsons.
From the essay: “At first, Diana could identify her illusions as such, and sometimes even dismiss them. (‘Scat!’ got rid of the cat.) The things she saw were not always frightening. Many of them seemed inspired by her work in the visual arts. Visiting a neighbor, Diana enthusiastically described a painting on a blank wall where, we later learned, one had been hanging until several days before. Her knowledge of eighteenth-century art may in part explain her delight in seeing topiary figures cut into very large trees, where I saw nothing but leaves. Some of the visions she told me about were clearly breathtaking. ‘If only you could see this,’ she said.”
Musings on Newsletters And What Makes them Valuable by Paola Berrera on her blog. I’m including this last article not only because Paola talks about The Wonder Report in her musings on newsletters, but also because her thoughts here are part of my own reimagining of what this, and really all author newsletters, could actually be for readers.
From the essay: “I think of the four letters I listed above. They’re quite different from one another. As varied in their tone and offering as the human voices behind each one. But in addition to being well written, they have this difference-maker in common: they’re written with thought and attention for the reader. Even the more personal ones who share from their own lives are doing so out of a desire to share their humanity with me and the many others who subscribe.”
What I’m Reading
Check out these books, magazines, or other publications I'm currently reading or have just finished. I'll only share resources I highly recommend ... and I'd love to hear your recommendations, too!
The Way of Imagination: Essays by Scott Russell Sanders. After the essay at the top, you expected this one, right?
Here’s how the publisher describes the book: “Scott Russell Sanders shows how imagination, linked to compassion, can help us solve the urgent ecological and social challenges we face. While reflecting on the conditions needed for human flourishing, he tells the story of his own intellectual and moral journey from childhood religion to an adult philosophy of life. That philosophy is tested when his first wife and then their son fall ill. Compelled to leave their beloved old house, they design a new one, and then transform their vision into a home and their raw city lot into a garden.” We’ll talk about it all month.
The Great Believers (a novel) by Rebecca Makkai. I’m still just getting started with this one, so I reserve judgment. But so far, the story is engaging, and set in times and places that feels familiar and foreign all at the same time.
Here’s how the publisher describes the book: “A dazzling novel of friendship and redemption in the face of tragedy and loss set in 1980s Chicago and contemporary Paris.”
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
Last month, LitHub published an excerpt from Joan Didion’s new book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean. The excerpt was actually a talk she gave at some point and is simply called, “Why I Write,” a title Didion claims to have stolen from George Orwell.
I particularly love the quote highlighted at the top of the article: "I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means." In many ways, it seems that Didion writes in order to take the same “leaps of mind” that Sanders describes in his own book.
I wonder—if you are a writer, why do you write? Who are you apart from writing, and who are you as a writer? Like Didion, don’t think of yourself as a “good” writer or a “bad” writer; let your imagination move beyond winning and losing. Instead, jot down the story that led you to your own life as a “person whose most absorbed and passionate hours are spent arranging words on pieces of paper.” Or if that’s not how you would describe your writing life, come up with your own definition of being a writer.
That’s it for this time! I hope you like the new format. Please drop me a line and tell me what you think. As always, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. But you can also leave a comment on this newsletter which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this new-to-me platform.
Thanks again for being a subscriber. One of the reasons I write is because of readers like you!
Until next time,