Imagine living 99 years inspired by a sense of wonder.
Entering into the world as children, we began with the curiosity and amazement found at the heart of a wonder-filled life. Yet along our journeys, most step out of this sense of wonderment and instead become cautious, cynical, hardened, haughty or any number of other traits designed to protect our egos and allow us to function—or so we believe—in the adult world.
In taking that step, we too often lose a generous, more imaginative perspective.
Wonder came into my consciousness last week while I was in Charlottesville for the memorial service of a long-time friend, Anne Worrell. I met Anne soon after moving to Virginia in the early 1980s, and over the years I came to know her primarily as a historic preservationist, businesswoman, newspaper publisher, philanthropist, and convener extraordinaire. With her husband Gene she founded their first newspaper, the Virginia Tennessean, in Bristol, and together they grew the company to be one of the largest chains of small dailies in the country.
Anne, who passed away on August 1st at the age of 99, was an indispensable early supporter of the effort to save Thomas Jefferson’s retreat, Poplar Forest, and we served together on that board for a number of years. Anne was a trustee of the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, where I was the founding director; providing the organization with critical guidance and funding to tell the story of preservation’s economic impact in the Commonwealth, an effort which led to the highly successful state historic rehabilitation tax credits. And because of Anne’s ability to convene, each election cycle found all the candidates for governor, no matter their political party, in her office to discuss preservation policy. Anne was also generous in spirit, once offering us her house in Abingdon for an overnight stay when she learned we were planning a 12-hour drive to Tennessee with six-month-old twins. Anne was certainly a welcomed force in my world.
At the memorial service, her granddaughter spoke of the personal side of Anne’s life. I immediately recognized my friend when she described her grandmother as animated by a simple sense of wonder. “That’s wonderful!”—always spoken with exuberance and a smile—was one of Anne’s favorite phrases. We heard it often. Her family told stories about Anne’s writing for her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, with a special focus on a trilogy of books featuring a pair of wrens that took up residence near her house. Living in a sense of wonder didn’t make Anne a Pollyanna. True to the early masters of the fairy tale genre, Anne wrote about the world as a difficult place; a place where a snake could come into the wren’s birdhouse and eat the eggs while the parents were gone. Yet amazingly, Mr. and Mrs. Wren always came back, working to build a better home and a better life. Anne conveyed life lessons built on her own experiences, for sure, but also based on her indomitable sense of wonder.
Author Richard Holmes has challenged the rigidity of current perspectives and boundaries between disciplines and ideologies, calling instead for a culture with a “sense of individual wonder, the power of hope, and the vivid but questing belief in a future for the globe.” Anne possessed those qualities in abundance, often expressing herself through a sense of humor full of empathy and wisdom.
Anne’s life, along with considerations on the ways in which a broader sense of wonder could impact the world we live in, were on my mind the next day when I entered Takoma Bev. Co. for our standard Saturday morning family brunch. I was delighted to see our favorite employee at work, an outgoing and articulate young man who confronts each task with a smile and who even cleans up floor spills with unbridled exuberance. We began talking and—after seeing him and chatting briefly over several weeks—finally used this occasion to ask his name. “Wonder” he responded, “it means ‘last born’ in Ewe, and I was the last of seven children in my family.”
Once again, I was reminded to be present when serendipity strikes.
This Wonder is certainly old enough to have slipped the bonds of amazement and move to the more cynical traits we so often call upon as adults. But instead he was choosing to live out the broader understanding of the meaning of his name with a generous and imaginative perspective.
How we see the world about us is a choice to be made. We can change our perspectives, if we desire, with enough time and work. In considering how best to respond to the challenges of our times, I believe we would all benefit by gathering a simple sense of wonder to support a generous heart and an imaginative view of our life on this stage.
Rest in peace, Anne Worrell. Your sense of wonder still has a place in the world. Even in our local coffee shop.
More to come…
Installment #9 of The Gap Year Chronicles