Skip to content

In Defence of Wonder

Keeping one's heart open is risky business. It means anything can stop by for a visit. Sadness, sorrow, grief and, yes, joy too. We can either keep ourselves open to everything, or nothing at all.

Menka Sanghvi
Menka Sanghvi
6 min read
Photo taken by Menka behind her home. Fracturing water that looks like glass.
Fractured ice sheet on the creek running behind my home. Photo by me.

Table of Contents

Hello, Good Lookers,

This is Menka, with your monthly Just Looking Letter, all about slowing down and getting deeply curious about the 525,600 minutes of life we get each year!

"The Earth reminded us of a Christmas tree ornament hanging in the blackness of space." - James Irwin, Apollo 15 Astronaut
A quote found on the back of a Christmas card (by Oliver Jeffers)

I'm not a huge fan of enforced merriment. In the past, I've lamented the idea of "making magic", and I still feel the same way. Not only is it hard to be awed on cue (!), but it can also feel misplaced amid so much suffering in the world.

But today, I want to offer a defence of wonder, which I'm defining as the state of curiosity that is wide open to everything. Because this kind of wonder is not a luxury; it's necessary in both good and bad times.

About The Importance of Wonder

There's something about eye contact that makes us curious about the inner lives of other people. I remember sitting down one afternoon with a woman farmer in Azerbaijan. The floor had a beautiful mosaic pattern on it, and the plastic fan above our heads was whirling loudly, keeping the flies at bay. I asked how things were for her, and how she was managing to make ends meet for her family. Hearing her story, I tried to hold back my tears. It's not professional, of course.

This was about ten years ago. I had been working with Oxfam on a poverty alleviation project for over a year, mostly from our headquarters in Oxford. I'd written reports about the infant mortality rates, the suicides, the food insecurity. Nothing this woman was saying to me was news. But stats feel different when you're sitting in front of them and listening.

Over time, working on such projects created a weariness in me, making it hard to experience joy in my life back home. It's taken years of practice to begin to undo this, and it's still a challenge for me to fully take in moments of ordinary happiness. It can seem indulgent to enjoy a dawn chorus, a moonrise, or a child jumping with joy into a puddle, when there is so much suffering in this world.

Many of you reading this will know of Mary Oliver - she is one of the most widely read poets in the world today. I think one of the reasons her work resonates so strongly in our current times is because she speaks to a joy that can live alongside sadness. As writer and fellow wonder-seeker Sophie Howarth observes about Mary, "Her poems reveal long struggles with despair, alongside deep rapture in the natural world." Despite having experienced neglect and sexual abuse as a child, she considered it her moral duty to keep her heart open for fleeting and unexpected moments of happiness.

Two young girls in the water with only their faces showing, smiling, looking up into falling rain.
Photo by Mou Aysha, a humanitarian photographer based in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

But keeping one's heart open is risky business. It means anything can stop by for a visit. Sadness, sorrow, grief and, yes, joy. This being human is a guest house, as Rumi said, so every morning sees a new arrival. We don't get to choose who comes to our door, but we can choose to keep the door open. And that's what wonder is, an openness, a beginner's mind, and tenacity to live with uncertainty.

If we don't stay open to the good, we can't attend meaningfully to the bad.

Sitting with that distressed farmer, if I didn't keen my heart open while listening to her story, she may not have told it the way she did. I may not have felt moved the way I did, or gone on to write the field report the way I did. And so on, and so on. At this time, in a world in which we can barely make out human voices amid the bots, it seems fundamental to approach each other with eyes of wonder.

There is a sudden gush of rainfall as I am typing this. Hang on. For a few minutes, I just stepped away and stood by an open window so I could hear the rain properly. The lushness of the sound reminds me of a line from Mary Oliver's poem 'Sometimes'. If I listen carefully enough, I might hear the crazy roots, in the drenched earth, laughing and growing.

Looking Exercise

Keep an open heart
Channel Mary Oliver for a few days to begin this New Year. Paying attention to the world with a sky-wide-open curiosity was a sacred practice for her. She began each morning by standing outside with her notebook open, just listening to the wind and the birds. And every day, she wrote, "I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight."

A Year-Long Timelapse Of the Sky [Watch: 5 min]
Ken Murphy installed a camera on a roof in San Francisco (USA), capturing an image of the sky every 10 seconds. As with all time-lapses, it gives us a chance to appreciate things that happen too slowly for us to observe directly.

Colourful Popcorn, Anyone? [See]
Been recently pretty obsessed with the work of German architect, author and collector of beauty, Jonas Frei.  

Many colours of corn!
Photo by Jonas Frei @j.d.frei of colourful corn seeds from various cultivars.

A Beautiful Photo Essay about Fatherhood [Read / See]

"Making photographs gave me an excuse to linger and be present, at my own speed, in a variety of situations, softening the unease within me. I began to see my surroundings more acutely, attentively and empathetically, moment by moment, and I found that I could get others to interact with me in surprising and intimate ways."
A toddler from the perspective of the ground, walking in grass.
Photo by Trent Davis Bailey.

The Peace of Wild Things [Read]
To end this list, and this year, I leave you with this poem by Wendell Berry, a farmer, poet and environmentalist in rural America. I think it is one of his most widely loved poems because it offers such a simple suggestion.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Community News

Every time I organise a meetup, there is a theme, and on one occasion, someone asked: "Is a theme necessary?" No, we don't need anything to practice looking with curiosity; it is the most natural thing. We don't need cameras, warmup exercises, or a group setting. But when we're stuck in our thoughts, these creative nudges can help wake up our perceptual system, giving it a reason to get started.

The World Wide Wander
A group of us joined the Street Wisdom's World Wide Wander and met with the project's founder David Pearl. We talked about how we all have different "go-to senses" that dominate the others, often the eyes, and how that influences our reality. If you're a plan-aheader, sign up for the next one in Sept 2024.

Collaboration with Creative Quest
I designed a special photowalk in collaboration with Creative Quest, during their month-long exploration of "Light". What an amazing bunch! Check out their upcoming Quest 16 Jan- 13 Feb 2024, open to anyone around the world.

Group of people sitting in a cemetery.
Just Looking photowalk at the Highgate Cemetery.
People in a museum looking at a piece of art in which there are people in a museum looking at a piece of art!
Just Looking meetup at the Tate Modern. (Who's looking at the one looking at people looking at people looking?)

Thank you for reading, sharing, and being a part of this small project. I hope some word, image, idea, or other crumb has inched you closer to the flow of your own life – your own presence, the source of all the world's wonder.

Yours in curiosity,

Website‌ | Instagram | Meetup

ps. This newsletter will always be a free gift. If you'd like to support this project and the wider movement, check out Friends of Just Looking.


Menka Sanghvi Twitter

I'm a researcher, writer, and designer working on the theme of mindful curiosity. Just Looking is a project I started to help myself and others slow down and experience more wonder in the everyday.

Related Posts

Members Public

The Blueness of Blue

We have so many allies in this world, including just the colour blue in the sky. It is amazing how simply noticing colours and paying attention can help bring you back to the moment and feel less alone in the world.

Blue sky, grey shadow on grey bricks.
Members Public

Our Bodies Conduct Electricity

Wetware. Organic apparatus. Bio-processor. I have serious hesitations about each of these terms for the human body. I'm wary of conflating machines with humans. But there is at least one thing we have in common with machines: we rely on electricity to function.

Vintage-looking photo of two young boys in a bath tub covered in bubbles, no smiles, having serious fun.
Members Public

Humble Ways to Slow Time

As Doctor Who sums up: time isn't simply a linear progression. It's more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff. So how do we actually slow it down?

Humble Ways to Slow Time