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SRS Interviews

"'I astonish easily'": Scott Russell Sanders' History of Awe"


By David Hoppe

Nuvo (Indianapolis, Indiana), 5 July 2006

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I’m telling about what I’ve seen as a way of inviting you to think about your life. —Scott Russell Sanders

“One of my goals as a writer is to inspire people to pay attention to where they are,” Scott Russell Sanders says.

Sanders, whose latest book, A Private History of Awe, has just been published by North Point Press to resoundingly enthusiastic national reviews, has made a life’s work of thinking, writing and teaching about the sense of place. In Sanders’ case, that means the Midwest in general and Bloomington, Indiana, in particular.

Sanders has done as much as any writer of his generation to put Indiana on the map. In just over 20 years, he has compiled a body of work, including novels and short stories, children’s books and, especially, creative non-fiction. Sanders is widely regarded as one of America’s leading essayists; his writing about the natural world and how we humans relate to it has garnered numerous awards. He has also earned the Frederick Bachman Lieber Award for Distinguished Teaching, the highest teaching award given by Indiana University, where he has worked since 1971.

In A Private History of Awe, Sanders writes, “Even as a child, before I could imagine death, I sensed that the force I thrilled to in thunder storms could crush me. Now, of course, I know that everything I make, everything I love, everything I am will eventually be scattered like the sand of the mandala. My wonder has always been clouded by fear. The word that comes closest to embracing the dread as well as the reverence, the shadow side as well as the light, is awe.”

Sanders talked about embracing awe in a wide-ranging conversation at his home in Bloomington in June. Sunlight played across his garden and through the windows of his front porch as he spoke.

Sanders: There’s a motif that runs through the reviews of A Private History of Awe that says, “This is a really ordinary life this guy has led, in a very ordinary place — and it’s amazing, absolutely fascinating.” They’re startled that I’ve been able to make them interested in a place, a long marriage, stability of vocation, no drug problems, no prison record, no homicides in the family, not seduced by a father or mother. So what could be interesting about this person’s life?

They read it and come away really loving the book and surprised that they’re interested.

I actually say in the preface to the book that what I’m pursuing is a kind of ordinary insight — these are openings, things that happen in everyone's life. I’m telling about what I’ve seen as a way of inviting you to think about your life.

Readers are told that unless you look like and act like and have the adventures of the celebrities in People Magazine, or that show up on reality TV shows, or in histrionic memoirs, your life is empty. It’s analogous to saying what could possibly be of interest to the human imagination in Michigan City? Or in Bloomington? In Evansville?

NUVO: Toward the end of A Private History of Awe, you write about trying to teach books about happy families and not being able to find them.

Sanders: Strife is dramatic; harmony is not. And yet, our well-being depends on the fact that most of us, most of the time, cooperate. We get along. We’re polite with one another. We don’t punch one another out when we walk down the sidewalk. Husbands and wives and partners living together most of the time cooperate on things. If we weren't cooperative, our species would have died out long ago. So we take harmony and mutual care for granted, but we’re interested in where things break down because breakdown is threatening. That's what we need to know about, what we need to avoid.

When you walk across a room and one thing is out of its customary place, you notice that. Evolution teaches us to pay attention to any break in the familiar pattern, because it might represent an opportunity or a threat.

So long as the surroundings are unchanged, so long as the pattern is consistent, you figure you don’t need to pay attention.

This habit of mind tends to erase the significance from our ordinary lives. It focuses all significance on breakdown and dysfunction. It’s like Freud basing a whole theory of mind on people who were ill.

I’m interested in paying attention to ordinary life, everyday reality, instead of merely to what is dramatic or sensational. Likewise, we should pay attention to places, not because they’re spectacular or because they show up in movies, but because they’re places where people actually live.

NUVO: But drama attracts us.

Sanders: I understand the appeal of dramatic things. We’ve been drawn to them as long as stories have been told. Look at the Odyssey — it’s a whole string of scrapes that Ulysses gets into. We’re not interested in the days and days of clear sailing, we want the Cyclops.

But my own life has not been convulsed by brutal parents or suicidal depression or other tragic influences. The life I have to write out of is one most people would regard as uneventful. That doesn’t mean it’s meaningless. I want my readers to recognize the meaning in their own lives, and in their own places.


NUVO: What do you mean when you use words like "awakenings " and "awe"?

Sanders: Awakening is an important word for me. It has to do with that waking up from the habituated routines of our lives. That’s going to be as true for a businessman in Manhattan as a farmer in Iowa. We all fall into routines and we become habituated and stop recognizing how astounding life is moment by moment. Being able to talk — to send vibrations through the air, to be able to walk on two legs. These things are so familiar we cease to feel how amazing they are.

For whatever reason, I’m made in such a way that I keep waking up from this sleepwalking state. Maybe it’s because I value such moments; maybe it’s the result of the discipline of writing; or maybe it’s just how my nerves are wired — but I astonish easily.

Say you’re with somebody you love or you’re with a child; listening to music or looking at your hostas in the backyard, and something comes over you--a sense of how miraculous it is to be here. The wind is blowing and the birds are singing and you feel that sense of utter rightness. Then you get tired and go in to supper. You fall into your routines again.

One of my hopes in writing this book was to relive some of those passages in my life, and thereby invite readers to be more receptive to those awakenings in their own lives. I hope it’s easier for a reader to turn away from this book and think about his or her own life than it would be if this book were about the 17th guy to climb Mt. Everest and how he lost his arm from frostbite. There you’re focused on what an amazing thing this guy went through. Whereas there is really nothing in A Private History of Awe that’s outside the scope of most people who would read it.

NUVO: You observe that sometimes it seems to you that all other forms of matter on Earth are closer to God than humans are. That we’re the alienated ones.

Sanders: The irony is that our very gifts--the mind, the imagination--make it possible for us to be alienated. Other animals have minds, of course, but as nearly as one can tell from the outside, the house wren calling just now from his nest outside my window doesn’t need to learn how to be a house wren.

Our capacity for self-consciousness allows us to fall into the delusion that our self is contained in an autonomous bubble that’s independent of other things.

That’s an illusion I don’t think the house wren is capable of having. Our self-reflection, which is responsible for some of the greatest glories of human achievement, confronts us with a puzzle: What does it mean to be human? How should we behave? Aside from the biological impulses that we share with other animals, most of what we do as adult human beings is the result of making choices. But making choices means that we can make mistakes. It means that we can claim for ourselves powers we really don’t possess.

So how do we break through that? I love the passage from William Blake's “Heaven and Hell” where he says if the doors of perception were cleansed we would see everything as it is — infinite. Such awakening seems to me the deepest goal of existence. It’s not to accumulate money, it’s not to acquire status or fame, but to become as fully awake to this mysterious reality as we can be.

There are a lot of practices — prayer, meditation, gardening, writing — that focus one's attention so as to relax the ego and open us to what is. Any practice that has such an effect is nurturing and vital.

NUVO: Guilt seems to play a significant part in many of your life’s important passages …

Sanders: Guilt has been a key element of my personality and I don’t pretend to know where it comes from. I suspect that some of it comes from being the son of an alcoholic father. As a boy I felt keenly and irrationally responsible for the pain and disorder of my parents. I imagined that if only I were perfect, their problems would go away. That is a classic response to having a dysfunctional parent.

While growing up, I was a devout Bible-reader and church-goer and pray-er to a God who I felt was watching every move I made and hearing every thought in my head. And that religious upbringing was certainly another source of my guilt.

Guilt is a poor motive for good behavior. It's exhausting and, if carried too long, embittering.

NUVO: Generations — your relationships with your ailing mother and with your granddaughter — serve as reference points throughout your book.

Sanders: These circumstances made me more aware that we’re always dwelling in this stream of generations. A Private History of Awe is about the ethics of caring. We are at our best as a species when we take care of things--perhaps a place, a school, an institution, a child, or an ailing elder.

NUVO: Is caring the way we come to terms with what you call the “authentic self”?

Sanders: Whenever I am taking care, rather than looking out for myself, is when I feel most authentic. I might be engaging with my students or taking a walk with my wife, just feeling a sense of utter connection with her. I might be holding my granddaughter, or I might be comforting my mother in her later years, when she became so childlike and dependent. But I can also care about the Indiana landscape, especially the southern hill country where I live. There’s a kind of beauty and nobility here we don’t sufficiently recognize, and therefore we don't care for the land as well as we should.

NUVO: You place an emphasis on the importance of living in proximity to family, friends, a familiar landscape.

Sanders: For me, the unit of value is not the isolated self but the web of relationships that sustains each person. If you regard the individual as the unit of value, then you'll be obsessed with status, appearance, and wealth, and you'll keep hunting for some better situation. You won't commit yourself to anyone or anything or any place. You'll be loyal only to the needs of the self. And that seems to me to be a recipe for misery — your own and other people’s.

But if you realize that your life is meaningful only in relation to other people, to your home place, and to your entire web of relationships, then you have some chance of achieving satisfaction in this life. And you also may contribute to the well-being of others.

NUVO: It seems the culture defines the self in reductive and materialistic ways.

Sanders: Advertising is addressed to that fictitious, isolated self. What advertising says is that the universe is all about you--about your appearance, convenience, and pleasure. And right now, it says, you are inadequate. You lack something that the advertiser is eager to sell you. If you buy what's for sale, then you — this isolated ego sitting on a couch — will be richer, sexier, better, happier.

Even though your rational self knows that’s a baldfaced lie, your emotional self falls for it. Advertising works because it's aimed at the smallest conceivable notion of what the self is.

NUVO: Is art part of the solution, or part of the problem?

Sanders: It can be either. There is a lot of art that’s just an elaborate way of showing off. That’s true in all media.

But art can also be an antidote to the culture of lies. It can carry us outside our own little arena of consciousness, enabling us to imagine lives that are different from our own. When it’s well-done, art can refresh our awareness and deepen our understanding.

NUVO: You call mortality the one lesson we never unlearn.

Sanders: For a stretch of my childhood, following an operation in which I nearly died, I was obsessed with death. Sooner or later, every child has some experience that brings the sudden awareness that you, too, will die. You may repress the knowledge, push it off to the edge of your mind, but you don’t get rid of it.

A lot of my preoccupation with the Bible and with church was driven by my fear of death. I suspect this fear is the root of much religious practice, in all traditions. We long for assurance that we will continue in some form after bodily death.

Then, something strange happened in my middle years. After my father died when he was 64 and I was 35, I got over my fear of death. It just went away, and I don't quite know why. I don't look forward to old age — I’ve seen too much of the dependence, the humiliation and limitation that come with the loss of physical and mental powers. But death itself no longer frightens me. And not because I believe in an afterlife.

It seems to me the healthiest response to this awareness of mortality is to treasure every moment of life. To be truly present, instead of always craving something other than what is in front of you. If life has a purpose, it must have to do with waking up to the miracle of existence. And if humans have a distinctive role to play in the universe — which is a big if for me — it doesn’t have to do with amassing money or sexual conquest or putting a ball through a basket. It has to do with enlarging our perception. With gazing back at the creation and responding to it. That’s what we’re here for.

NUVO: Gary Snyder talks about the importance of knowing the names of all the plants in your yard.

Sanders: Yes, knowing the flowers, the trees, the birds and butterflies. Knowing where the water goes when it pours off your roof, how it flows from here to the Gulf of Mexico. Knowing where our weather comes from, the fact that the moisture here is drawn up the Mississippi Valley and encounters these westerly winds that come across the Great Plains.

Only by knowing such earthly realities can I understand my true home. I'm just one more creature here, alongside all the other living things. Such knowledge is one source of awe.


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