The first time I moved to Manhattan was in the autumn of 1981. I arrived as a college student, and while I had been raised in a metropolitan area (read: suburb) of Boston, a savvy city-dweller I was not. Of my two parents, my mother was more deeply concerned about her young daughter’s naiveté. She talked to as many people as she could about her worries, compiling a list of do’s and don’ts presented to me just before I left. Do stride purposefully when you are walking anywhere; don’t pull out a map and look confused when you are navigating a new neighborhood. Do avoid eye contact, don’t travel anywhere alone after dark. It was a typical list of behaviors given from an anxious parent to an oblivious, overly confident young person—and like most oblivious, overly confident young people I smiled and nodded and dismissed much of what she said.
When I finally got here, the piece of advice I heard most often was, “Whatever you do, no matter where you are in any neighborhood, don’t look up! Looking up is a sure sign that you are a tourist!” At the time there were practical reasons for this, but it was also an expression of pride: if you seem too awestruck by the enormity of the city, you won’t seem like a real New Yorker!
Now I am back, experiencing a very different time in my life and in the life of this city, and I find myself looking up all the time. Partly this is a function of age—I’m a bit older and a bit less concerned about whether I present as a tourist or not (or at least I like to think so!). But it is also a conscious decision to allow myself a sense of wonder whenever and wherever it hits. This doesn’t always work, and I miss a lot. Still, I try to recognize the gifts such moments can bring; that they are holy offerings that have the potential to startle us out of complacency. These same gifts invite our souls to expand and our hearts to reorient toward perspective and hope.
When we baptize new Christians, we pray that they may receive “the gift of joy and wonder” in all God’s works. Br. Curtis Almquist of the Society of St. John the Evangelist writes this:
“You don’t have to go anywhere to claim the wonder of life. Just take it in, and with gratitude: each breath you’re given, what you can see and sense, touch and create. Life is an absolute wonder. It is wonder-full. The gift of wonder has been seeded into your soul, and that seedling wants to burst through the ground of your being.”
In other words, we are knit together to experience awe. So, look up—or out, or around, or beyond. In our increasingly complicated world, it is comforting to remember God’s persistent invitations to recognize abundance and respond.