Saturday, December 21, 2013


How was the Long Trail? I'm going with a word I made up: aweful. Full of awe. Awesome. Awful. All of the above.

When I worked as an ABA therapist, we tried to teach recognition and mimicry of emotions to kiddos who struggled reading facial expressions. We'd show emoticon flashcards, prompting the response of "happy", "sad", "angry", "scared" faces, respectively. Then we'd ask "show me happy". The kids learned to respond with a stretched-out smile, but I'm not sure they ever truly made the connection between the emoticon on the flashcard and the emotion in a person or themselves. It made me a little sad-face. This was perhaps the least convincing part of the ABA program as I worked it in those years. In a program that needed to boil skills down to a pre-generalised state for teaching -- once mastered, skills could be generalised -- emotions were unwieldy. In real life, recognising emotions requires generalisation, even at the early stages. That's why it's difficult.

Psychology categorises a few basic, primary human emotions: Plutchik lists fear, anger, sadness, joy, disgust, trust, anticipation and suprise; Aristotle gives us anger, friendship-love, fear, shame, kindness-benevolence, pity, indignation and envy-jealousy. However, emotions don't tend to politely take turns. I love the foreign words for variously mixed, nuanced or contradictory emotional states. 

Mal de coucou. Rückkehrunruhe. Vemödalen. Vellichor

And what is happiness, really? Does a perfect experience make you happy if there's no sully in the sweet, no struggle to the top, no pain before the joy?

"Awe" can be seen as bundling of various, often contradictory emotions, often at the same time. It's the best word to describe the feeling-chaos I got when I saw the moose. When I hit the top of the Mount Mansfield cliff of terror. When I count off a song and everyone exhales the first downbeat simultaneously. The first crash cymbal in this song. When the marimba kicks in on 'Pickle Trousers'. When the drums kick in. When the drums kick in. When the drums kick in

Paul Pearsall, according to Oliver Burkemann's book The Antidote, 'spent a large part of his life waging a lonely battle... to get the concept of "awe" accepted by the psychological establishment as one of the primary human emotions ..."Unlike all the other emotions," he argued, awe "is all our feelings rolled up into one intense one. You can't peg it as just happy, sad, afraid, afraid, angry, or hopeful. Instead, it's a matter of experiencing all these feelings and yet, paradoxically, experiencing no clearly identifiable, or at least any easily describable, emotion."  Awe, he writes, "is like trying to assemble a complex jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. There's never any closure in an awe-inspired life, only constant acceptance of the mysteries of life. We're never allowed to know when this fantastic voyage might end... but that's part of the life-disorienting chaos that makes this choice so thrillingly difficult".'

The text of 'To The Earth' (by Frederic Rzewski, for four flowerpots and speaking percussionist) became really meaningful to me over the course of the hike:

To the Earth, Mother of all,
I will sing the well established, the oldest,
Who nourishes on her surface everything that lives.
Those things that walk upon the holy ground,
And those that swim in the sea,
And those that fly in the air,
All these are nourished by your abundance.

It is thanks to you if we humans have healthy children,
And rich harvests.
Great Earth, you have the power to give life to,
And to take it away from creatures that must die.
Happy are the ones whom you honor with your kindness and gifts. What they have built will not vanish,

Their fields are fertile. Their herds prosper.
And their houses are full of good things.
Their cities are governed with just laws. Their women are beautiful.
Good fortune and wealth follow them.
Their children of radiant with the joys of youth.
The young women play in the flowery meadows,
Dancing with happiness in their hearts.

Holy Earth, undying Spirit,
So it is with those whom you honor:
Hail to you, Mother of life,
You who are loved by the starry sky,
Be generous and give me a happy life in return for my song,
So that I can continue to praise you with my music.

 So yes, please "give me a happy life".  Or, you know, an awe-ful life.