Prompt 234. In Praise of Wonder
& Maggie Doyne on the promise of children
Last week, I got a note from a reader asking: “How do you deal with the trauma of losing so many people and living with such uncertainty daily?”
It’s one of those forever questions that I’m always seeking answers to, answers I often find in the stories of others. Most recently it happened in a conversation with a new writer friend, whose young son underwent two bone marrow transplants before the age of five. When I asked her what that was like for him, she said it was clear that illness had left an imprint. There were times when her son would turn to her and say, “Mommy, do you remember the time I almost died?” At the same time, she was amazed to see that children are not as attached to their suffering as adults. When they’re in it, they feel it, but five minutes later, they’re playing with Legos or conjuring some imaginary world.
That conversation got me thinking about how we move forward—how we get through. When you’re faced with a serious illness, there’s a lot of talk about living each day like it’s your last. That may work for some people, but for me, it adds a level of pressure that just isn’t sustainable. (To quote Aura Brickler, the widow of my dear friend Bret Hoekema, who endured a decade of uncertainty borne of Hodgkin’s lymphoma: “The idea of living every day as if it’s the last fades after 3,206 days of trying hard to do so.”) So instead, I’ve been shifting from a mindset of living each day as if it’s my last—to living each day as if it’s my first. Especially when the temptation is to be jaded and world weary, I’m trying to look at everything around me with fresh eyes, to seek out and hold onto wonder.
Where do we find this wonder? In my experience, it’s not in fancy things, not in material things, but in the things that made me feel safe and loved and joyous as a child, like painting. When I was young, I would go up to my mom’s studio—aka, the attic of our house—where she taught art classes every day after school. I would experiment with charcoal sticks and gouache paints and papier-mâché (i.e., I made giant, glorious messes.) At that age, creativity felt joyous, egoless, purely fun—and this was equally true for writing. Like the canvas, the blank page held endless possibility. I could trace out my dreams. I could tell a tale. I could play.
That hasn’t been the case since I learned of my relapse—since then, the blank page has felt daunting, even terrifying. I don’t necessarily want to write about the present, because it’s hard enough to live it once, much less to rehash it. I also find it difficult to dream, because around the edges of any dream is the fear that I won’t be around to see it through. But writing has always been my primary way to make meaning, to marry the joy and the sorrow, to traverse the distance between no longer and not yet. I’m feeling eager to recommit to the meditative, expansive, edifying practice of journaling.
In just a few weeks, on April 1, we’ll be celebrating the third anniversary of the Isolation Journals, and it seems like such a perfect moment to return to the basics—but in a fresh, new way. I’m dreaming up a kind of course on the art of journaling that we could pursue together. A 30-day journaling project where we enter that dreamscape of possibility and explore all the wonders it can contain, from morning pages to thematic writing to hybrid textual-visual delights inspired by Frida Kahlo’s diaries. What do you think? Would you join me?
In the meantime, I’ll be over here seeking wonder, using today’s essay and prompt as the perfect vehicle for that. From the wondrous human Maggie Doyne, who was honored as an Unsung Hero of Compassion by the Dalai Lama for her work with women and children in Nepal, it’s a reflection on the smallest humans—often wise beyond their years, living each day like it’s their first.
Some Items of Note—
In case you missed the last installment of Dear Susu (#13!), I shared the good-faith protocol for writing about others that I developed while writing Between Two Kingdoms—to strike the balance between alienating everyone in my life and not writing at all. You can read it here!
We’ve scheduled our next meeting of the Hatch, our virtual creative hour for paid subscribers. It’ll be next Sunday, March 19, from 1-2pm ET. Add it to your calendar here.
Did you experience a moment of wonder? Some small joy this week? Add it to our chorus of collective gratitude, which you can find in the Isolation Journals Chat.
Prompt 234. The World’s Most Unending Promise by Maggie Doyne
I’ve spent the last seventeen years completely surrounded by children. I’m part of a team that runs a residential care home in midwestern Nepal, as well as a community-based school for children living in poverty, a women’s empowerment center, a health clinic, family development programs, and safe homes. There is rarely a day that goes by that I don’t interact with a few hundred kids—fifty of whom I live with, two of whom are biologically my own.
Like most humans, I struggle at times with mental health. To stay hopeful, to stay sane, to hold onto joy despite the sadness, suffering, violence in this world is a constant battle. My greatest wish is for a world where every child is safe and loved, and my biggest trigger is seeing children suffer. But over the years, during some of the darkest days and most difficult moments, I started to notice something: When I look into the eyes of a child, it’s almost impossible for me to feel anything other than hope. While my brain churns in fear and doom scrolls on my phone, I look down and see a three-year-old holding a perfectly smooth stone in their hand, in awe and wonder. They ask me to keep it safe in my pocket. As my mind wanders and worries, a six-year-old stops me, points to the sky, and says, “Maggie mom! Did you SEE THE MOON?!”
There is nothing more magical to a child than their first wiggly tooth, or finding the perfect hill to roll down (over and over), or tasting their first marshmallow. They always spot the ladybug, the fluttering orange butterflies, the dandelion that’s one little puff from bursting. Their questions are my favorite part. After hearing the birds sing, they ask, “But why do they always sing in the morning?” Why this? Why that? But how?
Children have been my greatest teachers. They are anchored in the present, in wonder. There are so many times I wish I could just bottle up the joy, the innocence, the purity, the sanctity of children. That’s what it is—children feel sacred to me. They’re our world’s most unending promise.
Your prompt for the week:
Write about a time a child taught you about, or reminded you of, something important in life.
If you’d like, you can post your response in the comments section, in our Facebook group, or on Instagram by tagging @theisolationjournals.
Originally from New Jersey, Maggie Doyne has dedicated the last thirteen years of her life to educating children and empowering women. She created the BlinkNow Foundation to sustain, grow, and support Kopila Valley Children’s Home and School in Nepal, and to share her ideas with young people. Named a 2015 CNN Hero of the Year and honored by the Dalai Lama as an Unsung Hero of Compassion in 2014, Maggie speaks all over the world in the hope of inspiring others to start projects of their own that will generate positive change. You can read more about Maggie and her work in her memoir, Between the Mountain and the Sky: A Mother’s Story of Love, Loss, Healing, and Hope.
For more paid subscriber benefits, see—
Show Up and the Muse Will Too, a reflection on the value of committing to a daily creative practice
To Betray or Not to Betray, the latest installment of Dear Susu, where I answer the memoirist’s forever question: “How do I write my story without hurting the people I love?”
On Seeking Joy, a video replay of my Studio Visit with Kate Bowler, where we talk about avoiding aggressive futurism, right-sizing our fears, and finding joy in the midst of hard things
I’m constantly amazed that every word written in the English language is done so using an Alphabet of just twenty six letters.
My gratitude to you Suleika, and you, Maggie, because you both just made this Sunday morning a good day with what you shared here.
Suleika, I came across this poem a few years ago and I thought of it when I read your post this morning.
Linda Pastan - 1932-2023
You tell me to live each day
as if it were my last. This is in the kitchen
where before coffee I complain
of the day ahead—that obstacle race
of minutes and hours,
grocery stores and doctors.
But why the last? I ask. Why not
live each day as if it were the first—
all raw astonishment, Eve rubbing
her eyes awake that first morning,
the sun coming up
like an ingénue in the east?
You grind the coffee
with the small roar of a mind
trying to clear itself. I set
the table, glance out the window
where dew has baptized every
Dynamic cohort journaling sounds highly inspiring! I'm in. Children...they are my lifeblood. I taught young children for 29 years, and one of my all-time favorite moments was when beautiful, little, four-year-old Rashad looked up at me (his then 50-something, gauze skirt-wearing, silver braided, toe sandaled teacher) and said, "Miss Mary, you are a really good rapper." I laughed with such a joy; we hugged and shared a mutual respect at that moment that I will always treasure. (I used to make up rhyming songs to encourage the children to line up, put the cap on the glue sticks, etc...such fun to be spontaneous and have to think on my feet.) The children loved my songs. They would even request them!