Islands of Awe

May 4, 2020

As the days blend together in a stay-at-home haze, I find myself missing places and people that positively drop my jaw. Before the shutdown, I hadn’t taken those things for granted, but I know I could have appreciated them more.

One of the things that got us into trouble with this virus and our wobbling planet is that we don’t regard highly enough just how special spectacular places and impressive people are. We haven’t been as grateful for them as we could have been, we discounted the worth of others, or we just forgot to look for them altogether. To some degree, complacency played first string to the backup ensemble of cognizance and connection. We took too little time to experience and appreciate awe.

It is much easier to realize how important awe is when opportunities to feel it are taken away. When you can’t hike up into the sky on a mountain trail, when you aren’t able to sway with others at a concert of heart-driven musicians, and when you are prevented from laughing with friends while floating down a beautiful river, these absences make the heart grow fonder — fonder of stunning humans and inspiring places.

And with the absence of these opportunities come the memories of yesterday’s experiences. I was in Asia during the Tiananmen Square uprising in Beijing, China. Citizen protestors clashed with their country’s army and one brave man even stared down a phalanx of tanks, stopping them dead in their tracks. Coincidentally, I was in Hong Kong at this time — only a thousand miles but a political world away from the horrors of Tiananmen, where hundreds of hopeful young men and women were killed. As I wandered the streets early one Sunday morning during this nearby massacre, tai chi groups flowed in unison, silent freedom fighters marched through their tears with a giant papier-mâché Statue of Liberty in a downtown park, and worried young couples pushed their babies in strollers along the waterfront.

Hong Kong, the most densely populated island on earth, is a place of contrast, especially given its proximity to China. Towering office complexes and glistening apartment buildings define the skyline, while four extended families are likely to live together in a two-bedroom apartment. Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz, and Jaguars roll down boulevards, while just across the bay and into China donkeys pull carts along rutted trails. The Hong Kong archipelago is home to some of the world’s wealthiest people and some of its poorest.

I was in Hong Kong for a few days to meet with the manager of the business that was printing our rafting company’s brochures. I was treated to five-star meals and personalized tours of the city. Factory and office workers hustled at a pell-mell pace to produce and achieve. Children in school uniforms played hopscotch on asphalt playgrounds. The insane paradox of free-willed citizens living regular lives while people on the other side of a line drawn on a map were being bloodied in a fight to live unoppressed was evident all around. The death of innocents — some of whom were relatives of the people I spent time with — was the worry of the Hong Kong populace.

After spending a long weekend in this shell-shocked city, I arrived at the airport for my return flight home. As I stepped out of the taxi, I was politely besieged by locals asking if I was American. They each had a simple request: Could I please take a letter they had written to a loved one in China and mail it from the States? Speaking with one after another, I was told that a letter from Hong Kong to China during this populist uprising would never make it to the person it was addressed to, as the Chinese security forces destroyed each one. If the letter was mailed from the U.S., there was a chance that their child, mother or father, sister or brother would get it. I took all of the letters that time and space allowed. Saddened by the lengths that many people have to go through to live freely, I boarded the plane with dozens of expressions love tucked safely in my knapsack. I was awestruck by those who simply wanted to give their heart to loved ones.

A couple of years later my brother Sam and I vacationed in Ireland. Among a palette of lessons learned was that in the 1600s Catholic priests in Ireland were thrown in jail for practicing a religion contrary to the faith of the country’s people. While the Irish still bristle a bit when asked to behave, things are a little different today. Catholicism is alive and well in Ireland as it rocks and rolls. The Irish blend godliness and good times with the best of them.

But four hundred years ago, many of the good — and some not-so-good — Fathers were banished to Inishbofin Island, a speck of quartz, grit, and granulite seven rough-water miles off the mainland coast of County Galway. To these priests, this island outpost must have seemed like the last stop on the way to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, one final chance at life and salvation before walking the plank. From inside dark, gray cells it didn’t matter much that the rest of the tiny island was often covered in snow, rain, or fog. One has to wonder if that is what the holy prisoners felt their insides were covered in, too.

When Sam and I arrived there, the remains of Inishbofin’s hell-on-earth were largely eroded. Prison-wall stubs poked up from sea grass. Beaches played host to gentle tides. Happy townsfolk gathered in the evenings to share Guinness, stories, and songs, always accompanied by a guitar, squeeze box, and fiddle. To us, despite its dark history as a ruthless pirate’s hideaway, a naval garrison, and a death sentence for men of God, Inishbofin sparkled. Its jagged black rocks, rolling green hills, fine white sand, and bright azure sea (plus the sun on our backs and beers in our bellies) were a brilliant backdrop to discovering a culture that deeply knows and humbly admires itself.

For us Americans, whose country was born in 1776 (giving full respect to the Natives who were here long before America became America), it is a mystical treat to grab a sandwich and ale in a tavern built in the 1300s. It is also fun to bebop down pedestrian-only Grafton Street in Dublin, where countless sidewalk musicians pound out beats for the thousands of Irish and foreign shoppers to enjoy as they explore block after block of stores and partake in people-watching. It is breathtaking to take in sunsets along the Connemara Coast, where vistas match exactly those you see in picture-perfect Ireland calendars. But it is the nights that reminded us most of how and why Ireland came to be one of the most awesomely artistic and culturally rich countries on earth.

The heritage of Ireland is found on fiddle strings bowed nightly in neighborhood pubs across the country. Its pride is boomed from robust voices singing with pick-up bands in towns north and south. And its beauty is found in the laughter and smiles of those who gather as their ancestors have for centuries — for a pint and a pat on the back. We were awed by the people of this isle, who truly reveled in each other’s company and honored a culture that time has only enhanced.

The Lofoten Islands, north of the Arctic Circle in Norway, served as another source of adventure inspiration for me. Running north to south through the land of the midnight sun, the Lofotens are home to a few thousand hardy souls and the most dramatic mountains on earth. Here, straight-up escarpments rise thousands of feet from the ocean, with serrated tops that slice into the sky. At their base, fishermen head out to maelstroms at sea, seeking cod and other fish that have sustained their country for generations.

In an effort to find new rivers to run and to take a break from managing a busy rafting company in Norway, I boarded a train near Lillehammer with my friends Leo and Kate for the twenty-hour journey north. Norway is so long that even after a day and night on the train, we were only half way up the country. To get even further north, we took a ferry to the town of Å (that’s right “Å,” but it’s pronounced “oh”). Even though Å is at the top of the alphabet, it is serenely perched at the bottom of the Lofotens. After grabbing a cup of chowder (deciding against a bowl of alphabet soup), we headed up the island, ending up in Reine that afternoon, a fishing village nestled at the base of those towering mountains.

We checked into our rorbu, a converted fishing shack with beds, a bathroom, and the most beautiful views imaginable, and laced up our boots. After a short hike up a mountainside to a hidden tarn, we lay our travel-weary bodies down in tufts of Arctic grass. At that moment, a Norwegian Sea breeze began to blow, moving threads of clouds into our line of sight from behind the ridges above us. The wisps literally ran over the mountain tops like a crystal-clear stream spilling over rocks. It was as if we were underwater, looking through it to the sky. The clouds were vapor liquefied, all the while changing color and flow. I remember getting goosebumps as Mother Nature held us in her sway, aweing us with her beauty.

As I traveled on these three unique islands in different parts of the world, very different things gave me feelings of awe. I found wonder in the islanders’ drive for freedom and expressions of compassion. I was struck by a people who share a common past and passion for their countrymen and women. And I was awed by the glory of nature. There have been countless other times and places where awe pulsed through me, a divine blend of amazement, humility, and love. Most notably was when my children were born. I will never understand the connection I felt the moment they took their first breath and I held them in my arms.

Awe takes your breath away, drops your jaw, and gives you goosebumps. Awe arises from our need to connect to and honor something much bigger than ourselves. It’s a reminder that we need to pursue a life that extends well beyond our narrow here and now. It is to remember that much is beyond explanation. It’s a nudge to stand quietly rapt together, to cherish natural beauty, the human spirit, and universal love.

As we hiked down from the river of clouds and into a week of more collective amazement on the Lofotens, I was struck by the irony that my deeper understanding of awe as a connector came on three very different islands. Generally, the metaphor of an island evokes thoughts of isolation and solitude. But virtually every one of us experiences awe as we stare at spectacular sunsets, feel blessed by newborns, marvel at majestic mountains, rollick in rooms of laughter, and honor freedom as a birthright. In awe, we are always and forever connected. Let this be a reminder as we sit isolated, largely unable to connect in the ways that we cherish most. Let us not forget that in order to connect with very powerful people and moving places, they must exist and be accessible in the first place. In this, it is vital to hold one another and beautiful settings in the highest regard.

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