Reuniting with Awe

Friday, March 6, 2015 - 5:25am
Photo by John Cary

Reuniting with Awe

My daughter is on the brink of everything.

She’s just started walking. She toddles towards the waist-high, wooden gate near our home and opens it. She walks a few steps out, visibly bouncing with the delight of freedom, then quickly swivels around to make sure that I’m following. She’s just started talking. She looked up at the moon on Sunday and pointed. I said “moon,” not expecting anything, and then she said “moon” like it was the most natural thing in the world. She’s just starting to use a spoon, all on her own. Last night she scooped haphazard little bits of cottage cheese into her mouth and then clapped for herself between each and every bite.

I’m learning so much from watching her. About being proud. About noticing. About all the senses that I take for granted. She was in the bathtub the other day splashing around when all of the sudden she froze, brought one tiny pointer finger to her lips, and said, “Dog.” Amid all the urban chaos, she heard her very favorite creature — a dog — making itself known. She makes me feel like I’m probably accessing only a quarter of the sensory experience available to me on a regular basis.

I’m also learning about awe. The other day I brought her over to this obscenely beautiful jasmine vine that has grown bushy and fragrant near our mailboxes. I picked her up and we put our noses right up to the petite white flowers and took in the scent. Then I set her down and she walked over to a jade plant that some neighbors and I recently migrated to a bigger pot, leaned over, and took a big, satisfied whiff. Jade plants, of course, are many things, but they are not fragrant. And yet, if you’d seen her there — neck craned, eyes closed — you would have assumed that she was smelling the most potent thing in the world.

Maybe she doesn’t really get what smell is yet. But after I let out a surprised giggle, I realized that there was something so moving about a little human smelling a jade plant. She has no reason not to expect it to smell wonderful. She has no reason not to expect everything to be wonderful.

Part of becoming an adult is learning how to lower your expectations — of your loved ones, of yourself, of particularly charged moments (Your wedding day! New Year’s Eve! That long-awaited vacation!). There’s such wisdom in that. As I have written before in this space, I am constantly working on my friend Arnold’s advice to “expect less and love more.”

And yet, the paradox is that there’s something that sort of transcends maturity about being open to the potential pleasure of every single moment. Maya is free of specific expectations, so she approaches the world with only one giant, indiscriminate expectation: delight me.

Keys go in mailboxes and miniature doors open to reveal pieces of paper inside, left there by a friendly person in a funny outfit? Fascinating! Dominoes can be sorted into various sizes of beautifully colored baskets in whichever way I want? Sign me up! Lotion is a white substance that comes out of a metal tube and you can rub it on someone’s hand and it disappears and they feel soft? Holy moly!

The mundane becomes miraculous through the eyes of my 16-month-old daughter. She’s rarely disappointed, and when she is, she simply moves on to the next miracle waiting in a kitchen drawer or nestled in the soil in the garden beds. As she marvels, I’m marveling anew. You know what? Lotion is kind of amazing when you pause to think about it. The postal system does sort of knock my socks off. And dominoes? They’re so pleasing when you hold them in your hand — the cold weight of them, those little black indented dots. We’ve discovered they spin on the concrete floor and make a great noise when Papa propels them from his mouth across the room.

Before Maya was born, I once asked my husband, John, what he was most excited about and he surprised me by answering, “I can’t wait to take slow walks with her.” This is a guy who runs marathons and prides himself on responding to emails at lightning speed. He doesn’t do slow.

But he already knew that part of the gift of having a child is rediscovering discovery, of reuniting with awe. It’s perhaps my second favorite part of parenting, second only to the slow, mind-blowing, heartsploding reveal of who our tiniest teacher is.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

Share Your Reflection



You captured the wonder of life seen through a child's eyes so beautifully here. My daughter is 26 now but reading this reminded me of how I discovered life anew with her and what a pleasure it is to notice what is around us awaiting our delight.

I am a toddler preschool teacher, and this article makes me love my job so much more!

Precious fleeting time.

Oh Courtney, thank you for these descriptions of sharing life's little delights with your daughter! They take me back decades ago to when my sons were little. Such special time!

Thank you for articulating a part of parenting that is so true for me. Some describe it as living through your child, but, to me, it feels like living more fully right along side them, allowing them to ground me in the now. Lovely post.

This is beautiful and wonderful. Thank you!

Just about perfect. My own daughter is now 15 months old and, along with my three year old son, they reveal new things to me every day. Thank you for this moving reminder of the pauses our littlest "teachers" bring into our lives.

This is evocative and beautiful. I have three wee ones, yet I am still learning these lessons of delight from each one of them as they stretch and grow. I never want to stop letting wonder be the lens with which I view the world. But maturity brings a daily battle against cynicism and despair, too. It is a tug back and forth. The gift of children's eyes is that they pull away the scales from our own.

My kids are 3 and 6 and I've already forgotten this sweet lesson. Thank you for reminding me.

P.S. The first toddles are my favorite time.

This is lovely, and resonates with me so deeply, as the mama of a delightful 9-month old whose days are filled with constant wonder and discovery. Thank you for this great reminder.

Dear Courtney! You said it SO beautifully! ❤️ Experiencing and exploring life through the eyes of a child IS amazing! It allow us to enjoy the child we hold gently in our adult being while witnessing the magic and miracle of life seen through the eyes of a "new" beholder! When you someday are blessed with the title of Oma or Nana those experiences will become even more magical and miraculous! Thank you for your beautiful gift of words and your beautiful gift that inspired them!

Thank You! And Arnold!

Thank you for writing about this amazing time in the life of a young family. My kids are 11 and 15 and your writing made me remember the joys of discovering the world through their eyes. I still have to remind myself that they don't come into the world knowing what we know. It is such a special time that I dearly miss.

This is magical. Everything about it.

It's the best part of being a grandparent......exploring the world again in a new forgotten way....... It's wonderful to remember & feel the joy of all senses being with the young 'uns

Your words moved me to tears! Thank you for another stunningly wonderful article Courtney!

I am a "grammy" as she calls me of a 21 month old baby girl and am rediscovering the simple things in life I did not have time to appreciate while raising my daughter. What fun I'm having just stopping and smelling the flowers with my grand baby every time she visits.

Thank you for this beautiful description of discovery that our young children teach us every day. I have been privileged to be a father, a grandfather, and a pediatrician, and working with these tiny humans has been the highlight of my life.

How deeply you have touched my heart. The memories of watching my beloved child experience, discover,&delight in life returned. The royal invitation to be present. What a teacher! What's fellowship. My precious one is now thirty, a 6th grade science teacher trying to grant permission and prompt wonder in the classroom. I am sending time with elders and finding that lack of expectation, moving slow, & just being are respectful responss. Reminded that it is for us ALL. Thank you so much!

This is lovely, Courtney! Congrats on your column and your wonderful, awe-inspiring Maya!

Beautiful! Even if we don't have a child to remind us of the simple joys of life, we can rekindle our "childlike" senses. Thank you.

It keeps happening! My son is 18 years old and my daughter is 13. They aren't the tiniest anymore, but teachers, yes they are! My favorite teachers! When I became a mom, I knew I'd have to be a good teacher. Or I thought I would. What I really need to be is a good learner.

Well said Rosie... I want to be a good learner too!

Well said Rosie... I want to be a good learner too!

We have a 5yrs old boy.I wish I could keep with me this magical rediscovering experience until the last days of my life!

Children have NO expectations, so they can't "lower" them. I suggest having no expectations. When I do this, I'm able to be delighted at what shows up--and I'm 71--still loving our beautiful world.

But then there is the other side of motherhood. The side that cannot focus on the delight of reading this column because OMFGZ, a toddler is watching an admired grownup propel dominoes across the room with his MOUTH! and, like, the toddler will do that and another toddler will imitate her, and the dog will see it too, and then, like, two weeks later, some kid will die choking on a domino that propelled itself down instead of out!

Feeling sorta ashamed that I seem to be the only commenter who immediately went to that... but... I did. This, too, is motherhood.