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May's 'Enchantment' aims to reawaken our innate sense of wonder and awe

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We're going to listen in on a conversation now about finding magic in the everyday. Our friend and former co-host Rachel Martin spoke with author Katherine May about her new book, "Enchantment: Awakening Wonder In An Anxious Age."

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: What does it mean to you to be enchanted?

KATHERINE MAY: "Enchantment" for me was this project to find ways to feel my connection with the world around me again and to reignite a sense of fascination with it, of awe, the kind of awe that I felt as a child that came so easily to me, which I really had lost contact with.

MARTIN: Katherine May remembers being enchanted easily as a child.

MAY: I used to spend a lot of time sitting in my back garden, smashing rocks open with a hammer. I mean, we didn't have iPads in those days. Like, life was hard.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Very enchanting activity.

MAY: Yeah. You know, like, every 10th or 20th stone would have, like, a little geode of crystals inside it.

MARTIN: Ah.

MAY: And that was absolutely magical to me. You know, how this - I could uncover this little, tiny cave that was millions of years old and which nobody had ever seen before. And I guess there's that time when everything feels heightened, and everything feels very possible. And I think we almost deliberately shut that down as we get older.

MARTIN: For May, cultivating enchantment is intrinsically linked to her spiritual life.

MAY: Actually, it's something I've come to quite late. I mean, I've always felt very resistant to any kind of a spiritual discussion at all. Like, I've always seen myself as a really practical person who only makes decisions on scientific terms. And I think for a long time now, I've realized that that doesn't fulfill every part of me, that in many ways, it actually involves squashing down some of my perception and telling myself very carefully that that's not something that's my domain, that that's something that other people do and not me and that I'm too sensible and practical for this kind of thing. And it's a very soothing thing to do to allow yourself to feel very tiny in a big universe and to spend some time reflecting on the things that you find beautiful or awe-inspiring.

MARTIN: The notion of God is complicated, right? But for many of us, it's the word, the term, the idea that we use to connote something bigger. What does that mean to you?

MAY: Oh, I'd love to be able to answer that question. If only (laughter). And I - in fact, that's the vulnerable core of this book for me - is approaching this huge, three-letter word, God, which I've never felt a connection with in any definition that I've been given. And yet as I've gone through life, I've also felt like there is something there in those quiet moments, in those worshipful moments, in those prayerful moments. I feel contact with a consciousness that isn't mine or rather is bigger than mine.

MARTIN: Do you pray?

MAY: Yeah, I do. And I always have, actually. It's something I learned to do when I was at school. And I've never stopped.

MARTIN: Really?

MAY: And I'm - for the longest time I haven't known who I'm talking to.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's one question. Like I went to, you know, a religious school growing up, and prayer was kind of the deal. As an adult, I will admit that it feels, like, silly to me. Like, I can't get over my own self-consciousness. You have faced some of that, too?

MAY: Oh, my goodness. So much of that. I realized I had this urge in me to pray. And yet I felt silly about every single instance of trying to do it. I was really troubled by how I'd been taught to pray, which was kind of to ask for stuff in lots of ways.

MARTIN: Right.

MAY: And I spent a long time reflecting on it, and I was writing about it one day, and this line - I mean, sometimes lines appear in my notebook. I don't think they come from my own wisdom, to be honest. They seem really external to me. But the line was, ask nothing of God. That made sense to me. The act of prayerfulness was an act of kind of trying to share what was in my mind and my heart because to me, what this greater being could do was know me in a way that no one else could know me. And that was when it began to make sense.

MARTIN: To that end, can you tell me about the well? Because that anecdote feels prayerful in a way.

MAY: Yes (laughter). So I'm lucky enough to live near Canterbury. And while I was writing the book, a friend of mine told me that she'd found this well, this pilgrim's well, that she'd been visiting. And she took me to see it. It's a thousand years old, probably, and it's hidden behind a giant, overgrown rose bush. And so we came to this beautiful stone surrounding with this beautiful, still pool of water. And then there were several steps down to that pool, this perfect, little environment for reflection and literal reflection because you get down there, and you see your face reflected in the pool. And I found that I was filled with this feeling of of deep peace down there but also that I could take myself in whatever state I came there and to to be prayerful.

MARTIN: What was especially profound for me in reading that part is the responsibility that you have, that the individual has to make the meaning, right? Like, the well won't do it for you.

MAY: Yeah, no. And that's the change that I had to undergo and that I do think loads of us would benefit from undergoing - is this dropping of wanting to be told the answers because they're just not there. There are no answers, and simple answers quickly turn into horrible, generalized strictures on our lives as soon as we start taking them in. And the learning for us is to sit with mystery.

MARTIN: The book is called "Enchantment: Awakening Wonder In An Anxious Age." It's written by Katherine May. Katherine, what a pleasure to talk with you about these things. Thank you so much.

MAY: Oh, thank you. That was so lovely.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.