Editor’s Notebook: Wonderful days and days full of wonder

July 28, 2021 6:10 am
Birch trees stand out in the woods

Birch trees are easy to spot – but only when you’re looking for them. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire)

Last week, a reader sent a note thanking me for writing about E.B. White and White’s dachshund, Fred. I’ve not yet reached the stage of my personal development where I no longer hope for a little external validation here and there, so it was a nice way to start the day. I waited a bit to respond, mainly so she wouldn’t assume that I stare at my email inbox all day with my chin in my hands, but after a little while I briefly expanded on my admiration for White and signed off with, “I hope you have a wonderful day.”

The moment I hit “send” I felt like a fraud. It’s not that I didn’t mean it – my default setting is that I hope everyone has a wonderful day – it’s just that I almost never use “wonderful” in speech or in writing. By way of casual utterance and overuse, the word has been drained of meaning. “That’s wonderful news!” “What a wonderful party!” “How wonderful to hear from you!” Even as I write, I hear Grand Funk Railroad singing, “Oh, my baby, she’s alright. Oh, my baby’s clean out of sight. Don’t you know that she’s, she’s some kind of wonderful, she’s some kind of wonderful . . .” 

Synonyms for wonderful include “marvelous,” “magnificent,” and “amazeballs.” Yuck. What’s the best way to wish somebody a wonderful day when you really mean it? How is one to reclaim sincerity in an email, in a text message, or in casual conversation without making things uncomfortable?

“Have a wonderful day!”

“Thanks. Same to you.”

“Well, thanks. And, just so you know, I really mean it.”

“Mean what?”

“I hope you have a wonderful day. My wish for you is that over the course of the next several hours you experience many, many things that arouse wonder. I hope you notice the elegance of a birch tree when it’s lightly wrapped in morning fog. I hope you go for a walk and out of nowhere pick up the scent of a distant bakery carried on the breeze. I hope you hear the sound of someone you love with all your heart laughing. I hope that today you carry with you an unshakable feeling of gratitude for all that you have, for all that the world offers to those who take the time to quiet their thoughts and use their senses. I hope that’s the kind of wonderful day you have.”

“Ummm, thanks?”

Once the novelty of aggressive goodwill wears off – and I can’t imagine that would take very long – you’re just the person who forgot how to function in society.

There’s a middle way, of course, between empty words and verbal bear hugs, but it’s a difficult path to find and follow. In the blur and buzz of daily life, conversation is often transactional: I will listen to your story as long as you listen to mine. Only on special occasions or during social functions specifically designed for conversation do we tend to open ourselves to others’ stories rather than just waiting for our turn to talk.

That habitual disengagement weakens the muscles of sincerity, and so we say “wonderful” when we mean “pleasant,” or “tragic” when we mean “unfortunate.”

But for all we gain by introducing more patience and precision in speech and informal writing, we lose a little humanity, too, don’t we? After all, what is more human than imprecision? And so it occurs to me now that my use of the word “wonderful” felt fraudulent not because I was communicating insincerely but because I was being hypocritical. I was promoting wonder when I myself had lost it. How many belly laughs, bakeries, and birches have I let pass me by while sleepwalking through my days?

If I could go back to birch trees for a second, I just wanted to say that I’ve loved them since I was a kid. When I found out Robert Frost was a swinger of birches, he became my favorite poet. But as the days piled up, and I catalogued more and more birch trees in my memory, the wonder faded, I suppose. I don’t see them as much as I used to. 

There’s a line in that Frost poem that goes, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” I could be wrong, but I don’t think he’s talking about romance. Despite all the ugliness, all the suffering in this world, this is the right place for wonder. 

I knew that when I was a child. It would be wonderful to know it again.

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin.