Giraffes, an Amethyst Lake, and a Grounded Galleon: Why Wonder Really Matters

Janet Stilson
Published in
4 min readMar 27, 2023


Photo by David Clode on Unsplash

In the middle of a devastated city, a small herd of giraffes graze serenely in an abandoned field. The scene emerges unexpectedly in HBO’s version of “The Last of Us.” The two main characters, Ellie and Joel, come upon the sight during a harrowing journey through a violent post-apocalyptic version of America. I couldn’t help but share their wonder at the surreal beauty and calm. It comes at a time when they are filled with internal wonder, having realized a new understanding of each other that’s heightened by that short, miraculous encounter.

While it’s not a long scene, and seemingly inconsequential to the greater storyline, it holds a critical purpose. It’s like a splash of vanilla that can make the flavor of chocolate brownies pop, or peanuts in stir-fried rice. (Okay, you go for sweet peas or corn instead of peanuts? I say, go wild; add all three.)

It reminds me of that magic realism masterwork “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by the great Gabriel García Márquez. If you read it, you may remember the rotting Spanish galleon filled with flowers that some characters find in the middle of a swamp. It’s an unexplained mystery why the ship came to rest there, since it’s a four-day journey from the sea.

While the giraffes and galleon may seem merely fanciful, such little moments mirror real life in symbolic ways — at least my own experience.

Personal Wonders

Case in point: while dining with friends in Greenwich Village back in 2001, I suddenly had the odd sensation that something astounding was about to happen — amazing in the most glorious, positive sense of the word. There was no reason for me to suspect this, at all. And it seemed ludicrous the next morning, Sept. 11th, when the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. occurred.

“So much for your intuition,” I smirked to myself at the time. But just before Thanksgiving in that same year, I met the man who would become my second husband, David. And we spent the next 20 years of our lives together before his passing — a very happy period in my life.

A few years before I met David, I was walking down the street with a guy that I was dating at the time. Horizontal beams of molten sunset light shafted between tall, sheer buildings in Midtown New York. It was unusual, for that section of town — kind of like seeing an eclipse. I exclaimed at the sight, but my companion really couldn’t see anything breathtaking at all. The wonder of it was beyond him, and so I realized that we could never connect very deeply. Seeing beauty — instant, unexpected, heart-stopping — is just that important to me.

I feel it every late Winter, when Snowdrop blossoms emerge in the hard, cold earth, even though the real snow will keep falling for weeks — even though it feels like the world will never warm up and we’ll just keep wearing our tired-out winter coats and scruffy boots forever. But those delicate Snowdrops just keep blooming, like they’re giving the weather the finger.

Would life ever be truly real without such little miracles?

The Amethyst Lake

Last night, I was devouring the last chapters of Becky Chambers’ sci-fi book “The Galaxy, and the Ground Within” (the final book in her “Wayfarers” series), and I came across another example of wonderment. After a tumultuous period of time, two strange but fascinating aliens are given access to a simulated world — an extremely intense version of what we think of as virtual reality. They experience a distant planet, with an amethyst-tinged lake surrounded by flowering trees and cream-colored beach sand that feels like sugar. It opens up their constricted lives in ways that leave them stunned. And I, too, was stunned experiencing this with them, floating along on Chambers’ fluid prose.

This is all giving me new thoughts as I’m putting the finishing touches on the second draft of my new novel. It’s incredibly exciting and absorbing work, building out the storyline that pushes forward how I think media could evolve, which I started in my first book, “The Juice.” But at the same time, it leaves me anxious. Notes are being taken, lots of notes, about what I still have to add and subtract. And topping the list right now are the questions: Where are your giraffes? Where is your Spanish galleon and amethyst lake?

When I find my book’s own versions of wonder — no matter how fantastical they might be — I believe I’ll have something that really emulates what’s there for all of us to experience in real life. If we leave ourselves open to the little glimmers, that is.



Janet Stilson

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.