“I like the way the ocean waves at the sun/ all glittering in its glory.” It was my six-year old son’s first spontaneous poetic outburst, said with utter sincerity and marked by absolute wonder. Doubtless no one will find it quite so captivating as me --- and yet, it made me ask some questions: when do we lose our wonder?, and how do we get it back?
At six, my son was fascinated by the salmon. We knew that it was born in a freshwater stream, in adolescence follows the stream hundreds, maybe thousands of miles into the saltwater ocean where it spends most of its adult life, and then, for some reason no one knows, travels back upstream, to the place it was born, to spawn and then die. I knew more then about the salmon than I’ll probably ever know. Yet the real wonder of it is that I had never wondered about the salmon before my son enthusiastically introduced me to it. Why is that? Why do I lack such basic curiosity?
Niko Kazantzakias had this to say: “Everything in this world has a hidden meaning. . . . Men, animals, trees, stars, they are all hieroglyphics. When you see them you do not understand them. You think they are really men, animals, trees, stars. It is only years later that you understand.” Years later? Perhaps it is the case that it’s actually years earlier that we really understand. Maybe when we were children we were closer to the hidden meaning of it all.
I once followed my then three-year old son around for part of a day. I listened to his conversation, trying to discern how he perceived the things around him. In many ways, his capacity for wonder and imagination were beyond me. I literally found it difficult to think like him. Nothing was ordinary. Nothing. His bed became, in the course of only a two-hour rest time, an airplane, a bulldozer, a spaceship, a (magic) school bus, and a train. When I came to wake him (ha!), I found him stuffed into his pillow, pretending to be a mermaid (well, mer-man I assume). He spoke with people who appeared not be there, assumed a reality that I could not see, and asked reams of unanswerable questions. I know, I know. I’m saying nothing parents don’t already know, am I?
Oh, to be six again! Six, when Summer lasts all year, really. Childhood now is not like the countless afternoons and Summers I experienced kicking around my backyard at six --- exploring the woods, turning over logs, catching tadpoles and minnows in the creek, mapping sewer drainage pipes which in our imaginations would take us everywhere surreptitiously (if only we had the courage). A day was a long, long adventure, from the time the screen door slammed behind me as I raced to my friend’s house after breakfast to the announcement of dinner by my mother’s supper-yell of my name from the same door. No, this is not the Summer of life, where commerce continues unabated, around the clock, schools go year-round, and the every day and season seems about as busy as any other time of the year. I’ve lost something, and I’m wistful for it.
At six, I knew so little and yet had so much. So much love of life, of questions, of whatever came my way. At six we are like the middle-aged Leo Bebb in Frederick Buechner’s Book of Bebb, “believing in everything, everything.” At now, in middle age, I know a lot more (at least relatively speaking), and yet I have lost so much. So much time to look, to listen, to wonder at it all.
How do we recover our wonder? Sometimes poetry reminds me of what it is to wonder, sometimes fiction, always good writing --- because when I read it I know that someone has stopped long enough to wonder.
We simply need to slow down and stay longer in one place. We need to stare hard at the ordinary until it gives up its hidden meaning. We need to ask questions we cannot answer and answer questions we do not know. We need to hang tenaciously to the belief that everything means something if we are only patient enough to await its revealing. As Martin Luther said so long ago: “If you could understand a single grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.” I can hear the birds outside my window, feel the wind in the pines, smell the rain coming. At least that's a start at wonder.
I'm remembering my son, at six, who loved salmon. He's long left the salmon behind, but he'll return, I hope. I’m with the salmon. I’m heading upstream. I’m going home to wonder. I don’t know why. It just seems like the right thing to do. Maybe it’s what we’re wired for.