Rediscovering Awe in the World Through the Eyes of My Sons
January 17, 2017
Kids are perpetually curious in the most quirky, insightful, and hilarious ways. They see the world with such stunning clarity.
It’s as though the observational clockwork of their minds is more refined than ours, more pliant, less worn into predictable grooves. Their acuity gears haven’t yet been ground down by assumption and acclimatization, disappointment and obligation.
Sometimes, if we’re lucky, we have “grown up” experiences that sharpen our senses and strip away the viscous build-up of the years to reveal some astonishing detail of our existence. In those moments, we feel as though we just discovered something completely new, even though we’ve “known” about it all our lives.
Take, for example, glaciers. We know what they are. We learned about them in grade school, again in high school, and in my case, more in depth in college when I thought I might major in Environmental Geology. I felt pretty well versed on the topic of glaciers – how they’re made, how they move, how they shape the land.
Then I stood on one. I spent a few days on one, actually, with a young guy who later became my husband, trekking, scrambling, stemming, edging, repelling, sleeping, eating. Our guide must’ve taken us for the adventurous sort because on day three, without so much as a “watch your step,” he led us across a fin of ice so precarious an Alpine ibex would have opted for another route.
Once safely on the far side, I collapsed in a spluttering heap of nerves. Never had I noticed the varying texture of ice with such urgency. Never had I been so acutely aware of the devastating implications of a crevasse. Never had I felt cold enveloping me from the ground up, as though the throat of the Glacier God lay open and waiting. Never had I thought of an ice sheet as a kaleidoscopic labyrinth you could get lost in and likely never be found.
Children, on the other hand, don’t have to risk their lives to pay very close attention to the world they inhabit. They seem to intuitively understand that every encounter with a new thing is an encounter with life, with change, with a force of some kind. Awe is standard operating procedure for children and ascribed as easily to an anthill as to the aurora borealis.
Since my glacier trekking days, my kids have become my sense sharpener, my daily reminder of the crazily vast and infinitesimal mysticism of the universe. Instead of singing inside a cavern of bioluminescent glow worms to hear the reverberations, I sing my boys to sleep every night to hear their soft breathing. Instead of scaling a building in flip flops and watching the sun rise while sitting astride its gable end, I watch the sun rise from my toddler’s bedside as I administer another dose of cough medicine.
My kids have taken the place of the 40-pound pack containing everything I need to survive in the backcountry for weeks at a time. They are my frigid dip in a mountain lake under skies so full of stars your eyes can only process the wide, shimmering smudge of the Milky Way.
They are the feeling of desert dust coating my skin and flying a kite off the edge of a canyon. They are the current that sweeps me downriver in a tube. They are crouching on a forest floor coated entirely in moss. They are building a fire without matches.
This assimilation of my children’s awe is one of my favorite parts of being a mom. It feels like a gift their youth can offer my age. I only hope my age can offer something as tender and stirring to their youth in return.
My husband and I try to share our love of the outdoors by living it with our kids. We’ve strapped them into Kelty frame packs and gone skijoring with our Akita along the trails behind our house. We’ve rigged up the Chariot Cougar2 and ridden around Acadia for a week. We’ve taken them tent camping every summer to far-flung woodlands and beaches and lakes. Each winter, we bundle them up into mini-Michelin-tire-men and spend weekends skiing at Mad River Glen in all temperatures and conditions.
This is our family MO. We get out. We do stuff. Yet I have to be careful not to expect or demand that my kids love these activities as much or in the same ways I do. That’s likely the best way to ensure they won’t love them at all. The boys are old enough now to have favorite places and pastimes of their own, so I’m shifting into a mode of letting them lead.
Want to climb that tree as far up as you can to see if I look as small as an insect on the ground? Awesome. Climb carefully.
Wonder how long it’ll take that slug to cross the front walk? I have no idea. Let’s find out.
Feel like paddling over to the cove by the safe docks to look for beavers? Perfect. Here’s your life preserver.
Want to drop a bucketload of rocks, one by one, into the water to see how their splashes are different? Great idea. I’ll join you.
Curious how banana peels would burn if you threw them in the bonfire? Alright, let’s see what happens.
Can’t wait for lightning bug season so we can count how many live in our meadow? Me either.
My sons’ curiosity knows no bounds. Nothing is off limits from their persistent lines of questioning. And I mean nothing. A recent example:
“Mumma, what’s inside your boobs?” After stifling a laugh and responding as directly and helpfully as I could: “How do you know there’s not any milk left?” (Because I just know.) And this, followed by: “Can’t I just test one to see?” (No.)
Some questions, while predictable, are nonetheless outside Mom’s Handy Catalogue of Useful, Experience-based Information (“Why does my penis change shape?” or “Why does Po in ‘Kung Fu Panda’ call them his ‘tenders’?”), at which point I suggest the boys consult their father.
Other questions are less predictable, such as “What happened to your penis, Mumma?” or “Why are you not as hairy as Dad?” Considering my husband’s extensive experience as a male, not to mention his easy-to-grasp translation of anatomical terminology, I allow him to field these queries as well.
Even “Why can’t we have a little sister?” will get shuttled to Dad until I figure out a way to answer it without getting emotional or overly serious.
So we’re doing alright, I guess, as far as raising our kids in and amidst this particular corner of the world. Sometimes my husband and I feel stifled or somehow removed from the people we once were – or thought ourselves to be. We feel pulled back from that edge of raw experience. We wonder if we’ll ever get back there, to real adventure, to risk, to uncomplicated, boiled down, barebones freedom.
Then we look up and see our youngest waving from a paddleboard in the middle of a freshwater pond. We have to work to chase our eldest down mountains, following his daring path along the off-shoot trails without catching an edge and crashing hard. I stand back as the boys scurry up a ladder into the tree fort they’re building with their dad and cheer as they demonstrate a pulley system for lifting and lowering tools.
Just the other day, we all ran to the window to watch a barred owl alight on a branch at the edge of the meadow, scanning its thickets for mice and voles. We all shouted “Whoah!” as she spread her enormous wings and swooped down then flew off again, something dangling from her claws.
And I thought, Well, there it is. The old familiar awe, firmly intact inside me, and enhanced now for its replication in the hearts of my sons.