I recall boyhood summers in St. Paul, Minnesota: the moist smell of freshly mown grass, the heat of morning sunlight already penetrating the day by mid-morning, riding bikes through the neighborhood that was shaded by mature elms and populated by large, old homes to the corner store a few blocks away where we consumed cool soda pop and candy (yes, it was allowed in those days). We played whiffle ball in my friend’s back yard. If you hit the ball over the house, it was an automatic home run. We explored the dense, verdant woods behind the houses across the street. We sat on cool lawns in the shade and arm-wrestled and talked. The girls still seemed like almost another species, off in their own world of dolls and dress-up. But sometimes they joined us in the evening for kick the can or hide and seek, which we played through the onslaught of the mosquitoes at dusk, until we were called home when the streetlights came on.
Those summers also included a vacation at a lake up north, where we spent most of the day in the refreshing water, diving for frogs or turtles, hunting for garter snakes, lounging on the sandy beach, and taking our enforced afternoon naps. The forest that surrounded that lake and the lake itself were my primary introduction to the wonders of nature. There I felt this expansiveness and freedom I could not have described or articulated back then. It was where my first spiritual experience occurred and the home of my basic connection to the earth.
It was especially in summer, which was not interrupted by the duties and tasks of school, that this expansive sense of awe and wonder developed. Time stretched out. I could watch a caterpillar work its way across the damp, dark earth. I gazed at clouds and watched them change shape as they moved across the sky. I could spend all day in the woods digging a hole in the ground, which we called a “fort.” I could climb into the limbs of a large, old tree and be cradled there for hours.
Unbridled emotion was a primary characteristic of this phase of life. If I hit a home run, I would leap for joy. If I fell off my bike, the tears quickly followed the pain. If I felt rejected by peers, I immediately fell into a shroud of sadness. An ice cream cone brought welcome waves of pleasure and contentment. I had not yet developed the filter that descended in adolescence which would moderate my responses according to the social milieu. My body simply responded, as one, with my emotional life.
These experiences filled my soul with a richness that I will always treasure. Recalling them, I feel this richness of my life that now seems so simple, yet so profound. I realize that this ability to experience awe and wonder is a necessary ingredient for the life of a mature man. While it stems from boyhood, it brings a freshness to life that is essential to bearing responsibility and developing maturity. We must be able to tap into this ability to be surprised and astonished in order to develop reverence. Awe fosters respect. Respect brings a posture of honesty and integrity.
We do not need to remain naïve in order to nurture our sense of awe and wonder. When our childlike outlook is present, we do not have to completely ignore all we have learned. We merely let our curiosity and openness take precedence over other qualities for a brief time and give ourselves over to enchantment. We put all our “knowledge” and “wisdom” in the background in order to enter that beginner’s mind, which is a mind prone to discovery. We allow ourselves to embody the eight-year-old boy we once were and to see the world from his eyes, with his abundant imagination.
Sometimes I yearn for this boyhood experience. When I am called, I may wander into some woods, lie on my back and watch the clouds, observe an anthill and its inhabitants, float on water, stick my nose to the ground and smell. As I allow these experiences to wash over me, I am reconnecting with that exuberant boy who was filled with the mystery of life. I am drawing on an essential source of maturity. I am renewing my sense of awe and wonder.