I am fifty-six years old, and the number makes me laugh. I still can’t wrap my brain around it. When people ask me how old I am, I tell them I am twenty-three, then they laugh. It’s a joke of course, but only sort of, because I still feel twenty-three, and I actually do think of myself as that age, less the angst, plus the life experience. Perhaps “thinking young” is the reason why people still guess my age as low as forty. Even at forty, the number sounded so ridiculous to me that I began a practice of counting down in years each birthday thereafter. Next year I’ll be “twenty-three” and the timing is just right.
Why twenty-three? Because that was the age I just began to know myself well enough to know what I really wanted. It was when I best recall having all the energy, vision, and time I needed to take my life wherever I desired, a time when everything was possible. I feel that way today, but it hasn’t always been that way.
I have somehow always known that I would have a daughter. I was first married at twenty-six, but was in no hurry to have a child. I wanted to wait until my thirties to raise a child, because I wanted to have the life experience to do it properly, and not while I was still so absorbed with starting my own life. It took a little longer than I expected, but that’s another story. I was forty-seven when Madi finally came along. By then, I was hoping that raising a child would keep me thinking young.
I remember the moment I heard that my fifteen-year quest for progeny was finally realized. It was over the phone, I was sitting alone in the dark, in a garden. Suddenly magic, beauty and wonder that I hardly knew was missing seeped back in to the world. The dark garden filled with colors I hadn’t noticed, and I decided then that I would not let them fade again.
I set my intention to seeing the world through my child’s eyes, to reengage life as I had originally found it when I began it myself. I wanted to reach back, if only in fractured moments, to life in its newest, purest form. I wanted to touch, if I could, original innocence, trust, play, bliss, and above all wonder. Of course we can’t go back to being a child, nor should we want to, but if these things can be brought forward to where we are now, how much more potent would our lives be? Seeing through my daughter’s eyes became a practice of mine, one I came to call seeing with “beginners eyes.”
What does that look like? Let me ask you, do you remember a time when you walked down the street in the middle of the road because it just made natural sense? Do you remember the feeling of an open space needing to be filled, or a time when there was never a question of trust? Do you remember when colors had no name? Do you remember when your only concept of time was dusk in the sky and your mother’s voice calling you in for dinner? Do you remember when a woods or open pasture was a choir of adventures calling your name? Do you remember nature? Do you remember what it was like when the word future had no meaning? Can you recall when understanding the world around you was more important than understanding yourself and your place in it? These are the things you see with beginner’s eyes.
If we had this view, if we found the practice of it in our daily lives, we could see past the thought-forms and constructs we adhere to in order to survive in an orderly world; how the clock and the agreements we make segment our life. We could see from a greater vantage the way we steep ourselves in a complex game of achievement. How we barter and compromise ourselves in relationships, and the way we run the race to the future, and overlook the present.
We choose this game of life, and so far as I can determine, we are here to know ourselves within its context, to find and actualize ourselves as best we can for some secret purpose that must somehow include growth. It’s a great game, a wonderful game, but we invariably get bogged down in it and lose our bearings, like a war we fight until we forget what we are fighting for and the battle becomes all that matters. My daughter taught me to keep stopping, stopping to look at things I knew well, as if they where brand new.
One dewy Spring morning Madi and I leave the front door in a rush to get into the car.
“Daddy wait! Look at the flowers!”
“Aww, Madi don’t run through the wet grass with your good shoes, come on we’ll be late!”
She turns and gives me a curious, almost sympathetic look as though I must be thick or something, “But Daddy, it’s the first flower.”
“Of course, right. My bad. They’re called crocuses…” They were white with purple and looked like little girls bent over with their long hair thrown over their heads, feet in the dirt like my daughter. We were late to wherever it was we were going, with wet shoes, but we had marveled over our garden’s first flowers and had given them their due. It is amazing what you will see when you stop to look.
Winter. We’re in the school parking lot for a morning drop off at school, there is a light snow, and it’s cold.
“Daddy look, snowflakes!!”
“Yeah, yeah sweetie it’s snow, let’s go, come on now.”
She was staring at the car window. The temperature was just right for each snowflake to fall unspoiled and perfect on the darkened window.
“Wow! Cool Madi!”
“How do they do that?”
“When water in the air freezes, nature turns them to crystals, they say that no two snowflakes ever look the same. Imagine how many snowflakes have fallen and each one is completely different.”
“Awesome. Daddy can we save them?”
“No, but I’ll take a picture of them for you, so you can look at them later.” After I dropped her off, I spent fifteen minutes in the cold staring at them.
Summer evening. There’s a new moon and the sky is brilliant with stars.
“Daddy, what are all those lights up there?”
Stars, some planets, and Galaxies, which are huge groups of stars, but mostly it’s stars.”
“What are stars?”
“You know the sun, the sun is a star. Imagine the sun so far away that it looks like those tiny points of light.”
“Whoa, there are so many. How far away are they?”
“Well, they are so far away that the light we see from them takes millions of years to get to us. In fact, the light we see is so old, that the stars we are looking at may not even be there anymore.”
“Then what is behind the sky??”
I take great comfort in the fact that even though she takes as commonplace the stunning visual effects in movies and dazzling electronic toys that would have blown my mind as a child; she is still in rapture over a caterpillar on a stick.
I have incorporated “beginner’s eyes” into my work, in the form of exercises I use in my creativity and improvisation workshops. Participants might begin by pointing to and naming objects using anything but the name we all agree upon for them. They will be asked to find and hold an object in their hands and look closely at it, then they are tasked with forgetting its name, color, shape, purpose, until every cognitive construct we use to associate it into our understanding disappears. Then they are asked to see everything around them without any artificial symbol or association, and finally to see themselves in that way. The way the world comes alive for them, and the realizations they come to about themselves is often quite moving.
The practice of this gives you the ability to break tightly held mental patterns, and to broaden your perspective. We walk a maze of our own creation, following arbitrary and self-imposed rules. So what shall we do when our life’s maze offers us a dead-end? We climb over the damn wall!
The gift of a child’s experience, installed in an adult life grants us a nimble perspective. When we lose our job, instead of feeling trapped and failed, we may see a new career beckon. When we lose love, instead of feeling lost and alone, we may see a fresh new page turn. If we have a dream, we may run to fill it. When we run out of time, we may learn to let go of time. When we find ourselves directionless, we may listen for what calls us next. We may learn to stop throwing our happiness into the future, and learn to accept it now. We may even learn to stop searching so hard for ourselves that we forget who we are, or fail to see others.
My daughter will grow up, and she will fall prey to all of these things, as we all do, as we all must at some point. She will forget her beginner’s eyes someday, but I will never lose her gift. When she needs it most, her father, still twenty-three years old, will be there with these eyes, the ones she gave me.
And I will return the favor.