I love this photograph I took on the Fourth of July. Our extended family had spent the day frolicking in a nearby lake. After our fingers had wrinkled to ridges and our skin had overindulged on vitamin D, we loaded up the vehicle and headed home.
Typically, the zany antics of children en route to a fun-filled activity tend to wane into snoozing and silence during the return trip. But this time it was different. Though my niece's body was probably fatigued from hours of swimming, her imagination was anything but. As we traveled down a hilly country road, she decided to roll down the window. A sixty-mile-per-hour slipstream whistled past, air moving much too quickly for her to stick her head out. Or was it?
An idea in her head suddenly flickered to light and glowed. There were goggles in the car. They had protected her eyes from the lake water, why not from the rushing wind? And so my niece grabbed the goggles and placed them on her head like a WWI aviator. Contact. Lift off. Head out the window. Imagination airborne!
Hearing squeals of laughter tumbling about in the currents of an opened window, I turned around. There was my niece with a huge toothy grin, her lips flapping and fluttering. The edges of her smile stretched back to her earlobes. And that's when I saw it. There was something more going on than just a girl having a blast and living in the moment. She had caught hold of something elusive just long enough for me to see it: a joy set free by a vivid imagination. I was witnessing childhood in all its beauty and purity. I captured the image on my phone, and it set me to thinking about my own life.
I wondered what it would be like if the step of my present and future was influenced by such an imagination, not childish in nature but childlike. How would my view of myself, others, and the greater world be altered by seeing with fresh, imaginative, and hopeful eyes?
My thoughts reminded me of words spoken by Jesus when he said that unless one becomes like a child he or she can neither see nor enter the Kingdom of God. He seemed to indicate that the road to truth can only be found by taking on the mindset of a child: teachable, humble, creative, and able to believe the unbelievable. It makes sense that there was such a prerequisite, for how else would anybody be able to see and accept the One who walked on water, multiplied fish, healed the terminally ill, and raised the dead, unless he or she had the wondrous mind of a child?
It is this type of mindset that I believe we all need to adopt. Unfortunately, for myself and others, it is one that tends to get buried and lost in life’s clutter. That once variegated, spontaneous, and imaginative thought that could fashion fantastical, new worlds, envision unanticipated inventions, and propose unconventional solutions to problems disappears.
But the encouraging news is that one is never too old to begin growing young again. So strap on your googles and get ready to stick your head out the window!
My last surf trip is one I won’t soon forget. My wife, two teenage sons, and I had been at the coast for three days. The surf had been small and ill-formed, in the parlance of surfers, “choofy wind chop”. The forecast, however, predicated a sizeable ground swell to arrive the following day.
I told the boys that they might actually get a taste of some decent surf in the morning. They had already been on many surf trips, but when you live three hours from the coast and can only make it to the beach a handful of times in a given year, the probability of catching quality surf is relatively low.
Needless to say, they had learned the basics on mediocre waves. But I thought that this time they just might catch it good. All the right elements seemed to be converging: light wind, clear skies, and a strong ground swell from the south.
I woke up shortly after dawn, grabbed a cup of coffee, and walked out onto the balcony of our hotel. Out to sea, large green swell lines were marching in unison towards the beach. I grinned and nodded. That elusive “good day” of surfing had finally been nabbed.
Feeling the surf-stoke of a sixteen year old again, I power- walked into the boys’ bedroom and shook them awake. When they begrudgingly lifted their sleepy lids, I didn't have to say a word; my face said it all. Their morning lethargy quickly dissipated. Their countenances brightened and glowed as if it were Christmas morning. Apparently, we had been good boys, for the gifts were large, well-shaped, and many. When I finally did speak, I said only seven words: “Grab your gear and wax your boards!” They did, and within the hour we were on the beach, mesmerized by emerald rollers.
The waves looked much bigger on the beach than they did from the hotel balcony. Very clean, but perhaps too sizeable for my boys to make it out. We decided to get wet by paddling out to the inside beach break where the surf was much smaller. We played around for a while, and it was fun, and I would have been content with staying and surfing on the inside on any other day, but not this one. I looked at my fourteen year old and told him I was going to check out the outside break. I dug in and paddled towards the third sand bar.
The swell intervals were spaced far enough apart that the paddle out was relatively easy. When I reached the lineup, I glided into a pack of about ten local surfers. I sat up on my board, gave them the obligatory surfer nod of respect, and waited for my first wave.
I didn’t have to wait long. Lumps appeared out the back. A large set closed in on my position. I selected the third wave, spun around, stroked four or five times, and slid down the face of a green beauty.
It was well overhead, peeling flawlessly to the right. I flew down the wave, pumping and carving from the third sand bar to the second and then finally the first. When I finally kicked out, the water was only knee deep.
It had been years since I had ridden a wave that good. The size, the shape, the exhilaration of the drop and ride, it’s an experience that only a surfer understands. Words fall woefully short of even beginning to convey it. It was an experience I wanted to share with my boys.
I looked out to the pack of surfers bobbing like tiny corks on the far side of the third sandbar and wondered, wondered if my oldest son could make it out. I jogged down the beach and then paddled out to where my boys were still surfing.
“Aidan,” I said, “the paddle isn’t that bad. The sets are pretty far apart. I think you can make it out. You want to give it a try?” I didn’t have to ask twice. I had just thrown down a testosterone challenge to a fourteen-year-old strapping male. There was no question in his mind about trying to make it out.
Within seconds, we were both digging in and heading out to sea. I paddled again into the pack of local surfers. This time I felt like a cowboy trotting into a new frontier town with his trusty sidekick. We both pulled our boards to a halt and sat back in our saddles. And as before, I gave the perfunctory surfer nod. Aidan did likewise. Older, local surfers can’t abide disrespect from outsiders, especially if they’re young “grommets”.
I wanted Aidan to get a feel for the lineup, and the best way for him to do this was for us to sit and observe. A number of sets rolled by. We watched surfer after surfer drop into wave after wave amidst the hoots and hollers of their buddies.
Finally, I looked over at Aidan and nodded. “The next set,” I said. “Just wait until I tell you to paddle. And once you commit, don’t back out.”
Outside and to our right, the tops of a large set feathered in the light offshore breeze. I let the first three waves pass to save him from getting pounded by the other waves if he wiped out on his takeoff.
“Go on this one,” I shouted, “it’s a nice right.” He turned around and paddled hard. The wave picked him up and he was gone. Seconds later, I saw his board buoyantly bounce upwards and his legs stick out of the top of the breaking foam ball. It looked like he had dived into a giant head of cauliflower. Obviously, he hadn’t made the drop. It was his first wipeout on a big day.
My heart dropped and my breath went shallow. I scanned the impact zone and spotted him. He was okay and back on his board, paddling back out to the lineup with a chiseled determination etched on his face. He glided up next to me and said, “I didn’t make the drop.”
“Yeah,” I said with a chuckle, “I saw your legs upside down. Ready to try again?”
He nodded, but I could see a few tiny fissures of fear cracking through his chiseled determination. I knew he had to “get back in the saddle” right away. The longer he waited, the wider the fissures would grow. He picked another large right-hander from the next set.
Paddled, caught, dropped, and disappeared. “Come on, make the drop,” I said to myself. Ten seconds went by and I hadn’t seen or heard anything. No legs in the cauliflower this time and no drenched teenager in the impact zone. “He must’ve made it,” I said with a grin. My grin grew into a full half circle when I heard a distant whoop and saw the very top of a familiar head peeking over the back of the peeling wave. He was cruising down the wave, now in its second reform on the first sand bar. He kicked out when the ride was over only feet from dry beach.
It took him awhile to make it back out. When he finally did, the stoke radiating from his body was palpable.
“That was awesome. I want another one,” was all he said.
“Yeah,” I thought to myself, “only a surfer knows the feeling.”
Even though I didn’t ride that wave, I think it now ranks as my favorite. I was able to share such an amazing experience with my son, and that’s really what it’s all about. Life, I mean. Relationships. As enjoyable as surfing is – just like any other sport or hobby - it’s really about the people you share it with. The closer the relationship, the better the experience. A when the waves are really good, like they were on that day, well, it really doesn’t get much sweeter.
What a lovely experience a Mistaken Morning is. See if you find them as lovely as I do by reading the short Thinkwave excerpt below.
"Mistaken Mornings don’t happen all that frequently, and no doubt this is one of the reasons that make them so savory when they do. They occur when you wake up in the morning and mistakenly connect the new day with the wrong day of the week. Imagine that you wake up at 6:00 a. m., for example, and in your mind, you have the unpleasant notion that it’s Monday morning, another laborious day of school or work.
The long day looms ahead. The shadows lengthen. But just as you have reluctantly determined to emerge from your cozy cocoon, your ears and nose perk up. You hear the hum of lawn mowers outside your window and catch a whiff of cooking pancakes and bacon. “Mowers, pancakes, and bacon...” you think. “Why would this be happening on a…” And that’s when you realize you’ve made a wonderful mistake. A glorious mistake! It’s not Monday at all. It’s Saturday! No school, no work, and most importantly, no need, other than pancakes and bacon, to get out of bed. Your heart slows, your mind clears, and smiles fly free."
One of my favorite artists is Edward Hopper. This might be surprising to you if you are familiar with his works. So many of them are rather bleak and depressing. His subject matter is often empty cityscapes, abandoned, run-down homes, or disengaged men and women, isolated and alone even when in public places such as cafes or trains. His most famous painting is Nighthawks, in which three people at a diner’s counter appear to be lost or perhaps even overwhelmed by their thoughts. Recently developed fluorescent lights create a harsh, cold atmosphere, and from the viewer’s perspective, there is no visible door, conveying the idea of entrapment, as if the patrons are animals enclosed in a terrarium. Recurrent in many of his paintings is a shade of green that has the effect of absorbing any warmth in the scene that would have been present if not for this color.
You may be wondering at this point, why I, or anyone for that matter, would enjoy such paintings. To begin with, like mostuch art, they are cathartic, and can act as healing agents through their resonance with our troubling experiences. But beyond that, in my opinion, the works of Hopper viscerally communicate the human condition. They depict man as he really is: lost, stumbling through life, and grappling with purpose and meaning. In essence, Hopper is painting truth, pictorial philosophy if you will. And most importantly, his works prime the soul and heart to receive the remedy for man’s bleak condition.
When the incarnate God became man and walked among us, he likened man to a lost sheep without a shepherd. Jesus declared his mission when he said, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly.” The point is that we can only receive the cure for our condition when we realize our condition, and Hopper’s art does just that. It reflects our own soul’s desperate search for hope, meaning, and most especially, life. And when we cry out for these, He hears and offers them in abundance.
Why do I believe this? My life was once tinged with the very same green as many of Hopper’s paintings. I too was lost, stumbling through life, and grappling with purpose and meaning. It was from this state of desperation I cried out. The terrarium was shattered and a life set free.
Today, I encourage you to peruse some of Hopper’s works, but don’t stop there. There’s much more beyond the paintings waiting for you.