When we are little kids, we are drawn to grownups who haven’t lost their capacity for childlike wonder and enthusiasm. That enthusiasm and our desire to connect with it means that what we learn most easily is what our parents are most enthusiastic about — be it fly fishing or football, baking or Broadway shows. Those things we learned from that place of easy joy are the things we will always hold closest to our hearts.
Some of us — i.e. me — were especially fortunate because we had a parent whose childlike wonder and enthusiasm flowed into every area of their lives. Their joy didn’t get focused on one thing but rather on this whole experience we call life.
My dad was one of those parents. My dad believed that everyone should always be curious. He felt baffled by other people’s complaints of boredom, because to be curious about everyone and everything fills you with wonder all the time. He taught me an incredible way to live.
My dad also said, “When you limit your interests, you limit your life.” As a Renaissance man interested in the performing arts, visual arts, the literary arts, the culinary arts, history, travel, religion and learning everything he could about other cultures and ways of living, my dad lived life as though it was unlimited. That is perhaps the greatest gift he gave me: The capacity to invite infinite wonder and unlimited joy into my daily existence.
But for decades I forgot that joy. I not only became a workaholic who believed that joy and wonder and enthusiasm had to be earned by working hard enough to deserve them, but I also became a Someday Thinker.
What do I mean by that? I mean that I constantly told myself that I could feel the joy I hoped to feel, have the awe-filled experiences I hoped to have, return to the easy enthusiasms I had felt in childhood Someday. Someday when I was good enough or spiritual enough, when I had enough money or time, when I had done all I was supposed to do.
It took walking in my father’s footsteps during 2011 — the year of the Vincentennial celebrating what would have been his 100th birthday — for me to remember that joy is innate, enthusiasm is something we never lose, and wonder happens all the time — if we let it. If we stop blocking it with shoulds and somedays.
Ultimately, however, it took more than that to invite that wonder, joy and enthusiasm back into my life. It took overriding the somedays and the workaholism with the development of a daily, deliberate, conscious and committed practice of joy.
These days I find myself needing that practice more and more. When times are tough — and they seem to be for the whole world these days — it is so easy to fall into habits that block us from our joy. When we feel stressed out in our own lives and the global news reflects even more stresses back on us, it can feel overwhelming and certainly not wonder-full to be interested in everything. It can feel easier to just fall back on an ever more insular routine of habit and distraction as we try to shield ourselves from everything with which are bombarded.
But that’s precisely when we have to recommit big time to the practices that bring us joy and connection, awe and wonder, enthusiasm and hope.
For my dad, that was art. He used to say that going to a museum and seeing what we could create gave him faith in humankind. He would look at the art on his walls and take it in deeply not as something he owned, but as a partner in a deep dialogue about creativity and wonder and life as a whole. He would visit galleries to look at the work of emerging artists so he could see what conversations artists were trying to bring to the world and in what creative ways.
For me these days, my go to practice is walking. No matter what is going on in my life or in the world, every day I walk. Walking always makes me feel connection and hope — because inevitably I get out of my head and into my heart. I look around me and realize that all the stresses and fears seem way bigger and more insurmountable in my head. I see something beautiful or interesting. I have a lovely conversation. I learn more about the places I walk. I look up at the sky, around at the trees, down and the ground — and I remember how grateful I am for so much! Whatever was stressing me out before my walk suddenly seems less stressful. I always come back more hopeful than when I left.
Because I travel all the time, I never know where I am going to be walking. Sometimes the places where I walk — as it was most of this past week — are incredibly beautiful. Every morning I was filled with wonder as I heard the sound of birds, watched the sun rise over the mountains, looked at giant air balloons floating over head, walked under canopies of cottonwood trees, and watched the river flow by.
Sometimes the only place to walk — as it is this weekend — is through suburban neighborhoods or empty company parking lots. it would be tempting to like those places a little less than the more beautiful places. But what I’ve found is that one practice leads to another — and so when I find myself pacing through parking lots or circling condo complexes, it gives me the opportunity to practice presence. What this means to me is to remember to be present right where I am, find the beauty or the interest or the wonder in it, and then be grateful.
Learning how to do this has helped me carry that practice of presence and gratitude over into trickier situations such as going through airport security in a long line of testy people, getting stuck in traffic when I’m already short on time, or feeling lonely in a strange place. I just remember to find the beauty around me and find something to connect with — and things shift.
Wherever I walk, I always try to do one thing — get purposely lost. I walk out and turn one way and let my feel take me wherever I go. I don’t look at my phone navigation for a particular path or a prettier place. I just go. Somehow I always manage to find someplace interesting — and I always find my way home.
So much of our lives is planned out. We have to get something done, be someplace, meet with someone at a particular time or place. To me, to be able to get lost is a luxury. It means I am allowed to disconnect and really just be right where I am. No matter where that is.
For people like me who live with constantly updating calendar apps in their own brains, getting lost is an amazing reset button. Because to really enjoy getting lost, you have to stop thinking of yourself as lost and instead think of yourself as alive right where you are.
My dad had an incredible gift for that. He loved being alive wherever he was — in line at the carwash, at an airport waiting for a delayed flight, or watering his beloved garden.
Today, on Father’s Day, 25 years after my dad’s last Father’s Day on this planet, I know there are lots of people who are missing their fathers, and many more who wish they had had fathers who had been able to show them love. I know how fortunate I am to have had such an incredible father. I know — because he is with me every single day, in everything I do. Because he taught me that to live a wonder-filled life, to be curious about everything, to invite unlimited interest in unlimited life, is to be present to the world in a way that most of us forget how to do.
My dad is the reason that everyday I try to live out the words of one of my favorite poems by Mary Oliver :
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.
Today I get to spend my Father’s Day here in Sacramento talking to horror fans about how much they love my dad — and at 4PM, I get to sit in front of a room of people who loved him as much as I did and answer questions about him. How fortunate am I.
But for those of you who are missing your own dads, or did not have a dad who was able to show up in your life in the wonderful ways my dad did in mine, let me share mine with you. Today — as you move through your life — try living a little like Vincent:
Take a walk.
Try to be present right where you are by looking deeply at what you see around you.
Find the wonder in something — a tiny flower or a giant tree.
Really pay attention to that thing by looking at it or trying to capture the essence of it on your phone camera.
Let yourself fall in love with that lily or statue or mailbox or dog.
Be astonished that the world is full of things we can fall in love with.
Then share what you have seen in some way — an Instagram post, a text to a friend, a conversation when you get together with someone.
To live an awe-filled life of curiosity, wonder, and joy is not impossible. It’s actually necessary. Because when we really let ourselves care about one another and the world, we care to save it. And this world needs our care. It needs us to care enough to save it.
Happy Father’s Day everyone — from my dad and me!
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.