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The thin crescent slice of moon seemed a rip in the blackness; deep maroon spread above the island; the mirrored surface of the lake appeared lit from below. The air was cool; trout began to rise. Coyotes howled and then stopped as suddenly as they had begun. I reached up and banged on the underside of the van’s pop-up bunk.
“Boys, wake up. Look outside.” But of course they did not stir. My older son’s hand hung over the edge of the bunk, fingers twitching in sleep. I smiled at his hand, and continued to watch the morning grow and expand.
In truth, a sunrise is a mundane occurrence. Happens every day. Sometimes the sunrise is hidden by clouds or smog or sleep; it happens whether we’re watching or not. But if we’re awake, a sunrise can be a window to something larger.
This memory was formed two decades ago. It still rises.
A few evenings later, a group of friends got together at our house. The topic of religion and children came up. One friend said he has rediscovered the peace of church and hoped that he could communicate this to his children.
He recalled his own childhood experiences at church as less than fulfilling; and the gap between what the adults said on Sunday mornings, and what they did during the rest of the week, did not escape him. Yet, without his childhood exposure to church, he would not now find so much comfort in the rituals of liturgy and song. Another friend hesitantly admitted that, because she has not introduced her children to organized religion, she feels guilty. She does not believe in religion, so she feels that taking her children to church would only teach them that parents are hypocritical.
And yet, this friend, who described herself as an atheist (she seems more of an agnostic), also remembers intensely spiritual moments as a child, when she believed she was speaking directly to God. As an adult, she continues to experience similar moments, when life becomes blindingly vivid.
I thought of my sons and the sunrise on the mountain.
Most of our moments are less majestic. We stumble from deadline to deadline, pay the bills, grind through seemingly prerecorded conversations with our bosses and workmates and even our friends, when we fear that we will be detected for who we really are, merely human.
A few years earlier, a group of local religious leaders also met in my living room. During the discussion of fatherhood, Rabbi Martin Levin, of Congregation Beth-El, said that to be spiritual is to be constantly amazed.
“To quote the words of Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great teacher of our age,” he said, “our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.”
Heschel would encourage his students to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted: Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”
For many people, organized religion offers the necessary structure, a weekly reminder that there is more to life and afterlife than budgeting and blackness. Others find a different source. Since I was a boy, fishing has been my special window to the spirit. It is not the only window, and not for everyone. But for some of us, it is good.
As the day moved from dawn to dusk, I waded into the calm water, lifted the rod and let loose of the line. I watched my boys along the shore. The younger one, who had temporarily given up on fishing, joyfully hauled his catch of the day, an old bucket, across the mud flat. The older boy had taken his rod into a thicket where there was a secluded pool. Perhaps, in that place, he was immersed in that quietest, strongest of voices.
Sometimes the rhythm of the rod is like a chant or the swinging of incense. Sometimes I can almost feel the water bulge and know that a fish is rising beneath it. Now a trout lifted itself, caught the sunset on its orange flank, and above the water stopped in time, as did my children and the world.
And then life went on. In a few hours, the boys and I would begin to miss their mother, and we would head home more amazed by the sunrise and sunset, by light and dark, by small muddy shoes on the stairs or the sound of my wife’s hairbrush, by the smallest of moments.
Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE. This essay is adapted from one of his earlier books, THE WEB OF LIFE.