Family Thrills

Another Saturday at the amusement park. Shrill screams, sweaty crowds, and high-speed whiplash-creating machines. This was our kids' idea of a day in the great outdoors, the only family activity that effortlessly lured them out of the house. After all, why go outside? The exciting stuff happened inside, like destroying warlords at the computer or watching yet another plot-free (according to me) action-adventure movie.

I decided to embark on a one-woman mission. I wasn't ready for them to lose their childlike excitement over simple things. After all, to receive the kingdom of God, we have to retain a childlikeness that enables us to appreciate the wonders of everyday life. Was it already too late? Somehow, I would have to lower my family's threshold for thrill. I wanted us to experience what one of my favorite children's authors, L.M. Montgomery, called "the flash" in Emily of New Moon:
This moment came rarely and went swiftly, leaving her breathless with the inexpressible delight of it ... The wonder of it stayed with her for days. It never came twice with the same thing. Tonight the dark boughs against that far-off sky had given it. It had come with a high, wild note of wind in the night, with a shadow wave over a ripe field, with a greybird lighting on her window-sill in a storm, with the singing of "Holy, Holy, Holy," in church, with a glimpse of the kitchen fire when she had come home on a dark autumn night, with the spirit-like blue of ice palms on a twilit pane ... And always when the flash came to her, Emily felt that life was a wonderful, mysterious thing of persistent beauty.
Could my twenty-first century children, already addicted to human-made adrenaline, ever be thrilled by the beauty of nature? Their view of nature was fundamentally different than mine. I saw rivers carving ancient paths through a deepening canyon. They pictured themselves "canyoneering," or hurling their bodies into the speed of the white water. I saw a high, curved rock jutting out like a sentinel over a lake. They saw a prime spot for bungee jumping. I watched the waves curl into the shore, enjoying the crash and splendor of the ocean's relentless approach. They checked out the surf and wondered how awesome it would be to hang ten on a board.

Nature was becoming just another way to feed their adrenaline addiction. On a recent trip to Mammoth Lakes in California, I gazed up at the steep, snow-covered slopes, wondering if they resented being used for the thrills, chills, and spills of skiing and snowboarding. Was anybody in awe of nature any more? Were today's kids so over-entertained and thrill-saturated they couldn't grasp the majesty and power of nature without exploiting it for adrenaline?

"Natura sola magistra," wrote Joris Hoefnagel, an artist who illuminated manuscripts during the Renaissance. Nature is the only teacher. While I might not agree with the "sola" part of his statement, I know that the writers of the Psalms relied on the teachings of nature. The heavens declared the glory of God; the trees of the field clapped their hands; the winds were divine messengers; and the hills spoke of God's everpresent help.

In a radical shift away from the past, Hoefnagel and his contemporaries studied, painted, and enjoyed nature for its own sake, as well as for what it could reveal about God. Before the Renaissance, people studied the natural world only to discover how useful it could be to human beings. Were we back in the dark ages again?

My family grew weary of my philosophical grumbling. "Okay, okay, Mom," my sons said. "We'll go on a walk with you. But you have to learn to ski with us."

Me? Learn to ski? I was doomed, destined to be a scared, cold, and battered first-timer. Would it be worth it? I gritted my teeth and agreed.

We set out on a short, three-mile hike through Inyo National Forest. Snow had fallen lightly through the night, but it wasn't too deep on the trail. We walked through a forest of frosted evergreens, and I recited a few lines from Robert Frost's familiar poem, "Stopping By the Woods On a Snowy Evening:"
The woods are lovely, dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.
After that, even I knew enough to stay quiet, apart from a word or two of encouragement. We trudged uphill, climbing to the rim between two huge craters. When we reached the top, flushed and breathless with accomplishment, we looked back across the silent, snowy valley. The sun was low in the winter sky, and the last light sparkled on the icy green ponds deep in the bowl of each crater.

In the stillness, the holiness was tangible; the forest had become a cathedral. Our children's eyes were shining, and I knew they were as thrilled as we were. For a moment, our life as a family was illuminated by the wonder of L. M. Montgomery's "flash."

Now we try to hike together every chance we get. The boys sometimes grumble a bit at the trailhead, but it's become a family habit. After about twenty minutes, the solitude of the countryside weaves its' familiar spell. I can see their threshold for excitement begin to come down.

"Look, Dad!" one of them will call in a low voice. We watch, spellbound, as a pair of deer leap across a meadow.

"Shhh, Mom," another will say, interrupting our conversation. I obey, and we listen to the song of a waterfall spilling into a river.

But my children are not the only ones who've changed. As I snowplow down the bunny slopes, hurtle through the air on a death-defying roller coaster, or cheer the Jedi warriors in their battle against evil, I realize that it's more than just them learning from me. It's the eternal, joyous tug-of-war that takes place with the next generation. The end result, if all goes well, is a much wider space to be thrilled.

This reflection was originally published in US Catholic magazine as an essay entitled "Not So Fast" and is also included in my book, Ambassador Families: Equipping Your Kids To Engage Popular Culture (Brazos Press).

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