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Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

Joshua David Stein: A Letter to My Sons About Hanging Onto Their Wonder

Wonder comes from openness, not from cramming oneself full. And it is as easily lost as it is found.

Fatherly’Letters to Boys project offers boys (and the men raising them) guidance in the form of heartfelt advice given generously by great men who show us how to take that crucial first step in confronting seemingly unsolvable issues — by offering honest words.

 Dear Son,

There will be plenty of time for you to walk across Nethermead, the wondrously named meadow in the park near our house. You will, when you’re my age, walk a little slowly, pulling a recalcitrant dog on a leash and trailing, perhaps, two sons of your own. But now is not the time to walk. You are just barely eight years old and since you have been able to walk, you’ve treated the edge of the meadow like some sort of starting line, the beginning of a mad dash across the clover. You were filled with wonder and why wouldn’t you be? The world is new and glorious and there’s so much to see.

Recently, I’ve noticed a hiccup in your gait. Make no mistake, you still run, eventually and in that slightly arms-flailing way with which I can identify you from a hundred feet away. But you stay yourself before you abandon yourself to joy. As a father, all I can say is to safeguard as much as possible that wonder you have, the enthusiasm, the pure joy unstinted by self-consciousness, unjaded by disappointment. This wonder — summoned these days by not just meadows, but guppies in creeks, dogs in slumber, dew on leaves, jokes by me —  is more precious than you can possibly know. It’s the absence of wonder which dulls the glimmer of us big people, gives us bags under our eyes and slumps to our shoulder and it is that wonder we relentlessly chase until, well, until we’re your Nana’s age, and all arguments seem academic.

I can see why you wish to strip yourself of open naive awe. Your cousin, who is only ten, is heavy into Hitchcock and horror. He is surly and, at times, cruel to you. He jibes at how cheery you are. His wonder is souring, becoming as an ingrown hair, infected. Like all those swollen with jealousy, he seeks to poison yours too. But look closely for when he is truly happy, those rare moments like clouds separating to let the moonlight shine, and you’ll notice he’s got wonder too, underneath those pre-adolescent scowls. Another reason to hold so closely to your own openness — for wonder itself is a function of being open — is to know that while for many of us the wonder meekly leaks away, others mourn its loss by arraying themselves against it. 

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For years it was missing and I sought to feel that feeling by filling myself with fancy food in far-flung places, or by endless scrolling or by mindless buying. All of it is rubbish. Wonder, as I say, comes from openness, not from cramming oneself full. I found wonder of course and I hope that some of your naturally occurring wonder is augmented by what I’ve found too. I find wonder in art, both the creating of it and the beholding of it. I find wonder in silly songs I sing and in certain lines of poetry. I find wonder in walks in winter, when the branches are encased in ice; in the summer, when the boughs are weighed by berries; fall with its technicolor leaves and spring with its life reborn. But this wonder is a source to which I return after years away. What I’m suggesting is one needn’t leave it to begin with. 

For what can be more natural than to be filled with wonder? Watching you, hardly taller than a fire hydrant, toddling to the edge of the meadow and then just taking off, hell-for-leather, is just plain wonderful. Wonder catches. Wonder expands. Wonder opens. So there will be time to walk across the meadow, sometimes even trudge. But today, run across the Nethermead with the joy that is your birthright.

 Love,

Dad

Joshua David Stein is a Brooklyn-based author and journalist. He was Fatherly’s Editor-at-Large, a restaurant critic for The New York Observer and has been a food columnist for The Village Voice. He is also the author of many children’s books, including ‘Brick: Who Found Herself in Architecture’; ‘What’s Cooking?’; ‘Can I Eat That?’; ‘The Ball Book’; and ‘Cooking for Your Kids’.