Dad Next Door: Eyes on the skies

Growing up in Massachusetts, I never knew when the first snowstorm would come. As autumn gave way to winter, I’d bundle up a little tighter every day and trudge back and forth between home and school, past bare trees and piles of rotting leaves. Then, one morning, I’d wake up to a world transformed: dazzling, sparkling, and wrapped in a blanket of white.

After dark, I used to stand under a street lamp and catch snowflakes on my tongue. One night, when big, fat flakes were drifting down like feathers, I discovered that if I shielded my eyes I could block out the light from the street lamp and only see the falling snow — lit up against the coal-black sky. Then something amazing happened. As I stared up at the flakes, they seemed to stop falling, and suddenly I was rising up through them instead. I was so excited I ran back inside and tried to explain it to my family, but they just laughed at me. I didn’t care. I knew more than they did. I knew how to fly.

I thought about that night recently, and it made me a little sad. Not because the memory was any less sweet, but because my life these days has so few moments like it. When was the last time I spent more than a few seconds looking up at the sky?

We adults value our time in terms of productivity. What did I accomplish? How much of my list did I finish? How much money did I make? Even our leisure time is measured and quantified.  How many sights did I see? How many minutes did I exercise? How many bargains did I find?

Kids, on the other hand, value time in a different way. They ask themselves the same question over and over again, every day.

“Do I like what I’m doing? How about now? And now? And now?”

I don’t recommend that you turn off your prefrontal cortex, quit your job and stop paying the bills. But I am proposing that living in the moment is a profoundly useful and desirable skill.  Buddhist monks spend a lifetime developing that ability, but you don’t have to move to Tibet and shave your head. You may already have a Zen master living right there under your roof.  Wearing saggy pull-ups. With Spaghetti-O’s smeared down the front of their shirt.

Kids love to teach us how to live in the moment, and they always seem to pick the least convenient times. Yes, you’re late for your dental appointment — but they’ve found a really creepy caterpillar crawling across the sidewalk. Yes, if they don’t finish their peas they’ll have eaten only French fries for dinner and you’ll be a horrible parent — but peas make a wonderful sound when you drop them into your milk. Yes, if they don’t go down for a nap soon you’re probably going to strangle them — but the dog has something balled up in its fur and dangling from its butt, and that’s what’s really important right now.

The trick, of course, is to find a time when both you and your kid can be in the moment together.  Ironically, you may have to schedule it. That doesn’t mean putting it on Google calendar and setting the alarm on your phone. It just means carving out the time so you can really be there, with nothing else to pull you away.

Here’s a modest proposal: find a chunk of time when you and your kid can just hang out together and stare at the sky. Doing what? Well, that’s up to you. But here are a few suggestions:

Find a leafy tree on a sunny day, and lie beneath it. See how the light and the shadows overlap, and how they shift and shiver in the wind. Count all the shades of green, and all the patches of blue.

Pick a clear night to watch the stars. Track satellites as they glide through their orbits, and guess which ones are charting storms, or mapping streets, or bouncing TV shows to Mozambique and Kalamazoo. If you pick a night with a meteor shower (, you can make a wish on a shooting star.

Find a grassy hill to lie on and watch the clouds. Look for dragons, and castles, and three-legged elephants with hats. Stare at the smallest cloud and use your awesome telepathic powers to make it disappear. (This actually works.)

You don’t know how long your little Zen master is going to be around. Sooner than you think, they’ll turn into a very un-Zen teenager with places to go and people to text. But right now, their wisdom is yours for the taking. 

You both have a date with the sky.

Jeff Lee practices the ancient art of snow levitation in Seattle.