Looking for the Toy Store

If you're reading this, you probably know that I love being a father. I knew in my early 20s that I would enjoy being a dad, but I also knew that I needed to settle down a bit first - not only so I would be more patient and present, but so I could really enjoy what I knew would be the most heart-enriching journey of my life.

Day by day, my two sons and beautiful daughter continue their explorations of themselves, their worlds, and their lives. Sometimes, they explore in steps both gentle and tentative, sometimes in giant blind leaps both frightening and confidence-inducing. And while I pride myself in living in the present as much as I allow myself to, I do sometimes find myself cycling through rich memories of their younger years. Today, as I sit on a plane bound for Vancouver and dear friends, I am thinking about toy stores.

Visits to the toy store were regular and comforting with each of my children, the boys more so than Annie, as she preferred movies and parks. The first few visits to the toy store with the boys were a joy for me to experience; a small child, surrounded by a virtual cavern of shapes, and colors, and sizes, and textures. The tentative first few steps to approach the things that caught their eyes and their hearts, starting out quickly, then slowing on approach to seemingly savor the last few moments before they got to touch. The plaintive looks back at me, hoping to see the welcoming and reassuring smile that they always received in return, with a soft "Go ahead, babe, it's okay." And finally, little fingers, reaching, then touching, then grasping, then moving the toys around in ways not invented until that very moment. And of course, the smiles, and the giggles, and the visible relaxation of a body and mind in perfect concert in pursuit of pleasure. And I would stand there, and listen, and watch, and support, all the while thinking to myself the same soothing thought: "parenting is the most perfect job in the whole world."

As the years passed, we experienced good times and bad. We went through a tough spell in Pennsylvania where we were cooped up in the house like bears hibernating in winter, Ginger not quite well enough to keep up with our energy levels many days. So we would bundle up in our snow jackets and mittens, and wait patiently at the bus stop for the trip to the local toy store that we knew would provide us with a rejuvenated spirit and fill up our love tanks just enough to last us until the next visit. Sometimes we would go to the toy store in downtown State College, with the two levels and the train table and the Playmobil station and the Mouse Houses. Often, days at this store also meant a stop at the library for Dr. Seuss or Paper Bag Princess or puppet play; across the street was a coffee shop with the World's Best Hot Cocoa and the freedom to laugh as only children can, with abandon and infectious.

Sometimes, we would simply go to Target and play ball in the aisles and ride tricycles until Security came.

Other days, we would go to the Toy Store closest to us, where everything could be touched and made to feel like it was your very own. And our connections deepened, and our imaginations carried us to secret places that we could not believe existed, and the minutes turned to hours, the hours to days, and the days to weeks and eventually to seasons until it was time for us to leave for new journeys. We continued to go toy stores weekly, the boys and I, through our trips to Texas, and Tennessee, and back to California a few years ago, seeking in each place The One Toy Store that had everything we wanted in it just perfectly set up for us to feel at home.

These are just some of the reasons why I loved our visits to toy stores, but the two main reasons I loved them are actually simple: wonder and awe. Every time we went to a toy store, the boys experienced a sense of wonder and awe that you could see, hear, and feel in the air like a bolt of electricity coursing through their spirits.

So, when they stopped wanting to go to toy stores a few months ago, I was a bit lost for a while. I wanted so desperately to hang on to those memories of when the simplest things gave them joy, when seeing something new seemed to change their lives. I wanted to sit on the floor at the toy store again and play imagination games, to live again (or still) in the Land of What is Possible, instead of in the Valley of Realism and Linearity. In my quieter moments, I began to wonder if maybe something was wrong with them, if somehow our support of their interests in gaming and computers and electronica had warped their sense of wonder to such a degree that nothing would ever seem Wonderful again. I wanted to go back and find the perfect toy store again, so their reaction to the wonder would provide me with the energy to stay full and focused on what is simple and fun in the world. But things had changed, and I did not like it.

And then as I often do, I asked myself a simple, powerful question: did it change, or did I change? Was there something I had stopped doing, seeing, feeling, or listening to? And if so, what could I do about it? For years, when I have felt somewhat distant from the day-to-day lives of and changes in my children, I have tried to reconnect by spending time with them - by sitting with them while they are doing whatever they're doing, wholly and completely engaged in being with them and watching them and listening to them and looking in their eyes, and relearning the verbal and physical clues which, with the passage of time and new experiences, differ in subtle ways from the ones of their toddlerhood. And so I got down on the floor more and I looked into their eyes more often, never having to seek long or deeply for the sense of wonder and joy that now sparkles from their souls in ways more complete than I could have imagined.

I swiftly realized that they were not the problem - I was. Somehow, I had attached my love for their sense of wonder to the feeling of joy I got from going with them to the toy store. And as I watched and listened to the games they played, and the shows they watched, and the websites they visited, I began to recognize that sense of wonder and awe again. It was different now, deeper, more mature, more free and less tentative, open, secure and confident, easier to see and access, perhaps less visible to the observer confined by reminiscence, but perfectly obvious to the father sitting next to them and looking into their eyes.

There are different things for them to touch and experience now, and they don't need my reassurance quite as much as they once did. But they are awed by what they experience, and their passions are fired by the freedom to experience the wonderful things they see and feel. I can stop looking for the toy store; they have their own new places where their senses of wonder and awe come alive in many ways each day, and they want me to come with them again. I think I'll go.

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