On the beach in March on a cold, rainy day, the water splashed against the sand in bursts. My parents had taken my daughter down from the apartment where we were vacationing and I had only just joined them.
As I sat down on a beach chair, I could see my daughter—all thirty-five pounds of her—running about like a seagull, bouncing up and down at the lip of the tide. Her hair flounced out behind her. Her polka dot yellow swimsuit bandied about in the brine.
I was astonished at how certain, how compelled she was by the waves. She ran to and fro. I could faintly hear the tinkle of her laughter, and then, intermittently, she yelled something out at the great sea, bounding in as she hollered. I had to go in closer to hear what she was saying.
Joining my mother right behind my daughter, I asked, “What is she yelling?” Mom laughed, her own hair whipping in the sea air. “She seems to be yelling, ‘Honk your horn!’ She won’t stop saying it, and she yells it over and over again. ‘Honk your horn! Honk your horn!’”
Sure enough, I could see my daughter tossed about in the waves, running from the whitewater peaks, giggling onto the shore, then running back, eagerly, surely, and yelling again, “Honk your horn! Honk your horn!” like a maniac.
It was a demand without apology. A call expecting a response.
I had no idea what my daughter was doing out there, but I watched her keenly. It seemed so separate from anything I understood, so alien. She was privy to something I wasn’t. The waves astonished and delighted and compelled her to shout, to demand and engage them. She had no question of her own worthiness, no question that this was or wasn’t something she could do, shouting at these monstrous waves.
Courage and audacity rose up inside of her and a childlike spirit compelled her to scream at those waves in what seemed like mixed joy, a composite of fear and delight. She bounded fearlessly and recklessly into the froth as if she was completely in control of her wild life, as if she could tell the waves to do something so strange and fantastic as honking.
Her yelling at the sea reminded me that the ocean spoke of God. And God was something larger with the potential to answer her. She had come of an age when it seemed only necessary, only right, to petition interaction, to plead a relationship with something as large and unwieldy as the sea. I wondered at the knowledge that such a little person could find strength on small tip-toes; that we could laugh at her comedic antics, when she seemed so compelled in her pursuit, and capture what is primary and basic to her.
Later that day, my daughter and I wrote letters in the sand, scribbling Z-O-E and erasing it with our toes. After we wrote our names again, we walked down the beach a ways until we saw a dolphin riding the surf. Then I was the one yelling, pointing in delight and calling Zoe’s attention to its silver glimmer, its back rising and falling.
“What do you think?” I queried, pulling her tiny body toward mine in my excitement at the discovery. I laughed and breathed in the salty taste of her neck before kissing her cheek.
Zoe stood silently looking out into the surf. I realized that a three-year-old might not equate the quick flash of gray fin to what she’d seen in children’s books, that she might not understand my delight, that she didn’t have the background knowledge for dolphin, of what made up that thick body of cells.
We were living in different worlds; I couldn’t understand her delight at the sea. She didn’t see the dolphin with her three-year-old eyes, didn’t understand what it was. The dolphin shape had not yet been illuminated to her in the ferocity of the sea.
But what we did share was a longing to understand and call out. We shared a desire to live her childhood, side by side with an eye for wonder. I so wanted to believe, to meet her in yelling at the waves at the shoreline. To yell furiously into that wildness; to query God passionately and expect remonstrance—to know that He’d answer, honk His horn, come down and break bread with me.
I owned longing in that moment; a longing to experience wonder. To free myself of the constraints of knowledge, of the repetitiveness of the things that felt like they wouldn’t change. I boxed God up into dos and don’ts a while ago. Into routines and ruts formed by my own expectations of what the waves—and God—could and could not do. I defined the limits of God, of the ways He would not answer; I couldn’t imagine the audacity of actually asking Him, demanding of Him an answer like the prophets, like David in the Psalms, like Jacob wrestling through the night.
But my daughter could, or at least I imagined she would, if she had the occasion to. In watching her, I learned what it looks like to inquire after God. To pursue Him wholeheartedly without faltering.
Amid the inscrutable nature of God, to my daughter the world He made is a contact sport, available and honest. As real as the cold water rushing down her ankles, sucked back out to sea. And perhaps in that moment, in that realization of longing, there was some hope that the desire itself was the first step toward answer, toward a life of belief. Perhaps I might even hear Him yell back.