He Meant Every Wag of It

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Dear Will:

About a week ago, Barnum, our moronic family dog, passed away. The whole thing was pretty abrupt: On Thursday he was fine; by Sunday morning he was gone. He was 15-something years old, so he had a pretty good run. But he was such a part of our lives for such a long time that there is now a big hole which once was filled by his goofy idiosyncrasies.  We miss the jangle of his dog-tags, the way he skittered uncontrollably across the hardwood, the wag of his tail, butt lifted high in the air, challenging you to a game of chase. 

You can read more about Barnum here and here and in several other posts. But for today I reprise in particular a favorite memory in tribute to a dumb, mutt of a dog who we loved so much. . . .

On Saturday morning I groaned out of bed, splashed some water on my face, and stumbled down the stairs. Bleary-eyed, I filled a couple of CamelBaks in preparation for a morning hike with my son Luke. After downing a banana, I headed to the garage to toss the daypacks into my Mazda6.

As I opened the door of the car, however, Barnum, the Moron Dog, leapt into the backseat, panting and wagging in a state of frenzied anticipation. For the second week in a row, he unilaterally determined that my preparation for an early-morning adventure was actually an invitation for him to join me. And he was stoked!

What was I to do? His tail slapped at the upholstery with metronomic intensity, his tongue flopping madly as if the hike were already underway. Plus, he was staring at me expectantly with those (what’s the phrase?) puppy dog eyes—big and brown and plaintive. Luke looked at me and shrugged. How could we say no?

This should give you a little bit of a sense of what it’s like to live with Barnum. Mostly he just naps and poops, but in between there are these manic bursts of energy and exuberance that you have to admire. He crashes up against the door anytime he thinks you’re heading outside with him and spins in circles whenever he sees you preparing to light the barbecue (who knows why?). He gets so overanxious about his evening snack that when he tries to go for the bowl he simply skitters and slides and runs in place trying to get traction on our hardwood floors—like a cartoon brought to life. After a bath he runs figure eights between our dining room and family room . . . just like our toddlers, come to think of it, when they were turned loose from their baths.

As we pulled out of the garage on Saturday morning, Barnum’s delirium intensified. En route to the trailhead, he paced the backseat, dashing from this window to that because, it seemed, it was all so wonderful and he was afraid he was going to miss something. Up on the seat, down on the floor, back on the seat, paws on the windowsill, nose on the armrest, over to the other windowsill, pant pant pant pant pant. No kid on the way to Disneyland ever showed such nervous excitement.

That energy didn’t last, of course. As we climbed and descended and serpentined along the trails of Weir Canyon and Santiago Oaks, the hills and heat gradually took their toll, and before long Barnum was spent. Lagging, but still wagging. Happy. No mutt within miles was happier.

That’s how it is with Barnum. He displays full-body, all-in enthusiasm for even the smallest things. His positive energy is sometimes annoying, I’ll admit, but at the same time there is something infectious about it. He projects the kind of charge-out-the-door eagerness that I imagine God would like to see out of us. We often talk of consecrating all that we have to bless the lives of others, of losing ourselves in order to find ourselves, of loving and serving God with all our hearts, might, minds, and strength. The underlying theme of all of these familiar principles is the idea of holding nothing back, throwing ourselves at every opportunity with (as the scriptures often say) “full purpose of heart.”

Full purpose of heart . . . and a wagging tail.

PW

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An Allegory for Easter

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Dear Will:

Last Saturday morning I headed out to Weir Canyon for an easy morning hike. It had rained the night before, so I knew there was the possibility (or probability?) that the trail would be closed. But I was in the mood for a hike, so I did as I pleased and hoped for the best. When I pulled up, I was delighted to see that the trail was indeed open and that there was only one other car already parked at the trailhead on Hidden Canyon Road.

I chose the clockwise route this time, which features a short incline right out of the gate. The ground was still wet, but it was firm as I had hoped, so it seemed that everything was coming together according to plan. For about 30 feet, that is. I saw a couple of muddy skid marks where someone ahead of me had slipped. And then a couple more. Before long I was making skid marks of my own as the grippy tread of my Terrex hikers filled with mud and transformed into slippy tread instead. I quickly realized the futility of what I had undertaken and turned back to the car, practically skating down the slope on shoes now rendered twice as heavy (and nearly twice as wide) by the accumulating sludge. It was then that I spied and understood the trailside rock where others had smeared great glops of earthen goo in a quest to rescue their muddy soles.

Once on flatter, firmer ground, I did a bit of that smearing myself—on rocks, on the curb beside my car. I was forced to take the shoes off and bang them together as you might have done, flinging clumps of sticky clay in all directions and sending shocks up through my arms and shoulders. Ultimately I was transformed into tantrum-throwing percussionist, slamming down one shoe and then the other on the asphalt in a jarring and mostly successful effort to clear the Vibram crags in my heavy-laden trail shoes.

It was, perhaps, the dumbest of hikes. If I’m honest, I had made this same, post-rain mistake on this same trail once before, but in spite of knowing better I had insisted on trying to make things work my way anyway. But once I came to my senses, I made my way back home, parked my car, and headed out on the familiar streets of my neighborhood. The view was less dramatic and the experience less glamorous, but the roads were clear and the sun was out and it was lovely. The rains had turned the skies into the kind of blue we rarely see in car-crazy California—a blue that was intensified by random, puffy clouds that hung like cotton balls above the glistening trees. Had I chosen this route from the get-go, I would certainly have covered more ground—while increasing my pleasure and reducing the hardship—but because of my ill-conceived foray into the muck, I appreciated the clear, unobstructed path all the more.

Perhaps you’ve done this same thing yourself—chosen an enticing path even though, down in your heart, you knew better. Perhaps in consequence you too have found yourself stumbling along, slowed by the muck that you have accumulated along the way. And perhaps you’ve felt a similar desire to be rid of the mess and to find a clearer, more established path.

Perhaps you have also thought, as I do at this time of year: Thank God for the message of hope that Easter brings. Thank God for a Savior who has made it possible for even the grimiest among us to turn ourselves around and clear our muddy souls. And thank God for the clearer path that the Gospel of Jesus Christ illuminates for all of us. It truly is the better way. Way better.

PW

Photo: John Barwood Photography

Seeing Again, as if for the First Time

Scan 2018-2-26 0004Dear Will:

When my kids were small, we had bedtime rituals which became both sacred and magical. Once our children had brushed and polished from toes to teeth, they got to choose a book (or more likely books) for storytime. I treasured those wind-down minutes snuggling and imagining, with a kid on my lap scanning wide-eyed the pictures on the page as I did my best to bring a story to life. My children quit snuggling with me long ago, but I can still smell the soap, still sense the warmth of those flannel PJs, still feel my heart melting as Seth flips over a just-completed book and declares: “Again.” If there’s anything better in the universe than that, I have yet to find it.

I likewise remember when Luke (our firstborn) was small and we would go for evening “explores” around our neighborhood in Westwood. Because we were surrounded by so many tall buildings, we had only narrow bands through which we could see the sky as we strollered our way down Greenfield Avenue in that densely populated section of West Los Angeles. He and I had a game we would play in which we would try to find the moon as we circled the block. Often we would simply stop and sit on the wall in front of a nearby apartment building, stare up at the stars, and see if we could catch a glimpse of the flashing lights on a jet heading to someplace distant and full of possibilities.

Dana taught me to use that same trick to guide our kids’ imaginations and engage them more fully in the stories that we read. “Where is the raccoon hiding?” “What does that elephant say?” “Can you see the train?” Those nightly sessions were a gift from a thoughtful, devoted mother who wanted our kids to love books, to treasure the words and ideas that trigger imagination, to learn to see and feel a world you cannot necessarily reach out and touch. Joni Mitchell sings: “Yesterday, a child came out to wonder.” Dana was raising wonderers.

Wonder is mostly about looking and noticing that which you might otherwise overlook—and then letting the magic of what you have noticed play upon your mindIt’s crouching—transfixed—to examine a beetle as it wobbles across your trail in Laguna Canyon. It’s scrutinizing the rock over which the beetle just clambered. It’s rising from your crouch and remembering another time in another place when beetles and rocks were actually the point of the hike to begin with.

Wonder makes it possible to see again something familiar, as if for the first time.

And so I find myself today, on a plane midway between Newark and Los Angeles, thinking about you while flipping through a grownup book one of my now-grown wonderers has insisted that I love. It’s Pilgrim at Tinker CreekAnnie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ode to wonder itself. Beside me dozes a man with a sleeping toddler curled on his lap. I’m drawn to a passage from a couple of chapters back wherein Dillard quotes the poet Michael Goldman:

When the Muse comes She doesn’t tell you to write;
She says get up for a minute, I’ve something to show you, stand here.

Thus somewhere in the reading and the musing I find myself remembering a long-ago night, in a bedroom in a rocker, reading to a little girl from the pages of Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. The close-up image of a great horned owl is splashed across the page.

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I whisper as I read: “For one minute, three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes, we stared at one another.”

And so I have returned to the beginning. I am seeing once again. And it’s wonderful.

PW