This One’s Going to Leave a Mark

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Dear Will:

This is a little embarrassing to share, but we’re friends so I figure, what the heck. Several years ago my daughter and I went for a hike during which I made the ill-advised decision to try to walk on top of a manzanita shrub. (I know.) When the inevitable face-plant followed, I arose with various scrapes and bruises along with an impressive puncture wound near my left armpit. I still have the scar.

Over here on my right forearm you’ll find another self-inflicted malformation from when I was five or six and got too close while my mother was doing the ironing. And this one here on my knee came from a spill I took a couple of years later on the day we moved into our new house in Redlands. The neighbors lived atop a hill at the end of a long driveway. If you were seven and saw a steep driveway like that one, you’d just have to run down it, wouldn’t you? Well, wouldn’t you?

This one on my toe is the result of an unfortunate encounter with a palm tree during a Wiffle ball game in the backyard of that same house in Redlands. Then there’s this stripe on my leg left by the branch of a different tree that sliced me as I was scrambling off-trail while working at Camp Round Meadow near Barton Flats. On two fingers of my right hand you’ll also find evidence of a mopping accident in the camp mess hall. These twin smears on my shins? Don’t ask. Please.

If you must, ask about the most glorious scar of all, here on top of my bald head, the result of a fractured skull in the second grade. The contours of that one include two indentations from where the surgeon put in screws to pop the bone back into place—like he was repairing the fender of our old Country Squire station wagon. (If you were sitting with me right now I would take your hand and show you. Seriously. This is one cool scar.)

Then there’s my midsection, covered with gashes that aren’t nearly as cool as that one and that I would never make you touch: five from the robotic procedure to remove my prostate, a long horizontal number from the emergency surgery that followed, and the newest member of the gut-scar family (still healing) from hernia repair earlier this month. No wonder I am never asked to appear shirtless on the cover of Men’s Health magazine: My belly now resembles the misshapen end of a russet potato.

I’m sure your body is similarly riddled with similar blemishes, each one with its own history. Often they provide endless hours of tale-telling as we share their legends in great, exaggerated, self-deprecating detail with anyone willing to be regaled. More importantly, they are evidence of having lived (and, sometimes, of having nearly died). They are reminders of pain that has subsided and wounds that have healed. And they are proof that, whatever caused the bleeding, we got through it.

And so I sit here in my daughter’s bedroom, staring at my hard-earned deformities, most incurred many years ago. I’m working from home like the rest of you, already impatient with social distancing, only a couple of weeks into the statewide lockdown over the coronavirus. With schools closed, businesses shuttered, and events canceled, it occurs to me that you don’t have to be among the hundreds of thousands infected to know that this one too is going to leave a mark.

But what kind of mark? Much of what ensues in the weeks ahead I will have no control over, but some of it I will. What will I do, for example, with the three hours a day I am NOT commuting? When I look back on this crisis years from now, will my narrative include dim recollections of mindless video streaming? Dozens of hours of computer solitaire? Or will it include the thing I built, the story I wrote, the project I finally got around to? Will I describe the bonus time I enjoyed with my wife and children? The afternoon I finagled a volunteer shift at the local food bank? How I over-tipped at the take-out window? How I overcame my nervousness to donate a pint of much-needed blood?

I do not know—not yet, anyway. But of this I am certain: These wounds will heal. There will be a scar. And that scar will tell a story.

PW

Thanks for Asking

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Dear Will:

It’s true. I’m a Christian. Have been all my life. I think you probably knew that already.

Yeah, but what kind of a Christian are you?

Well, I suppose that by some external measures, someone else might consider me relatively devout. I’m a scripture-reading, services-attending, Sabbath-observing, tithe-paying, prayer-offering Jesus-follower. But we both know that there are plenty of people who do those same sorts of things and yet don’t seem especially Christian, just as there are plenty who do none of those things and seem a lot more Christian than so-called true believers. So I suppose those external measures really don’t tell you much, do they?

Nope. Seriously, what kind of a Christian are you?

Let me try this again. From the time I was a small child, Jesus and His teachings were a central part of my life. Thanks to a devoted mother, I suppose I was swept along by the current of faith that swirled around me. So when I was about eight years old it seemed only natural to own being Christian in some sort of formal way. Although I’m sure I didn’t fully understand it at the time, when I was baptized I was making a public declaration of my Christianity, taking His name upon me in a ceremonial way while committing to follow His teachings and keep Him top-of-mind in everything I do. Inherent in that vow of faith was a pledge to help others, to lift them when they fall, to comfort them when they’re hurting, to mourn with them at times of genuine sorrow. To love others in the fullest sense possible.

More importantly, in choosing that path I accepted a gift that Jesus offers to everyone. In pledging to follow Him, I acknowledged Him as my Savior—one who had willingly taken upon Himself responsibility for my sins and weaknesses. It wasn’t an offloading of my accumulating burden so much as it was a releasing of it, an acquiescence to Him and His desire to take it from me. It wasn’t granted based on personal merit—I  could never earn charity of such magnitude—but rather given freely as an incomprehensible act of love. That free gift—that grace—He offers still, day after day, and as I strive to honor my baptismal promises I accept it from Him again and again and again.

(Sigh.) You’re still not answering the question.

(Sigh.) Do you mean what brand of Christian am I? What denomination do I belong to? Well, for all my life I’ve been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In the popular vernacular you’d probably call me a Mormon. Just like the name Christian, Mormon was originally coined as a pejorative, but I don’t really mind it if categorizing me is for some reason helpful to you. Still I fear that in using that label you may mistakenly believe that I worship the prophet Mormon, which would be kind of like accusing a Lutheran of worshiping Martin Luther. If you ask what I prefer, however, I’ll ask you to call me a Christian. As I told you, that’s the name I claimed as my own and have retained since I was a boy.

Fair enough. Now I understand.

Actually, if that’s what you were asking, then I’m afraid that you don’t understand at all. So let me try this one last time: On Sundays, the children sometimes sing a song by Janice Kapp Perry that answers your question better than anything else I can think of. This is the kind of Christian I am:

I’m trying to be like Jesus; I’m following in his ways.
I’m trying to love as he did, in all that I do and say.
At times I am tempted to make a wrong choice,
But I try to listen as the still small voice whispers,
“Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.”

That’s me. Trying, getting it wrong as often as not, and trying again. And trusting in Him that somehow, through His grace, it will all work out. I’m that kind of Christian.

Thanks for asking.

PW

Next Time I’ll Do Better. Honest.

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Dear Will:

I think I just committed a federal crime. Pretty sure, anyway. Maybe. But if I admit it to you here, perhaps they’ll go easy on me at trial. (All the same, let’s keep this between us. Thanks, buddy.)

Here’s how it all went down: For Christmas I assembled a present for my daughter Bryn that included all of the items listed in this article from Outside magazine: 11 Things We Bring Backpacking that Cost Less Than $10. The list includes things like cotton balls soaked in Vaseline (DIY fire-starters), trash compactor bags (for water-proofing), and hot sauce packets filched from Taco Bell (for seasoning backcountry dinners). I packed all 11 items into a repurposed REI box and stuck it under the tree (except that I did upgrade her to Del Taco hot sauce because Taco Bell is gross and I love her). The only problem was that she arrived at our home with just a small carry-on and didn’t have room to schlep her trove of new gear on the airplane back to Utah.

Thus a few days after Christmas I was running around—you know, Getting Things Done—feeling all virtuous about my efficiency and productivity when I detoured over the post office to mail Bryn her loot. The clerk droned through the standard litany of questions: “Insurance?” “No thanks.” “Express Mail?” “Nope.” “Any liquids or flammables?” “Um. . . .” Of course I knew that Dr. Bronner’s Organic Liquid Soap would, technically speaking, probably qualify as a liquid. Plus I was pretty sure that the Bic lighter wrapped in Gorilla Tape was almost certainly flammable. But somehow in my zeal to Get Things Done I had not anticipated this inevitable question, and I panicked. “No,” I told him, and just like that my box was skim­ming down the chute, heading to the Beehive State, and I had taken the first step in my journey to, um, San Quentin.

In that very instant I could not believe what I had done. I wasn’t even sure why I had done it. As I drove away, I tried to rationalize my fib by noting that just about everything in that box had been shipped to my home, so it would be fiiiiiiine. Plus, clearly it’s not illegal to mail someone a 4.5 ounce bottle of Dr. Bronner’s because Amazon had mailed one to me. Right? I mean, right?

But the more I tried to rationalize, the dumber I felt. In a flash I had inadvertently revealed to myself my true character, and it was not a pleasant discovery. I like to think of myself as an honest, upright guy. Mendacity certainly does not align with my Christian values. But when faced with—what? inconvenience? an upcharge maybe? a little awkward embarrassment while dealing with a federal employee?—I opted for the easy lie instead. Even as I write this, knowing that the package arrived without dripping all over the conveyor belt or bursting spontaneously into flames, I am genuinely ashamed.

Of course, lying is all the rage these days. Everybody’s doing it. Maybe I’ve simply become . . . I don’t know . . . part of the Zeitgeist. Maybe. But when I witness the accumulating compost at the feet of our most public officials as they spew an endless stream of falsehoods and disinformation, the stench overwhelms me. Sure, compared to the sort of flimflam that gets tweeted and repeated these days, my postal prevarication really is nothing. But I can’t help but feel as though, in an unthinking moment, I stepped into something putrid and I can’t get it off of my shoe. Whatever that muck is, I want no part of it.

So to the United States Postal Service I say: I’m sorry. And to you and your friends and anyone else who believes that we would all be better off making a renewed commitment to integrity, I hereby make that same commitment. I really do believe in the virtue of veracity, in spite of what I might otherwise show in my weaker moments.

Next time I’m out Getting Things Done, I’ll do better. Honest.

PW