Remember Who You Are

Dear Will:

When I was a boy, every time I left the house my mother would holler at me: “Remember who you are!” It was her way of reminding me to live as I had been taught and to uphold the family name. I have friends who communicate a similar thought to their children through a small sign, hung by the door for the kids to read as they leave each day. It says simply: “Return with honor.”

As a parent, I understand that sentiment. When my three children are at school each day, I hope that they will be enthusiastic in the classroom, fair on the playground, friendly and helpful in their interactions with others. Nevertheless, the command to “remember who you are” or to “return with honor” is really more of a wish when you come right down to it. Ultimately, the choices my kids make when not under my direct supervision are theirs and theirs alone—which is why my wife and I place such an emphasis on teaching correct principles in our home. Home is the primary place in which we get the chance to instill in our children the principles which we believe should govern their daily activities.

As I watched along with you the terrible aftermath of Katrina unfold, I was troubled by reports of lawlessness. When I heard that hospitals and doctors were under siege, that each night homes and businesses were being pillaged and law-abiding citizens shot at, I couldn’t help but wonder: What sort of a person believes that the absence of a viable police force implies a freedom to do merely as one pleases? I try to imagine the homes in which such people were raised, and I wonder what the sign above the door must have read: “It isn’t wrong if you don’t get caught”? “Take whatever you can get”?

But then I heard other stories—of thousands of volunteers spending countless hours trying to rescue and relieve the suffering, of hundreds of millions of dollars in donated aid, of strangers helping strangers and communities reaching out—and I was reminded that even though a crisis such as this can bring out the worst in some, it also brings out the best in many more. And although our immediate response to the disaster may have been horribly inadequate, I couldn’t help but feel that ultimately we will get it right. Because in spite of the lawless few, we remain a society in which parents still teach their children to “return with honor,” and mothers still remind their sons: “Remember who you are.”


Surrounded by Wild Roses

Dear Will:

If you’re anything like me (and I pray that you are not, in this case), you may have a tendency to allow everyday things to sort of blend together to the point that you hardly notice what’s always there. For instance, when I set a book at the top of the stairs with the intention of taking it down to the study later on, if I don’t follow through that same day the book becomes a fixture in the upstairs hallway. It’s as if it were part of the carpeting. I can become accustomed to things which are out-of-place to such a degree that they seem no longer out-of-place.

That bad habit is mostly just annoying, particularly if you’re married to me. Worse than that, however, is another side of that same phenomenon: the tendency to take for granted something remarkable because you see it everyday. When was the last time you paused to consider the amazing dexterity of your right thumb, the miracle of a flushing toilet, the sublime wonder of buttered toast. Hmmmm?

OK, I admit that even that is not really a big deal. What has me musing this evening is how easy it is for us to become unaware of the people who share our lives with us. The clerk at the store. The guy who delivers the morning paper. The 15-year-old kid who refuses to go to bed on time (that would be Luke). This weekend I realized, to my shame, that I devote much more energy to nagging/lecturing/chastising my kids about what they’re not doing than I do to reminding them how terrific they are for all that they do do. What kind of a loser dad am I?

I have a favorite poem by Wendell Berry. He wrote it about his wife, but I wish I had written it about my mine, because it speaks so well of the opportunity to rediscover something familiar:

The Wild Rose

Sometimes hidden from me
in daily custom and in trust
so that I live by you unaware
as by the beating of my heart

Suddenly you flare in my sight,
a wild rose blooming at the edge
of thicket, grace and light
where yesterday was only shade,

And once again I am blessed, choosing
again what I chose before.

How many wild roses do you have blooming around you? Do yourself—and your loved ones—a favor and tell them today how much they mean to you. I tried it myself, and it was wonderful.


Vacation Was a Gas

Dear Will:

A couple of weeks ago my family and I returned from a vacation in southern Colorado. We enjoyed a week of rafting, horseback riding, soaking in hot springs, hiking, exploring ancient ruins, and lots of driving—2,300 miles worth. We had a marvelous time, but as you would guess, by the time we finally pointed the car toward Orange, I was ready to be back in my own home.

So it was that we found ourselves, rolling down I-40, trying to take our minds off of the road. As we approached Havasu City, I remember noticing a Pilot station selling gas for “only” $2.39 per gallon. “Pretty good deal,” I thought—which will tell you all you need to know about what I was paying in and around Durango. As I drove past that exit—the last before we crossed into California—I discovered that I was running low on gas and would need to stop.

(Those of you familiar with that stretch of I-40 can probably anticipate the rest of this story. Having never traveled that stretch of road before, I was not so fortunate.)

When we got to Needles, I took the first exit and pulled into a Union 76 station that was charging $3.09 for a gallon of low-grade unleaded. “I’m not paying 3 bucks for a gallon of gas!” I exclaimed as I drove right through the station without stopping. Assuming that the first exit would offer the most expensive gas, I got back on the freeway and tried the next exit instead.

“Three-nineteen! I’m not paying $3.19 a gallon. This is ridiculous. We can get gas in the next town.” Once again I got back on the freeway without refueling. I looked at the gauge and concluded that I would have plenty in the tank to get me to Fenner—only 38 miles away.

Not far down the road the low-fuel indicator came on. I was averaging 17-18 miles to the gallon, so now I was worried. I had my whole family in the car and the in-dash thermometer indicated that it was 122 degrees outside. I imagined my wife and children baking in the unrelenting heat while I shuffled up the road, gas can in hand, in an ever-growing state of delirium. The desert stretched before me, blank and unforgiving, and the word hubris pounded over and over in my head. Somewhere nearby a lizard laughed. Hysterically.

We came over a rise, pushed onward by the last few drops of fuel in the tank, and finally saw in the distance evidence of what we thought must certainly be Fenner, California. As we drew nearer, however, the highway was pinched down to a single lane. Road construction. “Just watch,” my wife said. “With our luck the exit will be closed.”

It was like some kind of sick joke. The exit was closed. As we drove past the exit and saw the gas station—tantalizingly close, but unattainable—I gnashed my teeth and berated myself for my pride and stupidity. If I were a swearing man, I’d probably have felt a little better right about then, but not much. The next town was almost 60 miles further west.

Quickly I saw what I must do: At the first opportunity, I broke several traffic laws by driving across the median so that we could head back the other direction (there was no construction activity westbound) so that I could get to Fenner. We limped into that gas station, hot and relieved . . . and gladly paid $3.59 for a few gallons of gas.