Feeling the Joy

Dear Will:

We have this delightful, irresistible friend who likes to say that she is a “certified joyologist.” She’s kidding, but if you met her and heard her infectious laugh and saw the way she infuses a room with positive energy, you would have no reason to question her claim.

Given the chaos and disruption of 2020, we figure we could all use a little more joyology in our lives. A lot more, actually. As the poet Mary Oliver has written, “joy is not made to be a crumb.” Rather, she says, “if you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it.”

All right. We’re game. ‘Tis the season, after all, when joy shows up on billboards and t-shirts and any number of gift bags (shopping bags, for that matter). Looking back on this year-like-no-other, there have been plenty of things that have brought us joy in spite—and sometimes because—of all the rest. So in this season of giving, we’re giving in. To joy.

There were many moments during 2020 in which we suddenly, unexpectedly felt joy. Moments like these:

  • When hundreds of my co-workers agreed to voluntary pay-cuts so that no one would be laid off or furloughed (not a bad place to work, right?)
  • Before: 90-mile commute on the 405. Now: 30-foot stroll down the hall (pants optional)
  • Working with a puppy asleep at your feet (panting optional)
  • Hearing the sound of neighbor children lost in imagination on a cool, summer evening (love that)
  • Knowing that many doubters wear masks anyway for the sake of the rest of us (love them)
  • Sitting together—just the two of us—on the patio outside of Rubio’s (first night out in months)
  • Making new friends of old neighbors while walking Nacho, the least-disciplined dog in Orange County (work-in-negligible-progress)
  • Eavesdropping while Dana tutors one of her students (who knew math could be so fun?)
  • Texting with Seth during the Lakers’ Championship in Quarantine (perhaps even better than the championship itself)
  • Watching more movies AND reading more books (how is that possible?)
  • Trading in Dana’s two worn-out knees for a couple of state-of-the-art titanium numbers (to match her titanium hips)
  • Cheering in the early dawn as our beloved Brentford Bees came THIS CLOSE to the Premiership (best season ever)
  • Sunday evening Facetime Poetry Hour with Bryn (how else would we know about Mary Oliver?)
  • All of us avoiding COVID-19 (so far)
  • Seeing a resounding affirmation that democracy still works (so far)
  • First tour of Luke and Tyler’s first house (quirky and delightful, just like the house)
  • Spending a distanced weekend with Bryn and Seth at Silver City Mountain Resort (before they were chased out by the fires)
  • Celebrating the Dodgers’ first championship since before any of our kids was born (catharsis)
  • Looking on as Nacho disembowels yet another squeaky toy (no blue dragon is safe)
  • Studying Engineering from home while enrolled at UCLA (correction: no joy in that for Seth whatsoever—he’s moved back to Westwood)
  • Eating Guerilla Tacos during the Worst Drive-in Dance Concert of the COVID Era™ (Date Night!)
  • Witnessing the selflessness of medical personnel and other essential workers (angels and superheroes)
  • Meeting the brand-new baby of our brand-new friends who arrived only a few months ago as refugees from Afghanistan (you’d love them too)
  • Sitting down to compile this list (and there’s more where this came from)
  • Thinking about friends like you (corny, but true)
  • Celebrating the birth of Jesus (Joy to the World!)

Here’s hoping for even more joyology in 2021.

PW

Photo by Anthony Asael

To See and Feel and Witness

Dear Will:

Last week I drove north on Veteran Avenue en route to my son’s apartment near the UCLA campus. As a Bruin myself, I’ve driven that road countless times, but it’s been a while. The drive was thus made new again by the morning view it gave me of the Los Angeles National Cemetery, with its silent rows of gravestones, standing at attention to honor the veterans who lie in rest there along the avenue—90,000+ as I understand it.

The sight will hush you into an urge to turn off the radio. Which you should do.

During the first few years of our married life together, Dana and I lived in a duplex apartment just south of that cemetery. I can remember one Memorial Day pushing a stroller through its hallowed rows and talking to my firstborn about what made those grounds so sacred. He could not have been more than two years old, so his dad’s discourse was surely incomprehensible. But you do not need language to convey the feeling that lingers in a place like that. As a new father, I felt it was important that Luke have that experience—that even as a toddler he have the chance to see and feel and witness.

I still feel that way. Perhaps it is because of the impact of my first visit to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. I was there in February of my senior year in high school, and there was snow on the ground. When it’s cold like that, they change the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every half hour, but what gave me chills was not the weather. It was the image of one member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, assigned to stand guard while I watched in reverent silence. I can still picture the face of that stoic soldier whose every step reverberated through the grounds. He did not vary his 21-step cadence as he marched in the morning chill, the physical effect of which could be plainly seen streaming from his nose, across his chin, and onto the front of his otherwise impeccable uniform. And yet he did not sniff nor flinch nor waver. I was awestruck (still am!) by the respect and honor he showed on our behalf as we gathered in grateful tribute to the nameless soldiers represented there.

How many thousands more like them have given what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion”? And how many others have similarly sworn to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” an obligation they have taken “freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion”? It’s a remarkable choice given the possible consequences. I have a nephew, a newly commissioned West Point grad, who just a few weeks ago took that very oath. I watched the scene play out via video. And I wept.

These men and women, both living and dead, represent the very best in us, modeling the very best that we can be. Among those of us who have taken an easier, safer course, they have no equal. In fact, the very best of all has himself declared: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). It bears repeating: You cannot love more than that. May no one ever doubt their convictions, question their devotion, or denigrate their service. Such women and men deserve and have earned our greatest respect and (given the nature of their sacrifice) our eternal gratitude.

And so, if I could, on this Veterans Day I would write to all of them these words which cannot possibly convey the depth of what I feel: Thank you for your service.

PW

How to Choose a Stick

Dear Will:

In our country, it is not at all unusual for religious leaders to take an active role in politics and elections. Pastors and preachers do not hesitate to endorse individual candidates, often inviting their favorites to speak to their congregations. Some sects and their leaders become explicitly associated with specific parties and openly instruct their followers how to vote.

In contrast, my church (the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) remains quietly on the sidelines, unwilling to engage or endorse, even when our own members rise to prominence and run for office. Here’s the official Church policy on such matters: “As citizens, Church members are encouraged to participate in political and governmental affairs, including involvement in the political party of their choice. . . . While affirming the right of expression on political and social issues, the Church is neutral regarding political parties, political platforms, and candidates for political office. The Church does not endorse any political party or candidate. Nor does it advise members how to vote.” And it’s been that way for as long as I can remember.

Case in point: This very weekend, my church held its 190th General Conference, a semi-annual event that features ten hours of instruction stretched across five sessions on a single weekend. In two days of remote “gathering,” we listened to over 30 sermons, maybe a couple dozen previously-recorded choir numbers, and a bunch of prayers. Here we are, just a month away from an election, and yet there wasn’t one mention of a specific candidate or political party. As you might guess given the rancor and divisiveness that dominates public discourse these days, we did get a healthy dose of admonition regarding racial equality, civility, peacemaking, and loving our neighbors, but not one word on whom to vote for. That’s just how we do things.

I think that reticence is consistent with something Joseph Smith said maybe 180 years ago in reference to how he governed a growing church. “I teach them correct principles,” he said, “and they govern themselves.” There is an expectation, in other words, that members of our church will make their own decisions, that we will strive to align our actions with the principles taught from our pulpits, that our lives and choices will reflect our desire to exemplify the teachings of Jesus Christ. That’s the theory, anyway.

So what are the principles my church teaches with respect to elections? These, and these only:

In accordance with the laws of their respective governments, members are encouraged to register to vote, to study issues and candidates carefully, and to vote for individuals whom they believe will act with integrity and sound judgment. [Members of the Church] have a special obligation to seek out, vote for, and uphold leaders who are honest, good, and wise. (See D&C 98-9-10.)

I think that’s pretty good advice—“correct principles” indeed. While I admit that it’s not easy to assess the character of a candidate based on 30-second TV spots and out-of-context soundbites (or, God forbid, the latest muck shoveled into our social media feeds), for some we do have a substantial public record by which we can assess the integrity of their actions, the soundness of their judgment, their honesty and goodness and wisdom—or their lack thereof.

For me, those things matter a whole lot more than dubious campaign promises and posturing as I try to make my votes align with my stated beliefs. Alternatively, I suppose I could choose my candidates based on a single issue or party-first loyalty, but increasingly I find that doing so would force me to compromise too much. As they say, when you pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other as well, and too often there is so much gunk on the other end that I just can’t tolerate the stench.

However you choose to exercise your franchise, I hope you’ll “vote your conscience,” as they say, and celebrate with me the honor of being part of a democracy in which we each get a say in how we are governed and by whom. Like it or not, those choices say a lot about who we are and what we aspire to become.

PW

P.S. Two days after I published this Letter to Will, my Church sent this letter to all congregations in the United States reiterating its neutrality and encouraging members “to be active citizens by registering, exercising their right to vote, and engaging in civic affairs.” However, the letter didn’t mention anything about sticks.