Avie Was Here

Dear Will:

Maybe you read recently about the vandals who scratched their names into a boulder in Big Bend National Park, defacing in the process an ancient petroglyph that had survived there for over 5,000 years. Apparently such is the irresistible urge of some to let passing strangers know “I was here”— even if their destructive doodles unquestionably leave the world worse for the rest of us.

Contrast this act with those of another hiker I sometimes see on the hills near my home. When he treks along those local trails, he carries two things: a long-armed grabber and a bag that he uses to gather and remove trash left behind by indolent neighbors. It seems like the sort of thing one might do as part of a group service project, right? But this guy comes alone, week after week, quietly doing what he can to make the world a little better.

Which kind of mark would you rather leave for those who come after you?

Every day we encounter untold opportunities to make the straightforward choice between making things a little worse or a little better for everyone else. For instance, do you leave your grocery cart in among the cars or walk the 20 feet necessary to put it away with the others? Do you speed up to close the gap in stop-and-go traffic or make room for that guy who is trying to move into your lane? Do you spend your time on social media arguing your point or spreading good cheer? None of these choices may be particularly consequential in the grand scheme of things, but the accumulation of such choices by millions of people stretched across the weeks and years does have an impact—for better or worse—on the world in which we live.

These are the small and simple things by which great things are brought to pass. Or not.

You’ll find examples all around you. Not five minutes ago—as I was writing that previous sentence—my doorbell rang. There stood a dear friend bearing gifts: a dozen beautiful eggs from her backyard chicken coop and a bouquet of flowers for my wife Dana. Why? Just because, as it turns out. Consider how that small and simple act of kindness and generosity sent a burst of light into our home. It was both unexpected and delightful. This is not the first time that friend has appeared on our doorstep with an armful of love. This is, in fact, who she is.

I recently attended the funeral for another woman who had mastered this great art. Everywhere she went, Avie spread love and goodness. Invariably, those she encountered came away feeling better about themselves, as if each one were just about the most important person in her life. She taught her children to love others in this same way. Personally, I found that being around her always—always—made me want to be a better version of myself. One man who visited her during her final days described how, even in that fading state, she found a way to make him feel wonderful. He said that when he left her room he felt a powerful urge to go back and sit quietly in the corner—just to be in her presence and bask in the grace she still radiated.

Imagine being such a woman. Imagine a world filled with millions of people just like her. It’s a lofty, perhaps impossible standard. But I can’t help but consider how much better and brighter my tiny little part of the world would be if I could follow her inspiring example, choosing from moment to moment to find a way to make things just a little bit better for someone else.

That sort of beneficence doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to think about it, work at it, pray for it. But I do find that as I think and work and pray for the kind of effortless goodness she embodied as a sincere disciple of Jesus Christ, I can see myself becoming a little bit better, one small and simple thing at a time. And you know what? I can’t think of a better way to let passing strangers know “I was here.”

PW

Increasingly, “Once in a Lifetime” Probably Applies

Dear Will:

Several months ago, Dana and I decided to celebrate our vaccinations by throwing on our masks, venturing out from our pandemic bunker, and going to a movie. In a theater! It was both disorienting and exciting to be doing something so familiar that nevertheless seemed new and foreign after so much time away. We were welcomed by a freshly trained, chirpy kid at the ticket counter who asked if either of us was over 60. I assured him that we were not. “Actually,” my wife corrected, “we both are.”

Wait. What?

It gets worse. Soon thereafter, I tried to justify this brain-lapse to my daughter Bryn. “I wasn’t trying to pretend to be younger than I am. It’s just that I’d never been ‘carded’ like that before and it caught me off guard. There has never been a time when the answer to that question could possibly have been yes. And since when did they make the senior citizen cut-off so low, anyway? I thought it was 62, or 65, or whatever.* Besides, I turned 60 only a few weeks ago, so it’s an innocent mistake.”

“Actually,” my daughter corrected, “you’re 61.”

So, to recap: Apparently, at some point during the pandemic, I became (ahem) a “senior.” It’s like something out of a Hemingway novel: How do you become an old guy? “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” Your head goes bald and your beard turns gray one hair at a time, and before you know it gray is white and you can’t remember how old you are.

Sixty-one, or so I’m told. Barring a tragic encounter with a deadly virus or a moving bus, that means I’ve got maybe 30 more years to play with (give or take). I still have thousands of meals left to eat and untold hours of television and movies ahead of me. Cut back on those hours a bit and I’ll be able to read hundreds of books as well. There’s plenty of time, in other words, to choose both bad restaurants and good ones, true art and mindless entertainment, classic literature and low-brow page-turners. On those fronts, I can still be sloppy with my choices and no big deal.

But I have only so much adventure currency left in my account. Realistically, how many more backpacking trips will my knees and back let me get away with? Eight? A dozen maybe? Twenty if I’m really, really lucky? Likewise, between now and the last one, how many far-flung vacations will we be able to eke out of our savings and creaky joints, and which ones will they be? Every choice to invest time and resources and energy into something memorable also represents countless alternatives that we simply will not get to.

So, no pressure or anything, but when it comes to those extraordinary, “you should have been there” experiences, increasingly the term “once in a lifetime” probably applies. If I follow my urge to one day walk across Scotland, it might ultimately mean that I will have to skip the Fjords altogether. I’d better choose wisely, is what I’m saying, lest I squander one of my remaining adventures on something kind of lame. I would hate to get to the end of my life and say, “Well, I never made it to Waikaremoana, but that week in Fresno was . . . well, it was kind of a dud, wasn’t it?”

I don’t mean to pick on Fresno. I’m just more aware now of my diminishing opportunities, and I want to get it right. Even at this moment, I’m pondering my options for this summer. Do Bryn and I follow through on our threat to hike the Sawtooth Wilderness Loop? Can I also take Seth up on his offer to return to Mineral King so he can see firsthand what Bryn and I loved so much during our backpacking adventure there in 2019? And what about that trip to the UK that Dana and I had to postpone because of the pandemic? For now, the primary limitations are time (I do still have a job) and money. But sooner than I like, my spirit may remain willing for this kind of thing even while my flesh is becoming too weak to tag along.

Meanwhile, I keep hearing the voice of the poet Mary Oliver in my head, and it’s getting louder: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Such a good question. Ask me again in a couple of years, and I’ll show you pictures. By then I’ll be [checks driver’s license] . . . 63!

PW

* Turns out that the actual cut-off at our favorite theater is 55. We’ve been overpaying for years and didn’t know it. No doubt because we look so young and nobody bothered to ask. Right?

“Santa Came! Santa Came!”

Dear Will:

I grew up in a loud, frenetic home. In addition to my parents, there were seven of us kids, born oldest-to-youngest in just a 10-year span. (I’ll pause to let that sink in.)

Imagine Christmas in that house. When we were little, the place pulsed with nervous energy. I can remember scrambling around the tree together, counting and sorting and speculating over what made one gift rattle or gave another its unique shape. Who knows what kinds of calculations took place in my parents’ quiet hours together (did they even have quiet hours together?) as they tried to ensure that no child felt overlooked or under-loved.

By Christmas Eve, the wave of excitement crashed upon the family shore, sending its exuberant spray in all directions. As I recall, the yule feast was typically a rib roast with Yorkshire pudding and . . . I have no idea what else. Afterward, we would gather for an abbreviated Christmas program of some kind. There again memory fails, but for sure we sang some, with Santa songs woven indiscriminately among the sacred hymns and carols of Jesus—it was all Christmas to us kids.

Eventually we hung our matching stockings and scurried off to bed. From that point, the living room was technically off limits, but you can bet that by 4 a.m. anticipation would overwhelm sleep, and one or more of us would begin slinking up and down the hallway, flashlighting our way through the fresh booty that had appeared while we were “asleep.” (One year my younger brother Michael woke me with a beam of light to the face. “You got a bike!” he announced. My corneas have not recovered.) Once we had assembled a critical mass, our clumsy eagerness would betray us and we would be shooed back to bed by a disheveled parent. But rather than return to bed, we would huddle in one of the bedrooms, chatting anxiously while we awaited the celebratory signal: my father shaking a string of bells and exclaiming, “Santa came! Santa came!”

All these years later, my memory clings to a smattering of snapshots from specific Christmases, but the details of those gleeful hours have mostly faded. Faded, that is, with one prominent exception: Every Christmas Eve, as the after-dinner festivities drew to a close, we would gather for a reading of the familiar King James account of the First Christmas Ever. My father would drag out the family Bible—one of those gigantic tomes meant mostly for display—and share with us the account of the birth of Jesus as recorded by Matthew and Luke. My siblings and I were never what one would consider especially (or even somewhat) reverent, but in my memory we sat quietly for this. He was not an especially religious man, my dad, so when he read scripture, it was a very special thing.

Hearing my father recite that familiar account remains for me the most sacred thing imaginable. It had a greater effect on me than any of the baubles stuffed into stockings or concealed beneath the tree. Among my sundry childhood memories, it remains among the most precious, perhaps because of how it made me feel. Memories of the Spirit are that much harder to forget.

Oh, but how time passes relentlessly on. As we grew, whichever of the brood was near enough at hand would reunite each year in my parents’ home, now with our own children creating the energy of anticipation and wonder. As marriages added in-laws to the mix, new traditions mingled with the old; but the most treasured tradition remained inviolable: We would sit, and my father would recount the tale of angels and shepherds and a miraculous, life-changing, world-saving baby boy. Until he no longer could. The year his eyes failed and my dad asked me to take his place with the family Bible, I felt both disappointed and unworthy. I did the best I could, but clearly it wasn’t the same. Nor is it. My dad has been dead now for over ten years, and still I miss him all the time—never more than on Christmas Eve.

In a couple of weeks, a smaller group will gather in my own home. It will be just Dana and I, Seth and (maybe) Bryn, plus a couple of dear friends. There will be no Yorkshire pudding (who knows how to make Yorkshire pudding?), but it will be lovely nonetheless. We’ll be missing the magic that small children lend to such an event, but when we read of the Nativity, we will still feel the spiritual warmth that story always brings. Come morning, my grown children will sleep until I can stand it no longer. Eventually, I’ll reach for a string of bells and make the big announcement: “Santa came! Santa came!”

PW