Watch, Now, How I Start the Day


Dear Will:

For Christmas, my daughter Bryn gave me a homemade coupon for a hike and a burger. Now I love a good hike and a burger (especially with one of my kids), so I couldn’t imagine a better present. But there was a catch. The hike was to the top of Mount Timpanogos. In Utah.

If only that had been the ONLY catch. In order to collect my free meal, I first had to fly myself to Salt Lake City, then BEGIN our hike at 1 a.m. “so that we can be at the summit at sunrise.” Then, of course, I had to cover 7.5 miles to the 11,749-foot summit, with an elevation gain of 4,580 feet. Which is fine if you live at altitude, but not-so-much if you live, like I do, at 190 feet. Not good. Oh, and I’m an old guy with the fitness of a console television. So there’s that also.

Well, the day unfolded about as you would expect. The higher we climbed, the harder it was to breathe. I wobbled and wheezed, stumbled and stammered, shuffled and puffed all along the trail. Although I threatened several times to fall off of the mountain, I didn’t, and somehow I crumpled onto the summit around 5:30 a.m., a good half-hour ahead of schedule. Bryn was delighted.

On the summit itself, the vista was spectacular. Facing west, we looked out across Utah Lake and the vast Salt Lake valley; to the east, the view stretched past Sundance and Deer Creek, out and over the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest. As the sun appeared in the far distance, the eastern sky became awash with the reds and oranges of early morning.

On any other Friday, daybreak would have arrived and I’d have missed it altogether. But on this Friday morning, exhausted though I was, I got the full benefit of the rising sun. The moment brought to mind the words of Thoreau: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake.” But there on the summit, Bryn (and poet Mary Oliver) said it even better—a fitting invocation to start this or any day:

Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–

best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light—
good morning, good morning, good morning.

Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.



Based on a True Story. Perhaps.


Dear Will:

Imagine you have been shipwrecked, cast adrift, alone on the rolling sea. There is nothing you can see on any horizon—it’s just you, your flimsy “flotation device,” and miles and miles of open water. You bob along like this for hours, days. As time passes, your situation grows more desperate. Death seems inevitable, the only question being how.

Visions of relief and rescue tantalize and torment you. Anticipation leads to disappointment which gives way to despair. As your life preserver (and your spirits) lose buoyancy, you struggle to keep your head above water. Hope fades, then disappears altogether. You drift in and out of consciousness.

Vaguely you become aware of far-off voices. Can it be? A raft splashes in the distance, propelled by excited people paddling awkwardly to reach you. Eventually, two young voyagers dive in and swim to your aid, arriving just as you begin to sink below the surface. Shortly you find yourself in the boat, surrounded by concerned strangers who make room for you in the crowded vessel. You feel a cup pressed to your lips as cool, clean water passes over your cracked lips and into your parched mouth and throat. It hits you with a rush, incomprehensibly refreshing and divine. In like manner, your rescuers offer bits of bread for your empty, aching belly. Others tend to your wounds as you melt, exhausted, into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Once you have regained some strength, Alejandro, one of your new boatmates, helps you understand your good fortune. There are nine others on board, he tells you, thrown together by similar desperate circumstances. None of them is particularly savvy about life at sea, but they’re making do. They seem to have plenty of provisions, but since no one can be sure how long they will be adrift, they have agreed on some basic rules to govern their time together. Each person has a job, and those jobs rotate on a somewhat fixed schedule. You’ll be starting off on the raft maintenance crew. “For now I’m the captain,” explains Alejandro, “but eventually it will be someone else’s turn. Which is just as well because I don’t know much about sailing or navigation.”

He anticipates your question before you ask it. “We voted you an equal share of the rations. Didn’t even have to discuss it.” Of course you are grateful, but considering that each of them has given up a tenth of their provisions without knowing the first thing about you, you start to protest. Alejandro smiles and interrupts. “Pretty sure you’d have done the same thing for any of us,” he says. And that’s that.

As time passes you come to know the others in the boat. There’s Samantha, who has an opinion about everything; Taj, who keeps everybody laughing; Kendra, the worrier; Mathis, who pretty much keeps to himself; Annie, the fitness nut; Sven, the intellectual know-it-all; and Amira, who connected with you from the very moment you were pulled aboard. You’re pretty sure that you and Amira could have been friends before all of this and very likely will stay friends once it’s all over. The two guys who were the first to reach you? You have trouble remembering which is Jason and which is Jordan, but they’re an interesting contrast: one seems to be some sort of religious zealot and the other as irreverent as they come. But whatever. They helped save your life.

Days pass, and the tight quarters and forced intimacy begin to take their toll. The idiosyncrasies that seemed endearing when you first came aboard start to grate, and at times you wish you could just be done with the lot of them (except, of course, Amira). From time to time someone gets on your nerves, or maybe says something unkind in a moment of frustration. You stop talking to that guy, maybe talk too much about that other one. You grow tired of Jordan’s preachiness (or is it Jason?), of Taj’s jokes, of “captain” Alejandro’s glaring incompetence. It’s all a bit much.

At last you feel that you can take no more. You may not even be able to pinpoint what finally puts you over the edge. Maybe you thought you overheard a couple of the them talking about you, or maybe Alejandro made a decision that you disagreed with. Perhaps it was the feeling that Sven wasn’t doing his fair share of the work or that Kendra was eating more than her share of the rations. Does it really matter? One thing for certain: You feel a growing need to get off of this boat.

You lie there, contemplating your options. You could jump out and make a swim for it, hoping to come upon another boat (or better yet: land!). Maybe you could even get Amira to come with you. And if your plunge into the unknown proves fatal? Let’s face it: You’re probably all going to die out here anyway. Might as well get it over with. Anything seems better than spending day after endless day in this patched and leaky raft, living among those with whom you have almost NOTHING in common. Why continue to pretend?

You drift to sleep, and as you sleep you dream (again) of that fateful day when strong arms lifted you out of the water and offered you soul-restoring sustenance. You awake to find Samantha gently applying ointment to your open sore (the one that just won’t seem to heal) and Mathis tearing the hem off of his tattered shirt to make a bandage. You look up to find Amira looking over you (as always). She smiles, offers a bit of her cracker, and your resolution to leave the boat begins to ebb. Feeling grateful, but still annoyed, you shake your head and whisper: “Why do they have to be so nice?”

“That’s just the point,” says Amira. “They don’t.”


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.