Seeing Again, as if for the First Time

Scan 2018-2-26 0004Dear Will:

When my kids were small, we had bedtime rituals which became both sacred and magical. Once our children had brushed and polished from toes to teeth, they got to choose a book (or more likely books) for storytime. I treasured those wind-down minutes snuggling and imagining, with a kid on my lap scanning wide-eyed the pictures on the page as I did my best to bring a story to life. My children quit snuggling with me long ago, but I can still smell the soap, still sense the warmth of those flannel PJs, still feel my heart melting as Seth flips over a just-completed book and declares: “Again.” If there’s anything better in the universe than that, I have yet to find it.

I likewise remember when Luke (our firstborn) was small and we would go for evening “explores” around our neighborhood in Westwood. Because we were surrounded by so many tall buildings, we had only narrow bands through which we could see the sky as we strollered our way down Greenfield Avenue in that densely populated section of West Los Angeles. He and I had a game we would play in which we would try to find the moon as we circled the block. Often we would simply stop and sit on the wall in front of a nearby apartment building, stare up at the stars, and see if we could catch a glimpse of the flashing lights on a jet heading to someplace distant and full of possibilities.

Dana taught me to use that same trick to guide our kids’ imaginations and engage them more fully in the stories that we read. “Where is the raccoon hiding?” “What does that elephant say?” “Can you see the train?” Those nightly sessions were a gift from a thoughtful, devoted mother who wanted our kids to love books, to treasure the words and ideas that trigger imagination, to learn to see and feel a world you cannot necessarily reach out and touch. Joni Mitchell sings: “Yesterday, a child came out to wonder.” Dana was raising wonderers.

Wonder is mostly about looking and noticing that which you might otherwise overlook—and then letting the magic of what you have noticed play upon your mindIt’s crouching—transfixed—to examine a beetle as it wobbles across your trail in Laguna Canyon. It’s scrutinizing the rock over which the beetle just clambered. It’s rising from your crouch and remembering another time in another place when beetles and rocks were actually the point of the hike to begin with.

Wonder makes it possible to see again something familiar, as if for the first time.

And so I find myself today, on a plane midway between Newark and Los Angeles, thinking about you while flipping through a grownup book one of my now-grown wonderers has insisted that I love. It’s Pilgrim at Tinker CreekAnnie Dillard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ode to wonder itself. Beside me dozes a man with a sleeping toddler curled on his lap. I’m drawn to a passage from a couple of chapters back wherein Dillard quotes the poet Michael Goldman:

When the Muse comes She doesn’t tell you to write;
She says get up for a minute, I’ve something to show you, stand here.

Thus somewhere in the reading and the musing I find myself remembering a long-ago night, in a bedroom in a rocker, reading to a little girl from the pages of Owl Moon by Jane Yolen. The close-up image of a great horned owl is splashed across the page.

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I whisper as I read: “For one minute, three minutes, maybe even a hundred minutes, we stared at one another.”

And so I have returned to the beginning. I am seeing once again. And it’s wonderful.

PW

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It’s a Long Time Till Wednesday

Wednesday

Dear Will:

I’m not getting any better at this stuff.

When my daughter Bryn was barely 19, she boarded a plane for New Zealand where she lived and worked for the next two years. Putting her on that Air New Zealand flight was traumatizing, especially as we faced hours and hours of radio silence awaiting word of her arrival. As fatherhood memories go, it is not one I treasure. (Fortunately, it all worked out.) Nevertheless, a year later I found myself once again standing in an airport about to send my daughter halfway round the world. And once again, it was tearful and traumatizing.

So you’d think that I might be building up a tolerance for such things. Alas, it is not so.

Last week my wife Dana and I drove to Utah to deliver Seth (our youngest) to the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo. On Wednesday, July 26, he began his formal preparations to serve full-time in the Argentina Posadas Mission, which straddles the Paraná River as it runs between Argentina and Paraguay. He will be gone for about two years, during which time we will communicate with him principally through once-a-week emails. No big deal, I thought. I’ve known this day was coming his entire life. We can do this.

But on Wednesday at 2:15 pm, he disappeared into the MTC with his two ginormous suitcases filled with white shirts and other missionary essentials. And at 2:16 pm it really hit me: Wait a second. I have to wait till next Wednesday for word from Seth? But I want to know what’s happening RIGHT NOW. That thought has come back to me again and again every day since we said our good-byes. I’m not worried about his welfare (not yet, anyway—he’s in Provo, Utah, after all), but I hate being out of the loop. How does he like his teachers? What about the other missionaries he will be training with for six weeks before they fly to South America? How’s the food? What’s the routine? Has he thought about his over-invested and hyper-agitated father even once since we dropped him off? HOW IS HE DOING?!!?

We will get over it, I suppose; parents always do. But for us first-timers, our previous experiences with Bryn have proved wholly inadequate. Anxious doesn’t even begin to describe our state of distress. Our plight is exacerbated by the fact that Seth’s departure leaves us as empty-nesters for the first time, with no one but Barnum, the Moron Dog, to comfort us. So far it isn’t working.

What does comfort me is this: I know Seth’s cause and I know his heart. And I see firsthand the impact that the gospel of Jesus Christ has on the lives of those who embrace it. Faithless cynics might assert that the Church should keep its beliefs to itself, that traveling the world in search of new members is somehow inappropriate. But I see these things from a very different perspective. As bishop, I have the unique privilege of seeing the lives of new (and longtime) members of the LDS Church from behind the scenes. I see darkness dissipate as people accept the teachings of Jesus and allow His Atonement to lift their spirits and heal their broken hearts. And when that darkness lifts, I see their lives transformed by light as hope, faith and truth inform their choices and fill their beings. It’s glorious.

Seth will offer all of that to the people of Paraguay and Argentina. Most will have no interest. But those who listen earnestly and embrace his message will bless his name forever. If my wife and I have to suffer a little separation anxiety in the interim, it’s a small price to pay.

But do we really have to wait till Wednesday?

PW

Breakfast for Dinner

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Dear Will:

The thing about pancakes is that you get to douse them with syrup. Goopy, sweet, and delicious, syrup is one of the great nectars of childhood. Remember when you first discovered that—even though they were super-indulgent, dessert-like wonders—pancakes were a featured item of the Most Important Meal of the Day? Talk about beating the system! You would look at your siblings incredulously, blinking in amazement as if to say “Can you believe this?” in some sort of eyelash-flapping Morse code.

When I was growing up, I probably ate pancakes at least once a week. My mother would fry up a pound of bacon, cook a dozen or so eggs, and throw in the flapjacks just for good measure. It was both wonderful and no big deal. But then some fool invented cholesterol and spoiled an otherwise great thing for generations of kids to come. Add in the complications of over-programmed childhoods and it’s perhaps easy to understand why, one generation later, my children have pretty much subsisted on Cheerios and Quaker Oatmeal Squares for breakfast throughout their lives. It hardly seems fair.

So in order to assuage my guilt and keep them from reporting me to authorities, when they were small I began the practice of making Special Breakfast on Sunday mornings. It was an important bonding ritual for me and my kids since my wife, Dana—who has never been much of a breakfast-eater—was rarely around to cast a disapproving motherly glare at our mounds of goopy goodness. Guilt-free and giddy, we would slather and stab, forkful upon sticky forkful, unconcerned with caloric intake or the latest in nutritional science. And for one hour each week, I got to be the cool parent while eating breakfast the way it was meant to be eaten.

As a consequence, my kids and I have come to take our pancakes very seriously. We don’t use Bisquick (please) or Krusteaz (don’t insult me) or any other variety of ready-made mixes. As for me and my house, pancakes are strictly from scratch, with real buttermilk and a variety of other not-very-secret ingredients that, over the years, have turned the basic recipe from The Joy of Cooking into my own signature line against which my children judge all other so-called hotcakes. Straight from the griddle, we smear them with butter and genuine maple or homemade apple syrup. If Dana is around we’ll throw in a few blueberries so that perhaps she’ll cave in and join us.

Or at least, that’s what we used to do. These days, I’m in meetings from early to late most Sundays, and I get through the day without any breakfast, Special or otherwise. For his part, like any good teenager, Seth (the only kid left at home) would rather sleep in till noon if given the choice, so as with so many other essential family rituals, Special Breakfast now happens only once or twice a year. It’s just not the same. We’ve lost something important—and it’s not (I hasten to add) weight.

So with Dana’s complete (if unenthusiastic) acquiescence—we have declared that tonight shall be Breakfast for Dinner, an indulgent shout-out to years gone by when calories didn’t count and it was still possible for Dad to be cool.

And in so doing, we shall feel virtuous because we are fulfilling a mandate given by prophets of God, who said (and I quote): “Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, wholesome recreational activities . . . and pancakes.” At least, I’m pretty sure that’s what they said. And if not, surely it’s what they meant.

PW