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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Poetic Justice

Open Mic

Dear Will:

When my son Luke entered the seventh grade, he chose to attend what was then called the Orange County High School of the Arts, where he remained until his graduation from high school six years later. He loved that school, in no small part because of the extraordinary friends he made there. Luke was part of the creative writing program at OCHSA (now simply OCSA), which required that he participate in 10-12 hours of after-school instruction each week. Those supplementary classes covered playwriting, short stories, essays, poetry, and other writing disciplines. It was marvelous training, both enriching and enlightening. And Luke really enjoyed it. (Well, most of it anyway. Screenwriting was awesome. Modernism? Not so much.)

Every couple of months or so, the school hosted a poetry reading for its students, events which Dana and I attended faithfully. The readings offered a mixed bag to be sure. Several of the students were exceptionally talented, and we always looked forward to hearing their latest writings. But as you might expect, much of what we heard those nights was incomprehensible gobbledygook, filled with rushed expressions of teenaged angst and mystifying allusions to who-knows-what. The first time I attended one of the readings, so much of the work was so poorly written and so poorly read that I maintained a running internal commentary, chuckling to myself, criticizing their turns of phrase, and mentally demeaning them for being so “pretentious.”

Of course, I was the pretentious one. With time and perspective (and no small amount of coaching from my wiser, more understanding son), I came to appreciate just how hard it was for each of those kids to put themselves out there in that way—to experiment with new ideas, painstakingly craft a poem, and then risk derision by sharing it openly with a room full peers and ignorant strangers. In fact, what I came to appreciate most about those readings fills me with wonder even to this day: Those OCHSA kids were unwaveringly supportive of one another—not prone to the cruelty and sarcasm you might otherwise expect of a group of high-schoolers.

Not surprisingly, the lingering consequence of that unwavering support is a web of lifelong friendships—deep, meaningful associations which continue more than a decade since those aspiring writers first started practicing their iambic pentameter on one another. I was reminded of this just a couple of weeks ago when Luke got married and his best of friends were there to support him, many of them “kids” he has known since those earliest days at OCHSA. His “best man”? Paris, a girl he met in seventh grade who remains to this day the best friend he’s ever had.

It’s remarkable to witness such a tangible byproduct of mutual love and acceptance, to see what can be achieved when people are more eager to praise than to criticize. What would happen if we all—consistently—offered one another that same level of support and allowance when we might otherwise be tempted to judge and belittle? How might it change our worship services, for example, if we maintained that attitude during a dull talk or a poorly-prepared lesson? What if we made a habit of mentally applauding those doing a bad job at something we know we could do better? What might become of us as a people if we went out of our way to give one another the benefit of the doubt, to assume that most everyone is doing the best they can? Talk about poetic justice!

I think it would be transformative—an experiment worth trying. Let’s start Sunday.

PW

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