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.

PW

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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

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