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.


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.



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.


Hope, Prayer, and a Whole Lot of Duct Tape

Busted Boots

Dear Will:

We were over 20 miles into a 50+ mile backpacking trip though the Golden Trout Wilderness in the High Sierras. With 35-40 pounds on our backs, we had completed the long, relentless slog up and over New Army Pass (12,300 feet) the day before, and somewhere on the backside of Guyot Pass (10,958 feet) my son, Seth, alerted me to a problem. My boot was coming apart.

I stared in disbelief. Clearly, the sole was detaching itself from the body of the boot, which seemed, upon reflection, sub-optimal to my purpose. I had come to climb Mt. Whitney—at 14,505 feet the highest peak in the contiguous United States—and the thought of doing so with half a left boot was untenable. As we tromped on, I kept rechecking the evidence (the way we do), as if on the fifth or eighth or tenth look I might discover that the previous nine had been an illusion. But a couple of dozen rechecks changed nothing. My foot was kaput.

When we set up camp in Upper Crabtree Meadow that evening, I considered my options, but not for long. The next day was Whitney, an all-day, 15-mile roundtrip requiring a 4,000-foot ascent, after which we would still be over 20 miles and three more mountain passes away from the trailhead. The manifest virtues of duct tape and hope (in that order) notwithstanding, the moment for prudence had clearly arrived. I tried to imagine it: Local Hiker Bags Whitney But Loses His Sole. With the welfare and safety of others directly affected by my actions, I just couldn’t take that chance.

There were 19 of us in total, six adults in various stages of middle-aged “fitness” along with 13 boys from 14 to 18 years old. I was by no means the leader of this expedition (outdoor competence being a necessary prerequisite), but I did feel responsible in a kind of paternal, ecclesiastical sense. And then of course there was Seth. Ten years ago I climbed Whitney with my oldest son, Luke, and while I can’t say that I relished the anticipation of the lung-shrinking climb to the summit, I did look forward to that trophy-shot of the two of us, hands on one another’s shoulders, the Sierra mountains stretching out behind us like a giant’s gnarled molars and bicuspids. Alas, it was not to be.

So the next morning the others began their climb to glory while I stayed behind supervising our campsite. I paced. I fidgeted. I fidgeted and paced. Anxiousness turned to worry as I tried to imagine my little group of intrepid alpinists. I knew, for example, that there are lightning showers every afternoon on Whitney, and if you don’t get off of the summit in time you may unwittingly become a Ben Franklin experiment. So you can imagine my state of mind as the hours passed and the afternoon rains came and my climbers were nowhere in sight. I quickly stowed our gear inside the tents, and then, with no other recourse available, I stowed myself inside as well, feeling helpless and useless as I imagined how I might report my experience later. (“How was your trip?” “In tents.”)

Seven hours. Eight hours. Nine hours passed. I lay in my tent, listening to the steady thrump of rain and praying for the safe return of my companions. Of my son. Finally, ten hours after their departure I heard the first voices. They straggled into camp, bedraggled and exhausted. Finally, over 11 hours after their 7am departure, the last of our group stumbled into camp.  I felt a surge of emotion that surprised me. We were safe. Together. At last.

I do not wish to overstate the significance of this experience for me. But I can tell you truthfully that what I felt that afternoon is not that different from the longing for togetherness—for homecoming—that I feel for you and every other member of the Santiago Creek Ward. I wait. Hoping to hear your voice. Praying for your safe return.