What I Wrote Then. How I’m Doing Now.

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Dear Will:

In less than a month my son Seth will finish his service as a full-time missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It’s been nearly two years since he began devoting all day, every day to the people of Argentina and Paraguay. An all-consuming focus on things of God is transformative—I can’t express to you how proud I am of his choice to tithe His life in this way.

All this has me reflecting on my own missionary service in Uruguay almost (can it be?) 40 years ago. When my two years came to an end, I set down “my resolutions, goals, and personal standards” in my journal. I thought I’d look back and see how I’m doing. Here’s what I wrote on August 1, 1981:

  1. Time Is Everything: Organize it. Use it all and use it well. Keep sleeping to a minimum. Set and maintain time priorities. “You cannot kill time without injuring eternity.” How you use your time is the key to success. (I’m about half as productive as my wife, so I’d give myself a 5 or 6 here.)
  2. Set Weekly Goals: And meet them. You must keep progressing. If you don’t lose sight of where you want to go you’ll eventually get there. Each week you should progress spiritually, physically, intellectually, and socially (Luke 2:52). Remember, your goal is perfection. Magnify yourself. (Yeah, I stopped doing this a long time ago. You can probably tell.)
  3. Keep Yourself Spiritually in Tune: Read the scriptures daily. Pray always. Stay active in church. Remember your covenants. Attend the temple regularly. (I think I’m a solid 9 here. Or maybe 8.)
  4. Serve: Love is the key. Touch lives. Make people feel special and know that they are. (I try. Usually.)
  5. Magnify All of Your Callings: Magnify means make it bigger. Always go the extra mile. Do more than is asked or expected. Remember #4. (For the most part, I do my best.)
  6. Do the Missionary Work: Look for opportunities. Make opportunities. Be bold but not overbearing (Alma 38:12). Practice what you’ve been preaching to the members for two years. (Not so good. Maybe a 2 or 3 on this one. Elder Peter Watkins would be very disappointed. So would Seth.)
  7. Don’t Lose Your Spanish: You should not misuse a gift from God. Practice it. Read it. Bless other people by your ability. (Except for reading Spanish, I do look for opportunities to hablar. We’re going to Argentina to pick up Seth in a couple of weeks. I’ll let you know how I do. Vamos a ver.)
  8. Do What the Prophet Says: And do it now. God knows what’s best for you. Don’t make exceptions. All of the commandments are for you. (Ugh. I make exceptions for myself all the time. I’d have to give myself a 6 or 7 on this one.)
  9. You Are the Light of the World: You’re different. You should be. Others should recognize it, and recognize it as something positive. Remember who you are and why you are that way. (I have no idea on this one. You tell me.)
  10. Fellowship: If somebody is new, welcome them, befriend them, and make them feel at home. If somebody is missing, notice, and let them know that you’ve noticed. Give people a reason to want to go to church and stay there. (Trying. Always. Even in this very letter.)

Well, that review was painful. And in about a month I’ll be living with a guy filled with the same fire and lofty ideals. I’m really going to have to step up my game. . . . Isn’t it great?

PW

I’m Pretty Sure I’m Psychic. Or At Least I Hope So.

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Dear Will:

Years ago, in the midst of a long, mind-numbing road trip with the family, I introduced my kids to a game that had not existed five minutes prior. Making it up as I went, I outlined the rules: I announce a category of my own choosing—let’s say “Animals.” Then I silently select a specific item from that category and try to tell you what I’m thinking without saying a thing—no gestures, no other clues of any kind. “I must communicate to you solely through the sheer force of my prodigious, telepathic powers,” I told them. “Even now I am sending forth psychic emanations! I am devoting all available synapses to this one thing! Divine it, and we shall have achieved . . . PSYCHIC WONDER!”

In case you didn’t recognize it, this is fun. Or as my wife, Dana, might put it: insufferable. (Which, just between you and me, is what actually makes it fun. Don’t tell her I said so.) Nevertheless, in spite of its manifest stupidity, it was the ridiculousness of Psychic Wonder that made it for me somewhat irresistible in moments when I was feeling silly or when I saw an opportunity to embarrass my children (also fun). Thus I frequently subjected a backseat full of carpoolers to Psychic Wonder on the way to school. Alas, the game never really lasted very long—for some reason I never found anyone as good at it as I was.

Over the years, I introduced my children to a number of these not-quite-games, invented on the fly and precisely honed in the carpool laboratory. Sometimes we “played” Factoids or Poetry Hour or a thing I called Life Is Like, in which one person would begin a simile and everyone else would have to try to Forrest-Gump a suitable ending. (Go ahead. Give it a try: “Life is like a box of Hamburger Helper. . . .” FUN!) Or here’s another one that Dana “loves”: Shamu or Celery. I choose a random something-or-other (nose hairs!) and then we debate whether that something-or-other is more like Shamu or more like celery. (The correct answer, in this case, is celery. Obviously.) That game just might be Dana’s all-time favorite, as you can imagine.

I ask you: What’s a better way to fill the 15 minutes between home and La Veta Elementary? Throw into the background some not-so-classic rock from decades prior and you’ll be pulling up into the drop-off zone in no time. Not only will you have amused and delighted approximately one person in the car, but the kids will be pushing and shoving, climbing over each other to get out the door and onto the curb, looking at your son as if to say, “Luke: What’s with your dad?”

I miss those mornings, winding through the streets of Orange with a Mazda full of braces and nervous energy. Sadly, my carpool days long ago receded into my rearview mirror. Luke, now all grown up, married and established, drives himself to work each day; Bryn, committed to doing what she can to save the planet, prefers a bike or public transit as she completes her degree; and Seth, working as a missionary in Salto de Guairá, Paraguay, has little choice but to walk everyplace he goes. I now find myself commuting in an empty car, inching along the 405 freeway, alone with my thoughts, hoping that somehow, way back when, somewhere between the garage and the crossing-guard, my kids got the message embedded within that early-morning nonsense, conveyed to them by something more heartfelt than psychic emanations. Conveyed to them even now, as I write this and hope that in this moment they can divine what I’m thinking, no matter how far away they may be.

So that maybe the next time someone asks “What’s with your dad?,” they’ll immediately know the answer, and they’ll feel it—deep down. PSYCHIC WONDER!

PW

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