Letter of Love From a Starry Hill
The commencement music began, and the graduates filed into the chapel.
There were 17 members of Episcopal Day School's class of 2009. I was probably as nervous as they were. This was the first of what will likely be several big graduation ceremonies in their lives, after all -- this one ushering them on to the wild and uncertain world of middle school.
This was also my first opportunity to give a formal graduation address. The last thing I wanted to do was come off sounding like some pompous windbag who'd printed his speech off the Internet. So for days I'd been thinking about how to advise them to enjoy life and not worry too much about the winding road ahead -- simply to go forth with an optimistic heart and see what unexpected pleasures and challenges the adventure of living presents.
At one point, I opened a special drawer in my office desk, where I keep letters and photographs and other meaningful stuff from my own children's lives. I found a photograph of my daughter, Maggie, and our old dog, Amos, taken a dozen years ago at a campsite in Yellowstone Park.
Maggie was almost 8 that summer. Amos was pushing 13. Days before we set off for trout streams in the Wild West, her mom and I had broken the news to our children that we planned to separate and divorce at summer's end. It was a huge blow to us all, a crazy bend in a road none of us had seen coming. Maggie's brother Jack and his mom went to Cape Cod to try to make sense of things. Maggie and her old man and their aging golden retriever headed west with the canoe strapped to the top of a 10-year-old Chevy truck.
In one sense, just about everything that could go wrong did so. In the Adirondacks, a band of militant nudists took over our favorite fishing spot. At Niagara Falls, we briefly lost Amos the dog in the vast tourist crowds (we eventually found him waiting patiently in line to get ice cream), and shared the solemnity of Mount Rushmore with 20,000 leather-clad bikers.
We lost Amos again briefly in Yellowstone and accidently set a neighbor's tent on fire with a flaming marshmallow. In Colorado, we rode horses for a week at a famous dude ranch in freakish tropical downpours. We fished some of the finest trout rivers in the world, yet caught nothing resembling a trophy fish.
We repeatedly took wrong turns and got lost. We blew up the truck in Oklahoma and got marooned in a dusty little town no bigger than the hips on a snake. We sang Beatles songs, met a host of truly strange characters, cried and laughed and talked about a blue million things. In short, at a moment when our family life seemed to be coming apart at the seams, we unexpectedly had the time of our lives -- and probably learned far more about ourselves than America in the process.
One thing I learned was how disappointed my daughter was that her old man the writer had never written her a personal letter. So one night on a starry hill above the Pecos River in New Mexico, as she lay in the tent humming herself to sleep with her favorite Beatles song, I wrote my daughter a personal letter on the only paper I had handy that night -- a used paper grocery bag.
When I phoned my daughter last week to ask permission to read my letter to her at the EDS graduation ceremony, she laughed and pointed out that I'd already put it in a book about our adventures in that unexpectedly terrifying and rewarding summer. She also said she thought it would be perfect. Maggie is now 20, wise beyond her years, preparing to spend next year living in a small Italian town in Umbria. Part of me sure wishes I could go with her, with or without the dog.
So here's the letter:
I'm sorry I've never written you a letter before. Guess I goofed. Parents do that from time to time. I know you're sad about the divorce. Your mom and I are sad, too. But I have faith that with God's help and a little patience and a little understanding on our parts, we'll all come through this just fine.
Being with you like this has helped me laugh again and figure out some important things. That's what families do, you know -- help each other laugh and figure out problems that sometimes seem to have no answer.
Perhaps I should give you some free advice. That's what fathers are supposed to do in letters to their children. Always remember that free advice is worth about as much as the paper it's written on, and this is written on a used paper bag. Even so, I thought I would tell you a few things I've learned since I was about your age. Some food for thought, as your grandfather would say.
Anyway, Mugs, here goes.
Always be kind to your little brother, and never hit. The good news is, he'll always be younger and look up to you. The bad news is, he'll probably be bigger.
Travel a lot. Some wise soul said travel broadens the mind. Someone wiser said TV broadens the butt.
Listen to your head, but follow your heart. Trust your own judgment. Vote early. Change your oil regularly. Always say thank you. Look both ways before crossing. When in doubt, wash your hands.
Remember, you are what you eat, think, say, do. Put good things into your mind and stomach and you won't have to worry about what comes out. Learn to love weeding, waiting in line, and ignoring jerks like that really annoying kid in your class.
Always take the scenic route. You'll get there soon enough. You'll get old soon enough, too. So enjoy being a kid. Learn patience, which comes in handy whenever you're weeding, waiting in line, or ignoring a jerk like the kid in your class.
Play hard but fair. When you fall, get up and brush yourself off. When you fail, and you will, don't blame anybody else. When you succeed, and you will, don't take all the credit. On both counts, you'll be wiser.
By the way, do other things that make you happy as well. You'll know what they are. Take pleasure in small things. Keep writing letters -- the world needs more letters. Smile a lot. Your smile makes angels dance.
Memorize the lyrics to as many Beatles songs as possible in case life is one long Beatles challenge. Be flexible. Your favorite Beatles song will probably always change.
Never stop believing in Santa or the Tooth Fairy. They really do exist. God does, too. A poet I like says God is always waiting for us in the darkness and you'll find God when it's time. Or God will come find you. Pray. I can't tell you why praying works any more than I can tell you why breathing works. Praying won't make God feel any better, but you will. Trust me. Better yet, trust God. Breathe and pray.
Always leave your campsite better than you found it. Measure twice, cut once. If all else fails, babe, put duct tape on it. Don't lie. Your memory isn't good enough. Don't cheat. Because you'll remember.
Save the world if you want to. At least turn it upside down a bit if you can't. While you're at it, save the penny, too. Skip dessert. When you go to college, call your mother every Sunday night. Realize it's OK to cry but better to laugh. Especially at yourself. If and when you get married, realize it's OK if I cry. Read everything you can get your hands on, and listen to what people tell you. Count on having to figure it out for yourself, though.
Never bungee-jump. If you do, don't tell your father. Make a major fool of yourself at least once in life, preferably several times. Being a fool is good for what ails you. We live in a serious time, love. But don't take yourself too seriously. Always wear your seat belt even if I don't.
Remember that what you choose to forget may be at least as important as what you choose to remember. Someone very wise once said this to me -- but I can't remember who it was or exactly what it means. Admit your mistakes. Forgive everybody else's.
Notice the stars, but don't try to be one. Always paint the underside first. Be kind to old people and creatures great and small. Learn to fight but don't fight unless the other guy throws the first punch. Don't tell your mother about this last piece of advice. Learn when it's time to open your mind and close your mouth. (I'm still working on this one.) Lose your heart. But keep your wits.
Be at least as grateful for your life as I am. Despite what you hear, no mistake is permanent and nothing goes unforgiven. God grades on a curve.
One more thing: Take care of your teeth and don't worry about how you look. You look just fine. That's two things, I guess.
Finally, there's a story I like about an Indian boy at his time of initiation. As you climb to the mountaintop, the old chief tells his son, you'll come to a great chasm -- a deep split in the earth. It will frighten you. Your heart will pause. Jump, says the chief. It's not as far as you think.
This is excellent advice for girls, too. Life is wonderful but it will frighten you deeply at times. Jump, my love. You'll make it.
Best-selling author Jim Dodson, writer-in-residence with The Pilot, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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