I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. — Neil Gaiman
late January, 2024 - at home
Winter finally returned to Philadelphia after a two-year absence. After over 700 days with less than half-an-inch of snow, we got over 6" in two storms in the past week, with wind-chills approaching the single digits. I can't make a big deal of the weather, though - it was just one year ago when I visited Denali NP in Alaska to mush a dogsled for three days through untrodden snow at temps of -30° and colder.
During the first snowfall last week, power cut off a couple of times in the evening, coming back on in moments. In the morning, though, the lights doused again, quickly followed by a text alert that it may take 12 hours to restore power. In late afternoon, with no hope for imminent rescue, I dragged myself down the hill to Ace Hardware to pick up a battery-operated lantern, so we'd have light by which to eat our take-out pizza.
Back home, I unboxed the lantern, managed to penetrate the impervious plastic encasing the C-cell batteries, and put the two together. Hit the button - and Sue quickly asked, "How come it doesn't turn on?" Took off the bottom, checked the batteries were in correctly, closed it up, hit the button - nothing. After another couple of attempts, I drove back down the hill to Ace.
In their parking lot, I hesitated. Maybe if I tried again... Hit the button, rearrange the batteries, button again, still nothing. Thus, I trudged inside, heading for the clerk that had checked me out a half hour earlier. "I thought I'd come back in," I said, handing her the lamp, "so everyone could laugh at the sad old man who can't figure out how to turn his lantern on." She chuckled, took the lantern out of the box, hit the button - and there was light! "How'd you do that?!"
Of course, it worked fine now. I turned it off and back on, no problem. To their credit, the clerks held off on laughing until I got back in my car to drive home...
Also on the unexpected side: Sue and I love to visit Goodwill stores, to see the treasures given up for re-use by the great body of Americans. (The thought of finding that priceless artifact - like an ancient Etruscan vase worth thousands of dollars, on sale for $5 - keeps us on our toes.) A couple of weeks ago we visited a new Goodwill, and while we found no Etruscan vases, we did see truly unique items: two sealed jars, one labelled 'pickled brains', one of 'severed zombie fingers'.
My epic adventure is now three months gone. I still think of National Parks, fantasizing of further adventures. Early this month I saw a news alert stating that Death Valley NP - that hot, dry, inhospitable place - could see more snow than had ever been recorded there. The only previous recorded snowfall had been a half-inch in 1913 - but the weathermen forecast that up to 4" could fall there in two weeks. Maybe I could witness an event not seen by anyone living today! Of course, long-range forecasts regularly miss the mark, and several days later the same forecasters projected temperatures bottoming out in mid-40s - in other words, maybe a little rain.
While waiting for inspiration to grab me and send me careening off on another project, I've tackled long-neglected tasks and read fascinating books. One - The Last Unicorn: A Search for One of Earth's Rarest Creatures by William deBuys - tells of expeditions taken in Laos to find a large deer-like mammal (the saola) unknown to Western science until three decades ago. The details of the inconveniences - read, hardships - of travelling there emphatically dismissed any dreams of my venturing on a similar outing. However, the discussions of preserving the land so that the rare animals like the saola do not go extinct provoked me to really wonder: how could it be saved?
The Laos government has designated the forests there as a protected reserve, but the area is dotted with remote native villages. Their approach: 'bring the indigenous forest people into the 21st century.' Progress! The problem: that 'progress' means forcing transient people to settle in one space, razing pockets of the forests to give them permanent houses, roads, and television. In other words, to introduce them to the 'thingyness' of technology, to convince them that they must have tractors, and motorcycles, and cell phones, and gadgets to be happy. All of this at the cost of upending the culture they have lived for centuries.
At what cost progress?
I also read Dani Shapiro's Inheritance, the memoir of how she found out her beloved late father... was not her genetic father at all. In her ensuing journey of self-discovery, she mentions a rabbi asking her the three great spiritual questions:
Who am I?
Why am I here?
How shall I live my life?
As I navigate my post-park world, those questions resonated with me. Who am I? A husband, a son, an uncle. An engineer, an instructor, a writer. An adventurer - and dare I say, a storyteller.
I'd like to think I have a reason to be here. To provide for myself and Susan, of course, and to support friends and family. To entertain people with my stories, perhaps to introduce them to landscapes they may never experience first-hand. And near to my heart, to inspire others to step beyond the familiar and chase their own dreams. I recall a few instances when that happened, and that sense of purpose outshines any anything else I have felt in my life.
Now I face the third question. How shall I pass my upcoming years? What new life will Sue and I carve out in the coming years? That, indeed, is what drives me today - how to find new meaning in the life I have been given. Stay tuned...