Anne Lamott writes of her son’s eighth birthday: the two of them are on the beach, building a sandcastle that morphs into an elaborate “birthday altar,” decorated with feathers and shells and clothespin people standing guard.
Eventually, it is time to go. Lamott writes:
“No!” he wailed. “We can’t. What about . . . our creation? We can’t just leave it here. We have to stay and protect it. We’ve worked so hard on it! The waves will come and wash it away.”
“Honey,” I said, “it was never meant to be permanent. You must have known the tide would come back in.” . . . He walked away from me and the altar, world weary, shuffling with dejection, head down. Sam, I wanted to explain, making the altar was a way to celebrate, to honor you today. The fact that it’s going to wash away heightens how wonderful our making it was. The altar didn’t hold as much animating spirit as our making it did, the gathering, the choices. It’s like: we made it, we love it—oops, it’s gone. But the best part is still there.”
What Anne Lamott expresses here helps me to understand why Lisa and I have always preferred to invest in experiences as opposed to things (though don’t get me wrong: by any standard of measure, we still possess an unforgiveable amount of stuff). We live in a house and drive cars more modest than we could actually afford, spending the money instead on beach house rentals and airplane tickets. We have material enough, Lord knows, and our memories of Cape Hatteras and San Francisco and Puerto Rico will endure long after the vehicles and furniture have fallen apart and been hauled away.
Some of this philosophy seems to have rubbed off on the kids: from February through June of this year, there wasn’t a month during which one of the two wasn’t in Eastern Europe. Itineraries included Moscow, Sophia, St Petersburg, Budapest, Krakow, Prague, and Tallinn. When not digging out from under mountains of jealousy, I was bursting with pride and overwhelmed with worry. For 16 weeks, all I had to do to get really terrified was to think of Jen and John thousands of miles away. And for 16 weeks all I had to do to be filled with love and joy was to think of Jen and John thousands of miles away.
Lamott has also written that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” I get this. I often pray them both at the same time.
This is a week of transitions. We delivered John to Christopher Newport University this weekend to commence his sophomore year. And tomorrow our friend Sophie Nachman departs to begin a year-long adventure in Morocco. By coincidence, Lisa and I met 31 years ago tomorrow, beginning our own journey together. This confluence of dates has me thinking about transience. The word derives from the Latin, trans, meaning “across” and the verb ire, meaning “to go.” Sophie and John are both transient, passing through places this year (Newport News, Rabat) where they will not stay. And of course in a larger sense, we are all transient, all just passing through.
The book from which I drew Lamott’s description of Sam’s eighth birthday she called Traveling Mercies. We wish those mercies on loved ones about to depart: have a wonderful time, be careful, safe journey home. Of the coming year, I would say to John and Sophie: remember the animating spirit will be in the making of it. Sojourns are not meant to be permanent. Eventually the tide will return. “We made it, we love it—oops, it’s gone.”
To Lisa: thank you for the experience of these 31 years. We have learned together, slowly and sometimes painfully, that everything changes. Nothing stays the same. But through it all, what we have gained and lost, the best part endures. Traveling mercies to us both, as we roll into year 32.
Traveling mercies, John. Traveling mercies, Sophie.
Have a wonderful time, be careful, safe journey home.