Why moss? Why select a plant that doesn’t even have the decency to produce seeds or have roots that grip and extract nourishment? I have no good answer. Moss is but moss yet it seems sufficient and timely. Maybe even intended.
I grew up in an arid land, a place of borrowed water where green mattered. Here, in the Pacific Northwest, I live in a flurry of green, from the grey-green of conifers to the chartreuseness of the very moss that started all this. But that green, once so precious, has become an assumption, like a loved one you count on to always be there until one day they are not.
God has given us green, a concept that, like all colors, remains irreducible. You can’t unpack green or break it down into smaller components in the way you do a problem at work or a project at home. So what do you do with green?
You give thanks.
Or so I am trying. What started as an attempt to practice at home the same openness and attention to detail I experience on a trip has become something more. I could call it a meditation on green, but that’s too pretentious, like referring to a can of sardines as an elegant seafood dinner.
Instead, this particular focus on moss feels more akin to a spiritual discipline, an object lesson wrapped in the concentrated effort to be more grateful, to do what does not come naturally to me.
I need something in my life to remind me that my life is not mine. I need something that triggers me to remember that beauty invades me – or would if I let it – every day. I need a not-so-subtle cue to hold up to my eyes the grace that holds me.
As my seventeen-year-old son Sumner and I exit the theatre, neither of us speaks. We prefer to hold private our own assessments of the concert we have just seen, afraid to leak our confidences to the passing crowds or to risk the possibility of misunderstanding each other’s true sentiments. A few blocks later, however, we ensconce ourselves within the Cone of Silence (otherwise known as our car).
Sumner is the first to venture forth and he does so boldly: “That was the best concert I’ve ever been to,” he announces, all cards on the table.
I hesitate a moment, then reply much like the young teen who has just been informed by the object of his intense crush that she likes him. “Really?” I probe, not sure if Sumner is genuine or practicing some new style of sarcasm picked up at school or, alas, learned from me and genetically modified.
“Oh my gosh, yes! They were amazing!” he says. While my youngest son Connor, who is 14, still employs the word AWESOME for all utterances of excitement or joy, Sumner has matured in his own vocabulary.
Unfortunately, at this moment, he has hit the point where no words suffice to adequately convey the height of his feelings. So tonight, “amazing” will do just fine.
Now, having vulnerably declared his position, he retreats. “What did you think?” he inquires, a hint of hesitation lining his question. I remain stone-faced as long as I can until tenderness for my son’s brave pronouncement and my own enthusiasm break me and I blurt out, “They were AWESOME!” This gives you a sense of the level at which my own emotive vocabulary is stuck.
We now make up for the silence of our walk to the car by talking over one another in our enthusiastic attempt to convince each other of what we clearly already agree on. We dissect, scrutinize and mutually praise each detail of the performance. Then, about ten minutes into our fevered admiration fest we hit a potential snag: we realize there is no way we can possibly explain how excellent our evening was to any other human being.
And therein lies the age-old problem particularly common in travel: we come home and find we are unable to do much more than reduce an extraordinary experience down to five simple words: “You had to be there.”
“You had to be there” is our fallback position when our experiences exceed our ability to describe them or when the joke we just told goes over about as well as a hamburger stand in Delhi. But these words are more than a trite line thrown to those on the outside of a joke or travel experience. They highlight a concept rich with extended meaning, a phrase that operates on more levels than a Bernie Madoff investment scheme.
Over the next several entries here at The Meaningful Traveler, we’ll explore some of those multiple ways of appreciating the phrase, “You had to be there.” But for now, let me explain this particular incident.
Sumner and I had just witnessed a performance in Seattle by The Civil Wars, a duo who play a mixture of music loosely categorized as Americana. Don’t let the cleavage, melodramatic filming or Johnny Depp-look-a-likeness in the following video distract you from two very talented performers.
This video of their biggest hit, Poison and Wine, is by its nature, a music video. But the live performance – two singers and a single guitar for all but two songs – was something incredible. From their timing and banter with the audience and each other to their haunting harmonies and musicianship, Joy Williams and John Paul White are something to behold. Even superstar Adele (for whom The Civil Wars opened earlier this year) has stated that, “The Civil Wars are the best live band I have ever seen.”
Sumner and I would agree. But to tell you all this or even for you to check out their videos won’t quite cut it. That’s the problem with such experiences. Words, photographs or even videos only go so far. When we fully engage in an experience all attempts to convey it will come up short.
I can tell you the concert was great. But really all I can say that will do it justice is this:
Dealing with the death of my 26-year-old nephew in a car accident was only part of the challenge I expected in attending his funeral. You see, my nephew was the son of my brother and his ex-wife. Thus, amidst all the grief concerning my nephew’s death, we also expected to encounter the various dynamics that are part of torn and blended families, especially during such distressing conditions.
But two curious events occurred along the way to somewhat mitigate the stress.
First, a few weeks before the tragedy occurred, my brother had lunch at a small Chinese restaurant down in Florida where he lives. The place was crowded, so he shared a table with a stranger. They talked briefly and that was that.
Except that the day after my nephew died, my brother was back in the same small restaurant on a different day of the week at a different time of day. And yet the only space available to sit was at a table…with the exact same man as before.
They joked about stalking each other and their lunch appointments until both realized that neither had been back there since their last chance meeting weeks earlier. An odd “coincidence” that led to additional small talk.
The man then asked my brother if he had any kids. My brother, not wanting to get into any painful details said, “Yes, two,” referring to his two children from his current marriage. Oddly, the man asked, “Is that all?”
Now what kind of a question is that? Yet it got my brother to admit that he did have two other children from a previous marriage. Sadly, he confessed, one had just been killed in a car crash the day before.
“That’s tough,” the man replied.
My brother thought it a curious response. The man said it as a fact; not unkindly but also without the usual gush of sympathy one normally receives.
When they resumed speaking, they asked each other the usual questions about “What do you do?” My brother described his occupation. And then it was the man’s turn.
“I’m the director of the local hospice,” he said.
The brief conversation over Chinese food suddenly took a far more personal turn.
From that revelation flowed remarkable advice on what to expect at the funeral, what typically happens in blended family situations like this, how to address the often awkward conversations, how to deal with grief amidst it all.
Before this unlikely conversation, my brother had dreaded the upcoming trip. Now, though still grieving, he felt equipped to handle the other dynamics that awaited.
Similarly, on my flight out to the funeral, the airline changed my seat at the last moment and I found myself next to a man who turned out to be in the administration for a denomination and who had been a pastor for twenty-plus years. After the typical comments about airline travel, I revealed the nature of my journey. I too then received excellent counsel from someone who had officiated at hundreds of funerals of all kinds. He understood firsthand the ins and outs of death, grief and the painful yet healing nature of these ceremonies of closure, mourning and even celebration.
We go ill equipped on trips to handle what lies before us. Yet by the time we arrive, we find we have what we need for our journey…and beyond. And as we shall see next time, sometimes the journey we end up on is far different than the one we anticipated.
We often form categories for what is meaningful travel and what isn’t. However, sometimes those categories don’t work because some of the most meaningful travel experiences on our trips don’t necessarily occur on the trips themselves.
You can’t help but wonder about all the hoopla this week regarding the Jet Blue flight attendant, Steven Slater, who got fed up with an unruly passenger, cursed out the person over the intercom and then fled the plane by deploying the emergency slide. This occurred three days ago and now he’s being derided by [...]