Friends Old, New, and Soon to Be,
I don’t mean to scold you when I say it seems to me that the Christmas season is increasingly about pure consumption. I am as guilty as anyone so blessed as to be able to perpetuate the maelstrom of buying and wrapping and stacking emptied boxes like altars to some being that can never be appeased. It feels increasingly like a contest to acquire things of which we will next year wonder why we have.
The truth is, I’m coming to rethink it all, or at least think a bit more deeply about it.
As I write this, the kind of weather we southerners generally endure rather than prepare for is bearing down upon us. It’s too infrequent an occurrence around which to order our lives, especially here on the coast, where my uncle once said of hurricanes, “Insure well, sit back, and have a drink, brother.” But the impacts of sub-freezing weather and driving rain are real here. This morning, in a single hour, my mother and my father-in-law were both forced to cancel their plans to join us for Christmas. It's a small loss; a single fallen leaf spinning in the stream of life before disappearing in its depths. But it matters. It crystallizes how much less I want to have things and how much more I want the things I have to matter.
There are things of universal consequence. A dear cousin in his ninth decade lost his wife yesterday. She had to yield to the everyday insidiousness of age and infirmity, her loss no less painful for its inevitability. True, deep, lifelong love is magic; a gift to those so lucky as to have found it and one that keeps giving to those reflected in its light. This year, I am blessed to be entering into a twentieth year of marriage with a woman who gifted us both twelve years ago a healthy, happy child, deeply engaged with the world around her. I am frequently struck dumb with wonder that I’ve stumbled into this thing that matters so much.
There are matters of choice and inclination. For me, sitting in a cold duck blind with my Labrador Jed and an old Marine pilot buddy named Chris, reminiscing about shared times in places warmer and dustier than a South Carolina beaver swamp? Sharing a hope Jed would get his first official wild retrieve? Well, it mattered.
During our final sit, precisely at shooting light, a single Woodie hen fluttered into our decoy spread. Jed locked his eyes upon her, his body rigid. To my satisfaction and pride, he stayed seated as Chris’ shotgun broke the morning silence. I sent Jed into the cold water. Intent on the hen floating broken on the surface of the swamp, he surged towards her. My throat tightened seeing the result of months of work. But as he closed upon her, she dove. Jed spun in the water, clearly mystified and frustrated. I knew she was gone and called him back with three whistle blasts.
Did we get what we wanted? No. But you know what the Rolling Stones said.
We lost a crippled bird; a tiny tragedy hunters know and for which we feel shame. Jed came back to shore without the taste of feathers in his mouth. Chris felt the loss as a failure to honor the bird and give Jed that first full experience in the hunt.
But Jed did everything he was supposed to. He behaved beautifully in the blind for two days, no mean feat for a young dog. He swam a long retrieve and returned to look up at me and know he had done as well as he could. Chris gave me two days in a blind, on land and water to which he’s turned his own hands. He gave me hours of talking to a friend who, a lifetime ago, was a calm voice on the radio for desperate men, a lifeline calling from on high before diving into the fray at 500 mph, for people who needed him much more than Jed and I needed a retrieve. And in her refusal to give herself up easily the hen again taught us the purity of wildness and its unpredictability. It wasn’t exactly what I wanted, though it was everything I needed.
They say you can’t take it with you, but I have to imagine that whatever a more ethereal plane holds for us cannot help but be made better by the accumulation of meaningful experiences with people we love. In truth, I’m not sure I know what else matters.
This year, may you find an experience that matters to you with people that matter to you amongst the torn paper and discarded ribbons. You can’t take it with you. Except some things you can.
Russell Worth Parker
Editor at Large, Tom Beckbe