Dancing with Destiny

There was once a young man named Jack who had a dream of being a great pilot, maybe even an astronaut. He joined the navy and went into their aviation wing, intent on laying the foundation for a soaring career in the skies. It never happened. A freak car crash nearly ended his life, and definitely ended his chances of being a pilot. Jack was a wreck as he began the slow process of recuperation. In order to strengthen his arms he took up swimming, and got pretty good at it. Eventually he went into the water as a line of work and started getting serious about ocean exploration. In time he co-invented the Aqua-Lung, developed a one-person jet-propelled submarine, and introduced millions to the wonders of the undersea world. You’ve heard of him, only you don’t know him by the name Jack. You know him as Jacques Cousteau. The failed pilot. There are two principles to life. The first is one my mother imprinted in me from an early age: you can do whatever you set out to do. I believe this wholeheartedly, except that I also know that sometimes, you can’t. (Just ask Jack.) And that’s because of principle #2, which is that sometimes what you set out to do may involve a wholly unexpected and often unwelcome left-hand turn. Flying high above the earth; diving deep below the ocean. Same dream … only with a left-hand twist. Life (or you could say fate, or destiny, or God) sometimes throws things at you out of left field. It’s easy to get knocked off kilter, to resist, to...

The Way It Is

I was out driving one day, years ago, with my son Nick. He was young, maybe seven, and he’d been thinking about the state of the world. “Hey, Dad?” he said. “Seems to me like everything is … getting worse. You know?” He looked over at me from the passenger’s seat, and I nodded. Go on, I’m listening. He thought hard for a moment, gazing out the windshield at his sifting thoughts, then added, “But … it also seems like everything is getting better.” I loved it. He was examining his view of the world, articulating it, testing it, sorting it out. We each have our own worldview, consciously aware of it or not. Your worldview is not what you think you believe or want to believe. It’s what you do believe. It drives your attitudes, decisions, and actions, moment to moment, day to day, year after year. It is the lens through which you see everything. When I was a kid, Walter Cronkite ruled the world with an authority greater than that of presidents or kings. Every weeknight, after finishing his report on the CBS Evening News, he would leave us with his famous signoff line, “And that’s the way it is on …” whatever the date was that day. And for millions and millions of Americans, that’s the way it was. You have a Walter Cronkite in your head telling you how it is, not just once an evening but constantly, in a 24/7 real-time newsfeed. Your inner Cronkite scans everything happening in your world, searching out those events that confirm your personal view of the way...

Not Postponing Happiness

So I was driving down the highway, thinking about things, not paying any attention to where I was. My first book was finished. My coauthor and I had it in the hands of a literary agent who was shopping it to publishers in New York. (This was many years ago.) Nobody had picked it up yet, but I felt sure this would happen any day now, and not only that, but that it would be published and hit the bestseller lists. As I drove, I was dreaming about how good that was going to feel, knowing that this thing my friend and I had worked on so hard was going to be in the hands of so many people, touching so many lives, making such a difference out in the big world. And then I heard myself say out loud: “Man, when that happens, I’m going to be so happy!” The implications of that remark were so disturbing that I instantly slapped on my turn signal, yanked the wheel to the right, and pulled off the highway. Gliding into a rest stop, I parked, put on the brake, and sat there thinking about what I’d just said as the cooling engine went tink tink-tink tink. “When that happens, I’m going to be so happy.” It was a beautiful summer day on Interstate 81, somewhere deep in that luscious green stretch of mountain countryside stretching north to south from central Pennsylvania to Virginia. Gorgeous as it was, though, I had not been enjoying it, not the slightest little bit. Why not? Because I hadn’t been there. Where had I been?...

Deep as an Ocean

A guest post from my wife, Ana Gabriel Mann, on milk, soup, and love as deep as an ocean. This morning I awoke to realize that the milk was spoiled. We had bought the milk to make my mom’s favorite homemade tomato soup, from a recipe that her mother, my grandmother, taught me forty years ago. For the better part of the past five years I’ve been making my mom’s favorite lunches, dinners, Western omelette sandwiches, clam chowders, and anything else she wanted so we could both feel better about the fact that my husband and I could no longer take care of her at home. (And to give her a much needed break from the truly awful food at the nursing home where she had now taken up residence.) Every morning when I awoke I would plan my day around making and bringing her lunch and her adored hot fresh coffee. I took no phone calls, made no appointments. By noon I would be sitting with her and visiting while she ate, watching her enjoy every bite. During those visits over lunch, she and I would review every last memory we could dig up. Some days we had truly remarkable conversations about virtually everything of any importance between us, going all the way back to her childhood and, sometimes, all the way forward to her death. She told me things about her life that I had never known. We discussed at length our views of God and the afterlife. She witnessed my tears in those moments when I told her that after she was gone, I would miss...