I was afraid to write this story.
I want to tell you about my recent experiences of gratitude and awe—but such joy is hard to convey. The world pushes back against such stories, preferring a daily digest of death and disaster. (Just check the Top Stories in Google News any day.) Why am I anxious to tell this story? Because I might appear naïve to you.
This all started with the celebration of our 50th wedding anniversary. My wife Judith and I often joked that we would not go to Alaska until we were old. Finally, we had to admit that 50 years of marriage made us officially old. It was time to take this epic trip. Seventeen family members and friends joined us for the celebration. From the start, we delighted in each other! We are a truly modern family and, together, we agreed to carve out this chance to share amazement, laughter and lots of thoughtful talk about the serious stuff of our lives.
That alone would have sparked gratitude and awe, but all of this unfolded ... in Alaska.
Alaska: our western-most, eastern-most, northern-most state.
Alaska: if divided in two, the halves would make Texas our third largest state.
Alaska: largest dahlias, highest mountains, longest glaciers.
Alaska: land of such bone-searing cold that Jack London described it as a place where a man "did not belong within himself any more."
I was a kid again with my eye pressed against both microscope and telescope in a magnificent world of untamed wilderness and delicate beauty. We were among violent creatures scavenging for food, salmon swimming against all odds to lay their eggs and, of course, too much global warmth melting the ice cap. We sailed within a quarter mile of Hubbard Glacier (the crew told us we were the closest they had ever experienced).
I saw a seal floating atop a small iceberg that had recently calved from a 300-foot-tall glacier head. We heard the thunderous sounds of glaciers cracking. Eagles soared. Lynx prowled. Grizzlies slapped salmon from these waters—salmon so thick in the river that they tumbled atop one another. We had the rare opportunity to see Mt. McKinley through the clouds on three different days!
My mind soared with the possibilities; my body felt the limitations of aging.
Then, I was introduced to the wood frog, capable of surviving the Arctic winter with it’s amazing capacity to freeze solid and thaw out as temperatures warm in the spring. The frog is basically dead, but returns to life. This ol’ man was rebirthing his childlike eyes, ears and heart.
John Muir wrote of a trip he took to Alaska in 1879 that he had “no words to convey an adequate conception of its sublime grandeur.” As he viewed the glaciers he said words were impotent to describe the “peculiar awe” he experienced. I understood Muir's words. I have used the words "gratitude" and "awe" to capture the experience—but the underlying feeling is one of being humbled.
In the enormity of the Earth, I suddenly glimpsed my fragile place.
As I dare to write this column, now safely home again, the week brings news from two friends telling us that their husbands have died after long and painful illnesses. The news is not unexpected but it is unsettling. Tears well in my eyes.
I attend the funeral of one of the men. I slip into a seat at the back of the service and soon realize I have the good fortune of sitting next to the young woman who has been his professional caregiver. My friend’s illness left him with little mobility and no speech. During a time of tributes to him, the young caregiver sobs as if she has lost her own child. At one point she rises and says only two sentences in her broken English: “I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to give to—and to learn from—this wonderful man. I came to love him.”
And, there it is—right there in our midst: gratitude and awe.
I am humbled again in the presence of her capacity to hold a fragile person with such compassion.
May I hope to humbly hold such kernels of gratitude and awe.