I used to send Christmas cards. This was the first time one came back to me nearly 20 years later. It was in a large, gold envelope along with a typed-out note, signed in blue ink. It took me a minute to place the return address and name, but the wry humor in the letter confirmed my memories. It was from my old friend and mentor, Ross. It seems his wife found the old card and asked if he recalled who it was from. His response was laughter. He tracked me down via a convoluted internet road, mailing the original card and subsequent letter to my office.
The card I mailed, so long ago brought back a flood of sensory memories as I touched it. The photograph I had attached clicked some sleeping moment from my guiding days. It is a snapshot of me sitting in a rock cropping at sunrise, in my yellow North Face jacket, ball cap, red trail shorts, reading a book. What is just beyond the frame of the shot is a high-altitude expanse, and a 400-foot wall towering above me that makes up the Window near the base of Rio Grande Pyramid. The photo was taken by my guide partner at the time, Austin Jones.
I had included the photograph because earlier that year Ross had contributed financially to the mountaineering work of the previous summer. It was a way of saying "thanks," and here is some context for that gratitude.
Seeing it all 20 years later reminds me of the subtle but significant role Ross played in my growing up from awkward teen to little-less-awkward 20-something. When I graduated high school Ross had given me a note of congratulations including the first part of Robert Service's poem, "The Men Who Don't FIt In," as a kind of benediction, if not, foreshadowing of what he saw in me that I was only unconsciously aware of at the time:
There's a race of men that don't fit in,
A race that can't stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
Though the poem begins as a glamorous tribute to the adventurous spirit, it turns into a commentary on the tragedy that often comes of such restlessness. The men who don't fit in tend to never be present or satisfied with what is before them and in the winter of their days they discover what they have missed by always looking for the next horizon.
I don't imagine Ross was warning me, but merely observing that I was not one that fit in with the world around me; that I was one who would leave the neighborhood and roam the world. And that I did.
There is a serendipity within that envelope. As part of the culture of where I work, we talk of about seeing who each other really are and calling it up and out. We look for ways to not tear down but spur one another on towards that for which we were created. Ross' surprise letter with my old Christmas card was a beckoning cairn to one of the many gracious older men in my life who saw something in me that I was far too insecure and unsure of to claim as my own. He offered unsolicited permission – through poetry and presence, and ongoing encouragement in my adventures – to explore the part of me that can't sit still.
Over time, I learned and am learning, from wince the restlessness stirred and how to hone it into a generative, creative force. I married a woman who has that adventurous blood in her, also, and who woos me never to settle for ill-fitting grooves.
What would come of us if there were more voices of affirmation, encouraging a bit of good recklessness in us? If there were less naysayers and shamers, elders who fanned the flames of "not fitting in" in lieu of fearful policing and corralling, I'd imagine we would see some significant shifts in how we care for ourselves, the communities within our midst, and the bigger picture we are painting.
A request Ross made at the end of his letter was a desire for me to return the card so he could put it back in that box. It is as if to say, "Hey, check this out! Remember who you were? Are you still becoming?" And my when I send that Christmas card back, there is a solid, "Yes and thank you for seeing it" that will travel along with it, just as it did the first time I mailed it to him 20 years ago.