Welcome to the New Year! May you be blessed!
In this new year, I resolve to climb beyond an habitual sin of mine and to progress in imitation of Jesus.
Below, I reflect on this matter by focusing on four ages of my life—when I was twelve, when I was about twenty, when I was about fifty, and when I was sixty.
As I write, now as a Christian, I am seventy-one and am challenged to speak truthfully, succinctly, usefully, and in imitation of Jesus.
I was twelve. It was cold.
That morning, I noticed that the temperature outside our house was 39 degrees below zero.
I took off my shirt and dashed outside.
Mom spun away from the stove and shouted, “Wait! Wait! Dikkon Eberhart, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
I slammed the door shut behind me.
(Wooden doors don’t slam with their usual sound at 39 below. They bang and sharply reverberate.)
The door wrenched back open. Mom stuck her head out. “Dikkon, come in this second! THIS SECOND!”
I stood on the porch with my arms spread out. (I admit the air in my lungs had frozen stiff, and I was gasping--but I was out there without a shirt on, at 39 below!)
“Richie!” Mom yelled over her shoulder at Dad, “Richie, come here! Your son—he’s….”
She slammed the door.
We lived in Hanover, NH, which is about halfway up the state, on hilly terrain. Hanover is not so far up north in New Hampshire as to be in the real mountains. But on a still night without cloud one day after a full moon, even in Hanover the temperature can fall to 30 degrees below and lower.
I was a man, outside, naked to the waist, at 39 below.
New Hampshire’s real mountains are the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, which is dominated, as part of a great curving east-west massif, by Mount Washington. Mount Washington is the highest peak in the northeastern United States, at 6,288 feet. Also it is the windiest spot on the globe, having registered a sustained wind of 231 mph at the summit’s weather station, in 1934.
Furthermore, Mount Washington is one of the most dangerous mountains to climb in the United States.
One, while Mount Washington is not as high as other mountains in the United States, its weather can become lethal very, very quickly.
Two, the mountain is located only a three-and-a-half hour drive north of the densely populated Boston area.
Well, in sunny Boston there live many carefree hikers who are just watching for a good day to drive up to the Presidentials and to stroll up Washington for a view from its top. However, Mount Washington’s massif divides cold, dry northern air from warm, wet southern air. The two masses of air sometimes pour across the summit ridge, and they mix, and--
Virtually instantly a sunny climbing day becomes thirty-five degrees, with fog and driving rain, so foggy you can’t see six feet ahead. Nor can you even distinguish up from down. And the wind is now gusting over 60 mph.
(You don’t believe not being able to distinguish up from down? I didn’t either—I thought it was a mountaineering tall tale. Until it happened to me.)
In Hanover that memorable morning, I was a man, outside, naked to the waist, at 39 below.
Even then, at twelve, inside myself I admitted I was cold. But I told myself--feel it, feel it, feel the cold!
The rest of the year is just April, mud, and gardens. The rest of the year is just summer, sweat, and lolling. But this is real.
This is the universe as it actually is.
The universe is empty. It is cold. It is permanent. It is huger than me. It dwarfs my fantasies, my problems, my conceits.
…but now I want to go INSIDE!
It was Dad who opened the door this time. I burst in. The kitchen was so hot it made me hurt.
“So?” Dad asked, “How was it?”
I wanted to laugh, but I was too frozen to breathe. I coughed and waved my hands trying to signal positivity.
Mom: “You’re crazy.”
She shook her head. “Now put clothes on, you dope, and we’ll have breakfast.”
When I came back down—turtlenecked and double sweatered—I was vividly alive. “For the rest of my life, I can say I’ve been outside at 39 below without a shirt!”
Mom included both me and Dad with her comment.
“Men,” is what she said, and she dished out the eggs.
Later, at age twenty or so, three times I climbed Mount Washington, solo. One of those ascents was up the headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine, in May, which on that particular year was still almost winter on its north-facing wall. Partly I was climbing on ice and collapsing snow, with frigid melt water pelting down on me from the boulders.
Stupid, but I made it.
(I DO NOT recommend doing this, even if you are someone who is twenty years old, and who assumes himself to be immortal, as I did—at that time. Wait until it’s really summer; still a stiff climb.)
I LOVE WINTER. I LOVE COLD. I LOVE SNOW.
I have loved any physical challenge in snow. For example, like climbing the headwall of Tuckerman’s Ravine.
Then I became older, in middle life, at about the age of fifty, and what I like best to do in snow is what I imagine is possible by seeing the photo above.
What I see is a long snowy field over a hilltop. Enough snow to make a slog but not enough snow to require snowshoes or skis. Looking at the photo, I imagine the temperature to be about 15 or 20 above. Little wind. No civilization at all. Midday. Walking alone.
Looking at the photo, further I fantasize an average day in the middle of my life. I fantasize that there are two more miles to trudge across the hills in order to reach the inn, way north—up above that great wall of mountains in New Hampshire.
I’ll be tired when I reach the inn, I imagine, but they have an innkeeper’s reception in late afternoon at that inn, while the day darkens—hot mulled cider or cold beer. Probably sliced sausages with strong mustard on the bar; hard, sharp cheddar.
I miss my wife and children who are back at home, while I make one of my regular sales swings into the far north. I cold-called this morning, and then I took off during the afternoon so as to enjoy my trudge through the snow.
I have three well-prepped appointments for tomorrow; two of those likely will close; one of those may close big—I’ve been working on that sale for six weeks.
Here’s the truth. While I walk and miss my home, I need to be certain not to imagine that the whole of my life is good. Parts of my life are good. Parts, however, are not good.
I must not imagine but instead must be truthful.
Too often I speak too quickly and without sufficient thought beforehand. Not in a sales situation, no; in a marital or parental situation, often yes.
Years ago, undertaking difficult climbing challenges, I took great care to succeed and to thrive by means of truth. Yes, climbing the headwall solo in May with snow and ice still covering most of the ascent is stupid, but the truth was that I had experience, fine equipment, strength and sufficient élan.
Truthfully, I knew I could succeed.
I would need to plan each step with intent and with judgement, that’s all. Not unlike speaking only after each thought I intended to speak has been evaluated beforehand.
For a fantasizing fellow like me, the way to succeed is not to imagine myself at the top of the headwall, but to concentrate profoundly on where I am along the way.
To feel it; to feel it; to feel it.
Planning the headwall climb, I knew I could succeed because, years ago, I had once been a hero in bronze—frozen, yes, but—as a man—out on our porch without a shirt on, at 39 below.
Now my fantasy has placed me in the middle of my life but by no means any longer as a hero in bronze. Bronze is too cold, too stiff.
Yes, in my fantasy, I’m still walking in snow—but now with my family to get home to. And, since I’ve carefully climbed my professional mountain to possible sales tomorrow, it is likely I will reach that summit, too.
All that part of my life is good.
And then I am sixty, nearing the end of my professional climb. The truth is that still I sin, and my habitual sin weighs on our family.
Recently, I’ve become curious about this fellow Jesus.
I can’t go back to being twelve again, or even twenty. But here’s the question. Could I be myself, at sixty, just as I am…and still feel as alive as I did back then?
Could I? With Jesus?
And if I could—with Jesus—would I be able to climb above this particular manifestation of sinfulness?
As I understand it, those who follow Jesus believe all humans are sinful but that believers who are able to trust in Him may live with aliveness and awe even so.
May it be!
The photo below is of Tuckerman’s Ravine. For scale, look closely at the two dark spots just below the top right hand edge of the ravine. Those spots are two skiers. Also, there’s one skier just above the boulder wall, in the center.
To schuss the headwall at Tuckerman’s—ski straight down it—is an act of daring that was far beyond anything that ever attracted me.
[The photo is copied from the Wikipedia article about Mount Washington.]
I’ve read autobiographies in which the author describes great Christmas days when he was a child. Sometimes the tale is cute. Sometimes the tale is more than merely cute.
Sometimes the tale has something to do with that boy, the boy who was born on Christmas Day.
For me, I have a tale to remember. My tale has to do with my father and my uncle and my adult male cousins…and with my guns.
Here’s how it goes--
It is early afternoon on Christmas Day. My father, mother, sister and I have been at Grandmother’s house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during the past few days. Dad had annual posts at various colleges—where he served as Poet in Residence—but, wherever we lived during any year, almost always in order to celebrate Christmas we came back to this house—to this house where my mother was born and raised.
That year, I was either seven or eight.
Christmas morning had gone very well. My most important present had come from my pacifist grandmother.
Earlier in December, my mother told me that Grandmother had asked her what I most wanted for Christmas. Easy answer. What I most wanted was the double holster belt with two shiny cap guns that I had seen in a store.
However, a few days later, Mom sat me down. “Dikkon, I spoke with Grandmother. You know there’s just been a very bad war, and that’s why your daddy was in the navy, and a lot of people were killed with guns.”
This was the kind of talk that grown-ups used sometimes. They referred to something I could not understand, but, because they were talking with serious faces, I knew I should try to understand.
“Well, your grandmother loves you very much, and she knows the guns you asked for are pretend, but she’s troubled about whether she should give them to you. She wants to know if there is something else instead that you really want.”
I loved my grandmother, and I wanted to help her out…BUT.
That holster belt and those guns!
The guns were shiny, and the holsters had silver stars on them, so I knew they must cost a fortune. Way more than my parents would spend on me…though they loved me, too, of course.
Grandmother was my only chance.
Then I had an inspiration. (Later in my life, I made my career as a salesman. You’re about to learn why that was my obvious career choice. At seven or eight, I knew intuitively how to engage with and how to counter the objection of my customer.)
Here is my first sales-closing statement. “Tell Grandmother it will be OK. Tell her I’ll only to shoot people who are already dead. I promise.”
That cracked my mother up, and she told me years later it made grandmother laugh, too, though ruefully: Grandmother really was a pacifist.
But I got my guns!
So, it is early afternoon, and relatives and friends begin to arrive for Christmas dinner. My mother’s brother Charlie is one of the first to arrive, along with my Aunt Aggie, and their daughters, Kate and Susan, who are my close pals—we three and my sister were accustomed to wrestle around with one another like puppies in a box.
I stand in the vestibule, wearing my guns.
One after another, these tall men come through the outer door, smelling of cold snow and winter wind, their faces red. They all wear overcoats, which they doff as they trade greetings with Dad, who acts as host since my grandfather died two years before. The overcoats smell of the outdoors and swirl a cold air as they are swung off shoulders and hung among others already there.
These men are well dressed, good-looking, competent. They chat with one another as though they are all members of that enviable club—the club of adult maleness.
They notice me; they greet me.
More than anything on earth, I long for membership in their club. I would give up my guns to be a man in an overcoat arriving out of the snow from a world in which I know how to make things happen.
If you are a woman, you will have had much to consider about men. We men, I can tell you, mull a lot over women. But first, when we are seven or eight—and at later times, too—we mull a lot over men.
As we boys come up, we encounter the lives of our fathers. For most of us, we encounter the well-lived lives of our fathers. Our fathers are decent men, who tried, and sometimes failed, and then tried again. On the whole, our fathers are men who succeeded, much of the time.
Along the way, our fathers made their mistakes of course. Eventually, all fathers display their weaknesses to their sons. However we sons already know what those weaknesses are.
When I was six or eight, I imagined I knew Dad’s weaknesses because of visceral sympathy between the generations. I experienced soulful accord with Dad. Here’s what I thought. I know Dad (comforting and cozy); he knows me (sometimes, not so comforting and cozy).
Anyway, Dad and me—we know one another’s weaknesses because we are father and son, and when our eyes met, we transcended the detail of the moment, and we were just…male.
But there is both a sager and a more godly explanation for this communion of maleness between the generations--sin.
At seven or eight, I probably knew the word sin, but it had no context for me. In our family, we were Episcopalians, after all, as high as could be. (This was long before my wife’s and my venture into Judaism.)
More to the point, my father was a poet, whose heart was tuned, really, to the muse. Sin had nothing to do with anything that had to do with us.
Yes, a shaft of jabbing badness cut at my guts, sometimes, and made me keep secrets. But—I crouched inside myself in confusion—perhaps boys keeping secrets is just the way things are.
Jabbing badness could not be in my adult cousins who wore their Christmas overcoats. Nor in Grandfather, who had been so kind to me before he died. Nor in Dad. How could there be jabbing badness in Dad—who was Dad! Nor in my favorite uncle, Charlie, who knew so well how to play.
I was the only one who kept secrets and who experienced that jabbing badness.
But perhaps soon I could stop keeping secrets. After all, now I had my guns. Maybe my guns could keep me safe from jabbing badness.
What is it about that boy who was born today? Did he have jabbing badness and keep secrets, too, like me?
There was something different about him, everyone said so. Even angels said so, from heaven itself! About him, there was something more powerful and more holy than my everyday jabbing badness.
Yes, I had my guns, and they would surely help, but maybe that boy would help, too.
Before we sat down for Christmas dinner at Grandmother’s long table we sang songs about that boy. That just shows how important he is.
What were those songs we had just sung, about how quiet was the night outside, and how holy it was…and about a Star?
Maybe…if I try really hard to know something about that boy….