by Jim Dodson
With graduation season upon us, here’s a letter I wrote to my son, Jack, eight years ago this week, upon his graduation from Elon University. My nickname for Jack was “Nibs.” Today he is married and resides in the Middle East, working as a top journalist and filmmaker. His old(er) man couldn’t be prouder.
Hearty congratulations, dear boy! As of noon yesterday, you are a college graduate.
Four years have flown by like the speed of light, or at least a bird in flight.
Come to think of it, so have the past two decades. As I was driving up to the university Thursday afternoon along that winding state road that we both love, the one that passes farms and fields, heading to meet your mom and grandmother for your Periclean Scholars farewell dinner, I confess to thinking it was only yesterday that you were a sweet, quiet, curious and sometimes stubborn lad who loved nothing more than to ride with me on the John Deere tractor and hear my silly made-up stories about Pete and Charlie, the two disreputable bears who inhabited the hemlock forest around our house in Maine.
I remember how you would tremble with pleasure over the goofy adventures of those two bumbling imaginary bears, like the time they broke in while we were away on vacation and threw a wild party for all the other animals in the forest, eating up everything in the pantry and watching all your Disney videos without rewinding them.
Funny to think you’ve out-lived video tapes, isn’t it? Someday you may actually need to explain to your son or daughter what those were. Good luck with that. In another decade or so, I recently read somewhere, kids may even be watching videos on command from an information chip implanted in their skulls. Personally, I find that thought to be a bit frightening. Give me the Stone Age nuisance of rewinding Beauty and the Beast any old day.
Since we’re on this subject, I can’t possibly leave out “Ugga-Bugga” the Bedtime Monster and his beloved (if now woefully politically incorrect) bathroom sidekick “Chinese Washy-Hair Guy” who would make you and your big sister disappear under clouds of tear-free shampoo as you splashed in our huge Portuguese claw-foot bathtub, provoking gales of lovely terrified laughter. Bath time was always something of a three-ring circus at our house.
Gosh, how I miss those wild and crazy guys. They brought out primal screams of pure joy in you both, and maybe the best in me.
Of course, the very mention of their names may embarrass you now, college boy. You have places to go and important people to see, a journalism career to get started, an interesting life to live. Fortunately, we have plenty of evidence from your early formative years in the form of scrapbook photos that prove all this silliness really did happen, including the dogs you grew up with and the Whiffle Ball games on the summer lawn, the Halloween parades, Christmas snow, your first hockey game, your last toothless grin. You name it, we covered it. I miss it.
One thing your mama and I agreed upon early in our married life, see, even before you and your big sister came along, was that the best thing we could possibly give our children was a childhood filled with happy memories and joy in the small and passing things of life, so that when your grown-up life and career present trials and speed bumps — as they certainly will – you would have something reassuring to fall back on, if only to remind you of where you come from – and that love and laughter are, in fact, two of the most useful tools for navigating the universe.
You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to know that a good laugh – especially at yourself – is powerful medicine, a cure for just about anything that ails you. A good laugh releases the soul from the shackles of disappointment and helps you keep a proper perspective. From this point forward, college boy, nothing of lasting value will ever come without a mighty struggle of some sort and even a major failure or two. That’s okay. No pain, no gain. You’ll learn more from honest failure, oddly enough, than any easy triumph. Just keep a sense of humor about it all and you’ll be fine.
Besides, the really funny thing is – and I’ll wager no professor dared to tell you this in college – there really is no such thing as failure. It’s only the universe’s way of sending you down a better path or teaching you the value of revising the project until you get it right.
For the record, old Albert also noted that there are really only two ways to live your life. The first is as if there is no such thing as a miracle. The other way is as though everything is a miracle. Eighty years ago this week, Einstein also told a reporter from the New York Times that only a life lived in service to others is a truly worthwhile life, and that the most beautiful experience one can have is the mystery of life itself.
Smart dude. Could have used a good barber, though. I guess it’s all relative.
Anyway, now that you’re officially a college graduate, seasoned world traveler and a scholar to boot, not to mention a promising filmmaker who has movingly chronicled poverty in India and vanishing rain forests in Sri Lanka, I guess I’d better quit calling you Nibs, the name I gave you from the Lost Boys of Peter Pan the summer you and I set off to try and see the wonders of the world like a pair of eighth graders on the lam.
As you may recall, just about everything that could go wrong on that trip did so. But didn’t we have the time of our lives? (If nothing else, it gave me my funniest book.) Moreover, it illustrated my point nicely, methinks, about the illusion of failure – namely that sometimes all our well-made plans and firm expectations come to a dead-end or at least take a sudden and inexplicable turn in another direction, usually something better. The truth is, you’ll probably never see the thing or person who changes your life coming, which I’m guessing is exactly the way God intends it. He works well with surprises.
You dream big and clearly work hard, dear boy. But please stay flexible, and always have a decent Plan B in your pocket. As your late grandfather used to say to me, quoting some long-forgotten sage, remember that it’s a wise man who keeps his child’s heart.
Leave room for being awed.
Being no Einstein, my prediction is that you’re going to do just fine out here in this wild and uncertain world. These are strange and difficult times, for sure, but the world has always been a challenging place and that’s when we human beings often do our best work — when the chips are really down.
Bottom line, Nibs: Have faith in yourself and believe in something larger than yourself and you’ll do splendidly. Things will take care of themselves. The right people will magically appear in your path, unexpected doors will open. You just need to have the courage to walk through them when the moment is right.
Listen to me – going on like I’m a regular Albert Einstein or something.
A few more bits before I let you go, old travel pal: You are a college graduate now but your real education is just beginning. Enjoy the blazes out of it, grab the reins and run hard, love deep and follow your heart. Go save the world. Just don’t forget to phone your mom and grandmother on Sunday nights.
As for me, well, I’m going to sorely miss the drive up that winding country road to see you at college and take you and your pals to supper. What an unexpected blessing that was. But it gives me deep comfort and pride to know that you are out there somewhere making a difference, and making a fine life in the process.
So, truth be told, you’re anything but a Lost Boy, son. You’re a damn good man who has found his way.
Besides, I still have Pete and Charlie, Ugga-Bugga and Chinese Washy-Hair Guy to keep me company in my happy dotage until perhaps some grandchildren come along.
As I watch you go, memories of those four old beloved characters – the disreputable wild things from your woodland boyhood — never fail make me to laugh.
Oh, how I loved them – and you, Jack.