The other day my twitter-friend PEG (@pegobry) described the Apostalic Exhortation recently published the Pope published as being “very Jesuit” and “emphasizing discernment.”
“Please tell me what discernment means in this context,” I asked.
“Loosely, “finding God’s will in your life”,” PEG replied.
Here is my sister, describing our father, who grew up a short walk from where the above photo was taken, and worked in the factory where this clock used to hang:
My father hails from Jersey City, 1930s. It was a rough place, from what I can tell. He learned to swim in the Hudson River, jumping off the docks across from New York City. His parents were Irish immigrants, neither of whom had the opportunity to complete high school. But they took raising their boys seriously, and all four became “white collar professionals” with graduate degrees or better. This is to say, they worked hard. They pushed. And each of the four children put himself in a position to have some choice.
My father’s choice was to surf. Soon as he was able, he ventured west, made certain professional and economic sacrifices, all so that, at day’s end, he could immerse himself in the cold California Pacific to catch waves. Like the surfer-musicians at San Onofre, he put oceanophilia at the center of our family life, and in so doing, adjoined our lives to a particular and burgeoning culture.
Between being a Jersey City Irish kid and moving to California my father became a Marine Corps officer and then a physician. What my sister calls “professional and economic sacrifices” I would say would be more accurately be described as his exercise of the agency his parents made efforts to ensure he would have. (A little research and playing around with an online inflation calculator suggests that when my father worker in public health he was paid about the same relative to median income as the well-paid teachers at our local elementary school.) We never wanted for anything, my father was always home early enough to play football with me in the street in front of our house, or catch a few hours of surf at Wind-n-Sea. It wasn’t until I was well into high school, when we moved from La Jolla CA to Ashland OR and my father went into private practice, that I experienced the (apparently common) phenomena of dad not being home for dinner because of a professional obligation. (A situation that is the rule, rather than the exception in my present line of work.)
La Jolla of 1970s was a long way away from Jersey City of the 1930s and 40s. It did not have the glitz and swank it has now (wealth was not so internationalized) but it was vastly more affluent than the world my father came from. My father used to regularly threaten to send me to the Imperial Valley to “pick lettuce with Caesar Chavez.” This was not threatened as punishment, but as a (possibly) needed corrective to the danger that growing up in La Jollla might give me a warped view of how people lived their lives.
But my father would also tell me, “David, you’re going to have to wake up every day and do something to earn a living. It will be easier if it’s something you enjoy.”
And somewhere between these two messages I came to understand that I had been born to great wealth; not so much in material wealth, but in circumstantial wealth; that it would have been impossible for my father’s 10 year-old self to imagine raising his own son, not in an Irish ghetto a few blocks away from the murky waters of the Jersey City waterfront, but in “the land of the lotus eaters” (that’s what my parents called La Jolla), a block from some of the best surf in the continental United States, and with the whole world of possibilities laid out before him; and that because I had been born to this great and accidental wealth I had an obligation to myself, to my grandparents, and in some cosmic way, to those who toiled without the same benefit of good fortune that had obviously blessed our family, to take make good use of the advantages to which I was born, and make a good life for myself.
Writing about Dick Cheney’s heart pump back in 2010, James Fallows said this:
We all know the cliche about people who switch from youthful idealism to mid-life flinty-mindedness. One version goes, If you’re not a socialist in your twenties, you have no heart; if you’re not a capitalist in your forties, you have no mind. I think there’s an important addition: If you’re not a humanist in your seventies, you have no soul.
It doesn’t always happen, but we celebrate the examples when it does. The elderly warriors who become peacemakers. The tycoons who become philanthropists. The schemers and narcissists who become conciliators and mentors. If the twenties-to-forties shift reflects a growing awareness of life’s hard realities, the later shift reflects an understanding of life’s tragedies and unfairnesses and humanity’s shared risks and hopes. Think of Ebeneezer Scrooge’s last-minute conversion in A Christmas Carol.
My wife notes in me a certain restless sense of purpose, and she doesn’t think I am always well-served by it. She notes that I seem to think that I am “supposed to do something special with my life,” and that sometimes that makes me impatient and intollerant with the mundane realities of life.
I don’t disagree, but I think her assessment is incomplete.
In the Spring of 1992 it was becoming clear that it was time for me to leave my mentor’s studio and strike out on my own. To that end David Loveall and I went down to the studio on a Saturday and took every single piece of gear off the storage racks and then one-by-one put pieces away in our attempt to formulate the absolutely smallest kit that I could hope to have and still be able to execute assignments with a modicum of aplomb. The result of this exercise is that in short order I went from being a foot-loose, care-free photo-assistant with about $5,000 in savings and who spent his off days kayaking, climbing, or fishing, to an unemployed freelance photographer who was about $17,000 in debt, with no savings, and barely enough photo gear to hope to service the debt, let alone make a living.
In the midst of this transition my father sent me a copy of North Shore Chronicles, a book that told the story of the renaissance of big wave surfing. The front piece of the book had an inscription:
“A life spent surfing big waves would not be wasted. — Dad”
Below is one of my father’s best-liked paintings. I don’t know if he likes it best, but everyone who sees it seems to react to it strongly and positively. If I recall the story correctly, it’s based on a dog or the dogs that my father saw on his not-very-successful attempt to find waves along the portion of the Oaxacan coastline known as “the Mexican Pipeline.” This was sometime in the 80s or 90s, after he was in private practice, and there was money for these sorts of adventures, but still well before accurate wave forecasting and cheap airline flights had enabled reliable fly-in surf-tourism, and he came home with much more vivid memories of the dogs he saw than of the waves he surfed. My father’s talent for scaring away fish, or game, or waves, or any other weather dependent phenomena required to fully enjoy these sorts of outdoor activities is something of a family legend.