A few weeks ago my friend, Polly, told me that she and her son, Finn, were planning to spend a few days together on silent retreat. She asked me if I would write a letter to Finn that he could read while he was there. I put it off as long as I could, wondering....what should I say? How do I sum all of this up? What might be meaningful for a teenage boy/man at this stage of his life? How do I tell him the things that are important without sounding like a preachy jerk? I thought a lot about Finn -- about how, when I was teaching at Mount Mansfield Winter Academy last ski season, where he was a student, I would see him around the school. How he always took the time to say hello and to ask me how my life was; about how lovely a human he is; how he is such a nice combination of his beautiful parents, Polly and Brad. Finn was like a ray of sunshine in an otherwise long, very cold and gray winter, and it was those memories of him, tall and smiling and kind-hearted, that I rested upon when I was thinking about what to write.
Finally, a few days before their scheduled departure, I sat down and wrote. It came out pretty quickly; I didn't think about it much. When I was done I realized that it had been a great opportunity to sum up...well, quite frankly, my life...life.
Polly and Finn...I hope you don't mind my sharing it today. And I hope you find the richness you are seeking while you are on retreat this weekend.
How great that you and your wonderful mom are taking time out of life to be still and quiet and to reflect on things. Those are really good times for figuring things out, for letting stuff bubble up. I think we’re all overloaded and overwhelmed in our lives, by being constantly, instantly in contact with one another all the time. We lose track of ourselves when we don’t take time to step away and to shut everything down.
There have been two deeply significant events in my life that, though I don’t fully understand them, really shaped my understanding of what it means to be alive.
The first happened when I was 21 and had just graduated from St. Lawrence. I was so ready to head out into the world. I had a teaching job lined-up just outside NYC and I was ready to be independent and employed. A couple of weeks after graduation, I was riding my bike home one evening and got hit by a car. The accident itself was significant in that I thought I was experiencing death. The aftermath was significant in that I learned how unbelievably great it is to be alive.
I spent the next few months in and out of the hospital, and the months after that going to rehab. But none of that really sticks with me now. All I see, when I look back, is how everyone took care of me. I learned the most important thing I’ve ever learned in my life: that I matter.
Before I got a taste of death, I didn’t think of myself as anyone particularly important or significant in the scheme of things in life.
After the accident, I was overwhelmed with an outpouring of love and care and attention. So many great things happened that, even now, thirty years later, I still get emotional thinking about it. It was as if I had had the opportunity to attend my own funeral. I couldn’t believe what I had discovered: that I mattered.
And, too, I came to believe that there were angels watching over me, helping me, wanting for my well-being.
Every single person walking this earth matters. Your life, as hard as it can be, as weird, as sad, scary, hilarious as it is on any given day, is no accident. It is absolutely no accident that Finn Simpkins is here, gracing this beautiful planet with his shining presence.
The second significant event happened on 12.21.12. It was the day everyone was predicting the world was going to end. Nate and I were driving from Charlotte to his dad’s house in Pawlet, in southern Vermont, and we drove through the whackiest weather I’ve ever seen: snow to blazing sun and blue sky to winds and rain so strong they were tearing down trees. When we arrived at his Dad’s place there was an enormous rainbow in the field behind their house. Nate and I looked at each other and said, “Are we seeing this right?” Because the rainbow appeared to be touching the ground. The end of the rainbow was right there, in the field. I grabbed my camera and ran through the rain, through all the corn stubble, toward the rainbow, and, sure enough, there it was, the colors all touching the ground right in front of me. Something hit me in that moment and, the only way I can describe it is…I let go of everything. I let go of all of my own desires and needs and wants. And I said, out loud, “My life is yours.”
Of course that sounds incredibly woo-woo, and that’s because it is. I have never been particularly religious, though I did grow up going to church. I have, however, always believed in a divine, loving force in our lives. Something larger than our human selves. And in the rainbow moment, not even really knowing what I was doing, I acknowledged that thing and decided to stop trying to be in control.
It’s the easiest and the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
It was an acceptance that I am both important and insignificant.
Important in that I am here to do good work and insignificant in that the work I do is done for the greater good and, for me, in the name of a larger life source. I call it God, but that’s just my choice.
I have come to believe, after almost 50 years here, that we are, to a large degree, here to be conduits of light and love. Your mom is one of the finest examples of this I have ever witnessed.
You will find, along the way, Finn, the things you love doing. You will find a sense of home in places you’ve never been. Pay close attention to those moments and feelings. They will point you in the direction you need to go.
For my entire life I was terrified of public speaking. I avoided it at all cost. It caused me extreme anxiety. But the first time I stood in front of a congregation in a church, I felt at peace. I felt I belonged there. And so even though it has been scary, to keep putting myself back in a place that’s new and different to me, week after week, I go. Because some mysterious and wonderful forces are drawing me there. And because a whole lot of kind-hearted people are lifting me up and cheering me on. They believe in me, and so I believe in me, and that’s how good work gets done. It’s very important that you find that tribe.
That is one of the keys, I believe, Finn. Don’t let fear hold you in a place that’s comfortable or familiar. No matter what your age. Trust that your life holds guiding forces. Understand that you matter. There has never before been a Finn Simpkins and there will never be another one. In the entire history of the world. How fantastic is that?
The final thing I would say is this: stay close to the people you love. In all of the time I have spent with people, in the hospital and hospice care, the one thing I have learned is that, in the end, at the end of our days, the thing that matters most is being with the people we love.
Enjoy your beautiful days, Finn.