(Funny story: I start column writing again next week, but a month or so ago I’d made a offhand comment to my publisher that I might write a piece around the holidays. Like most of my ideas, it immediately left my brain and hid in the basement with the exercise equipment. On Monday of this week, I got a note from above publisher, wondering if that holiday piece was ready. Whoops. Not a big deal, but feeling responsible, and already past a reasonable deadline, I grabbed an essay I’d written for The Seattle Times six years ago on New Year’s, updated a bit, and sent it in. I never heard back, but picked up a copy of the Mukilteo paper yesterday and there it was. Whether it shows up in the other publications, I have no idea, and for some reason their Web sites aren’t updated…but here it is. That was not a good time, 2003, and it would get worse before it got better, but as I’ve said before, it turns out my middle-aged hobby has been staying alive. And the engine for that is always hope. So no apologies, and happy New Year.)
Two hundred years ago, the future resided in the library of Thomas Jefferson.
Among his many passions, our third president owned the largest collection of books in the country on the Great Unknown, the American West. He shared the ancient dream of a Northwest Passage, and speculated about finding perhaps Patagonian giants or even the Lost Tribes of Israel. Who knew?
By May 1804, Congress had authorized $2,500, supplies were purchased and a crew assembled, and the Corps of Discovery set off from St. Louis up the Missouri River into history. Three centuries after Columbus, Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to discover the rest of America.
By the mid-1960s, when I was a child, the future had become a number. “The year 2000,” we called it, somehow needing to qualify it the way we do ordinary things that create awe, and we calculated our ages at the turn of the millennium. We would be adults, alive in a world of moon colonies and flying cars. We had seen the future, and it was really cool.
Where have you gone, George Jetson? When did the future stop being exciting and start giving us the willies? Maybe it was the fear and anticlimax of Y2K, and then the terror of 9-11; our computers still worked and our bank accounts were safe, but when planes fell out of the sky it was on purpose. The future has become scary, uncertain and dangerous. “Here be dragons,” the ancient warning, has moved from the map to the calendar. Whatever awaits us, it can’t be good.
Maybe that’s what we’ll call it, eventually, this decade that finally ends and moves us into the double digits of the 21st century. The Decade of Fear, maybe. Uncertainty. Worry.
Or, maybe, we’ll just think of it in numbers, because there were a lot of them. Those tricky zeroes that were supposed to shut down our digital lives. “Nine-Eleven,” which immediately became a timestamp for terror that strikes in different places and in different ways. Florida votes, body counts, housing prices, approval ratings, 401k totals, barrels of gas, rising Arctic temperatures…yeah, it’s a numbers game now, or so it seems.
And I’m not immune. I could tell you personal stories from the past 10 years and give you a lot of bad numbers.
But good ones, too, glorious ones even, and they’re enough to remind me, as they always do, that new calendars can be a lot of fun. And that if we look ahead and see only danger, it’s because we’ve forgotten that risk is our business.
The future is our Great Unknown, our undiscovered country. We are born into it, prepared for it, wary of it and powerless to do anything but head for it, incomplete maps in hand. And once a year in January, we climb a ridge and look back and then forward again, keeping an eye out for dragons and hoping for the best.
It’s easy to forget about hope. It’s easy to see cynicism as growth, as intellectual honesty, and forget that hope keeps us breathing and gets us up on cold mornings. Hope is what kept me outside on late December nights as a boy, staring at the sky and waiting for snowflakes, dreaming of a white Christmas. I lived in Arizona. I had a better chance of being hit by an asteroid, but it was the season of miracles and I was a mystic. The future was all about hope.
It still is. A new year is a do-over, and a dream. We slap on nicotine patches and nurse hangovers, we start on a diet and prepare for the spring. We’ll learn from our mistakes and hope for better days, because that’s what we do.
And I’ll be reminded of my father, who taught me something about hope. Six years ago, on his 67th birthday, at the end of an eight-month struggle with cancer, too weak to walk, he went for a drive with my brother-in-law. It was only supposed to be around the block, but Dad had other plans. “I have some Christmas shopping to do,” he said, and he did.
This was the last lesson my father taught me, to never give up hope and to always plan for the future. He died four days later, in his sleep and surrounded by family, with a present for my mother wrapped and waiting.
I’ve started to think that maybe this strong, no-nonsense man knew more about hope than any of us. Maybe the careful lists of chores he always wrote out were less about duty and more about possibilities. Maybe he thought about the unknown more than I knew.
This is what I think about, anyway, and what I thought about on that Christmas evening in 2003. I stood at the window, remembering him and Christmases past, waiting for the future, and noticing that, amazingly enough, it had started to snow.