Water in the Canyon

There is a stream at the bottom of the canyon.

From my window seat, it appears to be a small creek, although I’m sure that is just the illusion of distance—we’re flying at 34,000 feet. Still, I know it is the remnants of what carved out that canyon over the course of an eon. The force that formed a deep rock formation has since been reduced to a body of water so shallow my four-year-old can probably wade across it.

I’m not sure why I keep staring at that tiny water bed. I just know that there is something in it—some thought pattern I need to follow on this four-hour flight back home to my wife and children. Thoughts often come to mind tagged with significance, the way you can flag an email as important. They fill me with an urgency to record them, expand them, poke and prod them, bring flesh to their tingling bones.

And I feel that way now, typing a word document, after two cups of coffee and a bag of peanuts the size of those bags that hold extra buttons.

Water is all but dried up in the canyon. Its role has been fully realized. Its service has been rendered. It has formed a natural majesty worthy of license plates and tourist pamphlets. It can rest in the shaded pools of canyon beds, knowing that rest is best achieved after something is accomplished. I know I’ve never slept better than after a hard day’s work.

I respect what it means to have a role.

It reminds me of a story that our principal told to start the last academic year about a man travelling in a foreign land. He sees three men, each lugging a large stone behind him one morning. When the visitor asked the first man, “What are you doing?” The man returned an angry stare and said, “I am dragging a stone.” When the traveler asked the second man what he was doing, the second man said, “I am making a living.” When the the third man dragged his stone by the traveler and the traveler asked, “What are you doing?” the man said, “I am building a cathedral.” The story was memorable enough for me to remember it two years later without internet and a half mile off the ground. Our principal used it to demonstrate the importance of habits. I find it helpful to also understand the significance of roles.

If you can accept your role, if you can be happy with what you do instead of resentful at all you don’t, you can become a part of something far greater. I’d rather be a builder of cathedrals than a hauler of stones, just like I’d rather be a voice of my generation than a writer, and a sculptor of souls rather than a teacher.

This realization is a great cause for the miracle of the mundane—if the extraordinary is only a function of the ordinary, you must approach each day, each hour, each task with reverence.

Maybe I’m thinking about roles because this weekend I was in Las Vegas to see the football team I coached for eight years play its opening game on national television.

I stepped down from coaching because my role as a father and husband was calling me home. I realized in the decision that my role on the field was replaceable. This weekend proved that. The team is doing just fine without me, as I knew they would. But my role at home cannot be replaced. I first felt this when I realized my son was at the same age I was when I created my first lifelong memory. (The poem about that realization stands as my personal favorite on this site.)

When my son was born, my mother-in-law said, “Welcome to fatherhood. Being a dad will be the greatest role in your life.” I took it as a stock sentiment then, something you say to every new father, like the way you would say, “Welcome to the first day of the rest of your life” to someone who got married or, “Welcome to your third act,” when someone retires. But I get it now. No other role is more important.

And then I spend a weekend with the team. The players, the coaches, the parents, everyone united in the single goal of achieving together what an individual never could. I was reminded that it is on the field where I feel most alive. This realization hurt. I had to watch the thing I sacrificed eight years to help build stand on its own without my help. I imagine it’s how that water in the canyon feels if such a silly thing were possible: stagnant, shadowed, looking up at the past tense of its toil. Maybe that’s why I can’t stop looking at those canyons on the flight back home.

We make thousands of decisions every day. Occasionally, a decision is significant enough that it can change the course of a life. Even more rare is when, before making the decision, you are aware of how significant the decision will be. I don’t regret for a second that I decided not to coach this year. My son’s first summer logged in long-term memory will include me teaching him how to ride a bike and taking him camping. How could I regret that?

I think there is a different reason why I can’t let these canyons go.

I am not coaching this year but I am still a coach the way water stays water whether it is rushing through a valley or sitting in a canyon. Knowing the role I play in either case allows a life of purpose, drive, and passion.

The sort of life that doesn’t regret the past, nor wishes to shut the door on it.

Today is the first full day of classes. My role as a teacher will be revved up to full speed. I will try to remember that I am shaping the future of many, not just grading papers or taking attendance. I am building a cathedral, not hauling stone.

I hope for a good academic year.

12 Responses to “Water in the Canyon

  • Fantastic perspective, Mark. I love the “tingly bones” part and the analogy of the river having done it’s job (I also laughed at the replacement button sized bag of peanuts!) But in terms of the content, it’s fair to say that it’s all perspective. The stone story, which is wonderful, illustrates that. That is where I am stuck – what is my role? I am working on it, and what stagnates it a bit is that I want something more than just dad and husband. I don’t want fame or riches (okay I’ll take riches), but something that drives me, something outside of the chores of home and the raising of boys. I have had this conversation with a mutual friend of ours who I imagine shakes his head at me as he writes to me that being a dad and husband is the greatest job I can have. I fight back saying “but I am more than that!!” and I am sure he chuckles and thinks “he’ll get it one day”. I do and I don’t. And that is why I admire your decision to step away from coaching. It means that you’ve seen something I am still missing. But who knows, I may get it sooner than later!

    Anyways, I am turning this into a therapy session about ME (we’re great at that, aren’t we??) but I wanted to say that this resonated with me, and it adds fuel to the fire of wondering where my role is in this life. We have tasks and chores, but I have learned to separate them from role. Just like you knowing the difference between marking tests and shaping souls. What a gas that is! Soul Shaper – put that on your CV or on a business card!

    Great post, dude. Loved it.

    • Thanks for that reply Paul. And I don’t mind the lengthy reflections. In fact, I love them. It’s like the meeting after the meeting. Where real conversations take place.

      Well, I don’t have it all figured out. That’s for sure. How many rejections (I’m up to near 30–not including all my prior stuff) does it take before the muse goes missing? I’m finding out the answer right now. This posted on Monday I have my first week of school and this is been rough. In the way you mentioned. Things at home are good. But I am asking that question: “what else is there?” So, I guess I just write all that to let you know that you are not alone in this thing.

      Your recent flurry of energy for these short storiesis awesome, though! I am loving seeing you come alive with that.

  • Carol Switz
    6 months ago

    I too am building a cathedral. Thank you for this post Mark, you have a way of touching the deepest parts of my heart.

  • Great post, and something I needed to hear today, which hasn’t been fantastic…which also means that I’m looking at things bass-ackwards, as is my tendency. Also, good vibes, thoughts, and prayers for a successful first day and the rest to come this year.

  • good luck with the school year and really enjoyed this post 🙂

  • I’m sorry to hear about your feelings of loss right now. Mostly I imagine it’s really good to be feeling them right now and have no doubt your life will open up and fill in. (Nature abhors a vacuum.) You’re a great father and what a wise priority to spend time with family.

    • Thank you for that kind note. I love what you wrote: “nature abhors a vacuum.” It’s been a tough week and this really cheered me up.

  • Accepting and ‘wanting’ our roles sure does make a difference. I love the stone carriers and could relate to them all at different times.

  • I love your way with words! Isn’t it wonderful how a seemingly not related thought can take you in a whole different direction of wisdom! Prayers and blessings for an awesome year!

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