Hope Springs…Somewhere

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Happy New Year. 

Yes, period. Sorry, but exclamation points don’t seem in order. This turning of the year is a bit too much like déjà vu to celebrate. I think you know what I’m talking about.  

“2021 can only be better,” we said. “2020 was the worst!” We claimed the same for other years in recent memory, for reasons I can’t recall now. 

No doubt the residual effects of this pandemic are wearing on us all. Whether you’re the type who wants to act like nothing’s wrong, or the type who’s had it up to here with the nothing’s-wrong folks, your blood pressure is probably prone to spiking. If not, I’d wonder about you a little. 

As for me, I’ve had a tough time carrying on with “normal” lately. That comes and goes, of course, pandemic notwithstanding. For a time, the world has lost its luster. It kinda sucks. 

The irony is that this last year has been pretty good to me, at least as a writer. I feel like my career is really building up some steam. 

I began writing for my local newspaper in June, and a friend of mine helped me snag a regular column with the Mankato Free Press (my hometown!) in September. It’s been refreshing to have regular outlets, rather than having to scrape to find a home for every single thing I want to write. Meanwhile, magazine pieces keep going out the door. And it seems like fewer people are treating me like a nobody, which is perhaps one of the best signs. 

The latest issue of Minnesota Conservation Volunteer came out about a week ago, with the first big feature I’ve written for them. It was in the works for most of the year. I stacked up countless hours and hundreds of miles on the road in bringing that project to fruition. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done (read it to find out why), and the payday was my best ever— even eclipsing every singing gig I’ve ever done. 

From the beginning and all along the way, I expected to be on cloud nine when that issue came out. I imagined dancing at the mailbox with fireworks exploding overhead. 

When it arrived, however, I felt nothing. I opened the issue and paged through, as if only to verify it was true, and set it down. No cheering, no champagne, no warm fuzzies. 

That void hit me really hard. 

I began to take stock of the year, to try and understand why it felt so empty. Long story short, I don’t know why. 

To this date, my family has largely been spared major impacts from the COVID-19 virus itself. My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last month. My kids are doing well in school, and my wife and I had a pretty spectacular summer with them this year. It’s not like I don’t have things in my life that should energize me or inspire gratitude. All the same, it feels like my gas tank is stuck on “E.” 

So, I rang in the New Year more or less out of obligation, with no particular sense of optimism. 

On January 2nd I received a Facebook message from an old friend. He began with “I want to share with you an experience from last week that you unknowingly influenced.” That sure got my attention.

He relayed his experience one evening when he went out alone to hunt coyotes. It sounds like he’d been frustrated by a lack of coyote sightings in the past (I can relate), and after about an hour that frustration bubbled to the surface. He said, “I muttered to myself ‘what a goose chase,’ which is when I thought of you.” 

He explained how he began to absorb his surroundings and thought about what he got from his time out that day. “It quickly turned from a frustrating evening into an enjoyable experience.” 

I’m glad I was sitting down when I read that. 

To put it bluntly, I was blindsided. My ideas and words—unbeknownst to me—had been quietly working to change his outdoor experience. Somewhere in all my ramblings here, something resonated and he took it to heart. Incredibly, I was responsible for transforming the way he interacts with the natural world. 

That realization was powerfully rewarding. I mean, I operate under the assumption that my words could have that kind of influence, but never know one way or the other. Like the time I discovered that a walnut I planted had grown into a tree that was producing nuts of its own, it’s undeniable proof that I’m not wasting my time. It’s certainly enough to feel like I can carry on. Like what I’m doing matters, even when and where I can’t see that.

Now, I never expected that a note from a guy I’ve known since Kindergarten would give me the jolt I needed to face 2022. But if that’s what it takes, I accept. 

So, Happy New Year. I hope that when you most need it, you’ll find where your hope springs.