Don Rogers: For Christmas, a rudder

Don Rogers
Don Rogers

What’s the best gift you can give yourself? Maybe the right words to live by.

A life by slogan, incantation, mantra, motto, a prayer? Sure, why not? Verbal bootstraps, a touchstone, inspiration.

Not for everyone, of course. Maybe not for most people. There’s a lot of appeal in being content to drift with wind and current. For that I like the “Alice in Wonderland” passage about how if you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which road you take to get there.

The reference is meant to upbraid slackers, I’m sure, but I find great wisdom in it. Especially considering my serendipitous turns, all the best things I never dreamed could happen, including the invitation out of the blue to come here.

… it’s good for us to tremble a little every now and then, having gone farther than we dared, past our boundaries and expanding what’s possible.

But alas a few of us are strivers, mostly a curse with only the occasional silver lining — glory! — so fleeting for all the pain, all that grinding along, all that ginned-up belief we’re in control, always seeing the gulf between here and the prize.

Pity the strivers. Thousands, maybe millions fail for each one who changes the world, conquers and reaps. This isn’t the nice, hopeful way to put it, only the blunt truth.

But not the whole truth. Striving can’t help but shape us, often for the better, and invite well-timed serendipity into our lives. Just be careful with what you strive for.

And so the right words, that rudder for the ship, can make all the difference.

I tend to reflect and tinker with these magic words around now. The holidays encourage us to take a breath, along with falling at the end of one year and on the brink of the next. Here’s a chance for fresh perspective.

For me, this isn’t so much about making resolutions, those vows and promises to ourselves requiring will power, mental floggings as if our souls were mules, denials great and small. Oh, I have those, too, and even keep a spreadsheet to measure progress. Pathetic, I know.

I don’t mean goals, either, or why I’m here, my grand purpose in this life, the destination I seek. I mean navigating my way through the inevitable headwinds, storms, while becalmed, when the going is easy as well as hard.

I guess I’m really talking about guiding principles for getting through the day and making progress toward that better, probably mythical me. I only wish I could be content to drift. But no, I must need to overthink, have this bone to gnaw on, these words to try living by.

This year I went for simple as possible and a progression:

First, show up.

Then, pay attention.

Then, understand.

Then, put into play.

Then, share.

And finally, suffusing all the others, have fun.

I’m focused first on No. 1, “show up.” Show up, I tell myself when I need to get to the gym, pain the only reward. Show up for the schedule I’ve resolved to follow. Show up metaphorically, show up in reality. Show up, show up. (And conversely, let go if I’m not going to show up.)

The second step and parts of the others come straight from Mary Oliver, the poet, in her “Instructions for living a life”: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”

“Understand” strays from poetry into scholarship, and “put into play” mostly comes from sports.

But “share,” at least in the way I’m thinking of it, is new territory for me, perhaps from a creeping, reluctant maturity. I’m an observer at core. I take in, try to understand and then practice what I think I’ve learned. I don’t really share. I’m a little more arm’s length than that, friendly nature aside.

Of course, we can’t help but share something of ourselves, being messy humans. But to make this more overt, intentional, that’s farther out on a spindly branch for me, trembling at least a little. But I think it’s good for us to tremble a little every now and then, having gone farther than we dared, past our boundaries and expanding what’s possible.

This sounds better looking back than in the moment. As I write, I remember paddling out decades ago on days the waves were bigger than I believed I could handle, the whole horizon humping up huge. Time has stripped out a good deal of the terror, replaced largely with wonder at a young man’s unrelenting foolishness.

Sometimes these black or blue or green but always cold behemoths were too big, and sometimes I dared trying to ride anyway, and then tried again, learning mostly that I could hold my breath long enough and stay calm while pinned down in the tumult. That I’d survive.

Eventually, my alligator arms grew long enough to start catching those waves, my legs stopped shaking so much, and I could stand, then finally, ride.

Man, that was fun. I might have whooped. I wouldn’t have been the only one, celebrating a progression I couldn’t have experienced without first saying the words, telling myself: “Go on, plunge in.”

Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at or 530-477-4299.

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