Monday, August 09, 2010

The Life of a Book

As much as I'd like to have written a book that one might consider timeless, I haven't quite yetachieved that goal. Although my first book is still on shelves and selling well nearly nine years after its debut, another title is reaching its sunset. Life Maps will be retired in the coming months. The good news is that it will be rereleased as a new and revised edition next Spring, so although I'm a bit sad, I'm also delighted the content will get a second chance under a new cover and marketing plan. For your enjoyment, I'm posting the original introduction to Life Maps: Simple Directions for Finding Your Way:

Over the years I have had the delight of watching my daughter, Meagan Katherine, reach many milestones. I will never forget the first time she called me “Daddy,” her first steps, and when she became potty trained. Her words “I can do it” were spoken with insistence; she wanted the chance to accomplish by herself whatever the task at hand. I was thrilled to see my little girl growing up, yet also happy that she still wanted to hold my hand, ride on my back, and give me kisses.

As these early years passed and she continued to grow, other milestones approached and new tasks required mastery. Some I could just demonstrate for her, like how to tie her shoes, buckle her seatbelt, and use the microwave oven. Others required a bit of practice and explanation, as when she wanted to make her own scrambled eggs, shuffle a deck of cards, and later, use a computer. As my daughter grew up and became more independent and less willing to turn to me for what she wanted and needed, I began to feel the sting of loss. Too soon it seemed I was no longer needed to read her to sleep, walk her to class, or help her with her homework. All too quickly she entered her preteen and then teenage years. I knew other milestones were ahead and new life tasks would challenge her, but by now she had begun to turn more often to her mother for guidance, and I struggled to find a place in her life.

One afternoon while visiting my parents, who live on a remote country road, Meagan and I went for a drive. She was at the wheel. She had been driving in open fields for two years by then, an activity meant to give her as much driving experience as possible before she set out by herself, without Dad by her side to make sure she was safe. On this day I unexpectedly found myself requesting that my young driver turn off the familiar road and onto an unfamiliar one——and then another and another.

Soon she had driven much farther than she ever had before. She was frightened when she first pulled into traffic but smiled eagerly at the same time. She listened intently as I gave instructions and advice, following my directions without complaint or rebuttal. She beamed at me when I praised her as she skillfully negotiated the roadway. Under my tutelage she was learning something new. It reminded me of earlier times. I knew something she wanted to know, and she needed my help to master it; she needed me.

I decided that afternoon that driving was the bridge I needed to reach out to my daughter again, to have the occasion to spend time with her in the way that I missed, having fun together, laughing large, and teaching her something that would prepare her for the day when she would set out on her own. For the next three years we practiced driving every chance we got——driving in the rain, after sunset, practicing parking and hard braking, and learning how to intuit other drivers’ moves. I helped her study for the learner’s permit test. I was with her when she took it, and tried to calm her nerves as we waited for her results. A great sense of accomplishment came over me when she proudly held her permit up for me to see, and in that moment I was where I wanted to be, in her favor, basking in the warmth of her smile.

Meagan now drives nearly every time we get in the car. It was on one of our first extended drives that the need arose for teaching her about road maps. We were taking my eleven-year-old stepdaughter, Linley, to summer camp, and I did not know the way. I spread a state map out on the dining room table and proceeded with Meagan at my side to find a route. We began by looking up our destination in the index, then followed the grid lines to pinpoint it on the map. Once located, we surveyed the various roads we could take from our home to that tiny dot. We settled on a route that included city streets, interstate highways, two-lane mountain roads, and finally a winding dirt road. We chose an alternate route for coming back, one that would wind through the countryside, taking us through little town after little town and eventually home. Meagan was excited; it would be the longest time she had ever been behind the wheel.

The morning of our departure arrived. The girls and I rose early and had breakfast at a local diner before heading toward the mountains. Linley got some extra sleep in the backseat while I navigated for Meagan. For the next three hours she and I followed the directions we had written down. I helped her recognize the landmarks we were looking for, coached her on keeping up with the distance between turns, and taught her that even-numbered interstates ran east-west while odd-numbered ones ran north-south. Suddenly she asked me what to do if she ever got lost. I reminded her of her cell phone, and then opened the glove box to show her the road maps I keep tucked away in there.

The three of us embraced before leaving Linley at camp, and then Meagan and I set out on our return route home. We listened to music, drove with the windows down, had lunch at a roadside barbeque joint, and stopped to shop at an old country store, complete with a few old men in overalls sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch. We were having fun. Once back on the road we encountered a detour and had to refer to our map again. We selected a new route for the last leg home and continued on our journey.

As Meagan drove she remarked once more that she worried about becoming lost, that she needed to practice using a map. I realized then that I had less than a year to teach my child all I wanted her to know before she became fully licensed and able to drive off without me alongside to help her find her way. I imagined her going into the world alone, driving to her first job, leaving for college, going on road trips with friends between semesters, hoping she would not lose her way. I thought of all the things I wanted to warn her about, the things I wanted to make sure she could handle, and the many other life tasks she would need to master on her own one day.

As I looked out of the car window, the old sting of loss and worry about her eventual departure came back to me. I know I have to let my child go. I cannot keep her under my wing, not that she would she let me. Yet I asked myself, how do I let my daughter go before I am certain she is ready for what she will face? How do I prepare my stepdaughter, Linley? I thought of Meagan’s fear of becoming lost and my own fear of her losing her way. I suddenly wanted to write down some directions for driving, even for living, and stuff them into the folds of the maps in the glove box. I smiled as I imagined her pulling off the road one day to refer to a map, unfolding it and my hand-scribbled notes falling into her lap. “Don’t drive too fast,” “Follow at a safe distance,” “Keep a diary,” “Laugh often,” and “Come home now and then,” they would say.

In that moment the idea of this book came to me. Better a book than random notes in the glove box, I thought, because she could keep a book at her desk, on her nightstand, in her briefcase, or anywhere else close at hand, ready and waiting for her when she wants to reminisce about what we have done together, when she wants to know how much I care about her, or when she needs a hug and I am not near enough to give it to her.

And so here it is, this book that might have been notes tucked away in a road map, a collection of fatherly advice and directions for living a wonderful life, offered with love to my little girls. Meagan, I hope you will read it when you get lost, when you just want to reassure yourself of where you are going, and when you miss me. And Linley, put your shoes on; we are going for a drive. You take the wheel.

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