As I write this morning, the sun is just beginning to splash through the mossy branches that festoon the firs surrounding my house. When I woke up at 4 am, the partial spring moon was painting soft blue shadows on the tile floor of my still-new-to-me kitchen. After a quick drink of water, I crawled back in to my four poster for my morning prayer.
It’s much the same every day, whether I wake up in a tent on the Western Mongolian plains, in a hostel in New South Wales, or, well, wherever. The deck of a ship slipping through the turquoise waters of Indonesia, or a sugar sand beach in Thailand.
I am immensely grateful to wake up. At 68, I am at that point where each day is a genuine gift, no matter what it brings.
The ability to be thankful for life’s ugliness as much as for what uplifts us is one lesson that I learned from certain characters which came to life via the talented imagination of Larry McMurtry. The author rode into his own Western sunset this past week at 84.
For those unfamiliar with McMurtry, he penned the Pulitzer-Prize winning Lonesome Dove, along with Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show. You can find a lovely writeup about McMurtry here. The miniseries, in an homage to McMurtry’s passing, is on in the background right now.
What on earth does this have to do with prayer? Stay with me here.
I am not a religious person, but I do have a great deal of faith. That faith is bolstered by having been through my fair share of ugliness, and having had it teach me appreciation not only for life but for the lows that help define the highs. McMurtry’s magnificent characters, the most beloved for many of us being Dove’s Augustus McCrae, speak to this kind of acknowledgement in his novels and on the screen.
One popular YouTube video shows Augustus, acted with immortal grace by Robert Duvall, comforting the prostitute Lorie, who is frustrated that she can’t get to San Francisco. His words, which are often quoted but so rarely ever lived, especially in these times:
“Lorie darlin’, life in San Francisco, you see, is still just life. If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”
Fans of McMurtry’s work universally love McCrae’s folk wisdom.
For those of us who sat out quarantine to be safe, who cocooned this past year, somewhere else might have seemed like a wonderful place to be. It was for many of us a pretty intense version of the grass appearing greener, anywhere other than where we are right now.
Past 60, we already know that. That’s perhaps among the greatest of all gifts of age, the power of perspective. The aging McCrae’s view of life, his humorous view of opportunities lost, women loved and the fast-changing West he treasures are lessons in being in life as it is, rather than how we might want it to be.
McCrae has regrets, but he doesn’t miss the chance to be fully in life every moment. Whether that’s a sip of whiskey or chasing buffalo, for Gus, it’s all just life.
“It’s not dyin’ I’m talking about,” he barks at his partner Woodrow Call. That’s precisely the point. Even if we were quarantined, we were still alive. More than half a million people in America alone aren’t, just from Covid. That I wake up each day at all is, to me, something of a miracle. And that’s why I am so grateful for the time to make what I can of the hours I am given.
Being in my new house in Eugene, with all the quirks and demands and costs and challenges that this new place puts on me to get it set up and made my own, is part of what I am so grateful for. I missed heading to Mongolia last year. I miss my travel. I miss a great many things.
But that time has allowed me to settle in, find work that needed doing, hire crews, do repairs, concentrate on writing, getting back in shape and a great many other wonderful things that a busy year of travel would have prevented.
McMurtry’s achingly beautiful prose spoke to the terrible losses, heartbreaks and adventures of the 19th century West, which are as true now as any time. Those losses and heartbreaks and adventures simply wear different faces a century and a half later, but they are no less intense, nor any less worthy of our tears and our joy.
What we forget, I think, is that we are characters in our own lifelong novels. What indelible stories we can leave behind, the imprints we make on others’ lives, the way what we say and how we live touch so many others in ways we can’t possibly imagine. In living well, all day every day, embracing the path we’re on as much as the times we fall off it into the brambles.
For the brambles, and the blood they draw, are simply reminders that we are indeed, very much still alive.
Are you inspired by any particular character? Are there literary examples of people whose lives gave you the heart to keep going no matter what? Please share your favorite characters and how they touched you life!