I received an interesting email today. It was from a young man named Hayden who lives in Oregon. He is in the fifth grade and is doing a presentation on Chief Joseph. He wanted to know if I had any photos or stories or other materials I could give him.
Such requests are a challenge, because you cannot fulfill them all, but you do not want to turn away good hearted people who see something of value in making contact with you. And when the person reaching out to you is a fifth grader, you have a chance to touch his life in a significant way.
I still have a short note sent to me by Norman Mailer back in the early seventies when I wrote him from Stanford asking if I could come and work with him. It seems so breathtakingly naive now; what I would have done with him, I don’t know. But I was a young man in turmoil, and for reasons I cannot remember, he was the person to whom I reached out in hopes of some escape from a life that seemed to be strangling something inside of me.
His note was brief. But I still remember his last line. “Write more than you have been writing.” I’m sure it was just a way to finish the response. But to me, so desperate for meaning and direction, it became something of a creative beacon: if Norman Mailer said I should be writing more than I had been writing, then I should be writing more than I had been writing.
And I did. His words became the rudder in the choppy seas of my confused twenty-something life.
I never forgot him.
It is a humbling experience to have a young person reach out to you for advice or assistance, whatever your role or status in life. It means they are open to your wisdom and your counsel. In that brief encounter, you can shape a life.
We all get these opportunities, though not frequently. When they do come, they often do so in a clumsy or inarticulate fashion, because the young person who is reaching out has invested so much in the reaching that he or she does not do it with grace. Fumbling words, inappropriate requests, too constant a presence, a transparent attempt to seem worldly or knowledgeable — these are only a few of the ways this hopeful reaching for help and insight can express itself.
We need to see past these clumsy efforts when a young person reaches out to us for assistance. We need to stop what we’re doing, open our hearts and ears, and hear what a hungry heart is asking of us.
Young Hayden has in no fashion been clumsy and inappropriate. In fact, he has been mature beyond his years. But it would be easy for me to pass him by in the rush of my own life if I don’t acknowledge that this, like my reaching out to Norman Mailer, is a gesture of hope and respect, and a request for direction.
I hope I can do something of value for young Hayden. I will do my best.
This is my moment, and the memory of Norman Mailer’s kind response echoes in my heart.