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The One Thing We Can Take with Us

What matters most in the end?

Aren’t we told it’s who and what we’ve loved most–our relationships and the beliefs and ideas we held most sacred?

I’ve been told these are the only things that truly matter when we come to the end of our days–it’s about the people we’ve invested in, and the insights and values we carry. These are somehow our only true “possessions.” They make us who we are and will define the life we lived.

So our job now is to let these become the most important things to us.

It’s what we learn from the dying. All my great grandparents are gone now, and my grandpas too. One grandma died a few years ago, and not long after, my aunt, from a brain tumor. I’ve watched people die—mostly old, but some young friends too. And it’s always easier when they know their people are there and their stories are known, held and kept. They know they can leave because their people will live on. And their stories and the ideas they loved will be carried with them.

IMG_3960I remember earlier this year, I found the amazing book of John Steinbeck’s journals he kept while writing The Grapes of Wrath. And in them I found this quote:

“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”

Finding it, I felt something in me shift. I’d always believed it before but never heard it articulated. Somehow, Steinbeck called it out and gave it language, and the truth emerged. One of my favorite writers, Walt Wangerin, says the deepest things that are true lie dormant in us and must be brought out of the wilderness through defining them and speaking them so they can pass into the promised land of reality.

Fact: this discovery of what we need when we need it in our lives is determined, guided and led by Providence. But do we realize this, that we don’t make anything arrive before its time? We can make opportunities for these things to come to life in us. But mostly, we can merely wait and watch, prepare and stay ready.

And this is the primary message of Advent.

IMG_3839I was thinking of exactly none of this when I accepted this job as a seeker of stories. I worked on my first books and sought the appropriate skills—observation, psychology, logic, efficiency, insight. But still I didn’t think it was that important. It was just another job–everyone has one, right?

I didn’t remember that Steinbeck quote, that this job was the most important thing in the world to me. But it is. It’s what I was made to do. To see these things and bring them out of the silent places—in myself and in others—yes, some part of me knew.

We must believe that this work we’re doing is the most important thing in the world, or we’ll never have the dynamic, creative energy we need to crest this hill.

IMG_3853I used to believe exploring my past, mining my own backstory to write about the things I believe, it was only my thing, my own occupation. I was just a different kind of worker.

But the truth is, everyone needs writers—every child, every woman, every man—to bring out these hidden truths that lie dormant in us and help them live what truly matters in life. Writers have all got to work hard at this occupation—for the glory of people and our most cherished beliefs and ideas. To fight to ignore all the distractions and take the time to share our stories and unpack their meaning and messages, this isn’t just another job. It’s the most important job in the world!

Because if we don’t do this, we will suffer, and our family and friends will suffer. And how else will we know love in the end unless we commit to our task and mine the stories?

If we abandon the stories, we all end up alone.

IMG_3815Whatever it takes, we’ve got to make space in life for the work, this occupation of ours that defines what really matters. Opposition doesn’t matter. The time it takes doesn’t matter. And it’s always better to have loved enough to try and to fail than to never have tried at all.

Surely you already know that.

Because in the end, as a writer, that is the love you get to show—to the people and our most important shared beliefs and ideas.

Ellie's concert smile

photos of Ellie’s first symphony by Dan Silva

It is the one thing we can take with us.


For the wonder of this work and the higher purpose of it all,



8 Responses to “The One Thing We Can Take with Us”

  1. Dave Brisbin says:

    Really nice, Mick. Thanks for putting it in words. I remember my lit professor in college saying that a writer is not someone who writes, but someone who see connections in life that others miss and so has something to say. I think that’s what you and Steinbeck are saying too, yes? Keeps me going as well. Love you, buddy. Happy Christmas. And I hope those were pics of your family…beautiful.

    • Mick says:

      Thanks, Dave. We are two peas in a pod. Thanks for the kind words–love and miss you too, friend. Happy Christmas! And yes, that’s my family at Ellie’s performance, captured by my bro.

  2. suzee branch says:

    MICK! you look older! and that’s what you’ve been waiting for or so you told me once. you said you needed to get older to have more experiences to write about so congratulations. you may be the only person i know who will take this as a compliment. ha ha! and it’s a beauoooootiful post, dahling.
    suzee B

    • Mick says:

      Ha! The graying, receding hairline, the holiday pounds… Every little bit helps, I think. Hoping I’ll be respectable soon! Thanks, my friend. So glad you see it! :) And so appreciate your encouragement. Love and miss you.

  3. Chris Malkemes says:

    Mick. Good words from a good heart. Have you ever visited a grave site (especially old one from Civil War or in the front of a small town church in South Carolina or, even better, an old Jewish burial ground? I have and it is an eye opener. As a “story catcher” I grieve for the stories lost, the wisdom buried and the beauty of yesterday. Thanks for the reminder we all have something important to leave behind.

    • Mick says:

      Thank you, Chris! Great thought–I love graveyards. I’ve taken pictures of the one nearby…I’ll have to dig those out again. Such great stories suggested by the headstones and the lives represented. Appreciate you stopping by!

  4. Paul Burgess says:

    What will they say? What will they say as they sit around the table? What will they say when you are not there? For, some will leave first and you might be one of them. What will they say as memories are shared? What will the say about you?
    Will they talk of your love? Will they remember your kindness? Maybe tell a story of your patience with them? Will they give an account of a personal matter, something never before shared? Will they speak of your loyalty and thoughtfulness? Will they remember your sacrifices, your labors of love? What will they say about you?
    All that is left behind are memories. Everything else is spent. So, suppose you are gone, what did you leave behind? Did you leave the encouragement of your faith? Do they remember seeing Jesus in you? Was it something that touched their lives and was used by the Father in some wonderful way?
    You see, memories are living. God can use them over and over again. Memories of you can be a golden cord that our Father uses to draw your loved ones to Christ, a golden cord to pull them out of despair. So strengthen this cord while in this world and perhaps you will continue to bring others to Christ. This love that He has given, as He lived in you, can continue doing miraculous things. How amazing is He who sits upon the throne.
    I guess the only thing we can bring with us is that which we have left behind.

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