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When I lived in New Bern, North Carolina, I was a member of the Rotary Club in that town, which at the time had a population of 17,000 people, more or less.  Each fall, just as the leaves were turning and the air was getting crisp, the Rotarians sponsored an oyster roast at a ramshackle, somewhat facetiously named “yacht club” on the banks of the Trent River.  The event was usually held in the evening, when the river was disappearing into darkness and tall trees above seemed to crowd close to the ground amid the flickering lights of our assembly.  As a child of Chesapeake Bay I should have prided myself on the ability to open an oyster with ease, but it had been years since I had shucked one when I attended my first roast in New Bern, and I was having difficulty with the task at hand.  In my frustration I forced the oyster knife harder toward the crevice between the lips of the shell, and the blade went skittering across the top, narrowly missing my fingers and upending something on the table. 

A southern gentleman standing next to me, who was opening and eating oysters at a rate of three to my one, spoke just then in a slow drawl.  “Steady,” he said, pulling four syllables out of a two-syllable word. 

He had the voice and the bearing you would expect from someone urging an angry man to hold his temper in a bar, or a rider trying to calm a nervous horse, or Stonewall Jackson telling his troops to hold their fire until the Yankees were on the bridge.  The way he said it marked him as a man of sufficient stature to instruct the younger men around him.  His manner of speech would have revealed this even if I hadn’t already known it to be true, which I did.  You heard a voice like that and just knew you were talking to the third son of the great grandson of someone whose mother married the great, great grandson of some Tar Heel who taught Andrew Jackson to play poker at Chapel Hill and beat him at the game.

I steadied myself as commanded.  It was then I realized that I was suffering from a needless sense of urgency and anxiety for which the oyster in my hand bore no regard and no responsibility.  After the man demonstrated my error in attempting to divide the two shells at the lip rather than at the hinge, I quickly evened the score between us.  I have been a menace to oysters ever since.

I sometimes hear that man’s voice at moments having nothing to do with oysters, when I need simply to steady myself.  That’s a habit fatherless children never outgrow, I suppose.  We are forever cataloging audio-visual snippets of paternal wisdom in our continuing effort to create, from our experiences over time, the filmography of fatherhood.  Today was a time when I heard that voice again.  It reminds me that when life swirls quickly and incomprehensibly around us and we seem to lose our bearings, there is danger in the reckless plan of action—in the decision to leap, to force, to push, to alter course, to fire too soon, to fight rather than to understand. 

Steady.  There is much wisdom in that one, small word.

As I was leaving my apartment on my way to work, this morning, I saw two young children standing on the street corner, book bags shouldered at the ready, waiting for the bus.  I thought about all the life-altering choices those children will make today and tomorrow and for ten thousand tomorrows to come that will shape their destiny—slowly, imperceptibly, unalterably. 

“Steady,” I wanted to say to them.  Steady, and be patient.  Choose wisely, act deliberately, and you will walk with contentment through this world.