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Our Neighbor Knew How to Live Life Rare
When asked what I mean by living a rare life, there's no better example than Ralph Dawson
What do I mean when I talk about living a rare life? I found some examples this week in my neighbor’s gorgeous azalea blooms.
Someone asked me recently after reading this newsletter, “Do you really think everyone has the opportunity to live a rare life?” The implied thought was that sure, someone living with a rare disease is forced to evaluate their lives in light of their circumstances and make conscious decisions to craft a new way of being present on this earth. But is it realistic for the average person to take a bold approach to experiencing life, love, family, work, and all the things that enrich us?
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That caused me to think, and is one of the reasons I reworked the About page to include some clarifying language:
Live Life Rare is more than a publication title. It’s a mantra. A call to action. A rallying cry for a community of people who want to create a life for themselves that is richer, more fulfilling, and more giving than what the world tells us a good life is all about.
You can live a creative life, a life marked by intention, by purpose, and by your definition of abundance. This newsletter’s intent is to help you step out of the ruts of the daily grind; to remove yourself from the raging streams of bias, grievances, polarity, and conformity that are tied to the supposedly “unavoidable” and “inescapable” traps that too often appear to be the only way to live a modern life; and to discover and pursue what a rare life means to you.
Visit that page to read more about how I was a dead fish floating downstream …
Back to the azaleas. As I drove past my neighbor’s house earlier this week, my eyes were drawn to the beautiful Encore azaleas blooming in his front yard. Ralph Dawson passed away in 2014, but his family and neighbors are reminded of his life every day through so many things, including the trees and shrubs he planted that transformed his place from a wild wooded area to an inviting showcase.
A rare life indeed
I was still a few months away from being diagnosed with myasthenia gravis when Ralph passed away. My journey to understanding the concept of living a rare life had barely begun. But looking back, I realize few people I’ve had the honor of knowing better exemplified the concept of a rare life than Ralph Dawson.
Ralph had many jobs, including a stint at General Electric. He was an instructor at our local technical and vocational school. He oversaw maintenance for our county school system. And there were always side hustles. For example, Ralph was known region-wide for his Christmas tree farm. Folks came from miles around each year to traverse his acres in search of just the right tree for the center of their family’s holiday decor. Michele and I took our kids when they were small, years before we’d move next door to Ralph.
I’ll always believe that making a side income was just a small part of why Ralph had the farm. His love of people is what drove him. Meeting those who visited the farm and helping them find the perfect tree was what he enjoyed most. It made him beam inside to know that his efforts throughout the year to groom the trees and work the farm helped bring people happiness during Christmas.
By the time we became neighbors, the farm had ceased operations. But Ralph had many other projects in his head. He loved stonework. In fact, I can drive around our area and still see homes whose exteriors were covered in flat stone by Ralph and a helper or two decades ago (another side hustle). In his later years, his stone of choice became much smaller, working in his shop on intricate designs for projects such as mailboxes. One of our favorite gifts from Ralph (and there were many from this kind and giving human being) is the mailbox and flower box he fashioned from stone and assembled for us. The huge rock that serves as the post? He used his tractor and a chain to fish it out of the creek that runs behind our homes.
A love of nature
He was fascinated with rock and all it could be used for. And the plant kingdom brought him great joy, from planting to pruning. But the animal kingdom was of particular interest to Ralph. He was one of the first people to bring black labs to our region decades ago. He could train a retriever to hunt — and he could train one to be practically human. From the time we became neighbors, I was amazed at Joy (aptly named), his black lab who behaved better than our kids. She could understand the most understated, nuanced commands he’d give, and was devoted to him until the end.
He enjoyed watching the wildlife that crossed our properties, including the deer and fox. What he loved more than those, however, was his fish. Ralph built a pond and stocked it with a few species, and looked forward to feeding time. But it was the fish in the creek that brought him the most pleasure. There’s a flat, shallow area in the creek behind his home that is perfect for fish beds. When the fish were spawning, you could watch them hovering over their beds, fins swaying back and forth.
One day Ralph drove up on his golf cart and slapped the passenger seat. This was the familiar sign that he had something to show me. We rode down the slope to the creek below and stopped just short of the bank. As Ralph walked close to the creek’s edge, I realized I was in the presence of a modern-day Noah. Fish came swimming toward Ralph from all the way across the creek. Scores of them. Maybe hundreds. Their master had arrived. He scooped from a container and scattered some food across the shallows for them, a healthy supplement to their natural diet. They were grateful, and expressed it.
More than anything, Ralph loved his family. His wife, whom he cared for until her passing in 2011, was his treasure. His children, grandchildren, and great-grands were his pride and joy. Spending time with them at the creek, among the azaleas, and around the table was what he treasured most.
Ralph’s family extended beyond blood. We were neighbors, so we were family, too. The countless friends he’d made through all his adventures were counted among family as well. He’d often tell me stories of cookouts supporting the local high school football team, of trips south to go deep-sea fishing with buddies, and of other activities involving dogs and the great outdoors. These forged bonds that lasted his entire life.
Rare, but not inaccessible
Some would look at Ralph’s life and say, “Not everyone can live like that.” I’d edit that to say, “Not everyone chooses to live like that.” I see now that Ralph made choices throughout his life. He chose abundance over mediocrity. He chose to live with intent instead of floating along passively. He chose to live large with love for his fellow man and God’s creation as driving motives for how he spent his time. After all, he had the same number of hours in a day that you and I have.
And his testimony remains. Not only do we have wonderful memories of Ralph as our neighbor, but we drive past his azaleas and still enjoy their beauty when they bloom. We pull our mail from the mailbox and remember his kindness. We drive under a canopy of trees that line the driveway we shared and imagine a much younger Ralph who planted them long before we moved here, not thinking about a time when he’d be gone and we’d be taking our grandson’s photo underneath them.
Ralph lived in such a way as to leave a legacy. He enjoyed creation even as he interacted with it and shaped it into something beautiful, a lasting gift to us all. He loved large, and forged wonderful memories with so many who knew him.
Ralph Dawson lived a rare life.
I think Ralph’s story is the best way I can describe what it means to “discover and pursue what a rare life means to you.” Your version may not include dogs and azaleas and grateful fish, but if you’ll take some time reflecting you will find those things — big and small — that, when given attention, can lead you to a life beyond the mundane.
What does a rare life mean to you? Leave a note in the comments, I’d love to read your story.
Do you know someone who wants to discover and pursue what a rare life means to them? Please pass along this newsletter. We’ll continue to encourage one another as we grow this community.