Two dreams dreamed Within my mind, One at the fore And one behind and Being unable to realize two dreams at one time, I Put my efforts into dreams Of the working man’s kind.
These dreams fulfilled, I set them down as is Tradition when you wear That stately crown of silver hair, And as I looked around I saw growing from the ground These tender shoots of That sequestered dream, And heard the sound Of the blue jay’s call, and Gazed upon the sunlight beam, And marveled at the many Dreams yet to be found.
I go by the moniker of “Pop Pop” to my grandchildren. A badge of honor I inherit from the man above. He was one of my favorite people in the world, second only to my sainted mother. I am “Pop Pop” now, and have modeled myself after the original. Here I appear, not quite “somebody” yet. The “rebel” hat one of my earliest expressions of self-directed style. I had no idea what a rebel was, really, nor the Civil War, its meaning or consequences. I named my gray cat “Rebel”. It seemed like an “intelligent” name for a gray cat. One with secondary reference, an almost double-entendre, had I known what one was. Rebels wore cool hats that didn’t look like everyone else’s hats. And they had guns over the brim. Yankees were a baseball team.
My life was vicarious then. Indeed, it was hardly “my life” at all, but an existence moving through a world that was showing me, in myriad ways, what a life may be. Perhaps what a life was expected to be. Parents taught me to mind my manners, respect elders, brush my teeth, ride a bicycle. To clean my room and clean up my grades and live a clean life without swearing or alcohol, cigarettes or drugs. To snuggle on the couch watching the embers die in the fireplace. To hold hands in crowded places. To not talk to strangers.
Teachers taught me that we are required to learn and retain every fact and date in recorded history, to read every classic novel, poem, play, short story, sonnet or opera ever penned and be prepared to discuss them eloquently. In front of an audience. That everyone must know every detailed nuance of mathematics, algebra and cost-accounting. All the basics of biology, astronomy, geography, auto shop and wood shop. To be complete one must learn to play the clarinet and square dance, join the basketball team or the chess team or the ski team, sing in the chorus, march in the band, act in the senior play.
From this maelstrom of unlimited possibility one is expected, at the tender age of seventeen, to choose a college major. A career path. The Thing that you Want To Do With Your Life.
This is the jumping off point. I would call it the jumping in point, as this is when you jump feet-first (or head-on if you were on the swim team) into that Great River of Life. It can go a lot of different ways from here. For some, which I imagine to be the rare few, most everything will sail right along in order, based on the lives they have acquired through parents, teachers, college and love. Success in well-chosen careers, a fulfilling family life, all the comforts and joy one might wish upon a fellow. Losses and pains endured in due course, we pray.
For the rest of us, we dive in and are quickly swept along by the swift and insistent current. The bends in the river often lead us to new vistas, new horizons, and our lives begin to grow. New angles of light shed deeper understanding. Experiences along the way forge our hearts and souls. Some may arrive at a comfortable or even insular place. A day-to-day routine that never changes, security in the known.
I often think of myself as having separate contiguous “lives” that strung together chronologically, but were reiterations brought about by change. Childhood is Life One. Happy as a clam at high tide, and a sponge for the world around me. Young adulthood is Life Two. When I began to discover likes and dislikes. Things I would like for myself. Things I would like to feel about myself. Things worthy of pursuit. Life Three came and went quickly, and was my brief bachelorhood. Single and working, doing as I please with my time and money. Taking up arts, playing in a band, living with house buddies in our own young adult playground.
Life Four was the biggest. Marriage, children, buying a home, building a career. Sounds simple condensed to one sentence, but it filled thirty years with bedtime stories and trips to the zoo, lawnmowing and leaf pile parties, birthdays, graduations, Thanksgivings, and thirty Christmas trees. Weddings and baby showers and trips to the emergency room. Plumbing emergencies. Heat emergencies. Broken teenage heart “emergencies”. Driving lessons and tire-changing lessons. Fishing, camping, stargazing.
Life Five slipped in through the back door when the last fledgling left the nest. Now it seemed we had drifted into a gentle eddy beneath a cedar tree. Life coursed briskly down the river beyond, but our lives became a little slower, a little simpler. There was a subtle awakening to the realization that this was a place we expected to come to, yet were almost surprised to arrive at. A melancholy nostalgia was mixed with excitement for new opportunities that may await. Slowly we grew into this life, paring down rooms of furnishings and adapting to meals for two. In many ways we had the freedoms of Life Three, to come and go as we pleased. By now it was lunch out or browsing antique stores instead of rock concerts and late nights.
We were no longer the young adults of Life Three, however. Life had taken its toll on the flesh and the spirit. We languished in the eddy at times during those years of burying parents and lifelong friends. The treadmill of the working world chasing the ethereal “someday”. The times when lunch and antiques were just not enough substance to define a life. Who are we now, to ourselves and to each other? What do we want or expect of life during this time? What is “This Time”, how long will it last? What’s next?
I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but this was an intensely introspective period of my life. Now I had no parents to hold my hand, or teacher to tell me the bell rang. No professor to grade me. There were no excuses about having no time because of work and raising kids and keeping a home and the Spring Recital and the County Fair. It had been forty years, and it felt like revisiting Life Two, when I was choosing likes and dislikes. Going back to the drawing board. Redefining the way I wanted to see and feel life. Yet it was unlike early adulthood in that the sense of invincibility had given way to the common sense of certain mortality, and in fact gave rise to the inevitable question, “How long might I have?”
I have no premonition in the matter, nor reason to believe my odds aren’t as good as (one hopes a littlebetter than) the next guy’s. It’s not so much mortality itself but the idea that the time is finite. The Great Cosmic Professor telling me I have yet to submit my final thesis. So I guess there’s a deadline after all.
Life Five vanished abruptly with the passing of my wife after thirty-nine years of marriage. This on the heels of my father’s death. It’s as if there was a void in time during this period. Like the darkness inside an egg. It was the embryo of Life Six.
Now I have hatched from my lengthy incubation. I find myself once again in the presence of this most precious gift life brings me; the chance to define myself. I rather like this gentle eddy into which I have been born, and it would be good to linger here. In fact, it’s a nice spot for a nest. I could use the peace and quiet.
I’m working on my Master’s thesis for my PhD in Life Well-Lived.
This post first appeared in 2013. Since that time, my dad has passed. My wife, too. The baby in the photo is now an effervescent 9-year-old with a 7-year-old brother. The son is living with me while the parties of the wedding in the photo sort out their divorce. Last year, Christmas came just 11 days after my wife died.
This Christmas, I am supremely grateful for every day I live, and every day I have lived prior. I feel I’ve had an easy time of it, these 62 years, and have been blessed with something of a charmed life. Perhaps it’s just an average one, or maybe below average. It is the only life I have ever known. Simply knowing a life puts me ahead of some people already.
“When you wake in the morning, give thanks for the light, for your life, for your strength. Give thanks for your food, and the joy of living. If you see no reason to give thanks, the fault lies in yourself.”
Joy to the world. Joy to you, my friends. -Paz
I had in mind to write a post called “Last Christmas”, and (not unlike some previous posts) talk about how we’d feel if we found that this had been our last Christmas. If we got the news in January or February or May, that we would not be likely to see another Christmas. Would we be pleased at the way we spent our days?
The post, however, is aboutThis Christmas. Really, this philosophy is always about “this”. This day, this month, this anniversary, this birthday, this autumn, this season. It’s not so much the old “living-in-the-now” as much as it’s carpe diem, seize the day, make your life, in this moment and the next, the life you imagined for yourself.
This Christmas bears the most special and wonderful gifts for me. More than I deserve, I am humbled.
The photo above is taken at my son’s wedding in October. That’s Ryan at the left. Next is me, beside my Dad, and this year’s Christmas gift, my new granddaughter Ellie.
It’s a rare fortune for families to be able to gather four generations together. Turning 83 in January, every Christmas with my Dad is precious, invaluable.
I’m not trying to be particularly Dickensian or dramatic, but must reveal something I usually keep to myself.
Whenever I am recounting joys and fortunes, sadnesses and hardships, there is a bar, a benchmark, that is never out of my consciousness.
For me, no matter what occurs I compare the situation. We don’t like to talk about it, but we are patrons, “Partners In Hope” they’re called, of St.Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Here, children stricken with life-threatening cancers are cared for, and research is ongoing to combat this deadly foe. Families of these children are never asked for a penny in payment. Don’t we think they have enough to deal with without monstrous medical bills?
My heart and spirit are tied with strings of tears to these children, and their families. Some of them are just babies.
I can’t single-handedly save the whole world so I searched for a place I could do my best work. What could be more important than helping to save the lives of children?
I will listen to your troubles and woes. I will console, cajole and support anyone that comes to me. I will offer opinions colored as advice if you ask.
I will feed you, I will offer you a bed in my home. I will sit silently and hold your hand.
When it comes to an assessment of our troubles—yours, mine, the next guy’s—you will be given perspective.
You see, in Memphis, I have a lot of kids. We’re not hoping they get “what they want” for Christmas.
Every day, throughout this rolling year, our hope for them is simple.
We hope they live to see This Christmas.
May the peace of the season reign in hearts everywhere, and last throughout the year.
The act of composition forces my ever-whirring mind to slow to the speed of the pen.
This time warp allows me to see and focus on thoughts, which otherwise streak past like the blurry motion of a speeding commuter train.
Composition is the station and platform from which I can read the placards on the locomotives, and correlate them to the great galactic schedule on the wall.
I slow long enough to realize how, if anyone, I am positioned squarely for such life-changing events as those currently being navigated. I have prepared for many decades a heart and spirit that look to see beyond the occasional storms, grounded in the celestial and terrestrial. At once embracing the limitless cosmos and holding the delicate sparrow in my hand.
Such things are the farthest from transitory, and will carry me home.
In the past I had likened life and time, a lifespan, my journey, to a trail. Many are the poets and songsmiths that have called it The Road. The Path it’s called in real Zen (i.e. not Armchair zen). So too, a voyage on a ship, charting one’s course, to set sail, all have found their proper places in the prosaic. These things rang true to me for my first few lives.
Similes to ships seem fitting in so many ways. One is the captain of one’s own ship, and one needs to set one’s heading and plan a destination. The boat can represent a physical body or a spiritual vessel in or on which you transit cradle to grave. It can be used to illustrate tremendous responsibility, and demonstrate what it means to let it run aground or to be asleep at the wheel. It can exemplify perspective, delineating the perimeters which should never be surrendered, simultaneously reminding us that a great wide world exists just on the other side of that thin hull. A world considerably larger and more powerful than you and your little boat. One does not sail through a hurricane. One prays through the tempest, and lives or dies at the mercy of Mother Earth and the ancient oceans from which we emerged. “The sea is so large, and my boat is so small.” There are a few other useful lessons available under the boat-driving brand of philosophy, not the least of which is (depending on what kind of boat) that under some circumstances, it is difficult or impossible to run the boat alone. (And under almost all circumstances, sailing is better with a mate or two.)
Most of the boat-speak still suits my taste. Particularly the part about the sea being several million or billion or trillion times your size. A tiny iceberg sank the infamous Titanic. I mean, it was as big as the Empire State Building, but for icebergs it was a bantamweight, and if you calculated its size as a percentage of all the glacial masses on Earth it would be a hundred zeroes followed by a one.
Now here’s where my divergence lies within these philosophical premises. The ideas about being the captain and responsible for your boat and your crew and setting your course and all that. Well, the Titanic had aboard a well-trained and skilled crew, and a seasoned captain. No knock on them. It was an accident, and that’s why we have the word. But even a full and skilled crew cannot ensure protection against every threat the world might send your way. And sailing a ship on the high seas or the great lakes or the reservoir is a deliberate act within your control. You can set a course, turn the tiller, raise the sails. You can monitor the compass and the wind. There are forces like Trade Winds and ocean currents with which you must deal, but pretty much you sail across the pond, large or small.
As my philosophies aged like cheeses and fermented like wines, I began to understand that life is much more a river than a sea. (I did sneak in a couple of good similes there.) And we don’t so much pilot a powerboat on this river, but rather sort of raft down it. Personally, I prefer to think of myself as something of a Tom Sawyer, poling my way to adventure. There are, of course, responsible adult ways to ply the river in canoes and kayaks. The point is: the river is always moving.
Yes, you can argue that there are currents in the oceans, or that there are tidal rivers which flow back and forth in opposite directions following the tides. But if you go around with that kind of attitude I bet you won’t get invited to a lot of parties at my house.
My metaphoric river carries me. If I stop paddling, I keep moving. I can zig-zag across the river. I can paddle with the current and move at twice the speed of the water’s flow. I can fall asleep, or daydream, or faint or even die I suppose and that river is just going to keep on flowing isn’t it? Now you’re not ever going to get that from a path, road, trail or anything else that you are required to follow and physically pursue.
I can rest. I can heal. I can be sick for days or go on a drunken binge and that river is going to keep right on carrying me. And whether I paddle with zeal or sprawl in a stupor, I will be brought to the places where the river chooses to flow. Brought to the places the river needs to bring me. Buoyed and wrapped in her caress, the moving water will bring me to where I need to be.
Since clearing the ice pack, we’ve had fairly good sailing to the south. Inspections revealed some considerable damage caused by being iced in, but nothing that will sink us. Moored several months for repairs, the crew was eager to be underway and have benefitted greatly from the warmer air and sunshine. Still encountering a lot of fog this far north, but currents bear us for now toward more favorable climes. It is in the hearts of the crew the greatest changes have occurred. Frozen in, there was nothing to do but pass the time, and soon they fell into their own doldrums, making the motions of the living, but with the eyes of zombies. For a considerable time after we were first underway, they were compelled to keep looking back at the sheet as if it were stalking them. It was out of sight more than a full day before the light returned to their eyes and they could finally believe that one of the longest and most arduous times of our sojourn was truly over. The following day they lingered in the galley and drank too much, and sang. It is the first in many, many months that I have heard voices lifted in song, merriment and celebration. I was moved to tears to hear their joy. “What were they celebrating?”, you may ask. Life.
Exhausted from a harrowing run down the cataracts, I sought respite in the deep sleep of the woe-worn, thankful for this broad and smooth, if swift, stretch of the river.
I woke to the sound of voices. Concern and caring from the close and the newly acquainted, inquiring as to need for rescue.
I have awakened in the levee. Sound and dry, I look to the sun and stars to determine my location. To determine how far I am along the river. Or perhaps I turn to these immortal and perpetual landmarks in space to recalibrate my sense of direction. A ponderous irony, these distant celestial objects make me feel grounded, secure. They triangulate my position on this tiny Earth with pinpoint accuracy. These life-long and eternal companions usher me along my journey, unaffected by tide or time.
Back here on Earth, however, there is some commotion ashore, and I am compelled to investigate. It is a band of those tireless workers. The nameless faces and friends joined in the communal act of shoring the levee.
A view abaft reveals the great length of river behind me, crashing in the slowest-motion imaginable, into the sharp bend. Volume and inertia and guileless will to have its way conspire against those man-made earthworks, and the water line rises with frightening rapidity. A man that reminds me of my Grampa Pete, whom I never got to know, calls out through a bright, toothy smile, sensing my anxiety at the loss of my bearings, and sudden immersion in the present circumstance.
“Don’t you worry about that levee.” his voice was deep and bellowed forth from a barrel chest hanging from broad shoulders, topped with a head dusted with the thinnest layer of white hair. “It’ll hold. I guarantee it.” He looked over my shoulder upriver and went on, as if I had ambled along, inviting idle conversation. “Lot of storms recently, that’s why it looks like a flood coming. Don’t you fret. They were not the first, and they won’t be the last. But from here you have one long stretch, and then you’re in the delta.” He returned his attention to this wayward but familiar wanderer, and looked me in the eye as he finished, “That’ll carry you to the sea.”
The tone of his baritone voice, the certainty ringing in his statements, and that sunny smile washed over me like a tonic, wrapped around my shoulders like an arm, and left me with a renewed sense of surety and harmony with this place and time.
Without another word he turned and strode down the embankment. The human hodgepodge of crew could be seen to be making routine repairs. It seemed the gathering and fellowship, laughter, and a sort of lingering were as much a goal of the operation as any physical productivity. As if they were selected as an ad hoc committee representing humankind. Front-line, first-person perspectives with feet on the ground and eyes on the road. Purposed to feel, on behalf of us all, the confidence in the levee, born of the many generations that have stood such watch, as it were, through fair weather and foul. They buoyed my spirit, and I was chagrinned to leave them behind.
Their voices filled the air like song. The smell of peony and phlox wafted like perfumes, and my ever-present friends the sparrows darted about as I rounded the turn and beheld the great flat of the river. It is massive, in an overwhelming, humbling, shoulder-shaking reality-check way. Immense and unimaginable forces moving at a speed incomprehensible for something so gargantuan. I float idyllically on the surface, as the kinetic energy is carried and dissipated over the broadening course.
How far along to the delta Grampa Pete didn’t say.
I reached for my compass, only to stop and realize it is a worthless bauble, merely a decoration, on a river.
“I learned to look more upon the bright side of my condition, and less upon the dark side, and to consider what I enjoyed, rather than what I wanted: and this gave me sometimes such secret comforts, that I cannot express them; and which I take notice of here, to put those discontented people in mind of it, who cannot comfortably enjoy what God has given them, because they see and covet something he has not given them. All our discontents about what we want appeared to me to spring from the want of thankfulness for what we have.”
– Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
“There is something sacred about stillness. The world has not changed outside our bounds, we just realize peace and tranquility are possible, if we make space for it.”
– Ed Lehming, From Where I Stand
“If your environment is poor, blame yourself. Tell yourself you are not poet enough to call forth its richness.”
I’m not a Buddhist, but read about it quite a bit.
There are terms used in Buddhism such as darma and samsara. I invented my own term, “Hurrah”.
There are the tiniest things in this world that warm my heart and to which I cleave. Every cloud and every leaf, every bird and dog and drop of rain has inherent beauty in it. I see these things glowing, leaping out from the background, and I am thrilled by them. This is my “hurrah”.
Any time I am down, distracted, off my mark, feeling directionless, I tell myself “Your hurrah will find you.”
And it does. No matter where, no matter what, if I am patient for the tiniest slice of time, something beautiful in this world will find me, speak to me, get me back on track.
Hurrah can exist anywhere, even inside one’s mind.
I am practicing and preparing for the days ahead, as my physical being wears out.
I’ll paint until arthritis locks up my hands. I’ll play the guitar until my muscles can no longer press the strings to the fretboard. I’ll read until my eyes can no longer see, then I will listen to audiobooks until my ears can no longer hear.
I will walk through this beautiful world until my legs can no longer carry me.
And I will carefully place these experiences in the gallery of my mind’s eye.
Someday, when I lie in a bed with no visible signs of life, in my mind I will be walking and painting and writing and singing, and enjoying all the other things my Hurrah will bring me.