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 little better 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.