Louis Adamic, a writer who was born in 1899 in what is now Slovenia, once quipped: “My grandfather always said that living is like licking honey off a thorn.”
And so as my wife Jody and I walked our three pups recently in the cold with a “Spring” breeze–more like one in January rather than late March–in our faces, we thought about our idyllic life today and how much in contrast it stands with the ones we were living just 20 years ago. M’lady was slipping into holes made more by the crumbling rather than the erosion of a marriage that was fast giving way. I was dealing with another kind of loss and was on my own confusing journey in an especially dark woods.
As we walked, we wondered who those people were and marveled at how we can now look back and catch glimpses of our former selves and see how we survived and came back through the looking glass in a different shape and guise. We were simply too much in the maelstrom at the time, in a swirl that prevented us from fathoming the good that would eventually come from this violent churn. We could not seize the day.
Sometimes, I fear, there are people who cannot come back at all and will never know how a new life can bring joy instead of continuing pain. I saw a play years ago set in a bar with three actors playing Ernest Hemingway at various stages in his life. One scene showed Hemingway in his middle age having a heated argument with his youthful self on one stool beside him and his aging person on another seat to his left. The youth was arrogant and convinced of his direction. He lacked for no sense of self confidence. The old man, though, was broken, almost tearful, as he reminisced over a life of selfishness and lost opportunities. I remember being more taken with this confrontation between “the spirits of Christmas past and future” than I ever was reading Dickens.
The Hemingway play has always stayed with me, especially since the narrator could do nothing but shout at his younger self who disdained him at best. Neither could get beyond the contempt they felt for one another. They were both only a drink or two away from settling the matter outdoors with guns or knives. Neither had the sense to look much to the quiet old man in their midst who was beyond the fray and had some wisdom to pass on, but no one to listen. They just shook their heads over him, took no recognition, and wished he would go to bed and stop drooling over their bar. But the old man never moved.
There was no introspection, no tipping point, no new paths revealed. They were inventing no new alphabets to write their stories. Although they were all writers, they had forgotten how to read. They were in their own empty theaters sipping drinks they could not taste. The day was there but not seized, just wasted in anger.
So as Spring has supposedly sprung here we are able to wonder who we are and what we have become, despite a season that still hasn’t made itself evident on our own cold mountain. Our high woodland of Oak and stone outcroppings doesn’t seem ready yet to give up its clutch on winter, just as the Hemingway characters weren’t ready to give up their old selves. Now with another heavy wet snow in the forecast ready to snap off fragile limbs and the hope of renewal, we are reminded again of all the fragility around us. Now is the time to seize the day and take pause again to be grateful.
There’s nothing wrong, though, with being alert to the unexpected and how our tranquility can be threatened in so many ways at any one moment. Despite our good fortune, we are not unaware that illness can slip in unexpectedly, another financial meltdown can threaten our comfort, a loss of some threads of faith in goodness can spoil our world view, and that a beloved but aging pet facing the ultimate journey can bring us to our knees.
And like everyone else, we have seen too many tubes dripping combinations of life and death through the portals of aging and fragile bodies only to learn a little later that their grand spirits have also drained away, possibly exiting into the great mystery through the same openings. We read far too often of the young whose lives have also passed out of a different kind of portal, ones made with needles or high-speed lead poisoning. Another kind of sadness comes when we look into the faces of our military youth smiling back at us on the TV which marks “once again in silence” their deaths in far-off battlefields. There is no seizing the day for any of them.
Our gratitude for a comfortable and rewarding life takes on a deeper meaning when stacked up against the plights of our fellow pilgrims throughout the world. For most of us, thankfully, our versions of our own ever evolving selves cannot measure up against the lives of refugees who have lost everything and are now huddled in makeshift tents in Turkey and Jordan. When we are annoyed that the waitress has served us the wrong flavored latte at Starbucks, we know nothing of the despair of Haitians who still live in filth, dysentery and typhoid in their capital city. When our nails need a fresh coat of paint and a buffing, when our tee times are scratched, when the fish aren’t biting, we need to think of what the day will bring to young girls in Sudan or Pakistan.
As we all know, the proverbial poo-poo happens no matter where we live, who we have been, are, and will become, how fat our checkbooks are or how empty our change purses, how imposing our good looks and strong genetic makeup or what our chances are to have been born afflicted with any number of ailments and deformities, or simply how unfortunate it could be to find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.
In these lingering cold days of early Spring when we should be outside playing in the soil rather than indicting the groundhog for false advertising, my good friend Jack has reminded me in a special way to be grateful for the life we have and to make the most of the world we live in, especially since we suspect it’s the only world we’ll really ever know. He has taught us again to savor the moment, enjoy the here and now, sieze the day.
First, he quoted Margaret Atwood, the Canadian poet, novelist, essayist, and environmentalist, who said:
“Gardening is not a rational act. What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth, that ancient ceremony of which the Pope kissing the tarmac is merely a pallid vestigial remnant. In the Spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.”
He then recalled a visit to Arches National Park in Utah, where he imagined listening for the ghost of the great environmentalist Edward Abbey “as the sun dropped out of the sky and evening came to the park. One night a passing shower at dusk brought forth a pleasant earthy odor that gave us the beginning of an idea of how the high desert smells when it is visited by a bit of water. Kind of a magical moment. We sat in a dark parking lot absorbing this earth odor while watching the twinkling lights of cars descending the steep road back to Moab.”
In the words of Abbey, a Pennsylvania boy who fell in love with the southwest and brought it to life in his wonderful essays in Desert Solitaire:
“The sun is rising through a yellow, howling wind. Time for breakfast. Inside the trailer now, broiling bacon and frying eggs with good appetite, I hear the sand patter like rain against the metal walls and brush across the windowpanes. A fine silt accumulates beneath the door and on the window ledge. The trailer shakes in a sudden gust. All one to me — sandstorm or sunshine I am content, so long as I have something to eat, good health, the earth to take my stand on, and light behind the eyes to see by.”
So as Jody has just checked the forecast which calls for more snow and sleet starting Sunday, we’ll be seizing the day by hunkering down, building a fire, enjoying some hot soup, being grateful for our blessings, basking over who and what we have become, and trying not to grouse too much about that little forked-tongue groundhog as we read some of the poetry of Thomas A. Clark, especially Every Day:
“Awake the mind’s hopeless so
At a quarter to six I rise
And run 2 or 3 miles in
The pristine air of a dark
And windy winter morning
With a light rain falling
And no sound but the pad
Of my sneakers on the asphalt
And the calls of the owls in
The cypress trees on Mesa Road
And when I get back you’re
Still asleep under the warm covers
Because love is here to stay
It’s another day and we’re both still alive.”