A Yankee Notebook, Columns

I’ve Been Lucky so Far

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   For all of your days be prepared,

         And meet them ever alike:

         When you are the anvil, bear –

         When you are the hammer, strike.

                           Edwin Markham

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – That seemed like a pleasant little nostrum when I was in high school, so I took it under advisement and tucked it away for future reference, if I needed it. Obviously, it has stuck with me; and now that I’m working on super-seniorhood, I find myself evoking it fairly frequently.

Just this afternoon, as Kiki and I left the car and headed up the new trail in Hubbard Park, I mulled the turnaround possibilities in my mind. Last time I hiked it, my old legs hollered for relief after only the first couple hundred yards. So I cut it short and headed back down after maybe a quarter-mile. Kiki doesn’t ever seem to mind. Up or down, long or short, hot, cold, wet, dry – she prances on ahead regardless.

Today, however, and for no discernible reason, my legs appeared to be enjoying the climb. So I quickly upgraded my goal, muttering the old Latin slogan, “When the day offers, carp it!” Up we went, my chatty wristwatch wondering what was afoot, and put in one of the best walks this old fellow has had in a while.

Later, I couldn’t help but reflect on the experience. That sort of thing comes along with ever-decreasing frequency lately. The so-called Golden Years aren’t, for many old folks, all they’re advertised to be. One Facebook meme calls them the Wonder Years – as in, “I wonder where I left my (pick any object).”

Linda, Willy’s wife in “Death of a Salesman,” repeats the old saw, “Life is a casting off.” We spend our latter years getting rid of stuff we can’t use anymore because we’ve lost the ability. The casting off is an admission of that. I’ll never forget my wife’s experiences in her declining years as she lost, one by one, the ability to push a shopping cart through the supermarket; then her driver’s license; then cooking; then, finally, the hope of ever getting any of it back. It was excruciating to watch and be unable to do anything about it. How much worse it must have been for her to be suffering that slow, irreversible downhill slide.

Now that the calendar and the actuarial charts tell me that I’ve been lucky so far; and my mind and body give me increasingly noticeable hints that it can’t last; and one after another of my friends begins the long slide into dementia, it would be easy to become just an old widower living alone with a little dog, just waiting.

Which is where Edwin Markham’s bit of verse comes in. It’s not that there’s all that much still to do. My generation, for all its amazing accomplishments and innovations, has managed to pollute the natural and political environment into what appears to be an unsalvageable state. Life for succeeding generations, thanks to us, will be more difficult, dangerous, even deadly than it’s been for us. It’s time – perhaps past time – for some fresh ideas and fresh approaches. As the old stage direction goes, “Don’t just do something. Stand there!”

So it’s probably best for us oldsters to butt out. Which doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with the days – and there’s no way to know how many – still left to us. I’m pretty sure I’ve climbed my last mountain and paddled my last heavy rapid; and I’m certain I’ve run my last mile. But, as Tennyson’s Ulysses declares, “…some deed may yet be done, some work of noble note, not unbefitting men that strove with Gods.” It may be as little a thing as learning to play cribbage. Or, more ambitious, a cruise on a canal barge in Lombardy or a schooner on the coast of Maine.

It may be a romance with a long-ago flame, now like yourself widowed and still the spirit you found so attractive half a century or more ago. It may be a peppy little puppy, rescued from death and now watching your every move, sensing your every mood, and getting you out on the trail every day. I’ve been lucky in more than an actuarial sense, to find both of these things, along with a little old German sports car that smoothly soothes my spirit and takes me back to another, over sixty years ago, that, like this one, taught the pure visceral joy of being alive.

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