Copyright ©2013 by Ralph F. Couey
Today is my birthday.
58 years ago on a muggy Tennessee morning, my parents rushed to the Henry County Hospital in Paris where around 5 a.m., I made my appearance. My Mom told me I was 7 pounds 6 ounces of barrel-chested noise and would make a career out of ruining her dresses by barfing on her shoulder.
I must have had an unremarkable early childhood, since very few anecdotes ever survived those years. One, however, was probably typical.
We were in church and I was being restless and noisy -- I think I was about 3 or 4 -- and having pushed Mom and the other church goers to the limits of their patience, she picked me up and took me out. When I realized that justice was about to be administered, I yelled out -- in the middle of the sermon no less -- "Mommy, don't 'pank me! I be good!"
She later described it as the single most mortifying moment she ever experienced in church.
58 years. I never ever thought I could be this old. When I was in my 20's I knew men who were in their 50's and 60's and they seemed to me to be...well, ancient. But that's how it is when you're a young man. You are invincible and will be forever strong and vital. Bob Seger's song "Like a Rock" is a perfect expression of those halcyon years...
"Stood there bold
Sweatin' in the sun
I felt like a million
Felt like Number One
The height of summer
I'd never felt that strong
Like a rock.
I was eighteen
Didn't have a care
Workin' for peanuts
Not a dime to spare
And I was lean and solid everywhere
Like a rock."
This morning, as I eased into wakefulness, I thought about the past. Through my mind rolled memories of decisions I should have made and those I shouldn't have; the choices that defined the path of what has become my life. That's the way it is, though. When we're young, we always look to the future. Beyond a certain age, we think more and more about our past. There are regrets, to be sure. But from the standpoint of this stormy Northern Virginia morning, I found it hard to imagine, or even desire a different fate.
Wisdom is the combination of bad choices and their consequences. It's accumulation is rarely without pain. What have I learned from this life of mine?
I learned that love is the most important thing in the human universe. Whether it be that feeling between child and parent, husband and wife, or between close friends, it is the glue that keeps us together and afloat. Without it, we are empty shells.
I learned that honesty, integrity, and trust are the necessary ingredients to what constitutes that ideal of a "good person." It is through the exercise of those ideals that we build trust. And trust is second only to love as being necessary for life.
All choices have consequences. Some immediate, others which last for decades. All choices need to be considered in that light, whether a quick one made on the fly, or one arrived at after a sleepless night of sober contemplation.
Life is indifferent. It is what we do with the opportunities and moments presented to us that adds the word "good" or bad." If any of us thinks we are having a tough time, chances are the responsibility lies squarely with that face that looks back from the mirror. Blaming everyone and everything else will only prevent us from finding solutions to our problems.
It is a beautiful world and we should all slow down from time to time to notice. In the last few years, I've become enamored with the sound of birdsong emanating from the forests where I do my walking. They've always been there, but it hasn't been until now that I've opened my ears and my heart to those wonderful tunes. A sunrise in summer, a sunset in the fall; the first warm breezes of spring, and the stark beauty of stars in the sky of a cold winter's night. A curtain swaying too and fro on an April zephyr, and the terrible majesty of a giant thunderstorm. These are the backdrops against which the noise and clamour of our lives is played out.
Looking ahead, I used to see opportunity for new beginnings. Now I can see the last act or two being played out. I don't know how long I'm fated to remain here in this life. I feel reasonably certain that I will make to retirement. But what lies afterwards? Who can say? There are still things I want to do with my life, and I intend to pursue those activities for as long as I am physically and mentally capable of doing so.
One of those eternally unanswerable questions that had haunted humanity through the centuries has been the search for meaning in this thing we call "life." A few years ago, I penned some thoughts upon leaving a place that had become special to me. I ended those thoughts thus:
"Life is linear. We celebrate its beginning, and we mourn its end,
searching always for its meaning.
But the meaning of life is not found in either end.
It's found in the middle.
It is in our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and tragedies.
It is in the things we do right, and the times when we transgress.
It is in the friendships we forge, and the love that we share.
Those people, places, and events all stand as signposts
marking the path of the journey we have taken together
-- travelers all upon the road that is leading us home."