June 20, 2016
I have decided that for my 50th birthday I am going to write 50 articles reflection on my wanderings. These are not “pearls of wisdom” by any stretch of the imagination. Truthfully I have accumulated very little wisdom in all of my days. I simply want to reflect “out loud” as an active bystander of this life. I am grateful to share it with you.
Today is my birthday. I am 50. On the one hand, it is just a number. Nothing happened this morning that was particularly different. My alarm rang at 4:59 AM; I shuffled downstairs and groggily made a cup of coffee; I read for a while; and left for my morning commute to the office. But today I am 50, and it feels as though it should mean something.
It does mean that I have traversed this good earth for half of a century. It does mean that I do not have the body, looks, reflexes or mental acuity of a teenager. It does mean, according to actuarial tables, that I have lived over half of my life. Someone asked me over lunch if I felt different. Well, not really. I feel like I should be twenty-five, but the mirror and my driver’s license does not lie.
For my birthday I want to share with you about a hike I made a couple of weeks ago.
I had just wrapped up a 14 mile trek that began near the top of Newfound Gap and descended to Deep Creek in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Although the trail was largely one of descents, it was a slog in places that involved stomping through muddy bogs, wading across streams, and pushing through bramble so thick that at times I could not even see the trail at my feet. By the time I arrived at Deep Creek I was sweaty and speckled in black mud, and was tattooed with a few welts from horse-fly bites.
It would be another hour before Amy would arrive to pick me up, so I took advantage of the cold stream and bathed off the grime, leaving my boots, shirt, hiking stick and daypack beside an old birch tree. Right on time, an hour later Amy pulls up and, throwing my gear in the back of the jeep, we left the trail for the campsite.
It wasn’t until the next day that I realized I had left my walking stick behind.
I have had this walking stick for about 15 or so years. My oldest son made it for me from a dogwood sapling. It is light and solid, and has been my hiking companion through the years and along the trails. It has dutifully kept its place during a snowstorm, propped outside my tent like a sentinel keeping watch. It has scared away copperheads that were near to my thudding steps. This walking stick has durably held up to all the grime that comes along with any hike.
When I discovered that my walking stick did not make it back to camp, we circled back the next day to the trailhead to look for it. It was raining and quite frankly I had pretty much given it up as lost. I thought, “who would pass up a perfectly good staff, abandoned beside a tree?”
With an umbrella in hand, a traipsed alongside the swollen creek looking for the spot where I bathed the evening before. I had little expectation that I would see it again, and I was already telling myself that it was going to be okay. Buddhists teach about the importance of ‘non-attachment,’ and Jesus reminds us to not lay up treasures here on earth.” Just as I was about to head back to the Jeep in the steady rain, with my head hanging low, I spotted. It was just as I left it, propped against the birch tree and waiting, it seemed to me, for the next hike.
I felt a bit foolish feeling so emotional about a stick. I am sentimental about things, especially those objects associated with my children, but this seemed a bit different.
In psychoanalytical terminology my walking stick could be described as a “transition object ” – something to provide psychological comfort. I guess that walking stick is true enough for me.
Growing older I am learning to walk lighter. I am not simply referring to “stuff” that clutters my home and office; artifacts I have accumulated along the way and kept (hoarded?) sentimentally. By walking lighter I am coming to recognize that it is okay that not everything has to be significant or have a purpose (including me) or lasting value. I have a place and a part to play in this moment and that is all that is necessary for the time.
If you travel long enough, you will lose stuff as you go, and that is okay.
A friend introduced me a poem after I told him the story of the walking stick. It is a poem I have returned to several times in the last two weeks. It is by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosv.
Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills.
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.
“You are only one among many.” The older I get the more I know that this is truth. This is not a sigh of quiet resignation, but a relief that I really am not the center of the universe. I will walk this good earth for a time, but in time no more.
The next line is particularly poignant for me: “Then he wants to use himself and things / So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.” Richard Rohr has written about the importance of the second half of life in his book “Falling Upward.” In it he reflects: “When you get your,’Who am I?’, question right, all of your, ‘What should I do?’ questions tend to take care of themselves”
I am walking these days with less frantic purpose, but more meaning; less urgency, but more sincerity; less fear, yet more openness to wonder.
I will hang on to my walking stick for a while yet. As Robert Frost once penned, there are “miles to go before I sleep.” There will come a day, of course, in which I need to just let it go. And that will be okay too.
“It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:
Who serves best doesn’t always understand.”