• Posted: Aug 17, 2015 10:03:09
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Antiquities fascinate. That fact is undeniable. It is, perhaps, as if we were staring into a mirror and what we see seems vaguely familiar, but different, so different we become confused. Curious creatures that we are, we then seek to piece together the story behind the distance between what we expected and what plainly is. And it isn’t just the story of how “then” got to be “now”. To truly understand, we also want to know how things got to be like they apparently were back then. Because, “now” seems so normal, like it must always have been. But if it wasn’t, why not?
In the case of the old farm pictured above, I got to meet and talk to the man who currently lives on and works that land. He’s in his late seventies, walks with a limp, is visibly healthy, and a bit shy. But he was curious enough about what I was doing with my camera to come out of his house to ask. And in the process, I learned a little about him. He was born in that house, raised in it, inherited it from his parents, brought his bride to live in it, and raised his son in it. He has worked the surrounding land for his entire life. In a world where it seems normal to have moved from place to place several times during a lifetime, his story seems unusual, even idyllic. The phrase “happily ever after” comes to mind, something we may all have imagined for ourselves, at one time or another. But, what would staying put for seventy odd years really be like?
I’ve been trying to imagine: What kinds of effort would it take to live in one place for an entire lifetime? And what would the advantages and disadvantages be?
If you think about it in terms of energy, staying put may not be that hard to do. Think of staying where you are as sitting inside at the bottom of a bowl. To move, you’d have to climb the sides of the bowl and leap to another bowl. It would require money, effort, and resources to do that. But if you don’t have money and resources to spare, you’d likely stay where you are, you’d be stuck. On the other hand, if you find yourself compelled by circumstances to move, it might cost you more to resist. Think of the price citizens of Syria are paying. To stay, they risk death. To emigrate, they lose nearly everything they own and still risk their health, and maybe their lives.
But choosing to stay put, as the old farmer I talked to has done, isn’t necessarily the path of least resistance. Tractors break and wear out, weather and rainfall are unreliable, pests attack, markets fluctuate, income varies, costs keep rising, health varies, opportunities for beneficial business alliances come and go. And all the time there are internal stresses too. The wife dreams of making a trip to visit relatives. The son wants a bike, a horse, and then a pickup of his own. Then there are troubles with neighbors, a dog that raids your chicken coops, an inconsiderate codger that dumps runoff into the stream that runs through your property, putting livestock at risk, or the widow across the way willing to put everyone’s well water at risk by leasing land to a drilling/fracking company. Then there is the state. It may decide it wants to route a freeway across part of your land. Or, the county may run short of funds and decline to maintain and plow the road that goes by your place, your only pathway to market and supplies. Every single day, new stresses erupt, one on top of the other. And all the while you wonder, “Is this really the life I dreamed of for myself? Is this the life I want for my family?” But, are there actually any alternatives you can afford, that would truly be better in any significant way? You just don’t know. And so you soldier on, somehow some way getting through it all. And before you realize what’s happening, your entire lifetime has nearly passed. You are exactly where you started. Only the scenery has changed. And so, of course, has the face you see in the mirror each morning.
There is so much to living a life. It’s a struggle no matter if we stay or if we don’t. And there is very little help, no matter if we team up, or if we don’t, accept someone’s charity or decline out of pride and stubbornness.
I remember my son telling me a few years back how he found himself sitting on a train one day, the subway in New York City, having just been laid off from his part-time job tending bar and receiving a text that a high paying gig for his band had been cancelled. His rent was due. His van needed work. His medical insurance was coming due. His mom was sick and tired of having to subsidize him. And his dad couldn’t afford to. With all that staring him in the face, he realized it was time for him to make a choice. He needed to decide on what kind of compromises he could live with, and what effort he was willing to put forth in order to get on with things, to make a viable life for himself, a life wherein he wasn’t always so dependent upon the good will of others. He told me he remembered that moment as chilling, sobering, scary, lonely, a moment from which there was no escape. He knew then his life would never be like he’d dreamed, nowhere near that of his more wealthy friends. And he knew too, it wouldn’t be like his mom wanted it to be for him. But he was determined he wasn’t going to fall to the level of a deadbeat homeless person. Somehow, some way, he was going to make things work, so he wouldn’t have to feel ashamed of himself, no matter what his mother said to him, no matter what his friends did by comparison. Somehow, some way, so at least when he looked back, he’d know with honesty that he had in fact made it work. And so far, truth be told, he has done just that, quite imaginatively.
Antiquities are interesting. They tell us the story of how things change, how they don’t, how they came to be, and how they might come to an end. The choices before us are never completely clear in their consequence. But stopping to look now and again at what has gone before can sometimes help clear a bit of the fog, maybe even inspire us, provide us with a kick in the pants, or point us in a completely new direction.
The end of that old farmer’s story was not one of complete happiness. For many many years he’d struggled to successfully maintain the health of his family and farm. But as his son was nearing the age of 40, his son became ill and eventually died of Hodgkin's disease. For some, that disease is curable. For him, it was not.
The old man had tears in his eyes as he told me that. And a chill struck deep within my own gut too. No man cavalierly bears the loss, or potential loss, of his only son.
Life is far too short and fraught with peril for most tasks we set our minds to, regardless of whether we stay put or move on. Do enjoy the successes you are able to achieve, whichever path you choose.
And may the choices you make nearly always be informed by the deepest of wisdom available to you.
Saturday, March 14th, 2015