Upon his retirement, my grandfather started to plan for his exit from Earth. He was an amazingly practical and pragmatic man, and had no apparent fear of death. Death just was just a final detail down on the bottom of a long list. So he attended to all the other details, including the item, “Write your memoirs.” Then, after he was done all these details, something unexpected happened. He didn’t die. Age seventy past, and then age eighty, and things he thought he was done with, such as painting his house, had to be done yet again. With a bit of a smile he told me, “It’s downright inconvenient when you don’t die.” Yet he went right on being practical and pragmatic, until his end finally came at age ninety.
I admired him greatly, especially because I was not very good at practicality or pragmatism. However I somewhat smugly decided I had something poetic he lacked. I was of the opinion that being a poet involved having your head in the clouds, and that explained why I was messy. However, after he died, I came across his memoirs, and noticed that at the end he had to attach a postscript. After all, when you live a quarter century after you finish your memoirs, you’ve a bit of explaining to do.
In his pragmatic manner he capsualized, in a few pages, things I also had lived through, agonized over, and had written drifts of unreadable howlings about, such as his son’s (my father’s) divorce. To me, his summary of our family tragedy was too simplistic. However it also exemplified the beauty of the man. Unlike me, he accepted the given.
However the first line of that postscript struck me as amazingly beautiful. As a man in his eighties, adding onto a memoir he wrote at age sixty-five, he had to come up with some sort of introduction, to mark the passage of time and explain his current situation. He chose three words, before moving on to more pragmatic details. They were, simply, “The shadows lengthen.”
As a writer I had to shake my head over the perfection of such simplicity, but as a grandson I was irked. For some reason I want to know more. I want to pry, to poke into the inner parts of the man, to see how he struggled with life.
For some reason his generation of New Englanders simply didn’t bother others much with the details of their struggles. They might give you the essence of their struggle, the conclusion they concluded, but they skipped the gory details. I think explaining angst was deemed bad manners. They served you the sirloin, and didn’t bother you with details of how the cow bellowed during the butchering.
Anyway, now it is my turn to get older and face retirement and attempt to clean up my mess, before departing, and as winter came on this year and the days grew shorter I kept recalling my grandfather’s three words, “The shadows lengthen.”
Because I spend much time outside, running a Childcare that stresses children playing in forests and fields, I had a rare chance to observe the ways the shadows grow longer, even at noon, and how the dimming daylight shortened, until parents dropped off their children in daybreak’s dusk and picked them up in pitch dark, long after sunset.
Just because the light is less, it is no less beautiful. And, because the shadows are made by that light, they too are beautiful. However shadows may be frightening, for they stretch out from the trees like the black bars of a jail, promising the imprisonment of winter. However, because the children are hot-blooded and warmly dressed, they seem untroubled by the black bars of a jail, and run through the bars as unphased as ghosts passing through walls.
I myself like winter less and less, and likely would choose to huddle by the stove, or flee to Florida, but I’m not retired, and have doubts I ever will be. Therefore I have to hustle to keep up with the kids, and, while never as warm as they are, I have thermal underwear and amazing boots, a warm hat and thick mittens, and therefore never quite suffer from hypothermia. I also have to constantly pick up the mittens and hats the kids shed, and also deal with them arguing that they should be allowed to take their coats off in bone chilling blasts.
It is obvious I am seeing life from a very different angle than they do. The other day, while thinking about this, into my mind came an old Norman Rockwell picture, portraying an old man and boy raking leaves in the autumn, both looking up as Canada Geese flew over. It is not one of his better paintings, but makes a point.
Around here real geese never fly over humans as low as in Rockwell’s picture. They fear hunters in the fall, (unless they are Harvard geese on the banks of the Charles River.) However Rockwell makes the low geese a symbol, so big it they more a blaring image than a reality. They are big as B-52 bombers, but the boy is looking up untroubled and serene. The old man, however, looks a bit deranged, and looks away more than up. The boy knows he likely has a long time before he has to fly away, but the old man knows it might be tomorrow. For him, the shadows are lengthening.
For me, the beauty is increasing. That is one thing I never expected, when thinking about getting old, back when I was young. All I could imagine was what I’d be losing. Even if I hit a home run my last time at bat like Ted Williams, it would be my last time at bat, and then I’d lose baseball. I’d lose this and I’d lose that. Pretty soon I’d hardly even have teeth.
However the beauty is increasing. I rarely imagined this might occur, when young. I suppose I was simply to eager to sled and to skate, to enjoy the drab leafless time after the summer fishing is over. I wanted to skip autumns long shadows and rush into the white of winter. Also I wasn’t a hunter. However now I walk the shadow-barred woods hunters walk, and see why they like hunting even when they never see a deer.
The leaves are still lovely, even when the reds and yellows and oranges are all gone, and they are merely a magic carpet of brown, sifting and swirling about my feet in the blustering winds. And I see much farther through the trees, without leaves in the way, and I glimpse the wild animals and birds as they glance over their shoulders, avoiding me. And without leaves there is far more sky, filled with cirrus and cirrocumulous and high jet contrails, whispering of the weather, the battle the warm south is losing and the cold north is winning. The high clouds speak of upper winds and jet streams, as lower scud speaks of the closest storm or front, and I am nothing but a very observant speck amidst the huge vastness, and then suddenly I remember beauty I loved as a boy and lost as an adult.
Somehow loving the beauty of clouds, (even to the degree where I got in trouble in school for studying clouds more than blackboards,) led me into politics, where you forget all about the clouds, (or come dangerously close to forgetting.)
In my case it had to do with the politics surrounding “Global Warming.” I’ve avoided the indoors all my life, and consequently know a thing or two about the outdoors. Therefore I took offence at so-called “climate scientists,” who spent all their time indoors dickering with things called “models” on computers, telling me they knew more about the outdoors than I did. However they wouldn’t come out and fight, so I had to go in and do a lot of dickering at my computer with dicks. I did darn well, in a world indoors of indoors called “cyber,” considering the dicks I battled had the home field advantage, however in the end all my battling was in vain: The voters, last election, voted for all the foolish thought I opposed.
I don’t like being a loser, but I was one. I felt a little like Ted Williams, because even if I did hit a home run my last time at bat, I was on a team of Red Sox that hadn’t won a pennant since 1946, and was a team getting worse. What good is it to excel if you are on a team of losers?
So I went outside to trudge and sulk. And what did I discover?
The clouds are still there. Truth is still Truth. Beauty is still Beauty.
In the end we all get old and must step aside, and no matter how long we have been “the Champ” we are “Champ” no more. We are losers. The shadows lengthen. However those shadows are due to the Light.
And that is my conclusion: It pays to get outside and see the Light. It reminds you of something more important than winning some cyber game.
Then, reinvigorated by the Light, you can return to your computer and wage cyber war against the darkness afflicting the ignorant. You may be old, wizened, a mere candle in a howling gale, but your little light has a power darkness flees.
True, wind may blow out a candle, but wind is from energy, which was once sunlight. Without such energy, darkness has no breath,and such darkness alone cannot touch a candle. But a wee candle can lift the darkness of the deepest cave.