Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Days Are Getting Shorter

Fall landscape from my living room window 


As I approach my 68th year, the changing of the seasons takes on more poignancy in the fall, as, like the accelerated shift from long days to long nights, my body reveals in not so subtle ways the results of years of molecular corrosion and aging. If nothing else, it prompts reflection of years past, and adds just a bit of urgency for actively, more than passively, making ongoing decisions about life, love, work, learning, and creation.

To this point, I feel some satisfaction, convinced, or possibly deluded, that I have more often than not taken advantage of opportunities that were presented over the years.  Most satisfying has been the daily co-existence for 4+ decades with my best friend and wife, and the knowledge that the world will be better for the presence of our 3 children.  The chance to be educated was taken, and over the last 45 years I never woke in the morning dreading or resenting going to work, for it has remained interesting and challenging for all that time, and it remain so to this day.  Of course, the move from sharecropper to physician in 3 generations was entirely made possible by the middle generation, my parents, and is perhaps more their credit than mine.  Now, having transitioned to part-time work, I enjoy the absolute best of both worlds:  the excitement and rewards of my profession, yet with enough time and income to travel, read, and do all those things that most must postpone until official retirement.

As a "free-range" youth living in a tiny, remote west Texas town, I explored the low hills, stream beds, and mesas of the desert southwest with little restraint, feeling comfortable with the flora and fauna of the dry land, re-creating in my mind the lives of those who left the flint arrowheads I collected, watching the slow progression through the cloudless day of shadows so well-defined the edges seemed sharp enough to cut, and from a rise in the landscape watched tornadoes given life by a weather front cross the plane of the horizon.  Texas is a huge state, and I have lived in and explored not only its semi-arid plateaus and deserts, but also the piney woods, the grasslands of its south, the gulf coast, and the urban centers of north Texas.  Friends, enmities, and loves were encountered; some of each persisted as others drifted beyond my presence.

Married and later widowed, I was then gifted with a spouse who was fiercely devoted to family, but also to experiencing the world, and who was not only willing to roam, but who pushed, cajoled, and lead me to experiences in 49 of our states, Canada, and most of western Europe and Scandinavia.  I held hands with my best friend as she gave birth to our children and shared their many ups and downs as they became adults, I shook hands with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin during the time of the Camp David peace talks, drank Georgian sparkling wine in Leningrad at the height of the cold war while the temperature hovered at 50 below in the Russian winter, was included as family for a 5-day wedding celebration in Provence, watched bald eagles mate in the sky in Kodiak Alaska, ran aground on the Danube River, helped  a family reunion take place in rural Norway, warmed myself with hot coffee in Colorado and in Canada as the rising sun spread over Rocky Mountain peaks, watched the tidal bore in the Bay of Fundy, was awed by the stars at altitude in the dry, dark New Mexico highlands, stared at the blue Cherenkov radiation glowing in the core of a nuclear reactor, saw dolphins playing in the coastal California surf, read many wonderful books, had a lifetime of professional work, and a thousand other things.  Surely this has been enough.  If I don't explore Angkor Wat, see the Taj Mahal at sunrise, or stand at the edge of Victoria Falls, there will be no regrets, because there were only a few misused opportunities.  

Along the way I tried to live by the Golden Rule, failing far more often than I like to admit to myself, especially in the early years, but I suspect this simple philosophy is enough for a Humanist.  Others have seen and done more during their lives, but many have experienced far less. I remain ready for more, and I certainly hope for more, but with no anxiety that I haven't experienced enough already.


I take great solace in the knowledge that my existence is a small, but integral component of processes evolving since the big bang, and as the universe spins on I am playing my part to the best I can.  I am more of an environmentalist every year.  We watched the vixen that raised her pups in the hill below us for two seasons until, sadly, adjacent street construction destroyed their den.  Her care of, and I suspect concern for the pups was in many ways little different from that of human mothers.  I don't know, but I imagine that in the pantheistic, pre-Christian old world (and perhaps in pre-Colombian America) people felt more related to their surrounding world and less superior to its non-human inhabitants.  "No man is an island," and  that extends to our whole earth.  Growing up in concrete and steel urban environments as do so many of the current generation, empathy with nature comes less naturally.  For myself though, with the polar bears, elephants, whales, tigers, and assorted other creatures, not to mention plants, disappearing, I feel a kinship with the threatened and therefore experience a sense of loss and an impotence to do anything about it.  I am not above, but a part of, the natural universe.

When my time is over I will not be aware of events, but I would like to return as simply as possible to this earth, and with as little injury to it as possible, perhaps only with only an unadorned wood box, or even just a biodegradable shroud, and no concrete vault.  My elements would drift into the soil, be recycled by the bottom of the food chain, and keep recycling until drifting ultimately into the oceans, from which life likely originally started on this planet.  This might require short-term refrigeration rather than embalming, but such burial arrangements will be challenging in this day and age, in this country, particularly as a national cemetery may host my internment, so I will not hold my survivors to this task if it proves difficult.


I view my conscious self as the sum product of my physical mind; I am not a dualist.  Any surviving "soul" or "spirit" I would view as simply the totality of changes in friends, family and other individuals, and thereby on society, that result from my existence.  In my mind I keep hearing a song by Steve McDonald (Link to Music  or Video).  (shared, as most of my music experience has been, from my wife.)

So neither fearful of nor anxious for the end, as I enjoy memories, I still need to make the best of what is left.  "Remember that man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed.  When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive - to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love." - Marcus Aurelius.