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Thursday, March 30, 2023

Journey’s End

                I fondly remember walking to school in my youth. My sister and I would leave our house and along the way, every kid in on the block would come out and join the growing caravan. It’s a fond memory now, but I do recall not being very happy about it when I came to realize that there were OTHER kids whose parents drove them.  Every day. It wasn’t so bad on nice days, but thinking back on it, there seems to have been an inordinate amount of inclement weather in my youth. Memory is a funny thing; I remember endless summer days filled with neighborhood games of “kick the can,” “Hide and go seek,” and “Mother may I.” I can easily recall that bright sunny day when I conquered my fears and other personal demons by jumping off the high dive board at the neighborhood pool.  I nostalgically reminisce about hours upon hours of quality and formative time spent with good friends. (Cue mental soundtrack: Those were the days, my friend.) I also remember walking to and from school in the wind, rain, sleet and snow. (Up hill, both ways…..) 

The worst of it was those bitter cold days. I didn’t have a back pack so I had to carry my books. My fingers would get so cold the pain was almost more than I could bear (or so I thought; the truth is, I probably had a very low threshold for pain back then.) I never actually got frostbite, but my young mind was convinced that I was in danger of it. I would switch sides with the books when it got to be too much, keeping one hand in a pocket at all times; but that would happen more and more frequently as I began to wonder if the path to school somehow got longer since the day before. Inevitably someone would start a game or talk about last night’s episode of a favorite TV show. I remember pretending we were a “choo-choo” train chugging all the way to school. We would always get involved in something and I would get distracted. Before I knew it, I was in class and beginning to allow my mind to wonder off from the lesson. I would suddenly realize that I was safe and warm and dry. I would look at my hands and think about how they hurt so much before and how I had forgotten all about the pain. The intervening time between the bitter cold walk to school and that moment in class had somehow flown past so quickly that it seemed amazing to me. 

It soon became a mental tool that I used to help me during those long treks through the desolate arctic wastelands that I had to pass through each day. “Before you know it you’ll be sitting in class, nice and warm, looking at your hands in amazement.” It was a comforting thought. I began to wonder if I could somehow skip the intervening time and just jump to that moment right then and there. I tried it; It didn’t work. I still had to physically walk the whole thing in real time - nonetheless, I think I deserve credit for developing the concept of fast forward. 

One bitter cold midwinter morning at that moment when frostbite was beginning to set in and the despair of the long journey that lie ahead was once again realized, I turned to my comforting thought. “Before you know it, you’ll be sitting in class….” But then I had another thought. It was a terrible, horrible, awful and very frightening thought. I didn’t realize it in that moment but it was also a gloriously beautiful, wonderful, and for me a very life-affirming thought. I stopped right there in the cold for just a moment before the wind urged me to carry on, reminding me in its way not to delay. As if in response to my comforting thought, my interior voice said “Yes, and before long, you’ll be an old man, lying on your deathbed.” There’s no way to sugar coat it; that was the thought, and I could not un-think it. That moment has stuck with me my whole life; to this day it often causes me to pause briefly along the way. This is my “Memento Mori” and I carry it everywhere I go. 

I stood there for half a second as I caught my breath; the wind pushed me forward, and so I continued on my way. It was such a quick moment that I don’t believe my sister or any of the neighborhood kids that were with me even noticed that I had briefly paused. I stopped trying to “fast forward” my life for fear that I might miss the mark and go too far. Many years have come and gone since then, and a lot of water has passed under the bridge. If I had to pick a single point in my life, I think it was then that I began to understand the importance of appreciating every moment that I was given. 

Of course, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of this sudden revelation until later in life; it was a map, if you will, that unrolled as I matured. An ancient map, beautifully and artistically decorated, that plotted a course which I must follow. Its many rich hues becoming visible only after my vision acclimated to the ever changing landscape that is my life and my journey, and it continues to reveal its secrets to this day. 

It must be said in no uncertain terms that this was not for me, a call to hedonism; no - it was more profound than that. The certainty of death demanded that there be something to show for having been here. So I did not hear the imperative to “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die” nor did I understand it to be the “carpe diem” in the sense that it is so often understood.  That having been said, it must also be understood that I never dwelled on the end either; it was clear that there was to be an end, but the details have always remained hidden. My map – my Memento Mori - has been for me a reminder always to dwell on the present and to appreciate what beauty there is in it. In my experience, I have learned that there is no greater beauty than to experience love in its purest forms.

I did a lot of walking in my youth. My mother didn’t drive and family circumstances precluded me from being one of those kids that got rides everywhere they went. I never let that stop me from doing what I wanted to do, though. If I couldn’t get a ride from friends, then I walked. Let me tell you, there were a few epic walks, too. My range increased as I got older. I also rode my bike, but not as often; there was the risk of theft and having the bike diminished the possibility of getting a ride home. So I walked. There were moments when I have to admit that I resented having to walk so much. A beautiful day suddenly turned dark and stormy; and more than once I arrived at my destination drenched to the bone. In my anger and frustration, I cursed my situation many times, but quite frequently, somewhere along the way I would return to my Memento Mori. There is beauty to be found in a desolate golf course (a convenient short-cut) after dusk. In time, I discovered that there is always beauty to be found, if you know that you’re supposed to look for it. 

Eventually, I got my driver’s license; considerably more eventually, I got my first car. Wow, what a quality of life enhancement THAT was! I could go anywhere and get there on time. Could is a funny word; I could get to places on time, but I didn’t, actually – not always. Well, that’s beside the point; I could travel in almost any weather and I had virtually unlimited range. So where did I go when I wasn’t getting to work late? Well, work and social life aside, when I had quality alone time, I got in my car and drove to the Muttontown Preserve. I might also have driven to one of the Greenbelt trails on Long Island or even caught up with the Appalachian Trail somewhere in Connecticut, New York, or Pennsylvania.  Yes, one of my favorite things to do was to get in my car and drive someplace so I could go for a walk. 

Sure, I appreciate those toasty warm, sunshiny summer days; who doesn’t? But never was it ever such an uplifting, rewarding - and even spiritual - experience than if it was a rainy day. I had come to enjoy walking so much that I used some of the money I earned from getting to work late to buy waterproof hiking boots, gore-tex rain pants and a lightweight rain jacket. I could go hiking comfortably on a cold, wet and rainy day. I loved this! The trails were not so crowded on those days, and if by chance you happened to pass someone along the way; you knew that they were a kindred soul. We might pass each other without saying a word, but we would exchange a knowing smile as we connected on some ethereal plane. And what a sublimely beautiful experience it is to find oneself alone, deep in a snowy wood, listening to the sound of snow falling all around you.

As I hiked along my favorite trails, - trails which time and repetition had committed to my memory, I frequently thought about bigger life issues. I solved a few problems in this way and I came to terms with other issues that I could not solve. I began to think of my hikes as a metaphor for my life. All in all, it has been a wonderful mix of experiences. There was a lot of nice and easy, smooth and level ground. I’ve traveled some hilly terrain and I have had a few rough and rocky climbs. There were highs and lows; there were sunny days and there were stormy days. Along the way I met a few people - some that walked along with me for a while, and others who just happen to cross my path now and again. There were some that I met only once, but that remain in my heart and my thoughts. I have experienced the sublimely beautiful and most importantly: Most importantly, I have loved. I have loved: this, the one thing that gives meaning to my journey.

And so this thing that I had at times despised in my youth has become for me something that I have no words to adequately express. You see, having traveled a few roads that I would not have chosen to travel as well as many others that if given the chance to, I would joyfully chose again; I knew all the while that I could not long remain on any one of them, so I paused long enough on each one in the hope of recognizing the fleeting beauty of it all. I found beauty in the most unlikely places, and I learned to be Thankful for all of it – good and bad. I have learned that every trail has a trail head; each journey has a journey’s end. There will surely come a day when I reach mine.  In the meantime, where ever I happen to be headed and no matter how inclement the ‘weather’ might happen to be, I remember my Memento Mori and I remember to live in the moment that I am given, and I love all the more.

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