The Light Years
Listen to “The Light Years” by Fred Smith
“Papa, how old are you?” my young grandson asked.
“Whoa, and you are not dead yet?”
That was pretty much the end of the conversation as he had moved on but it was one more reason to think about this stage of my life. Some people have what screenwriters call a “story arc” where life moves from a calm beginning, a middle where narrative momentum builds to a peak, and an end where the conflict is resolved. Everything seems to progress along a plot line with one scene leading naturally to the next and at the end of their life we can say it fit together. It was a good story.
Not so with me. I’ve said before that life has been more like Wendell Berry’s description:
“If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line…But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. ..Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led – make of that what you will.”
Life has been a series of falling into things far more than any plan. I struggled with that when seeing my friends and peers find their careers early and make their contributions to their professions. Eventually, I accepted the fact that my life would likely never be a story with a consistent plot. Rather, it was more like an album of pictures with unpredictable surprises and sudden transitions every few pages.
I was 38 when I first needed a metaphor or image for what I was doing with my life. I did not have a career like many and it was hard to explain – especially to myself. One day I was walking past an antique dealer and saw a quilt in the window. That was it. That’s what I did. I put people, ideas, resources, opportunities, experiences, and other “scraps” together. I was a quilt maker. I bought the quilt and it hangs on my wall now. That’s what I did until I was fifty.
A New Image
At 50, I was at a different stage and needed another metaphor. I had read about the piece placed at the top of a new oil well that captures the explosive forces and directs them more efficiently. It’s called a Christmas tree. That is where I realized I was in life. I wanted to direct the flow instead of counting on accomplishing everything by having all the energy in the world to expend. I knew I could not continue to do that and needed to make the well productive. I also knew I did not need as much force as before to accomplish what I wanted. I had accumulated skills, relationships, and knowledge to do in a few phone calls what would have taken me weeks of hard work in the past. I did not need explosive energy. I needed to use wisely what I had accumulated. A valve from the top of a well sits in my office.
At 70, I was looking for a new image of what the next stage of life should look like and a metaphor that would again explain me to myself. It was not about what to do in retirement. It was not looking back and reflecting but what kind of life did I want going forward? The images are more difficult to find but I have discovered this stage of life is like making hand-dipped candles. Layer after layer is added by dipping the wick in wax, letting it cool, and then dipping it in the hot wax again until the candle is the size you want. Over a lifetime each experience, relationship, failure and success builds up around the core of our lives. Then you must decide if you want the candle to be decorative or put to use. Decorative has some benefit but I want to do what my candle made from years of dipping and cooling is best suited for. That means I put a match to the wick, give light around me for the years remaining and then gradually be consumed. Hopefully, I made the candle large enough to last!
So, there you have it. The next phase of my life is not simply melting away but illuminating as I go. It is work that satisfies me.
Art by Tomas Pavlasek
You can purchase a copy of “Where The Light Divides” here.