For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning. - T. S. Eliot As another year draws to an end, and with it the approaching close of my eighth decade on this journey, I know I am among the most fortunate of my fellow-travellers. For sixty years of my passage, I’ve been accompanied by the wonderful young woman I first met when she was but sixteen. She is young no more, of course, but as W. B. Yeats wrote in When You Are Old (almost as if he had her in mind)--- How many loved your moments of glad grace, And loved your beauty with love false or true, But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, And loved the sorrows of your changing face. I still do. Also with me for fifty-plus years of my journey have been the two magnificent daughters who have graced their mother and me with their love, their friendship---and increasingly now, their protection against the failings of age. When they were little, we made a pact to hug them close for as long as we could, then let them go when time dictated. As you might expect, the hugging was easy; the letting-go was hard. But it has been written that when we love someone, we should set them free, and if they come back, then their love is ours forever. That has certainly been the case for us, for which I’m eternally grateful. Our girls are women now, but as I’ve often told them, although they are no longer children, their mother and I will never stop being parents. In due time, those women brought two wonderful men into our lives, and with them produced five wonderful babies of their own---four granddaughters and a grandson for us. It was as if the cycle started up again, but with my wife and I one step removed this time---loving them, wishing the best for them, but somewhat distant from the immediacy of their lives. We strive to remain relevant, of course, and they, in return, take pains to make it so. Kahlil Gibran wrote of that in his meditation, On Children--- You may give them your love but not your thoughts, For they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday. And in that last line lies the very essence of the joy and sadness, both, that are implicit in our lifelong journey. Things begin. Things end. Things begin anew. Or so it has always been for me, and will be for some time to come, I fervently hope. But there will eventually come a moment, I know, when no next beginning will follow the final end. Despite my reluctance to face that day, I do not fear it. My approach to its inevitability is summed up in this final stanza from one of my own poems, I Haven’t the Time--- I haven’t the time for anger or rancor, or grumbling, self-pity, or frown. Life’s about living, getting and giving full measure before it winds down. When that day is nigh, as ‘twill be by and by, I hope it will be widely said, That as man and boy, I strove for the joy of living until I was dead. My closest companions along the way have certainly brought that hope closer to reality than it might otherwise have been. To paraphrase the late Queen Elizabeth II, my dear family have been my strength and stay the entire way. As we enter into 2023, I hope for all of you who read these posts that you will feel as blessed as I, and that the ending of this old year, no matter its triumphs or tragedies, will be a new and happy beginning for you. To make an end is to make a beginning. Happy New Year!
This week’s prompt from my Florida writers’ group is to write a story, fewer than five hundred words, for STROLL, a local publication.
A friend I met sixty-five years ago in high school will soon celebrate his eightieth birthday, as I will shortly afterwards. We stood up for each other at our weddings, and I did that again at his second wedding, a few years after his first wife passed. He named his first son after me. I have two daughters, neither of whom is named for him, but they love him dearly.
A long-since retired art teacher, he is a painter of some renown, with water-colours hanging in the homes of several distinguished collectors, including the recently-crowned King Charles III. Likewise retired, I am the author of eighteen books of fiction, with worldwide sales numbering…I don’t know, in the hundreds? Maybe? Anyway, both of us garner numerous hits on various search-engines.
My friend was always a personable and handsome man, and he knew it. In our younger years, it used to be said of him that he never met a looking-glass he didn’t like. Mutual friends would joke that he’d never be alone as long as he could find a mirror. When we’d stroll downtown together, I’d laughingly reproach him for constantly checking his reflection in storefront windows.
“It’s never going to get any better,” I’d chide. “Gravity wins!”
He’d flash his trademark crooked smile. “Yeah, but we don’t have to let it pull us down, right?” And he’d steal another quick glance at the window.
I met my friend for coffee at The Forum the other day, and as I was parking, I saw him waiting on the sidewalk for me, studying his image in the restaurant’s plate-glass window. Indeed, I saw myself growing larger in that same reflection as I walked over to join him.
Clapping an arm around his stooped shoulders, I crooned an off-key variation on a Carly Simon hit from days gone by—You’re so vain, you prob’ly think you look amazing…
Leaning into me, he chuckled ruefully. “Yeah, once upon a time, I guess. But d’you know what I was thinking just now, watching you come up behind me?”
“Let me guess,” I ventured. “You were probably hoping this weird-looking old guy approaching you would spring for coffee today.”
“Not a bad idea,” he laughed. “But no, I was actually thinking how happy I am to see you. The day is coming when one of us will be staring at a reflection like this, and the other one won’t be there.”
“There’s a happy thought,” I said. But, alas, I knew it to be true.
For several moments, both of us examined our images in the glass—slightly bent, frailer than we’d like, each leaning a little on the other. When we turned to hug one another, it was a long hug. A moist-eyed hug.
And then we went for coffee. My treat.
There are few things I find more pleasurable than hearing the lilt and flow of poetry read aloud, especially if read by a skilled orator or by a loving family member.
My father was both, and it was he who read one of my abiding favourites, The Night Before Christmas, a classic tale by Clement Moore, on every one of the sixty Christmas times we shared before his death. Here are the beginning stanzas—
My siblings and I would lie in our beds, literally quivering with anticipation as we listened to that familiar tale, and I miss hearing my Dad read it to this day.
Another favourite poetic tale is The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, which I first heard read aloud by a high school English teacher who loved her calling. Here is the first stanza—
The final stanza before the coda sent shivers up and down my spine as I sat listening in the classroom, and so it still does—
That same teacher also introduced me to one of my favourite poets, Robert Service, whose rhythmic cadences entrance me even now, especially The Cremation of Sam McGee. Here are the first two stanzas—
So enamored am I of that rhythm and rhyme scheme that I have even written similar poems of my own, pale comparisons, but still a joy to read aloud. Here is a stanza from one example, I Haven’t the Time—
As a young father, I would often read this excerpt from Kahlil Gibran’s poem, On Children, to my own daughters as I tucked them into bed. Although too young to grasp its full meaning, they seemed to enjoy the sound of my voice as I pondered the deeper implications of the verse—
I think my all-time favourite poem is When You Are Old, penned by my all-time favourite poet, William Butler Yeats. It speaks of the eternal nature of love and loss, and evokes in me both sadness and an abiding happiness each time I hear it—
I think I shall die before I am finished discovering more and more poetry whose lilt and flow lifts my soul, and I wonder if doing so will still be possible in the afterlife. What joy I would find meandering the roads of eternity while listening to symphonic music from the maestri, and hearing great poetry from the masters read aloud.
And who knows, perhaps that is the way it will be, as this stanza from J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem, Roads Go Ever On, might imply—
Whether it will be so or not, I have always loved the lilt and flow of the spoken word. I hope you do, too.
A sage once opined that when we persist in arguing over and over again with a stupid person, we reveal ourselves as the stupid one. Nevertheless, I have long engaged in fruitless discussions with an old-time friend, to the point where I’m beginning to suspect the adage is true. I’m the stupid guy.
The problem I have is that this friend always strays from the issue at hand, deflecting my well-reasoned arguments by taking us off topic. For instance, if I were to suggest to him that it’s raining outside, a fact easily verified by looking out the window, he might well claim he sees no one with an umbrella.
“That’s not the issue!” I would protest. “You’re changing the subject. Whether or not you spy an umbrella has nothing to do with whether it’s raining or not.”
He would probably just smile and ignore my argument.
Or if I were to offer an opinion that wages for the working-class haven’t kept pace with rising costs, his comment might be to tell me he has more money at hand now than he’s ever had.
“That’s not the issue!” I would probably object. “You might well be better off than ever, but that doesn’t change the fact that costs are rising.”
He’d likely smile again, placidly this time, and not concede my point.
Perhaps I wouldn’t find this habit of his so maddening if it didn’t seem to me that he blithely assumes he’s had the better of me when these discussions happen. Without ever directly rebutting something I’ve said, he inevitably counters with a peripherally-related argument, thereby appearing to satisfy himself that the matter is settled.
And yet, stupid me, I keep arguing with him.
A while back, we were talking about whether or not the scarcity of cold and ‘flu medicines on drugstore shelves is a problem. “I’m told it’s a supply-chain issue,” I stated. “And that’s exacerbated by a heavier-than-usual demand for the stuff because of the prevalence of illness now that school is back. So, it’s a real problem right now.”
“I don’t use over-the-counter remedies,” my friend said.
“Yeah, but that’s not the issue,” I replied. “The issue is that there’s a shortage of those products at a time when people need them. That’s a problem!”
Another casual shrug was all I got. And that smug smile.
We’re both aged athletes with an abiding interest in sports, and while watching a televised ballgame together a few nights ago, I said, “Boy, the Blue Jays look really good tonight. It’s only the fourth inning, and they’ve already got seven hits and four runs in. They’re hot!”
My friend replied, “Yeah, but they’re not playing the Yankees!”
“That’s not the issue,” I exclaimed, maybe a bit heatedly. “So what if they’re not playing the Yankees? They could be playing Casey at the bat in Mudville, for all I care. They’re playing really well tonight.”
My friend shrugged as if it didn’t matter.
More recently, we were talking about the government’s removal of masking requirements for air-travel. “I think they must consider the pandemic over,” I complained. “They figure no mitigations are needed now, but I think that puts all of us at risk.”
“I don’t fly,” my friend said.
“That’s not the issue,” I fired back. “Lots of people don’t fly. But for those who do, the issue is they’re being placed in harm’s way.”
My friend shrugged off my assertions. “But not if they don’t fly,” he said.
“That’s not the issue…” I began, before giving up. How stupid can I be?
Yesterday, over a couple of beers and Reuben sandwiches, I decided to tell my friend why, during many of our conversations, his continual diversions from the subject at hand are bothering me. “It’s almost as if you’re ignoring my point,” I said, “as if what I’m saying doesn’t matter to you.”
“Why would you think that?” he asked, squarely on point. It caught me by surprise because I’d expected him to offer one of his usual non sequiturs.
“Well…you never seem to respond directly,” I stammered. “You usually mention something only superficially related to whatever I’ve said, and then assume you’ve won the argument.”
“Argument?” he repeated.
“Well, not argument,” I demurred. “More like discussion. And you ignore the points I’m making.”
“And you think I’m doing that in order to win…what, exactly?”
“The…the argument.” I smiled weakly over my beer at the absurdity of it all.
My friend smiled back. “Did it ever occur to you that I might be conceding your point in these discussions, agreeing with you, and simply offering up another thought to keep the conversation going?”
Drawing a deep breath, I said, “Oh! I guess not, no. I sort of assumed you were just trying to one-up me and win…you know, the argument.”
“Well maybe, that’s the issue then,” he said.
And at that point, we ordered another beer and moved on to a much less-stupid, more pleasant conversation, all issues set aside.
“So, lemme get this straight,” my companion says. “If your phone rings, doesn’t matter where you are, you don’t answer it? Not even if you know who it is?”
“Right,” I reply, “most of the time, anyway. Unless it’s my wife or kids, or grandkids. For them, I always answer.”
We’re walking along the lakefront on a sunny late-afternoon, enjoying the scenery, the other strollers, the kids flashing by on bikes and scooters, the sailboats out on the water. A light breeze keeps us comfortable enough in the heat.
“So, what if it’s an emergency?” my friend asks.
“I figure whoever it is will call right back,” I say, “or leave a voicemail message. Robocalls don’t do that, but people calling in an emergency will. If nobody answers a bot’s call, it just moves on to the next random number.”
“You always check your voicemail?”
“I do,” I say. “Maybe not immediately after the call, but frequently enough.”
“What if it’s a relative or close friend?”
“Same drill,” I tell him. “I mean, I may choose to answer, but it depends on what I’m doing at the time. I figure the phone is my servant, not the other way around. It’s a tool that does its thing when I say so, but I don’t jump to its bidding.”
“Yeah, but it’s not the phone demanding your attention,” my companion protests. “It could be a friend!”
“That’s right,” I nod. “But if another friend called me right now, I wouldn’t ignore you to answer the call. Why should you play second-fiddle when you’re right here with me?”
“Yeah, I can see that,” he concedes, before adding, “So, I imagine you never answer unknown callers, either.”
“Right. Same logic. But if they leave a message, I’ll soon know if I need to return the call or just forget about it.”
“Seems like an imperious attitude to me,” my companion says. “What if everybody did that to you when you’re calling them? How’d you like it?”
“Actually,” I say, “I wouldn’t mind. Far as I’m concerned, it works the same both ways. If my reason for calling is urgent, I’ll leave a voicemail message. If it’s an emergency, I’ll still do that, but I’ll also keep calling—twice, three times, four, one right after the other. I figure in that case, the person I’m calling will realize she or he should answer, that the calls aren’t random.”
“And if they don’t?”
I shrug. “Well, some things are beyond my control,” I say. “The important thing in cases like that is I try to get through and leave a message.”
“Seems like it’d be easier if everybody just answered every call,” my companion says. “That way there’d be no wasted time.”
I shrug again. “Depends, I guess. Some people—like me, for instance—would think answering every call is a waste of time. Every call? C’mon!”
We walk in silence for awhile, pausing to let a flock of geese cross our path on their way from the water to the park lawn.
“So, if I call you, I won’t get an answer, right?” my companion says, still thinking about our conversation. “And then, I hafta leave a message and wait for you to get back to me. But what if I’m the one who’s busy when you do that? Then what?”
“Then I can leave a message for you,” I argue, “which I’d do if my call was important. But if I were just calling to touch base, I might not leave a voicemail at all. No problem. Either way, the ball’s in your court at that point.”
“And this works for you?”
“So far,” I grin, gently edging my friend to one side to let a couple of bicycles flash past, bells ringing loudly.
“Maybe I should give it a try,” he says uncertainly. “I get a lotta calls, and sometimes I really wanta let ‘em go, y’know? You think it could work for me?”
“You won’t know if you don’t try,” I reply. “I had to work at it when I first…”
I’m interrupted by the insistent jangling of my companion’s phone. With a stricken look on his face, he pulls it from his pocket, checks the screen, then puts it to his ear, turning his back as he does so.
I walk on, unperturbed, leaving him in privacy to deal with the call. A hundred metres or so further along, I hear him call my name. Turning, I see him, phone still fixed to his ear, motioning for me to wait.
In response, I put my hand to my own ear, pinkie and thumb cocked in the universal signal for Call me!, then carry on my merry way.
I know I’ll get his message.
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. So mused Henry IV in William Shakespeare’s eponymous play, after he had seized the throne from Richard II. Being ruler of an Empire had proven more wearisome than he had reckoned.
I thought of his quandary upon hearing the news that Prince Charles has succeeded his deceased mother, Queen Elizabeth II, to the British throne, and will henceforth be known as His Majesty Charles the Third, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
That is a mouthful, and may prove to be more than he can chew.
For the first nine years of my life, I pledged allegiance to a King every morning in school—and to the flag, the Empire, and my country—but I had scant appreciation of what those actually were. To me, the King was a framed portrait of a uniformed man hanging on the wall of my classroom; the flag was an attractive array of red, white, and blue crosses, draped below the portrait; the Empire was made up of the pink areas on a Mercator projection wall-map prominently displayed nearby; and my country, Canada, was for a long time defined by the few square city-blocks I could traverse on my tricycle before being corralled by a frantic mother. But it was pink!
Indeed, as we were taught, the sun never set on the British Empire. We sang the national anthem every day with great gusto: God save our gracious King, Long live our noble King, God save the King…
It took a while for us to master the switch to God save our gracious Queen… upon the death of George VI in 1952. And eventually, we stopped singing the song at all, in favour of our own national anthem, O Canada, officially adopted in 1980—long after I had left my schoolboy days behind.
It never occurred to me back then that those glorious pink areas on the map were the result of rampant, colonial conquest of the original inhabitants of those lands. And in fairness, how could I have known? I was raised to believe in right vs. wrong, truth vs. falsity, morality vs. depravity, religiosity vs. atheism, generosity vs. selfishness, civility vs. rudeness, the rule of law applied to all equally vs. anarchy—all admirable virtues in and of themselves, but all defined, of course, by the privileged White authority represented by the Crown. The triumphant.
…Send him victorious, Happy and glorious…
I was brought up in the bosom of the Anglican Church, a colonial version of the Church of England, and taught to believe that sin was inevitable, repentance essential, and forgiveness attainable. And those, too, I came to understand, were defined from on high. Sin was anything the clergy might from time to time, in their great, Christian wisdom, determine it to be; repentance was adjudged sincere or not by their strict standards; and forgiveness was beneficently granted by the Lord through them—or not, as they deemed appropriate—often requiring mandatory acts of atonement.
To be sure, I enjoyed a privileged childhood, for which I am grateful. But my upbringing rendered me an absolutist well into my adult years, fully invested in the values and tenets I had been taught. That I am today something of a relativist may, I suppose, be attributed to my advancing years and a questing mind, more than to any great, moral awakening.
It seems to me now that, although might should never make right, the definition of right vs. wrong is still determined by those who can enforce their interpretation. Truth vs. falsity is defined and re-defined by those who are winning the culture-wars at any particular moment. Ernest Hemingway wrote a memoir, published posthumously, the title of which—A Moveable Feast—describes perfectly the relativism of the definitions of virtues we still profess to believe.
What constitutes selfishness today, as opposed to self-interest? And who gets to decide? What is regarded as moral vs. depraved behaviour? And by whom? Where is the boundary between civility toward one another vs. rudeness and hate? And who sets that boundary?
Is adherence to a set of liturgy-bound, religious beliefs more legitimate than a self-imposed regimen of acceptable, generous-of-spirit behaviour? And who is to decide if the adherents of either viewpoint are upholding and demonstrating their professed beliefs, as opposed to merely paying lip-service. Hypocrisy is never pretty.
In the diverse, multicultural world in which we live, there are many who would answer those questions. And there are many more, alas, who will not listen to any but their own.
A major advantage of being an absolutist is that one need never question one’s own motives or actions. For the acquiescent, it is enough to act within the boundaries of the commonly-accepted virtues proscribed from on high, or profess to be doing so. For the scofflaws, it suffices to act in opposition to that, based upon their own set of contradictory values. Each side sees itself as right, the other wrong. And they are absolutely certain of their positions.
Relativists, on the other hand, are forever doomed to uncertainty, questioning the validity, the relevance, the wisdom of their beliefs and actions, no matter what they do. Theirs is the age-old question—why?
King Charles III strikes me from afar as one who, though bound by centuries of absolutist tradition and ritual, will prove to be something of a relativist, a King who will question many of those very institutions and sacraments surrounding him, with a view to modifying them. I want to believe he realizes that, even as the monarchy is steeped in pomp and circumstance, it cannot stand still. There is no such thing as stasis. Just as our world is ever evolving, so, too, must its institutions.
Charles now wears the crown I pledged allegiance to on the head of his grandfather during my long-ago school-days, and I pray it will not lie uneasy upon him. I hope it will inspire him to critically examine his reign relative to the world around him, to lead his monarchy to a strengthening of ties with his subjects, and toward reconciliation with those whom the Empire has harmed.
…Long to reign over us, God save the King.
Shortly after the end of my seventh decade, I made a dramatic discovery. One of my basic beliefs, one of my most treasured tenets, turned out to be untrue. Indisputably incorrect. Not founded upon fact.
Contrary to my lifelong assumption, I learned I was not a baby-boomer!
Perhaps this seems less than a momentous finding, given the plethora of problems and disappointments we face every day in our troubled world. Nevertheless, it left me somewhat in limbo, wondering where I fit in, if not where I had always assumed.
Conventional wisdom in the western world, I learned, defines boomers as those born between 1946 and 1964. Sadly, I came along, the firstborn of my generation, in early 1943, a full three years before my next oldest sibling. Upon my birth, I became the seventh living person in my three-generation family, and the youngest.
Today, I am the eldest of my own three-generation family, one of eleven people. This diminutive dynasty of mine has increased in number by a meagre four souls across a span of more than seventy years. We are not exactly a fecund family!
My brother and three sisters, born between 1946 and 1954, are legitimate baby-boomers. We’ve never talked about that, though, most likely because they take it for granted. Just as I always did prior to learning the truth. As I aged—reluctantly, grudgingly, but inevitably—it was comforting to know that I would never become irrelevant, inconsequential, or ineffectual. By virtue of my inclusion in such a huge, influential, demographic cohort, I was hopeful of being ever important, pertinent, and significant.
“I am a boomer!” I would proudly declare to one and all. Alas, that hope has been forever dashed.
It was only in the last century, apparently, that people began to think in terms of generations, and to label them. Prior to 1900, presumably no one had the time or inclination to pursue such frivolous thoughts. After World War I, however, when almost sixteen million soldiers and civilians were killed, and after the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918, when perhaps fifty million people perished, the term lost generation sprang into use, denoting those born before the turn of the century. It is generally credited to the writer and critic, Gertrude Stein, and it came to define the cohort of that era.
The people born between 1900 and 1924—who came of age during the great depression of the 1930’s, many of whom served or fought in World War II—are often referred to as the greatest generation, a phrase first coined by another writer, Tom Brokaw. After the baby-boomers’ years, along came generations X, Y, and Z, roughly spanning the years between 1965 and the present. My two daughters are gen X-ers.
Generation Y, or millennials—born roughly between 1980 and the late 1990s, the children of boomers—are sometimes referred to as echo-boomers. One of my grandchildren falls into this cohort. The other four are of the gen Z group, which means my family spans five generational cohorts.
Anyway, my place in this grand scheme appears, sadly and irrefutably, to be wedged ignominiously between the greatest generation and the boomers, born between 1925 and 1945, a span that encompassed a period of rapidly-declining birth-rates in the western world. In the United States, for example, population fell by almost 1.8 million in the five years before 1945, whereas it grew by 19.4 million in the five years following. My generational cohort, the waning product of that decline, was dubbed the silent generation in a 1951 Time magazine article.
Can you imagine how I feel? I’m part of the silent generation? I went from being a boomer, a member of that iconic group responsible for much of the economic, cultural, and technological growth in the western world, to being a nobody—the product of a flagging era, dwindling and diminishing in comparison to the years surrounding it. It was disheartening, it was frustrating, and it was humbling to learn I was a member of a marginal, mute minority.
But, you may ask, why do I care? Why is this of such import?
Well, in times past—from feudal fiefdoms to Victorian villas—younger sons were often banished from their noble fathers’ mansions, sent off to the army or the church where they would succeed or fail on their own. The eldest son, however, was to the manor born, and was never treated in the manner of his younger siblings. Not for him the shame of exile or exclusion from the elegant elites. Male primogeniture reigned.
Therefore, when I eventually became old enough to understand my status as the eldest grandson in my somewhat-Victorian grandfather’s family, I more or less assumed I would benefit in a fashion similar to those earlier first-born scions of society’s finest families. Not only that, but in addition to my favourable birth-rank, I stood poised (I thought) at the leading edge of the greatest population boom in modern times, the boomers. The world would be there for our taking; none could stand against us.
[An aside: it occurs to me as I write this that perhaps, as a child, I was too steeped in Victorian delusions of grandeur. Ah, well…]
In any case, here I sit today, silenced, stifled, and insignificant, gloomily appraising my paltry position on the generational flowchart—not riding the crest of a great wave as I had assumed, a triumphant shout upon my lips—but rather receding slowly and soundlessly into a forgotten fragment of twentieth-century demographic distribution, the silent generation.
There is a painting, The Scream, completed in 1893 by Edvard Munch, himself the eldest son in his family. Famously considered to represent the universal angst of modern man, it portrays the artist at a particularly anxious time in his life. Since my banishment from the boomer ranks, I have looked at it closely and repeatedly, wondering what it sounded like, that scream. In similar torment, I have tried to copy it, tried to unveil my own scream of protest at the unfairness of it all.
“Let me in!” I open my mouth to cry, but no sound emerges. Oblivious to my silent suffering, the boomers tramp on, adhering to their own imperatives, a wholly-engrossed horde of humanity resolutely heading who knows where. Without me.
And so, ‘tis true. I am a boomer no more.
The prowling panthers pose an existential threat to the almost two hundred ostriches inhabiting the colony. The panthers, in their single-minded quest for food, are indifferent to the fate of the ostriches they are stalking. The hapless birds represent only one thing to the powerful predators—survival.
The bigger, more powerful ostriches will flee in face of the threat, and most will make good their escape. And once removed from danger, the threat will be dismissed from mind. Others will attempt to fight back, but only a very few will emerge without lingering wounds, damage that may eventually prove fatal.
Still others among the colony, refusing to acknowledge the threat at all, are reputed to bury their heads in the proverbial sand. By making the problem invisible, by denying its existence, they must think (if they think at all), they will render it harmless. The panthers feast on those misguided birds, of course, and the ostrich colony is diminished in the ensuing slaughter.
Among the inhabitants of the ostrich world, there are none so blind as those who will not see.
If you were there to witness the panthers’ predatory onslaught, you might well turn away in horror, exclaiming, “This is terrible! There oughta be a law!”
To which I would reply, “There is a law. It’s the natural law of survival of the fittest, immutable and eternal.”
On a global, human scale, political corruption, pestilential pandemics, and pernicious climate change are but three of the menaces currently posing an existential threat to the almost two hundred nation-states inhabiting our planet. These plagues, in their single-minded quest for domination, are indifferent to the fate of the human species they are stalking. We hapless human beings represent only one thing to these malignant marauders—survival.
The richer, more influential among us will avoid such threats, at least for a while, by cloaking themselves with their wealth and power. Others, less fortunate, will fight back, but despite their defiance, many of the resisters will nevertheless fall prey to the pervasive perils. Those who overcome, if any, will inevitably be victimized by such lingering maladies as political oppression, ongoing illness, or severe-weather calamities.
Still others among us, refusing in the face of all evidence to acknowledge these threats at all, will bury their heads in the proverbial sand. It seems they believe that, by ignoring the clear and present danger such threats present, by denying their existence, they will render them harmless. The mindless scourges feast on those misguided souls, of course, and the human species is diminished.
There are those among us who, witnessing the onslaught of rampant corruption, emerging pandemics, increasing climate danger—not to mention scores of other existential threats—react with horror, exclaiming, “This is terrible! There oughta be a law!”
To which I reply, “There is a law. It’s the natural law of survival of the fittest, and it’s immutable and eternal—unless, that is, we as a species take immediate, concerted action to change it.”
“We’ve been trying that,” some protest. “Doesn’t work.”
“Nevertheless,” I counter, “we are one colony on this planet, despite the fact we live in almost two hundred distinct nation-states, and our very survival depends upon our willingness and ability to work together.”
“We’ve tried that,” some say again. “Didn’t work.”
It seems such a shame that, despite the magnificent evolutionary journey our homo sapiens species has carved out during our two million years on the planet, we appear doomed to bring it to a premature end ourselves, through our wilful ignoring of the empirical dangers we face right now—burying our heads in the sand.
It seems such a shame that there are none so blind as those who will not see.
The weekly prompt from my Florida writers’ group was to take a snatch of lyric from a song, or a phrase from a poem, and write a story around it. This piece of fiction is inspired by When You Are Old, by W. B. Yeats—and is in memory of my mother, whose birthday this is, and who first introduced me to the poet’s work.
The old man died sometime during the night, alone, peacefully. His careworn face, wrinkled and wizened under the weight of so many years, seemed suddenly younger somehow, and his lips were curled in what might have been taken as a smile.
On the table by the near-side of the bed—the side long occupied by his recently-departed wife—lay a note lovingly penned by his frail hand, an aged quill beside it, the ink caked dry on its tip. It was unmistakably a love-letter to her, intended not for anyone else, fated now to be his last word to all who had loved the two of them.
This is what he wrote—
And now you are gone, off to another adventure, but this time without me. How I wish I had been ready in time to accompany you, as on every occasion in the past.
There have been so many wonderful journeys upon which we did embark, each more glorious than those before it. How I remember the sparkle in your eyes, the flush of your cheeks, the lilt of your joyous laughter, as off we went each time, hand in hand, bound for who knows where, never knowing that which we would encounter, but secure in our belief that, together, we would meet and conquer all.
And so we did. Eloping when there seemed no other way in the face of families opposed, living abroad, scratching an existence from the fruits of our creative gifts, buoyed by our love and our belief in one another. We could not have known, both so young, that your brush and my pen would eventually find favour with the audiences who discovered us. And yet, undaunted, off we had whisked on that first great adventure into the wide world, happy, confident, ready for whatever fate had in store for us, surpassingly serene in each other’s bosom.
Every new work on your easel, every new draft in my notebook, carried us on to more adventures as we painted and published our way to heights heretofore unimagined. What happiness we found in talking over our creative endeavours as they unfolded, in offering critiques and suggestions—shyly at first, and then more confidently as we grew in each other’s esteem. Heralded as artists by the world beyond, we found our muses within ourselves and shared them. Together.
Later came the children—Patrick, who died too soon; Liam, an accomplished actor now with dreams of his own; and Maeve, a musician who reminds me so strongly of her mother with such grace and sweetness masking that steely courage I ever found in you. What an adventure they provided us as our troupe grew to five, and then, sadly, diminished again to four. What heights of joy we experienced, what depths of despair! And yet, throughout, we sallied forth, ever determined to pass through each gateway, to follow each new path, to crest each succeeding hill. Always together.
Inevitably, we became two again as the children, not unexpectedly, began to pursue their own adventures. The years continued ever on and on, of course, but we, never ones to be mindful of constraints that seemed to bind so many others, paid them scant heed. Yet even we—we, with all our bravissimo and essenza—even we could not slow the relentless ravages of time, the toll it took upon our bodies. Even as our spirits remained as strong and audacious as ever, our bodies, increasingly and annoyingly, slowed us. But at least we were together.
Before I knew, I had become an old man, bent and slowed. And I watched as the weight of years pressed down upon you, too—never enough to douse the fire that burned within your soul, but tamping its fierce flames to glowing embers. Never enough to quell the desire within us to begin our next great adventure, but sufficient to forestall our getting underway.
Nevertheless, even in our dotage, we found ourselves, blessedly, still together. And I was ever the man who loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.
But now, beloved Pilgrim, for the first time, you have started a new adventure without me, alas. And I am bereft, forsaken and left here in this too-much-travelled, mortal confine. Would you have waited for me if you could, I wonder? I think so. Perchance, are you waiting still, there on that other side somewhere, knowing assuredly I shall be along when I can?
I write this now in hope it is so, that we shall reunite in glory to resume our way across the universe, amid a crowd of stars.….
There’s going to be a gathering of three clans at the home of my eldest daughter and son-in-law this coming Father’s Day—Burt, Cherry, and Whittington. With a combined age of 233 years, the three patriarchs (of whom I am one) boast of seven children (four of whom are themselves fathers) and nine grandchildren in total (some of whom are shared).
Those grandchildren, in addition to their patriarchal lineages, share ancestry from six families on the distaff side—Arnold, Eaton, Romig, Rowsell, Sakeris, and Wrigglesworth. We are a discrete gathering, to be sure, but one big family, and it will be a happy coming-together.
Father’s Day has changed for me since I was a child, the eldest of five siblings. In the beginning, I suspect I didn’t truly know what we were celebrating, given that all of us loved our father every day. It was simply a party-day for some reason, and we all joyfully joined in to present Dad with our homemade gifts and cards. He appreciated those more, I think, than the presents we purchased for him as we grew older—although he always had a softness for candy.
It wasn’t until I became a father myself that I began to appreciate what it meant to be somebody’s Daddy. The enormous responsibility that entails was never lost on me, but it paled in comparison to the happiness and sense of fulfilment it brought. And so, as my own daughters grew into young women, so too grew my appreciation of my own father and his role in shaping my life.
He lived into his 92nd year, mentally sharp to the end, and never lost his sense of humour. Near the end, my mother asked him in a gentle whisper if he’d like her to sing to him. “Not particularly!” he whispered back, the ghost of a smile gracing his face.
She sang him out, anyway, as he must have known she would.
Until I became one, fathers were always older men than I. With remarkably few exceptions, I remember the fathers of my childhood friends being much like my own father—distant at times, there when it mattered, working-men dedicated to providing for their families. They embarrassed us on some occasions, swelled our hearts with pride on others, and we never doubted their love for us—except maybe occasionally when they wouldn’t let us borrow the car.
I felt the same about the man who became my father-in-law—whom we lost way too soon—and I consciously tried to model my own behaviour as a father on those two men who were most prominent in my life.
It seems to me, even now, that it took a whole lot longer for me to grow up and move out from under my father’s purview than it did for my daughters to do the same. My childhood lasted forever, or so I remember it. But my girls were there—those precious, sweet babies—for such a short time, and then, in the blink of an eye, they were gone to men of their own. To this day, I have a picture of the two of them, aged four and two, on my dresser.
“You’re not children anymore,” I tell them now. “But I’ll never stop being your father.” And I cling to that certainty.
I suspect the same sentiment is true for the other two patriarchs who’ll be joining me this coming Sunday. One of them has three sons, the other a son and daughter. All of those sons are themselves fathers now, which has led us to the startling realization (at least to me) that fathers are no longer the older men in our lives. With the passing of our own fathers, it is younger men who now fill the role.
And in that reality, we old men are blessed. The four sons, as fathers, are all loving husbands, dedicated to their families. Hard as it is to believe, two of them are already retired from their life’s work, and branching out into other pursuits. And without exception, they have loved and honoured their fathers and fathers-in-law from the beginning.
Over the next few years—years I trust I will be around to enjoy—I suspect there will be even younger fathers joining our combined families. Grandsons and the young men who will marry our granddaughters may, with their partners, bring more children into our midst, great-grandchildren who will grace our lives. At this point, I find it a happy circumstance that the number of fathers in our families is likely to increase.
By a matter of mere weeks in one case, and by a few years in the other, I am the eldest of the three patriarchs—the seniorem patrem familia, I suppose—but there is no doubt that such a distinction matters little. All three of us are held in equal esteem by our respective children and grandchildren.
This coming Sunday, if everyone were able to attend, including sons- and daughters-in-law (and perhaps boyfriends), we would number twenty-five in all—seven of whom would be fathers, three of those, grandfathers. Alas, some are too far distant, some grandchildren will be working, some in-laws may be with their own fathers at similar gatherings. But whether with us or not, all will be there in spirit, and we shall raise a glass to the fathers among us.
There may come a few moments on Sunday when we three old men will find ourselves sitting off to the side, watching and listening to the antics of the younger ones, no longer as integral a part of the hubbub as once we were—a few moments when we may look at one another, smile knowingly, and silently acknowledge our shared status, a status none of us, perhaps, ever imagined we would occupy.
In so many ways now, I believe I have become my father. And that accomplishment makes me happy. I think Dad would be happy, too.
Happy Father’s Day to all of us who are blessed to be fathers and sons.