The older I get the more valuable my friends are. Leaving home, nearly fifty years ago, I didn’t realize how rich I was. Coming back, finding that the best friends I ever made were the ones I lost touch with, has calmed me down, made me realize, I’ve always been looking for something I never lost.
In most cases, what we remember, I think, is not the truth of a given moment, but a kind of opinion we form, according to the circumstances of our characters and personalities. It may be that the truth is not really in us, that it can’t be told, especially about the past.
Whether we go as I did, or stay as you have, human beings are nomadic by nature. The oldest regions of our brains are constantly looking for hilltops to go beyond. Instinct assumes, perhaps correctly, that the grass almost always really is greener on the other side. That’s a romantic notion, but also how life unfolds, how we make it to the other side of ignorance.
What we learn depends on what we’re looking for, and what we choose to see.
Leaving home, I found food enough, as well as new and shiny objects for the taking. I desired the exercise of migration for pleasure, but something more pressing, something as fundamental as the coming winter is to a migratory duck, drove me to fly for survival. There was freedom in the air, and springtime for the bird in plumage of my physical nature. I located enough green grass to feed the hungry horses of my vanity.
Leaving home, I saw something like smoke in the rearview mirror, all the memories of boyhood burning like a forest fire. You were a poor kid from the south end of town — one of the trees — make it a long-leaf pine — you stayed where nature planted you, competing for social sunlight and financial nutrients in the rough and tumble construction business. You made and lost a fortune, made it back tenfold, and gave it up.
“If I can’t build it off the dashboard of a pickup truck, I pass,” you told me once.
You had crews spread out across the country, putting a hundred thousand miles a year on successive pickup trucks. You said you wouldn’t own a airplane, you didn’t like to fly.
You didn’t sleep all night for years, chasing golden bears.
Then you caught up.
Or should I say, you sensed the presence of something like a bear — a heart attack coming, a bleeding ulcer, cancer — something wounded in the swamp that you yourself put there with an almost perfect shot — the exhausted animal of ambition waiting to scratch you all to pieces.
I guess, in a way, you retired. What that implies, however, is like saying a long leaf pine tree, grown tall enough that it no longer has to compete for sunshine, with a taproot grown down to where the nutrients are plentiful, makes a choice to stop growing. You did the natural thing, perhaps, became a pine so wise as to give up striving to be the tallest in the forest.
Not to speak unkindly of you, the competitive edge you always had is still a razor. You bring endurance to the hunt. Never mind speed, it never was a race. You earned your arrogance skinning golden bears. I will not speak of your soft heart. You never developed one, except for underdog human beings, abused creatures, and children in pain. You never stopped building. The blueprints in your imagination have never been impossible dreams. There is no telling where curiosity and interest will lead you: up the Amazon River, or learning to fly an airplane after all.
These days I find rare occasion to venture beyond the front yard of the house I grew up in.
“We shall not cease from exploration,” said T.S. Elliot, “and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time.”
We’ll never retire.
Retirement is what you do as a nomadic tribesman, coming to a river too swift for old men to cross. We can sit down and wait for the wolves, or we can swim for our lives, to the middle of the river, turn and go downstream, far as the river takes us. Then look for another hill to climb, take one more step, with greener grass in mind. Or stop, and look around, brother. Everywhere is pasture, squint your eyes. Everything is green. The way it always is, every time.