Editor’s Note: Although none of us in the last few decades has lived through a global pandemic, there’s something familiar in the mood of it that makes me want to sum up my life, assess it as if I’ve been here before, in proximity to death, as if it’s my last chance, which I surely hope it’s not. The following is a reprint of a short meditation I wrote about ten years ago, the last time I felt this mood so keenly.
By Don Pelton
5:30 AM, the first day of the new year, still dark out.
I peer out the bedroom window and see a small circle of new snow glistening in the light from the motion-detector on the well house, probably set off a minute ago by a passing deer or raccoon.
I’ve waked for the last of several times in the night, a feature of aging that will probably be with me now until the end.
Nothing is pure, even the hope we feel at the beginning of a new year. There’s always a mixture of regret.
I feel that mixture of hope and regret more keenly this year because yesterday, on the eve of the new year, one of our dear friends and neighbors, someone we’ve come to love as family, suddenly died.
We grieve alone, helpless, outside the circle of her immediate family.
We know they’re strong. We know they’ll be OK.
The good we do in life, and the good we do that lives on after we’re gone is both palpable and mysterious, greater in some ways than we can imagine.
I think this morning about the Aging Conference I created and hosted on The WELL back in the late eighties, when I was in my mid forties. Feeling the first stirrings of middle age, I gave it the title, “Have You Done the ‘Great Thing’ You Dreamed of Doing With Your Life?’
I soon learned from that discussion that not everyone is burdened by an unfulfilled dream. Many fortunate people are born with the enviable ability to live their lives from day-to-day, seizing the opportunity for happiness whenever and wherever it appears.
Others have dreams of “greatness.”
I’ve forgotten much of that discussion now, but it seemed to me as though, in our culture at that time, the dream of greatness was more a male thing.
Times have changed.
If it’s true that in dreams begin responsibilities, then some of us may never have waked from the dream, but rather slept through our failure to realize it.
For ten of my preteen and teen years I studied the violin, taking lessons from a fiery Polish music teacher named (don’t try to pronounce it) Bronislaw Stempczynski. I studied hard at first only in order to avoid his wrath. But in time I came to love the instrument, playing solos in recitals each year at San Francisco State College. I also eventually learned that Mr. Stempczynski — “Barney,” as those of us in orchestra affectionately called him — loved music and loved us too, in his own way.
By the time I started college at Berkeley at age seventeen, I was determined to make a life of music. I was particularly interested in musicology, the scholarly study of music. Such ambition!
Then, in my second year at Berkeley, a small thing happened that set my life on a different course. I was sitting in a cafe on Telegraph Avenue, having lunch, when another young man from the music department sat down with me. During the conversation he told me that I had “nice hands.”
Alarms went off. Homosexual! Danger, danger!
We finished the conversation amicably, but I wanted to run away. His flirting approach to me was profoundly unsettling, and after that I began to lose interest in the music department.
There were probably many good reasons to lose my musical ambitions, but that one — if that’s what it was — was pathetic and sad.
I sleepwalked through most of that time in my young life.
Dreams aside, my life has been good and blessed. Forty-five years of marriage. [Update 4/4/20: now 55 years] Three beautiful children. Decent and satisfying work.
If there’s a key to this mystery, it’s probably hidden in plain sight, in a statement a friend made to us many years ago. We were talking to him about unfulfilled plans and dreams. He recalled that he always wanted to go to Europe.
Then he said, matter of factly, “I must have wanted to be married more, because that’s what I did.”
I was stunned by that statement, by the enormous freedom in it.
It didn’t matter what he chose. He might as well have said, “I must have wanted to go to Europe more, because that’s what I did.”
It doesn’t even matter that there’s no conflict between being married and going to Europe. Some people could have done both. He saw it as a choice, and he chose what he chose.
The point — the deep point — is that he completely affirmed all his life choices after the fact as being expressions of his deepest desires and dreams.
This life, this good life, must have been my true dream.