What does the life deliberately and well lived look like?
I passed New Year’s Eve in the dark on a wet road in Vermont. The sky hung low and starless overhead, the snow and ice dripped from the roofs, and the roadway sank to mud beneath our feet. It was a night like any other, and it was not.
This night judges you. Under the winter sky, the confessional box opens and there I am. I could be alone with Ben, Jerry, and Dick Clark on any other night, and the time would click by. But on this night, I mentally look at where I am, list it all up, and then take a look at the man in the glass.
And am found wanting. I don’t have enough money and I use too many belt holes. I measured out another year in unanswered letters, excuses, and missing golf balls. I have filled too many evenings with Angry Birds and too few with quiet work. And, with the judgment on his lips, I ask the man in the glass for an extension and a resolution. It’s never too late to be what you might have been.
My grandfather never felt that way. On New Year’s Eve in 1975, he (and my grandmother) spent the evening with us while our parents danced the night in up at the Bear Hill Moonlight Serenade New Year’s Eve party. When “Auld Lang Syne” was finally sung and my parents drove home through the miasma of Manhattans and champagne, they had one final New Year’s Toast. The three children were roused while my father poured out thimble-fulls of Asti Spumante. My sister and I had on party hats, my brother blew a party horn and the adults held their glasses high.
We were both sleepy and excited. My father glowed with a well-stoked inner fire, and my grandmother continued to chew on her lemon. But my grandfather looked into the camera, and at my mother, with a wry and wise twinkle. He had no shame looking at the man in the glass. He made no resolutions.
The old man had lived himself a life. He had dropped out of middle school to pick tobacco near Springfield, Massachusetts. As that work dried up, he left his family and drifted east. He picked up work in one place, and then another, as long as the sign didn’t read “No Irish Need Apply.” After he married and had three children, he ran the boilers at H.P. Hood in Lynn and for the Wakefield Water Department. When he was my age, he worked an eight hour shift in Lynn, hopped on a bus, returned to Wakefield, and worked another eight hour shift so that his children could get school uniforms, eat hot meals, and have a roof over their heads.
In contrast, I came from a generation to whom much was given and from whom much was expected. I was “free to be, you and me” through high school, through college and into a workforce in search of meaningful (and rewarding) work. When I married, I was to be a committed and thoughtful husband. When we had children, I was to be a committed and thoughtful dad. When I faced my maker on the last day of the year, he had many subjects to examine me on. Was my wife happy? Were my children happy? Had I lived deliberately? Had I mended the world?
Invariably, I had not.
My grandfather did many things, but I doubt he “sucked the marrow out of life” as Thoreau counseled. Instead, I suspect that his wife, his children and his jobs sucked the marrow out of him. No one comes home after sixteen hours in a boiler room looking for anything other than a pillow and a bath. Yet, he looks out at me from 1975 as a man in full.
Older men, like my grandfather, should be the lighthouses for a young man’s life. They point out the channel and the rocks; they show the path that one can take and the perils of that path. The trick, of course, is to learn how to listen, how to follow, and how to take instruction.
This is not the American way; we don’t listen to our grandfathers. In Self-Reliance, that most American of philosophers, Emerson, writes that “Imitation is suicide.” To him, an honest life was one without guides, warnings, or lighthouses. You woke in the morning, stared down deep into the pool of your soul, found a transcendent truth and embraced it. To him, the universe was universally tuned to the high C of your soul. As long as you could hear it and sing it, your path was the yellow brick road.
However, I can’t really tell if my soul wants to hike Cape Cod or if it just wants to roll over and go back to bed. That internal high C isn’t particularly loud. The pool in my soul is murky, the music is overwhelmed by a hundred other sounds, and the yellow brick road hides under bills and babies. Listening for the high C in life is a young man’s game, as is pick-up basketball and beer pong. “Living deliberately” is all well and good when you are a single white male in a shed on Walden Pond with a warm dinner waiting up the road. Add a few children, a car, and tuition at St. Joseph’s School then you are “deliberately living” paycheck to paycheck.
The transcendent truths of my grandfather’s life did not lie in his work or in the clear limpid water of his soul. They were in his basement and we found them after he died. He had attached a Chock Full of Nuts to a three foot long lead pipe, then filled the cans with screws, nails, and other bits of metal. The weights, and several heavy cans, sat at the foot of a metal folding chair behind the furnace and the chimney. Ninety-five years old, the old man was pumping iron in the cellar.
My grandfather was not the prize-fighter, just a Poppa. He didn’t hike, he didn’t run, he didn’t hit the speed bag for five minute intervals before chatting up the yoginis at Gold’s Gym. Instead, he walked up the street in the morning to buy the Daily Item, took an afternoon nap in his easy chair, and ate a cheeseburger in the evening. He didn’t lift weights for the mirror, the camera, or for the ring. He never became buff or built. But he did it every day.
The hour spent in the basement must have been dear bought. Everyone must have been asleep, work must be looming, and other chores and duties must have pressed on him. Yet, in a basement of his own, he slowly invested in one thing done well.
That was how he lived deliberately through the years. His friends died, his wife died, his daughter died and he continued to drop into the cellar each afternoon and lift the coffee cans. After each session, he could say without apology “good has been done today.” He needed no excuse from the man in the glass.
The house is sold, the coffee cans are gone, and the man himself is dead. The lighthouse still remains and the channel dimly marked so that even on a muddy road in the lightless dead of a Vermont night, the path is clear.
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Image credit: Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections/Flickr