"You awake yet?" my wife says, first thing.
I am. It's a quarter to six and I need to gear up for an early lake swim anyway.
Next, my wife tells me the value of our home continues to plummet, according to some online torture she consults, called zillow.com. As far as I can tell, it's a tool designed to calculate how much your home is no longer worth.
So began last Saturday morning.
(this post contains no answers, only more questions … )
I'm not sure why she tells me this, and I don't know what to do with the information. Nor do I ever, because it's not the first report I've gotten on the falling value of our home.
Naturally, I resort to wondering what might have been. We could have stayed in our first home, six miles to the southeast. It was affordable but small, getting smaller as our children grew. The basic ranch home, built in the late 1950s for the Air Force and civilian personnel who were pouring into the air base to the north. The previous homeowners had tacked on a lot of dodgy claptrap that the county inspectors somehow forgave in order for them to sell and us to buy. It was a container full of funk.
We would have made do there. Our kids would not have had to change schools. We could have put some money into rehabbing the place, and still saved ourselves some dough. We moved instead, buying as home prices rose. It's a sound house, requiring less vigilance from us home-repair dunces. Though the ideal size as our children matured, the house has quickly become too big with the kids away in college. As with our brains, we use only 10 percent of it.
Shoulda coulda woulda. This mid-life crossroad (not a crisis, just a place) is chronic, and more disorienting than I expected. I've been at this intersection a long time, looking back on a road that has tucked here and there behind bluffs before disappearing into the horizon, a road that decisions built; looking out on roads that roll yet to new horizons, obscured quickly in haze.
Mere minutes after arising Saturday, I see a facebook picture that someone from high school had posted. The photo appears to show him giving a speech in front of a gigantic multi-screen presentation, amid an arena packed with people.
In high school I felt need to distance myself from him, for reasons I forget and which probably only make sense to high school freshmen. I remember he was ambitious in a napoleonic way, and I can see clearly now the local boy made good. I can see it because he often posts highlights of his global jaunts or speaking engagements, and his move to the thickly timbered northwest, where movie stars and other expansive personalities can spread out their stuff. I suppose I'd tell of my travels and achievements too, and really, what is so different from me pinning up drawings electronically and wondering if you think they're pretty?
These two odd, minor moments Saturday triggered feelings that have simmered for many years, wonderings about the measure of a person:
Have I done what I'm capable of doing and being? (No, surely not. ) What am I worth? (How do you measure? ) What could I be worth? (Well, now … ) And what is worth? (Damn good question! )
(Nothing new here, a feeling most people share, which feels like a seizing at this age. A finite set of tomorrows begins to arrange itself in view, and I wonder what purpose I have served, can still serve until then, what I didn't do so many yesterdays ago that I should have, and when. In the popular media, the mitigation is a fast sports car or a love affair. In my go-round, it's a blog post instead, and a lot of rumination. Nothing new here.)
A couple of high school teachers wrote in my senior yearbook that they expected to seeing me on the New York Times best seller's lists in short time. I suppose they were launching a flare high into the stratosphere and bidding me follow it. I didn't really have much of a game plan; loosely, it was get a journalism degree and eventually become a foreign correspondent, working at ever larger newspapers until I landed in another country.
But once employed, I wasn't as enamored of news reporting as my high school self had led me to believe — let this be a lesson: Don't base your career aspirations on the fractured reality of a TV show: "Lou Grant" was not a depiction of how a real newspaper works.
My career since then has been a pursuit of interests for which I am not entirely qualified but would like to be paid. All the time I have wondered whether I'm serving a good purpose, a right purpose, or whether I should be doing something else. Though I've peppered all that time with volunteer work of some type or other, I've been in a stall lately, helping few while I figure out some things.
Some days the highest purpose seems to be being useful. Most days it's useful to re-frame the questions. Shoulda coulda woulda should really be: I did, I am doing, I will do, the best I can.
I have a home; so many do not. I have my wonderful wife who is my best
friend and makes our life work every day. I have children who really are
our delight, whose own journeys out into the world are wonders to me. I have potential, still. When I wrote recently about my old banjo, my son said I should pluck it out and pluck it again. When I told a friend I'd like to do more traditional ink-on-paper illustrations, he said, "Why not?"
Yeah, why not? It's not easier said than done, but it's doable. Get busy living, or get busy dying.
I'm fortunate to know interesting people, and just bright enough to think I may learn something useful in their company. Among them, I think now of one who is intensely creative, who has built a life from an uncompromising practice of the craft of creativity; who is now trying to reconcile this principled creative life with the unavoidable reality of covering living expenses; who forges ahead, leveraging hope that he finds kindred spirits in the clients who uphold his principles.
I think of another, who has lived a couple of lifetimes worth of experiences, and who has amassed an enviable wealth of professional qualifications; who is now looking for work in this screwed-up economy; who operates on positive attitude, and not only works diligently to find a new position, but fills up his time mastering a multitude of passions in the wonderful event that they become his work.
Money is a damnable barrier for both — and for all of us — but it gives weight to my hope that they get busy and stay busy despite it.
As for a worthy life, I saw it late Sunday at church when an elderly couple made the slow trek all the way to a front pew, the husband bracing his way on a walker. The wife took a seat in the pew directly behind him, the better to care for him, lifting off his jacket, fanning the warm April evening off his neck with the weekly bulletin, alerting eucharistic ministers that he needs communion brought over.
Get busy living.