Autonomy and the Risk of Anarchy

 

Today is dedicated to celebrating liberty and our independence from British oppression. Besides backyard barbeques, there are many earnest recitations of the Declaration of Independence, political speeches, and idealized stories about American patriots. The pageantry is a celebration of the American credo about the people’s rights—the autonomy or liberty—to live as they see fit. Balancing individual autonomy with social order goes to the heart of America’s argument with itself since 1776. The American Revolution continues because our high-minded ideals are in conflict with the supremely murky human motives that pit us against ourselves.

My ancestors lived in Vermont during the Revolution and their experiences highlight how easily autonomy can slide into anarchy. From 1761 until 1791, Vermont was an unorganized no-man’s land called the “Hampshire Grants” claimed by the colonial governments of New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It served the French and Indians as a backwoods staging area for raids on New England.

Arlington, VT, the town the Searl's established.
Arlington, VT, the town the Searle’s established.

In 1761, after 125 years in Massachusetts and Connecticut, John, Reuben, Lemuel, and Gideon Searle along with 58 other men secured 25,000 acres in the ‘Hampshire Grants’ from New Hampshire’s royal governor. The grantees called it Arlington, chose John Searl as the town moderator, and levied taxes for surveys and roads. Several years later, New York’s royal governor granted 26,000 acres covering the same land to New Yorkers. When New York surveyors showed up in 1769 and 1771, a armed men with New Hampshire patents drove off the surveyors. New York captured and tried nine men represented by Ethan Allen but, finding no justice in court, Allen organized an armed force called the “Green Mountain Boys” that included Gideon Searl Sr. and Jr. The local Committees of Safety used the militia to run off New York claimants, surveyors and sheriffs.

Ethan Allen, opportunist, leader, and speculator.
Ethan Allen, opportunist, leader, and speculator.

During the low level conflict with New Yorkers in the political vacuum of the ‘Hampshire Grants,’ Ethan Allen, Gideon Sr. and Jr., and others took advantage of Vermont’s autonomy to speculate in land. Gideon Sr. and Jr. also secured interest in a New York grant given to British Major Phillip Skene at the end of Lake Champlain. At the same time, Skene and Ethan Allen schemed at creating a new province extending across northern New York from the Connecticut River to Lake Ontario. The plan died in1775 when Skene rejoined the British army and Allen’s militia captured Ft. Ticonderoga. Allen had two aims: drive the British out of the Lake Champlain Valley to show solidarity with the colonies and create a potential bargaining chip with the British.

Fort Ticonderoga, gateway to Lake Champlain
Fort Ticonderoga, gateway to Lake Champlain

In the face of the war, and to protect their holdings, Allen and his allies proclaimed the republic of Vermont in 1776 with a constitution, an organized government, troops, and control over the Loyalists. In this chaotic period, many men saw and seized opportunities for personal gain. Vermont’s government set up courts of confiscation to seize and sell Crown and Loyalist property to fill the Vermont treasury. When William Searle, Gideon’s brother, confiscated Loyalist property on his own, the Vermont Council of Safety found him guilty of illegally keeping the property and ordered him to pay the government. Gideon was more prudent, however, and bought confiscated properties from the state in several locations during the lulls in his four years of militia service.

The Green Mountain Boys, Gideon Searl's regiment.
The Green Mountain Boys, Gideon Searl’s regiment.

The Republic of Vermont sent delegates to the Continental Congress in 1777 but New York opposed them because of the over-lapping boundary claims between Vermont and New York. Southern states and states with competing claims also opposed Vermont’s admission. Meanwhile, Ethan Allen opened negotiations with Britain in 1781 to reunite with it but the talks ended in 1783 when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Vermont remained autonomous until 1791, when it joined the United States along with Kentucky.

With the end of hostilities , Gideon Jr., John Jr., Reuben, Lemuel and William Searl petitioned the Vermont Assembly in 1781 to establish a township and grant them title to “a Certain Vacant Tract of unappropriated Land” south of Lake Champlain within a part of New York claimed by Vermont. It was a politically opportunistic move that Vermont’s government declined. When the State of New York sent its militia to enforce the border it claimed inside Vermont, a larger force of Vermont militia, including Gideon Sr., met them at the border. Both sides backed away from open conflict at the last minute.

Gideon Sr. and Jr. moved from Arlington to Whitehall, New York, in 1782 and settled on the land they originally leased from Skene at the end of Lake Champlain. They owned adjacent farms, operated a sawmill on Castle Creek, and held various local offices, including assessor. Not until 1815 did negotiations resolve the issues of the New York-Vermont border and conflicting land titles.

The Revolutionary War was a messy affair unlike the idealized picture of a continent populated by selfless, armed patriots opposed to British oppression. It is estimated only a third of the American colonists supported Independence, another third opposed it (Loyalists), and the remainder were indifferent. My ancestors’ experience was typical of the times. They seized great opportunities with near total autonomy but the excessive autonomy threatened to become anarchy in the absence of an effective government.

This lesson is worth remembering in our restive times. Our current political struggles over the limits of governmental authority and personal autonomy have hardened into absolute positions that defy compromise. The political paralysis of our current divisions points to several dangers as grave as the anarchy in Vermont—the lack of a broad social contract, a Congress incapable of acting effectively on matters of great national importance, an executive extending its authority to act in the place of Congress, and a sharply divided court. The partisan electoral system is corrupted by money, serves the interests of powerful groups and produces broadly unpopular candidates at least one of whom slyly condones if not inspires mob-violence. It’s our nation’s 240th anniversary, and these are truly the times that try people’s souls.

 

 

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The Transubstantiation of Grain

 

New corn, field of hopes.
New corn, a field of hopes.

Have you noticed that seeds and grains possess identical appearances? Wheat planted as a seed is identical to the grain harvested later in the season. If so, why do we distinguish seed from grain when they are the same object? In the answer to the question lies what I believe is part of the mystery in the human story.

A seed planted produces a plant that reproduces itself as a seed. Grain, however, is a seed transformed by human intention when put in the service for other purposes. Further, I believe the cultivation of grain lies at the heart of civilization. Communal life as we know it, and the cultural elaboration that followed from it was, and remains, impossible without the cultivation of grain. Deep beneath the material aspects of grain cultivation lies a bit of cosmic mystery.

A grain appears identical to a seed but it isn’t. Grain’s destiny isn’t as a means of plant reproduction but as an agent of human transformation. It’s subtle but bear with me. Growing up on a farm, I participated in the differentiation of seeds and grains. Each spring we planted seeds to produce a crop in order to harvest the grains. Seeds were the means to the end, which was the harvest—the surplus production and sale of seeds beyond those needed for planting.

Oat harvest - fruit of rain, soil, labor.
Oat harvest, not for seed but for feed.

Planting corn or wheat each spring was our act of faith because we couldn’t control the weather, prevent infestations of wheat rust or cut worms, or changes in the price at market. Everyone depends on agriculture—grain—but few of us are directly connected to it. Nowadays we know grains indirectly and invisibly through their by-products: flour, grits, pasta and ethanol. Culturally, we think of ‘harvest’ and Thanksgiving as wrapping up a season in hoped for abundance and material security. It’s a warm, cozy idea but farmers are less sentimental. Harvest is do-or-die; the yield of grain per acre is a judgment on their management of resources and risks. The yield is the fulcrum for debt or surplus.

Grain underlies the larger mystery of settled human populations and the civilizations arising from them. Settled populations anchored themselves around and through the cultivation of wild grasses to harvest their seeds as food. Emmer and einkorn are the Middle Eastern ancestors of the modern wheat. Teosinte, a wild grass of Mesoamerica, became the mother of maize in all its forms, and is no longer a wild plant but depends on humans to reproduce.

Careful observation and selection over centuries produced plants able to produce greater yields of grain per acre, withstand droughts, winds, or blights. Humans chose grains with particular traits to maximize production on various soils and environments. Just as our ancestors domesticated or shaped the evolution of wild plants, in like manner the plants and their needs influenced and domesticated the shape and structure of human communities and cultures.

Corn harvest, the fulcrum.
Corn yield per acre, the fulcrum of success.

Dry grains, easily stored and transported, and densely nutritious, made it possible to amass surpluses to support larger communities and specialists, like potters, weavers, warriors, priests, and doctors. Cultivation accentuated the division of labor, the creation of classes, and defined gender roles. The particular needs of each grain—wheat, maize, sorghum, oats or barley—distinctly shaped the labor, lives, idioms, customs, and celebrations of the people who depended them. The relations between grains and humans is a symbiotic one. Neither modern civilization nor contemporary grains came into existence without the other.

Before the ‘Big Bang,’ our universe is believed to be compressed into something the size of a grain. Yet, within its cosmic hull lay everything that was, is, and will be. In a nano-second, this proto-universe hurled toward eternity the myriad potentialities that have and still interact, combine, and recombine as suns are born and die, galaxies form and disappear into black holes, civilizations rise and fall, and people are born, nourished and die.

Like the universe before the ‘Big Bang,’ a seed contains all the potentialities of the plant that grows from it and, by extension, the grain contains human intentions whose use will have primary, secondary and tertiary effects on human lives and civilizations. Grain is transformational in the human story. Although grain retains the outer form of a seed, the reason for its existence—its purpose—is altered, as if in a secular version of transubstantiation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chaos—Life is impossible without it

????????????????????Chaos—the primordial material of God’s Creation. Chaos—the disastrous state of our children’s room. Chaos—the erratic anarchy threatens governments and officials. Chaos—the breeder of social dysfunction. Chaos—the disordered state of many minds. Chaos—the  emotional plasma of adolescence. Chaos—one half of a cosmic dynamic duo. Chaos—the womb of creativity. Chaos—the antidote for boredom. We need chaos as spice to add meaning to our lives. Without chaos there is only stasis. Without chaos, no one possesses the power of inspiration. Without chaos, we have nothing to strive against, for we are driven toward order. We crave order until we have too much of it. We welcome order until it stifles us. We use order to protect ourselves from others unlike ourselves. Too much order makes us prisoners of fear. It feeds on us to maintain its existence. We become bored prisoners of stasis until a random event, an unseen conceptual meteorite, an unexpected political candidate, an unheralded economic collapse breaks up the carapace of order, sets chaos loose, and frees us once more to pursue a creative path toward a new order. Chaos. Life is impossible without it.

 

The Intimate Hand

Response to Daily Prompt: Handwriting

In these days of digital communication, it is a rare and joyous occasion when I receive a hand-written letter. It is far more personal than a typed letter of cold, perfectly-formed characters lying inert on stark white paper with a signature scrawled at the end. But even these have more intimacy than an e-mail or—worse—a  text message of ‘LOL’ or ‘OMG.’ No. Except for face-to-face, person-to-person conversation, handwriting is the only form of communicating that conveys the innate character of the other person as an integral part of the message.

I treat a hand-written letter, with its pen and ink, as a huge gift of someone’s time and affection. Such letters begin with someone’s desire to tell me something. Their heart’s desire becomes a thought, leading to an impulse to pick up a pen and sheet of paper. And then their fingers grasp the pen, their hand moves in obedience to the commands of their head and heart. Ink flows across the sheet of paper, across the watermarks, across time and space in distinctive cursive lines, a weaver’s tapestry embracing me in thoughts and emotions.

The joy of a handwritten letterl
The joy of a handwritten letter.

When the postman leaves the envelope in my box, I open it with feelings of expectation, of joy, a feeling of being chosen, special, because someone made the effort to write a message to me instead of banging it out hastily on a computer. Their fingerprints, their DNA, is on the paper, in the words as much as the ink. Handwriting is to the essence of personal communication what scent is to the identity of a flower.

Even without a signature, I know who wrote the letters in the family collection I curate for eventual donation to the historical society. My grandfather’s letters—hastily typed on cheap paper with two fingers of each hand—link skipped letters together with inked lines. His typed-over errors are interlaced with written corrections and annotations. Grandpa’s handwriting was as hasty as his typing because all must be done yesterday. He could never get to the mail box fast enough.

Dad's writing.
Dad’s writing.

My Dad wrote the way he walked, worked, and swam in strong, graceful pen strokes slanted forward along even lines. His autography has a rhythm as visually distinctive as his walk. He wrote factually, reporting, narrating and describing the look of things, the course of the action. His extroversion shone through with nary a trace of personal reflection. It’s a writing style he learned from his father, a newspaper editor, and then honed as a sports stringer in high school and college.

My mother's hand.
My mother’s hand.

Mom’s writing slanted back on itself in open loops. Her hand moved across the page in short bursts, pausing now and then to think, ponder, then back up and rephrase. She wasn’t given to reportage; she wrote repartee, playing with the ideas and words as if in direct conversation. That’s how her mind worked, that’s how she talked, that’s why people loved her. She often sprinkled French words and phrases here and there in letters to her brother and aunt. That’s the mark of an educated woman from an upper class family, ‘n’est pas?’

My uncle's autography.
My uncle’s autography.

My uncle—Mom’s brother—seldom penned a letter but when he did, he drew his words more than wrote them. He was an artist who held his pen between his thumb and fingers as if it were a brush and then dabbed the words on the page with a idiosyncratic calligraphy in keeping with his other eccentricities. Like my mother’s letters, he wrote informally, as if living in the moment, writing for emotional effect rather than merely relay information.

My brother's script.
My brother’s script.

Schools stopped teaching cursive penmanship several decades ago and contemporary college students don’t write cursive and many can’t read it. This is a problem for those who need to read handwritten documents. I learned to write cursive in grade school but my daughters didn’t. My eldest writes by printing in a distinctive style and so does my younger brother. My own writing has assumed a distinctive form and style over the years. Though distinctive it is legible—at least when I’m not in a hurry. Like my father’s hand, my writing slants forward, it’s patterns rhythmic but the letters are sharper and as much drawn as written.

In my work as a historian, I have read thousands of letters written by hundreds of people. No two scribblers have the same style. Each one has penmanship that reflects their personality—at least I associate the personality with the autography—which is how I know the deceased. And that brings me to what we are losing in the age of digital communication. (And you may say—oh, there he goes, talking about ‘the good old days.’) Communication written by hand conveys something that writing by a machine can never convey. When my Dad was a legislator, he often dictated personal letters out of convenience. The ‘personality; that came through dictation wasn’t the one I knew from handwritten letters.

My writing.
My writing.

When I want to express what is deepest inside, I must write in longhand. The kinetic connection of fingers, hand, arm, brain and heart releases whatever truth lies waiting to be told. Typing or writing on my laptop throws a veil over my feelings and my expression is weaker, more qualified, less true. Only in writing longhand can I write what is most true.

You may disagree but, before you do, try writing longhand and notice the difference in what you feel, and the power of the words you use to say it.

 

 

March Madness – Minnesota’s tournament blizzards

It’s now late March, the Girls Basketball tournament just finished in Minneapolis while a major snowstorm has begun crawling across southern Minnesota where I grew up. These blizzards often come in just after a prolonged thaw, when most of the snow is gone. The storms often begin warm and wet, with lightning and thunder before they dump heavy snow with lightning. Snow comes down on a driving wind that piles up drifts four-five-six feet high. March snowstorms aren’t rare—they’re normal—yet there is something especially wonderful about them. They’re massive and unpredictable.

During my childhood, the weather reports were general—at best. An accurate forecast in the 1950s came out in phrases like: “Scattered showers are possible across southern Minnesota,” or “There’s a chance of snow tonight with strong northwest winds.” That was about as close as a forecast came to what actually happened. Weather satellites, Doppler radar, and climate models added more detail but uncertainty remains.

Farmers I knew didn’t rely on the Farmer’s Almanac—only town people mentioned it. When it came to the weather, everyone was his own forecaster, and pretty much took his bearings from things we all understood—the temperature, the smell of the wind (did it smell damp), the kinds of clouds, the wind direction, whether the velocity was rising or dying, and whether the clouds moved with, against, or across the wind.

For a ten-year-old like me, the weather was a great mystery, a powerful force living just over the horizon. In the spring of my tenth year, we had a string of blizzards that began in February and ended near the end of March. Snow blocked our county road and driveway for several days each week before the county plow got through.

By the time the road opened, the forecasters were hinting at more snow in a few days. We hurried to town in the pick-up to buy groceries and anything else we needed—just in case. The next morning, I waited at the top of our driveway for the school bus. The temperature hovered at freezing and the damp air and south wind foretold approaching weather. School let out right after lunch the next day as heavy snow fell. Our bus slipped and skidded slowly along the roads, dropping off students who almost immediately vanished from sight in the swirling flakes.

All night, the wind howled in the treetops, the thermometer held steady at 32° F, and wind-driven snowflakes hissed against the window panes. I woke up in the morning confident ‘they’ wouldn’t cancel school. Mom turned on the radio at breakfast. In those days, we listened to WCCO, the CBS A.M. radio out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Over Rice Krispies and toast, I listened eagerly to hear the announcer mention ‘Janesville’ on the list of closed schools. Another day to read pulp western novels.

Weekly blizzards continued until late March and each one kept us snowed in for several days at a time.  I missed about half of the school days that month, not that I cared. Drifts piled up, and one across our driveway stood at least six feet high. By mid-March, the snow was too deep for Dad to clear the driveway with the Ford tractor and scoop. He called a man with a bulldozer and the ‘Cat’ worked hard to push back the dense drifts—until the next blizzard closed the road and driveway five days later.

Like Paul Bunyan, these spring blizzards have gained legendary status among Minnesotans. They roar in from the Great Plains about the time high school teams assemble in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the state basketball tournament. Sometimes the teams had to stay a day or two extra before the roads opened. It didn’t take long for Minnesotans to connect basketball tournaments and spring blizzards.

While snow falls in Minnesota, I write this from southern Mexico, and feel the excitement of my ten-year-old self once more. For a day, at least, I wish myself back at the farm, feeling secure inside the old house, and watching the thick veil of blowing snow obscure my view of the woods along the river. In a day or two, the sun will eat up the drifts, and then spring will come, and March madness will end.

 

 

 

 

 

A persistent memory

April 10, 1947. Home.
April 10, 1947. We reach a new home.

My earliest memory is the day Dad parked our car on the soft shoulder of Waseca County Road 26. It’s April 10, 1947. I’m three-and-a-half years old, my sister is 11 months, my dad is only 26 and my mother is 29. These young adults from New Brunswick, New Jersey, are staking everything on farming in Minnesota. They are audacious but they don’t think so.

This venture has deep roots. My mother’s family has lived in nearby Janesville since the 1870s. Her grandfather was the banker, assembled the farm, and gave it to his three daughters. One of them, my grandmother, died a decade before so her share went to my Mom and uncle. Now they intend to make our life on this land. And will.

I sit in the car’s front seat, a 1940, cream gray Plymouth sedan with a crushed front fender and broken headlight. Two days earlier, on the Indiana Turnpike, an on-coming car lost a rear wheel that bounced across the median and hit us. The windshield is grimy but I can see all right, and look down the lane toward our new home.

County Road 26 is made of clay covered with gravel and passes our farm on high ground. Melted snow and spring rains have made the road is a soupy mess of ruts. The uniform overcast makes the sky look like a gray flannel sheet. Pewter-colored ditch water and puddles reflect the sky. Fallow fields with slick furrows resemble charcoal. Last year’s grass, patches of weeds, and cornstalks seem ashen. I remember gray.

Warm air, sun, thawing ground, April 1947.
Warm air, sun, thawing ground.

Dad opens the car door, pulls on four-buckle overshoes, and shrugs into a jacket. Slowly, he slips and slides his way down the muddy lane, past the half-dead willows, past the barn with its dim coat of indistinct paint, and enters the weathered farmhouse beneath the leafless oaks.

Mother waits in the car with my sister and me. Mom is quiet and wears a long face of concentration. I will come to know that expression well. It isn’t fear but the calculation of all the unknowns and contingencies she might face.

A tractor’s purr catches my attention. Dad and another man, my uncle, drive toward us towing a trailer filled with straw. Chains on the tractor tires clink like merry sleigh bells in the dreariness. With everyone settled in the trailer, we roll down the muddy slope to our house.

The main room seems huge to me. Pieces of furniture rest in great piles – sofa, bedsteads, bureaus, and chairs – amid crates of china, boxes of clothing, and my red tricycle. Faded wallpaper and sagging plaster don’t catch my attention as much as the hulking, pot-bellied stove crouching in a corner, like a sooty bear, waiting to pounce. I’m afraid of it.

After a quick inspection of the cold house, we drive to Janesville and stay with some cousins. When we return, the potbellied stove waits outside for the junkman, the toilet and shower function inside, and the kitchen is ready for my mother.

Barn of indistinct color
A barn of indistinct color

They name it The River Farm.

Over the years, as we work the land the land works us. We drain the marshes, tile the low ground, dam the gullies, straighten the creek and plant trees. And then, when we are done with active farming, we breach the dikes, rip up the tiles, and planteoaks and prairie grasses where soybeans once grew. Dad was never happier than when on his farm.

He died at home and we buried his ashes in our woods at an unmarked place, in a clearing, on a ridge above the river. He rests next to Mom, my great aunt, my grandmother, and my uncle.

I remember this day and its details because this is the place that formed me as much as any place has shaped me. This where I learned responsibilities, developed a knack for making things work, understood rhythms of the natural world, and grew up in a life stripped to its essentials. Everything I ever learned later has a touchstone on this farm, in this community. Now, decades later, I look for and sometimes find in far-away places, people and situations that take me back to the farm and the neighborhood.

The farm as I leave it to others.
The farm that rims my childhood.

But I can’t go back. My brother, sister and I are settled elsewhere and none of us wants to live on the farm. Fortunately, we find a buyer who shares Dad’s land ethic and, with the sale, we all rest in peace. The farm’s title passes to the new owners in October and, on my way home, I drive up the lane and stop on County Road 26 in the spot where Dad parked the Plymouth in 1947. I take a last look down at the house. It’s larger and better now than it was then; and the barn is bright in its crimson coat. In autumn sunshine, the wild grasses shine in bronze and copper, sunlight glints off the pond, and the oaks on the ridge along the river mark my horizon – the rim of my childhood.

 

 

Today turned out to be all the weather geek said it would be – and more. The rime of frost on the edge of the garage roof – white on brown – lends a nice touch to daybreak. Then – gone – a filmy coil of rising vapor – like a morning prayer.

Spring warmth spreads sweetly – like puppy love – on a sweeping south wind. I sit in the sun, enjoying a bottle of porter and the last of the cashews. In my wooded Minnesota subdivision, where the smallest lots measure a quarter acre, our houses sit far apart among the oaks, elms, and honeysuckles. No sidewalks connect us – each house is an island – and we are an archipelago of suburbanites on a cul de sac. Friendly – we know each other – but private.

Some neighbors migrate south for the winter and the rest of us simply ‘hibernate,’ denning up in our houses, going and coming through the garage. Now and then, we meet each other after a humongous snowfall when we join to push a stuck car off the street or happen to shovel our driveways at the same time. We are winter introverts and this is enough neighborliness in the cold.

The neighbor across the road is loading firewood into the bed of his pick-up. I walk down the drive, get the mail from the box, and stop to talk. He tells me about his shoulder replacements. We are both over 65 and commiserate on our respective aches and pains. Neither of us is ‘what we were cracked up to be’ even a few years ago.

Then I return to the lawn chair and sit in the soft lap of late afternoon with a book in my lap. I’m not reading but sitting as content as a sunning turtle, looking at a piece of the world that’s temporarily mine.

The season’s first flies buzz about in the sun, the wind soughs through the top of a neighbor’s cottonwoods, and the rattle last year’s leaves on my oaks. Green shoots poke through the thatch of lawn, now four shades greener than yesterday, thanks to a half-inch of rain. Pubescent leaf buds pop along the twigs on the chokeberry bush, ready to unfold like young adults in a day or two with a show of green. But that flash belongs to the morrow and is not yet a reality.

A mole, just out of hibernation, tunnels along the edge of the concrete walk, and leaves a long, low mound like a glacial esker. I don’t resent his presence today but I will in a couple weeks when I mow the lawn. I see no point in starting resentments early.

A gray tree frog utters a sharp, almost percussive, creak from a hidden place in the lawn. I can’t see him but I know his general location. Down the street, in the marsh by the blind curve, northern leopard frogs croak with Falstaffian glee – like men packed into a sports bars on game day. They croak the same phrases over and over – hoping to ‘score’ a mate.

Sitting quietly in the lawn is a respite from a writers’ conference. I’m humbled and a little intimidated after three days in the company of novelists and memoirists, poets and essayists far more eloquent than I am. Writing is a generous act, one of them said in a presentation. I believe it’s true. Does it take talent to be generous?

Six weeks from now – in a future not yet mine – I will reunite with the Macalester College class of 1965. No! This can’t be the 50th reunion already! It is true but I want to stay in denial. I feel an urge to slim down and tone up. Why bother? We all know we are half-a-century older. Slimming and toning can’t change anything, much less reverse the years. Besides, I’m wiser now than before. I guess that is something of being more than ‘I was cracked up to be’ back then.

This class is an unusually earnest cohort. We entered college as John Kennedy began his presidency. JFK’s idealism formed us while his assassination matured us. Most of us are still pushing new frontiers. When reunion day comes, we will sit at tables to discuss weighty questions about whether ‘we had it all,’ whatever it was. Said another way, we will consider whether life is ‘all it was cracked up to be.’ We will talk urgently about the things we still need to accomplish until prostrated by seriousness.

I remember graduation day, the high-minded the commencement speaker, his exhortation to pursue our dreams, and a rush to change the world. Along my way, did I pause often enough to appreciate the grass in its growing or listen to the tree frogs in courtship? Did I stop to let the moment take me by the hand and reveal itself to me?

The future offers no guarantees but no one told me. Experience taught me the future doesn’t belong to me in advance of its arrival. The future is a dream, a possibility and – sometimes – a nightmare because the future has no reality. For a long time, I lived for the future and completely missed the present. I know better now. Only the present moment is real. It is all I have. The past is lost to memory and can’t be changed. The future is a possibility beyond my control. Moment by moment, I live into the future – moving as blindly as the mole tunneling my lawn – feeling my way forward, seeking the right path. The present moment is ‘all it’s cracked up to be.’