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Accepting the counsel of the years

Bill Meredith

"Whether you understand it or not, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. Therefore, be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be." - Max Ehrmann. "Desiderata," 1927.

(7/2017) The solstice came and went so quietly this year that I almost missed it. Spring had seemed to be a bit cooler and damper than usual, but when June arrived it suddenly got hot and dry without any warning or transition. Summer wasnít supposed to start officially until June 21, but the temperature topped 90 in mid-May, and I wasnít ready for it. I had planted one ceremonial potato on St. Patrickís Day in honor of my grandfatherís tradition, but except for that, the garden was still waiting for the plow.

That didnít bother me; I have reached the age where the garden is just an enjoyable habit rather than a necessity. I know my wife does not do much canning any more, and for the past few years most of the vegetables on our table have come from her shopping trips. But while she has accepted this in practice, she hasnít accepted it emotionally; the sight of an unplowed and unplanted space where the garden belongs transports her into a state of sleepless agitation that may last for weeks. So it came to pass that, on one of the cooler mornings (88ļ F), I found myself coaxing the ancient Gravely plow through rock-hard soil, while I reflected on the state of the universe and wondered how anyone could possibly doubt the reality of global warming.

One of the few things I can still do with undiminished effectiveness is sweat. I learned how to do it as a young child. In West Virginia, there was no such thing as perspiring; we sweated, and when you are good at it, after half an hour in the garden you wonít have a dry stitch of clothes anywhere on your body. My wife doesnít like for me to be in the house in that condition, so my usual routine when gardening is to drag a lawn chair into a shady place and sit down several times each hour. It is possible to doze off in these cases, but if you can stay awake you may see interesting things.

There are always ants; last year, I saw mostly the little brown ones, but this year there are lots of big black ones like those that lived in my grandmotherís kitchen. One day there were two rows of them going across the driveway, one going east and the other, west; and in both rows, they were carrying eggs or larvae. Occasionally they would bump into each other, but that didnít stop them; they just sidestepped and hurried on, like Aesop said they should 2,600 years ago. When they reached the edge of the driveway they scurried off into the grass; I presume that each line would have led to the entrance of an anthill if I could have got down on hands and knees to follow it. But, alas, being on hands and knees is limited to emergencies such as dropping the battery of my hearing aid. I miss seeing a lot of interesting things, but itís just too hard to get up.

By comparison to my contemporaries, I seem to be lucky in adapting to aging. I think this is because sometime in the seventies when students were losing their idealism and rebellion was in the air, I came across a poetic essay entitled "Desiderata." A note at the bottom of the page said it was found in Old St. Paulís Church in Baltimore around 1620, and I was told it was probably a sermon that had been preached there. The language seemed more modern than that, but in those days there was no internet to look it up and verify its age. Later I found that it had been written in 1927 by Max Ehrmann, and was probably posted on the bulletin board of the old church by someone who liked it. The title, "Desiderata," means "things to be desired," and it is just that. I originally kept it as an example of good writing, but it came to mean more than that. Now I keep a copy on my desk, and read it when I feel a need to be calmed. I read it more often these days.

It begins, "Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence." That line appeared in my mind a couple of weeks ago in the lawn chair; I had been mowing the lawn, and noticed that when I turned the mower off, the noise continued. In fact, it actually got louder. After a moment of disorientation I realized that work had begun on replacing the sidewalks on West Main Street. So I leaned back, removed my hearing aids, and drifted placidly back into history.

A short time before we came to Emmitsburg in 1957, the town had planted elm trees along Main Street. They grew rapidly, spread out as elm trees do, and in a few years arched out over the street and became a thing of beauty. Admittedly, their roots lifted up the sidewalks and made walking less carefreeÖ but we were younger then, and no one was in a hurry. So time passed; the elm roots began invading the sewer system, and then the Dutch Elm disease reached Emmitsburg, and the elms all died.

So in the late í80s the town put in new sidewalks and sewers, and planted Bradford Pear trees. These trees grew neatly and bloomed beautifully; but unfortunately, their lovely white flowers were designed to be pollinated by flies that lay their eggs on dead animal carcasses. If you were driving down Main Street in April with your car windows closed, the town looked like a scene from a postcard; but if you lived on Main Street, the air reeked with the smell of road-kill, especially if the wind wasnít blowing. So now, since it is again time for sidewalk repairs, the Bradford Pears are being removed, and I allow my deafness to provide the peace of silence while I wait to see what unexpected events will come with the next trees to line Main Street.

About mid-way through the Desiderata is a line that I regard as practical advice for anyone who endures the aging process. It says, "Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth." It is a simple statement about aging; the simple truth is that we all lose strength, endurance, and quickness (both physical and mental) as the years accumulate. Some people obsess about aging, and many spend fortunes on elixirs and "miracle cures," in the forlorn hope of remaining young; but it isnít going to happen. The things of youth are gone; when I hit a golf ball, it rarely goes more than 150 yards. But the Counsel of the Years tells me it is still fun, and I believe.

Earlier this week my neighbor appeared on the front porch carrying a large picnic cooler. In it was a black snake that was about four feet long, freshly molted and obviously well-fed. It has lived in our yards for several years now, and I have convinced the neighbors that it is harmless, so each summer, I receive several calls to come and remove it from someoneís flowerbed or toolshed. I reached into the cooler to get it, and it bit me gently on the thumb, just to remind me that my reflexes are not as fast as they used to beÖ but there was no malice in its action. So I took it into the woods behind the house and released it, and I recalled one of the last lines of Desiderata: "With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world." And the snake is part of it.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith