The Only Useful Retrospective Operates on a Pivot

If examining history–on a grand scale or on a very tiny personal one–doesn’t ultimately result in turning around to move forward from that study, it is of no use. I find the obsession at the end of a calendar year with reviews, retrospectives and rehashes sometimes entertaining and even intermittently informative, but at the end of the day (or year) what I want is to know: where do I go from here?

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What lies in the past remains in its ghostlike remembered forms . . .

There are plenty of fine reasons to revisit what has gone before. It’s meaningful to honor those things, events and especially people we hold dear when they are no longer part of our lives. We can recognize past mistakes, uncover gaps in our experience or behavior or education. We take inventory of what we have accomplished, what we have gained, how our world has expanded, and those valuable objects and attributes that have accrued to our accounts over the past part of our lives. But if it stops there, it can serve no great purpose in the long term, I think.

The deeper honor for recognizing losses must lie not only in coming to terms with them–acceptance, if possible, but if not, then some sort of d├ętente that makes us able to separate that grief and pain from the necessity of not only continuing to live but to grow and thrive. It is no gift to those causes and persons we have loved if we do not continue in our own new ways to seek and become those things we admired in them, to share them with the rest of the world that missed the chance to know them in their own right. If we dwell on mistakes and do not seek amends for them, no one is made better, least of all ourselves. Failure that leads to learning, improvement, reconciliation or higher goals for the future is in fact a beautiful and curable disease. Real progress–growth–almost never comes without the forerunner of Failure. Most of us miraculously able to accomplish something grand on the first try can’t replicate such an accomplishment or even ‘get’ how to achieve the next one, because there has been no passage through the great human experiment of trial and error, of practice and repetition to drive us to the point where we can deliberately and even repeatedly do such fine things.

Certainly, recognizing the great and good things that have been granted us in the past is given its true value and meaning both by our showing appropriate gratitude and then by our turning to the task of making wise and joyful use of whatever wealth we have, whether it’s a piece of bread we can share or it’s the Nobel Prize that sets a foundation for a whole new field of research or it’s a solid investment that paid off well so that we can afford to reinvest in the company or it’s being experienced enough to teach a kid how to ride a bike. Having something of value isn’t really all that impressive if it sits and collects dust while we too sit and collect dust. Unless, perhaps, one is a connoisseur of actual Dust. That is another Issue altogether.

Meanwhile, here I am at the end of another calendar year, taking inventory with everybody else and wondering what it means for my future. What, after all of that, do I want to do with my baggage, good and bad? There are some specifics, I suppose.

I have been a slug, growing more and more sedentary and finding more and more plausible (to me, at least) excuses for doing so, and I intend to get fitter. Not as fit as in my days of hefting a 60-pound bag of Quikrete on my shoulder or scrambling up a scaffold three stories to haul five gallon buckets full of paint up for work. That Me is long gone. But I am going to find a much fitter 50+ me, and that will be satisfying work. As I’ve grown more dedicated to writing in the last year or so, I’ve shelved my previous commitment to practicing drawing regularly that was satisfying as a process and led to some equally pleasing improvement in agility and technique and even end product. So I’m going to re-balance my work to engage in creating more visual art again, whatever the mode or medium.

There, I’ve said all of that out loud, in public, in front of all of you grand people whom I admire for so many attributes that I won’t be able to replicate, and I know you’ll hold me to my promises, because you’re that kind of encouraging and inspiring folk and, yes, a little bit intimidating in your gifts. And the more so in your accomplishments, because after all, that’s what I’m really talking about here: not what we already are, but what we strive to become, however gradually and through whatever study and practice and love of progress it takes to close in on those horizons.

A bit of challenge? Oh, YESSSSS. So it will always be. Mysterious, sometimes frightening, certainly adventure-filled in many ways. But that’s what the past should be teaching us to do. Today was made possible by all of the yesterdays that shaped me, coupled with the will to move forward from them. Tomorrow will be made that much more possible by adding what I’ve learned and accomplished today and letting it help to push me another notch onward. If looking backward thoughtfully can do that, I can barely imagine what looking forward will do. But I’m going to lean into it and see.

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The way ahead is always somewhat unclear; that can be part of the joy if I let it be . . .

Thank You Very Much

I won’t be speechifying in acceptance of any Oscars or Nobel Prizes or Pompanula County Radish Queen tiaras any time soon, so if I want to let anyone know how much they’ve meant to me it’s incumbent on me to just say so here and now.

Let’s face it, my manners are plenty peccable. I’m probably most often shamefaced because of failing to show proper gratitude. I have, after all, lived a charmed life and a large part of that is being spoiled with kindnesses of every sort without my particularly deserving any of it. I am grateful. I just fail too often to send the card, give the handshake or hug, or broadcast the news as the occasion demands.

So I’ll take this small occasion to publicly genuflect and say Thank You–with great sincerity, mind you–to all those benefactors who have made my life so rich. To do so by individual names would require more space than is currently available on the worldwide whatsis, so a generalized wash of goodwill must suffice.

The obvious first thanks are due to my immediate family and closest friends, unfailing in their love and succor and general exceeding-nice-ositude, who tell me how swell I am despite all evidence to the contrary and show admiration for my slightest accomplishment as though I had cured cancer or at least plantar warts. I’ve seen how other social circles operate, and while it might seem like it’s the job of one’s if&cf to slather one with undeserved buttercream icing, few really do with any regularity. So believe me when I say that I’m deeply grateful to you, O spouse and multi-parents, siblings born and married, niece and nephews and assorted close compatriots across the globe.

Not so obvious to outside observers are the cloud of wondrous beings surrounding me in person and spirit beyond the call of familial duty. Teachers: Mrs Clavey, an ideal encourager and educational springboard for kindergartners of every stripe; Messrs. Hartwell and Hartley and Cunningham and Keyes; Ms Watts, a teaching colleague who gave me the strength to keep practicing teaching myself when I could barely keep head above water. My physician Dr Larsen, who cured me of my fear of doctors by becoming a friend above and beyond the call of the Hippocratic oath. Neighbors willing to take time to answer the blue-sky questions of goofy little kids, strangers opting to pull over and change a flat tire, shopkeepers sharing their insider advice and jokes of the day.

I’m cognizant too of the many graces showered on me by exemplars past and present whom I’ll never meet face to face, the famous, the infamous (these, one hopes, generally teaching me How NOT to Do It) and those whose tracks I stumble upon out of sheer good luck. I thank you all for the parts of my life you’ve filled in with music, wit, flashes of brilliance, foodie joys, beauty, fortitude and other such extravagant gifts.

Buck O'Neil and Richard Feynman

Buck O'Neil and Richard Feynman

Given my mediocre track record in proper expression of gratitude when the occasion demands it, I can promise only that I’ll continue to know in my heart how ridiculously fortunate I am. Maybe if I’m additionally lucky, I’ll manage to pass along some of your generosity to someone else somewhere along my way.