Many of my heros---from Viktor Frankl to Wayne Dyer---have stressed the importance of living a life that has meaning, whatever that means. If you are the kind to be drawn to such things, perhaps these October Years provide the time and mind-space to consider that question---what does the notion of “meaning” mean to you?
First of all, whatever it means I happen to believe that the “meaning” of your life is a very personal thing. I don’t think it’s a “one-size-fits-all” thing. At the same time I realize that for some folks the subject may be theologically “out of bounds”---already prescribed by their faith and beyond the realm of allowable exploration. Yet in the course of my reading, writing, and meditation---as well as in the stories I have imagined into being---I continue to explore that ground, trying to make sense of the “why” of life.
In the process I have come to realize that meaning is not measured by the success and acclaim we so proudly list on our personal resume. Instead, it is better judged by what we allow to motivate us, the reflection of what is most important to us. If that is true, it would seem that I, in my Soul, in the core of my being---whatever you choose to call it---must bear responsibility for my own “meaning” search.
Truth to tell, during the spring and summer of my life I seldom stopped to wonder if my life had meaning. Those years were filled with their own sort of busyness---some of it important, some not so much. Still, for many of us, perhaps most of us, there comes a time, often in our October Years, when we pause to consider the purpose of our stumbling efforts. Even then, the process is seldom a formal interrogation, with pointed questions in search of direct answers. Rather, it is by recounting our own personal story that we come face to face with clues that may reveal whom we are meant to be.
Because the experience of “meaning” is so personal there are endless ways to illustrate its impact on our lives. Dr. Frankl and Dr. Dyer each had their own way of describing it. But depicting ones search for meaning does not require theological or philosophical jargon.
In the following excerpt from Family Matters , Dan Padgett is on his back-road tour of the western outback when he meets a fellow who is willing to explain his personal “meaning” in terms Dan had never considered.
The Stone Bridge Saloon was not a spacious watering hole. The bar itself seated just three on high wobbly stools. Fortunately, since I appeared to be the only customer, seating was not a problem. I had scarcely sat down when the creaky rest-room door on the far side of the room opened and a balding, jean-clad cowboy limped across to the bar to plop himself down on the stool next to mine.
“Howdy, friend,” the newcomer mumbled, taking the glass the lady behind the bar held out to him. He took a long drink, then turned to me.“Buster Henshaw here. Don’t believe I caught your name.”
“It’s Dan. Dan Padgett.”
“Glad to meet you, Dan.” He raised his glass in my direction, then put it to his lips. Seconds later, with a single long gulp, in was empty. Pushing it back across the counter, he explained, “Gertie was hoping to get a little business from that bull-riding thing down the road. So far it’s just the two of us.”
“I expected to see more folks,” I nodded, taking a stale pretzel from the dish Gertie pushed my way. “Especially after all those signs advertising The Battle of Stone Bridge I passed out on the highway. But so far I haven’t seen anything that looks like that.”
Buster took a moment to fondle, I believe that’s the right word, the refilled glass Gertie slid across the bar to him.“That’s Pokey Turner for you,” he said between sips.
“No one knows how to squeeze a few bucks out of a bad idea better than that old bandit. Folks around here know it’s the wrong part of summer to find enough riders and decent bulls for a dinky little bull-riding show like Pokey’s. All the good cowboys are out on the circuit. So he rounds up a few kids and a couple of worn-out old-timers, pays them ten bucks to ride a couple used-up steers, and puts on his show. I guarantee you he don’t get many repeat customers.”
“I don’t think it would matter how used-up the bulls were,” I offered. “From what I’ve seen on the tube, riding a bull is a tough way to make a few bucks.”
Something seemed to have set Buster thinking. He sat staring into his beer, until I asked. “You ever done that? Bull riding?”
“Oh yeah.” There was a remembering look in his eye. “I’ve done that. Rode most everything with four legs. But I don’t do bulls any more. I might try the buckin' horses again, come the county fair. But not the bulls.”
“Horses are easier to ride. Is that it?”
“Not really. Either way it hurts like hell when you hit the ground. But it’s a lot better to get bucked off a horse than a bull. At least that horse won’t try to run you down when you’re on the ground. Not the way a seriously-mad bull will.”
“So, how old are you, Buster?”
“Well sir, I just turned fifty-one. I expect that’s close to a hundred in ‘rodeo years.’ About thirty-five of those years been spent on ranches all over the Outback---from Provo to the Canadian line, Ogallala to Boise. Hell, I’ve done it all---trailing cattle, pulling calves, breaking mustangs, and baling hay. For a lot of those years I’d schedule my jobs so they didn’t interfere with my rodeoing. That’s really what I lived for in those days---a good bull, a good brew, and a good woman. Not necessarily in that order.”
“You ever been married?” I asked. “Sounds like rodeoing would play hell with a relationship.”
“A relationship?” my new friend repeated with a laugh. “Now there’s a big-city word if ever I heard one. Fact is, I was married---three times. Had three kids that I know of. Don’t remember that I ever had a ‘relationship,’ but I did have three wives. The best of the bunch was Elsie. We were together almost a year, ‘til she made me choose between my job at the grain elevator and the Four Corners Stampede, down in the canyon country.”
“And you had to decide? Between a rodeo and a job?”
“Yeah I did. And I gave it quite a bit of thought.” Buster paused to nod his thanks to Gertie for the beer she handed him. “But you see, I’d won four-hundred bucks down there the year before. Took first in a short go-round. How could I pass up a rodeo that had been so lucky for me?”
“So you went back again?” His dejected nod confirmed that much. “Did you win anything that time?”
“Nah. I ended up with a couple busted ribs. Couldn’t do much of anything for a month or two. By the time I got back home Elsie was long gone, along with the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen.”
“Do you ever see her? The daughter, I mean.”
“I have no idea where she is. She must twenty-five or so by now. Probably has babies of her own.”
Buster set his beer down and half-turned to greet the lanky fellow, a cowboy from his Stetson to his boots, standing in the doorway. “Howdy, Tom. Good to see you again.”
Tom answered with nothing more than a touch of his hat brim as he followed Gertie out to the front counter.
“Ole Tommy and I go way back,” Buster explained. “We started out together up on the North Fork. Went to lots of rodeos together. Had some good ole times. At least we did ‘til he went to work for old man Brunner on the Cold Hand Ranch. After that we didn’t see much of him, especially after he married that Carrie Braxton gal. She was a sweet thing. A heck of a barrel racer too.
“Anyway, I’ve run into ole Tommy a few times over the years. Heard that they had a couple kids and built up a nice little spread of their own. Near as I could tell he was always working. Didn’t have time to rodeo.”
I watched as Buster turned silent again, perhaps wondering how things had worked out so well for “Ole Tommy.” Finally, I had to ask, “You ever wish it had been like that for you? You know---a real family, a place of your own.”
“Sure,” he nodded. “There were times I wished it could have been that way. The thing is, stayin’ in one place that long just wasn’t in me. My old man used to thump me around a bit when I was a kid. By the time I turned sixteen I’d had enough of that. So I hit the road. I was a damn good ranch-hand. Everyone knew that. Finding another job was always easy. So I just kept moving around, from one place to another, riding bulls when I could.
“Then, after I’d slowed down a bit, I moved on to broncs. Anymore, I don’t even do much of that. It got to where I couldn’t ride nothin’ but a barstool.” I caught a flash of his gap-toothed grin. “Hell, I’ve been bucked off one of them a time or two.”
“I can tell that rodeoing must have been hard on your body,” I said. “Seeing how you limp like that.”
“Yeah.” He offered a sad little laugh, trying to make fun of what was not a laughing matter. “It’s my hip, you know. It’s kind of messed up. Been bent, broke, and stepped on.”
“Damn. That must hurt, whether it’s a bull or horse, or even a bar stool. If it hurts like that, why would you keep doing it---even a little bit?”
“You’re right. It does hurt. Sometimes a lot.” By then his grin was about as sad as his laugh. “But what most fellows don’t understand is how good it feels when you make eight seconds. Hearing that buzzer---and knowing that you’re still up there and not on the ground. Let me tell you, that’s worth a lot of hurtin'.
“Anyway, the doctor in Butte told me I needed a new hip, a ‘replacement’ he called it. He also said that I needed health insurance. Turns out, if I don’t have the one, I don’t get the other. It’s the pits for sure. But I guess it’s the price I paid for doing what I was born to do. I was meant to be a cowboy, and this is how a lot of cowboys end up. That’s a fact.”
I left Stone Bridge that afternoon thinking sad and sometimes envious thoughts of Buster Henshaw---of the hopeful young man he must have been, and the sad and tired old man he had become. Yet even that late in the game he was still claiming to have lived the life he was meant live. A part of me had wanted to argue that point, to help him understand that “what was meant to be” was not suppose to leave him broken and hurting.
I’d gone a few miles further before I settled on the truth of it. It wasn’t my place to judge Buster and what he was meant to become. He had made his choices, and followed what had meaning for him. In his eyes he had been true to himself. What more could I add to that? By the time I had chased away the last of those Stone Bridge thoughts I was wondering if Buster’s choices held any lessons for me.
Here’s hoping that your October Years are a time filled with your own personal brand of meaning, the kind that satisfies you. I like to think that by now we’ve earned the right to decide what “meaning” means to us. They tell us that we mustn’t die with our music (meaning?) still inside us. I happen to believe that, even if our “music” is telling silly stories, or getting bucked off a bull or a bar stool.