Monday, April 21, 2014

Meaning? What does that mean?

Many of my heros---from Viktor Frankl to Wayne Dyer---have stressed the importance of living a life that has meaning, a reason for our being here. If you are inclined to dwell such things perhaps these October Years provide the time and mind-space to consider what that “meaning” means to you.

First of all, I’m certain that the “meaning” of your life or mine is a very personal and individual thing. At the same time I know that for some the subject is theologically “out of bounds,” prescribed by their faith and beyond the realm of allowable exploring. Yet in the course of my reading, writing, and meditation---as well as in the stories I have imagined into being---I continue to tread that ground, trying to understand the “why” of my own life. 

Among other things I have come to realize that meaning is not about the success and acclaim we so proudly list on our personal resume. Instead, it seems to me that the intention we were sent here to live out, and the life we were meant to have, can only be measured by the life we actually live. In that case, perhaps in the depth of my being the Spirit that dwells in me becomes the ultimate judge of my own meaning.

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 kind of busyness---some of it important, some not so much. Still, for many of us there comes a time, our October Years perhaps, when pause to consider the purpose of our stumbling efforts. Even then, the process will not be a formal interrogation, with pointed questions in search of direct answers. Rather, it is by recounting and remembering our own personal story that we come face to face with clues that may reveal who we are meant to be.

Because the experience of “meaning” is so individual there are endless ways to illustrate its impact on us and our lives. Dr. Frankl and Dr. Dyer each had their way of describing it. In the following excerpt from Family Matters Dan Padgett is on his back-road tour of the western United States when he meets a fellow who is willing to explain his “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. Then the creaky rest-room door on the far side of the room opened and a balding, jean-clad cowboy limped across to the bar and plopped himself down on the stool next to mine.
   “Howdy, friend,” the newcomer mumbled, taking the overflowing 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 I passed out on the highway. But I haven’t seen anything that looks like The Battle of Stone Bridge.”
   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 during the fair. But not the bulls.”
    “Horses are easier to ride. Is that it?”
   “Not really. Either way it hurts 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, 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---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 have been 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 six-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 two or three months. By the time I got back home Elsie was long gone, along with the cutest little girl you’ve ever seen.”
    “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 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 we around a bit. 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 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 anything 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. 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 meaning---your own personal brand of meaning, the kind that satisfies you. 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 still inside us. I happen to believe that, even if our “music” is getting bucked off a bull, or a bar stool.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


     Most of us who have reached our October Years can appreciate the subtle and often hard-won maturity we've gained over time. That is a reality I try to refllect in my Tanner Chronicles stories. Moreover, I like to think those life-lessons are a part of the person I've become. So why hasn’t that maturity of mine served me better?
      The truth of course begins with the sobering fact that, mature or not, at age 77 I can no longer do some of the things I once did. Perhaps it’s a guy thing---coming to terms with the sad fact that self-esteem is no longer won by doing what I do better than you or someone else does it. Of necessity, ego satisfaction has ceased to be a competitive exercise. In my more lucid moments I deal with that sad fact by reminding myself that I must accept my limitations and concentrate instead on those things I’m still able to do.
      After all, you and I have been around the block a time or two, and hopefully we’ve learned a few things along the way. Though our culture may not value the “wisdom of the elders” the way some societies do, I know that I’ve gained a lot of know-how over the years. I’ll bet you have too. So, why don’t I pay more attention to what I’ve learned?
      Example #1 -- I told this little story last year, certain that I had learned my lesson and there would never be a reason to repeat it. The fact that I’m back to retell it gives you some idea of how well I listened to my own advice.
      My son’s request was simple enough. He needed an extra pair of hands taking down a storm window. He’d seen his dad do that a time or two. So when he ran into a two-man job he asked for my help. And why not? I knew what to do and how to do it safely. 
      True, the window was large---six feet by six feet, and heavy too. But it was my son asking. He needed some help. Was I supposed to tell him his old man couldn’t handle that?
      Long story short---when I tripped over the limb I should have seen lying there, Terry managed to hold that heavy sheet of glass, wrapped only in a flimsy metal frame, upright. While I grumbled about a bruised hip and scraped knee he gave me time to get back on my feet and do my part. Had he not been able to do that, I would have been wearing a sheet of broken glass around my neck.
      Fast-forward a mere two months. August 2013. It’s a bright sunny morning. I’m up on a ladder, painting the house. Suddenly, before I realize what is happening, I’ve fallen four or five feet and kissed the very-hard ground with my shoulder. I’ve recounted the resulting  damages  elsewhere -- broken ribs, punctured lung, etc. Suffice to say, my learning experience was long and painful. However, if nothing else I would learn that pain is an effective teacher---but only if the student is ready to learn.
      Fact is, some of us are slow learners. Why else would I be sitting here, wondering about living life with one good arm and one good leg? Meanwhile we are scheduled to see the doctor today for an update on the newly fractured pelvis and broken arm. Alas, in the course of acting like a forty-five year old, life has sent me another learning moment.
      In the face of that graphic evidence, I am reminded again that our October Years are not about giving up or admitting defeat---but they are a time for being realistic, for having the good sense not to attempt what may have been doable once upon a time, but no longer is.
      It’s a simple admission I’m talking about---straight-forward advice that shouldn’t be hard to follow---except when it’s a good friend or your own offspring who is asking for help, or perhaps a grandchild who must hear the distressing news that Grandpa “doesn’t do that any more.” Though I rarely confess that “I can’t,” I am getting better at explaining that “I don’t.”
      I guess that means I’m still learning---even at my age. And giving thanks every day for the caring prayers that surround me and the enabling help that Roma and Terry provide. What about you? If you’ve been in that "learning"space, I’d like to hear how you dealt with it. Let me know in a comment below, won’t you?  In the meantime, be careful out there in October-land.
Gil Stewart