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Stephen Geez

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How Old Indeed
By Stephen Geez
Monday, November 14, 2011

Rated "G" by the Author.

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A commentary on age, life goals, and the perception of time

“I sure wish I had put some trees in my yard,” my neighbor said, watching me trim branches on the row of flowering crabapples that liked to reach over the sidestreet walkway and tickle the noggins of passersby.

Only a year into grad school and working full-time, I had just commenced one of those long-term projects called a “mortgage.” Yes, I had bought my own place, a nice corner-lot colonial in a well-seasoned, thirty-year-old neighborhood. My house’s original owners had planted enthusiastically, blessing me with gloriously mature flora: springtime bloomers such as apple, cherry, and crabs; robust blossom-gobbed shrubbery the likes of lilac, snowball, and forsythia; plus a towering trio of magnificent hot-summer shaders—a red maple that ended every sentence with “eh?”; the mischievous elm that liked to flirt with my grapevine; and a humongous cottonwood that could target any area swimming pool with a fusillade of silky white puffs, then laugh about it for days. My neighbor’s yard, a mower-cropped crew-cut of featureless green, looked forlorn in comparison.

“Today’s as good a day as any to plant a few,” I pointed out.

He chuckled as if I’d made a joke, then shook his head and said, “Naw, it takes a good ten years or more till they’re big enough to sit under.”

I thought of him some years later when I saw an elderly woman interviewed on the news. Posing proudly in her cap and gown, she beamed over realizing her dream of going to college, four years of determined effort culminating in a bachelor’s degree. When the interviewer asked about encouragement from friends and family, the elder-grad surprised me by admitting, “They all thought I was nuts.” She said that when she enrolled, her grandson quickly pointed out she’d be 74 by the time she graduated. Her response still resonates with me today:

“And how old will I be in four years if I don’t go to college?”

How old, indeed.

The very nature of a human lifespan presents life-plan challenges. Nearly all of us have reliable data on when our individual clocks started ticking—it’s right on the birth certificate—but except in rare instances, we have only a vague notion of now much time we’ll get to live and love, to laugh and learn. That’s why we try to cram so many accomplishments into our younger days. I mean, the sooner you achieve a goal, the more time you’ll have to enjoy the benefits.

However, this perspective is rather outcome-oriented. At the lower level in a hierarchy of ambition, we choose quick-and-simple aims, the kind where we expect lesser efforts to produce quicker results. At the middle level, we pursue the kinds of substantial rewards that require long-term, sustained effort—which in turn imbues success with greater meaning. At the highest level, we work toward goals where the benefits extend beyond our time, service to future generations, a paying forward for what our forebears accomplished for us. Imagine the old-timer who patiently plants a thousand seedlings, knowing he’ll never live to see the forest, a form of altruism too few of us ever learn to embrace. Failing to see our world and the people who share it as bigger than one individual—as a continuum enduring beyond a single lifetime—is how it comes to seem acceptable to ignore the long-term consequences of pollution and climate change, of rapid natural-resource depletion, of amassing a massive collective debt for future generations to pay down.

Maybe we don’t always need a “result.” The old lady didn’t say her goal was a degree, but rather “to go to college.” If she ran out of time after a year or two or three, wouldn’t the experience, the knowledge, the mere accomplishment found in effort be worth it? If you plant a tree, won’t watching it grow, if only for a while, offer a measure of satisfaction? Don’t the best destinations beckon us with the promise of a meaningful journey?

And can’t the results of our best efforts prove different than we expect, maybe even better, with dividends paying in more ways than we ever imagined? Think about the never-too-late lesson younger generations learn from the example set by that elderly college coed. Think about the circle-of-life wonder a child discovers when an old-timer nurtures seedlings that will mature long after he’s gone.

And even if nobody ever finds out what you have done, at least you can embrace the joy in knowing you’ve made yourself a better person, and you’ve left the world better for the time you got to live and love, to laugh and learn.

It’s been a long time since I lived among those springtime bloomers, blossom-gobbed shrubs, and towering trio of magnificent hot-summer shaders; but I hope my former neighbor is still right there across the street, and that he did get around to planting those trees. I like to imagine him spending some golden-years time relaxing in the shade. But if he’s gone now, I expect his son inherited the house, and I hope that on a hot summer day he can sit in that shade with his own children and share memories about helping his dad plant those trees.

How old do you have to be to understand that such a simple result is worth all that effort?

How old, indeed. 

       Web Site: Stephen Geez

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