A friend asked me today “what is a meaningful life?,” and I hesitated, as it was a difficult question and I told him I think it is different for every person. For some, it is a life bound to family. For others, a life of fulfillment, accomplishment. For others, security, work, safety. For me, it is more complex, not black and white, but gray, yellow, red. A meaningful life is one of fulfillment, self-determination. It is a life of freedom, within bounds. And of encouragement, for me and others. A life where fear is understand to be a challenge to the character, a test of the will, a space to cross, but not life itself, not life’s definer.
A life spent in the pursuit of creation, and a search for love and the beautiful images of the world. A life where anger, like fear, is understood as a symptom, not a truth. Perhaps, more than anything, a life that is not lived in fear or hiding, without risk, search or rebirth. That, for me, is faith.
Ajay has been laboriously digging out the slate walk and stones that lead from the back of the house to the pasture. It seems from the height of the grass that they have been buried for nearly 100 years. I love seeing them, and they mystify me a bit. A lot of huge stones and a lot of money for a farmer in the 1800’s to spend. It feels like archaeology. Ajay has taken this project on, along with others. He has stacked the firewood, cleaned out the barn, and he will help Ben built the pole barn and shelter this week. (Todd Mason begins work on the fences for the sheep and donkeys Monday.) He has made a big difference in our transition, and I appreciate it.
I had a long talk with Ajay today, and it was, in some ways, difficult. We sat on the porch of the new farm. Ajay has this notion that he can live a life off of the grid, free of money, without paperwork. He believes he can live outside of the system in Washington County, N.Y., perhaps get a farmer to give him some land, or even let him work his way towards owning a farm. I told him it seemed to fall to me to tell him that this was not a realistic plan, that life in Washington County in upstate New York is tough, especially in the winter, if you have no car, no money and no place of your own. And I know a lot of farmers, but I don’t know any who want some kid living on their property raising organic produce for free.
Ajay is looking for work, and I told him I thought he was hiding behind his political theory – he doesn’t care for banks or government (who does?) – that in seeking independence he risked becoming dependent. It seemed to me he had not heard these ideas before, or was blowing them off. He might be blowing me off, too, I couldn’t really tell. I felt as if I was hearing magical thinking, and I know magical thinking because I have had it and so many of my friends – many of them alcoholics – had it. I told Ajay there is only one cure for magical thinking. Nobody can talk you out of it, you have to hit the wall at a high speed and splatter your soul all over it. Then you begin to see reality and make decisions about how to live a meaningful life in a realistic way.
I said I wouldn’t do him the disservice of lying to him. Friends told each other the truth, and I gave him a full load of it, some truth I wish someone had given me long before I got near 60 years old.
I hope he listened. I love idealism, but idealism untempered by reality is often painful. The drama of getting older is that you finally know stuff, but nobody really wants to hear it. I hope Ajay doesn’t get to that wall, I told him, but if he does, perhaps I can help him then. That seems to be the way it works, as everybody in AA knows. They also know you can never save anybody else. People can only save themselves. It is a hard thing to actually listen to people, especially when you are 30. But if you don’t listen, you can’t learn. It’s a wheel that keeps turning and turning. I like Ajay, but he feels lost to me, stuck in a cloud of unreality. He thinks he might have a job lined up at a convenience store. Hope so. A first step. A good and hard talk.
When I meet the people who call themselves “scrappers,” I sometimes think of Mel Gibson and those grim and futuristic Dystopian movies. Roscoe is a scrapper and he scavengers all through the country for anything with metal in it – tires, car parts, pails and tin. He loves old barns and he barters for wages. If he can use the metal and wood, no charge. If he can’t, he’ll haul it to the dump or take it to an old farm and buried it. When he showed up, he looked deep into the woods and said he was sure there was a boiler or old rake out there – and sure enough there was a rusty old boiler, buried behind some brush.
“Scrappers” are pretty new in the country. Metal was once so plentiful it wasn’t worth much. It is now. But Roscoe will take anything with metal in it, even old tires. I asked him if I could photograph him, and he said he didn’t have much of a face. Not true, I said, he has a wonderful face. I just hired him for a days’ wages to haul some of the wood from the collapsed barn away. You can’t call a scrapper, they don’t have cards or cell phones. They appear or they don’t. If you want to make sure they come back, you hold onto the tailgate of their trucks, and you know they’ll be back.
I love my huge wood stove, a Stewart Oak made in Troy, N.Y., around the turn of the century. I have been polishing it for hours and hours and my arm is sore. Will take a few more days. This wondrous thing will heat half of our house, if I can afford to get it installed this winter. Ben thinks he can do it. Bless Ben.