Ah, another year. One ends, another begins. And, the tradition is to make resolutions, to strive to improve, do something different and harder than what I did this last year. To strive to be “better”, “new and improved”. Oh, so American.
What has worked for me this past year is not “better” or “harder”, more complicated, more difficult. Instead, what really has worked are the simple things. This past year, the simple things have been the juiciest, the most abundant, rich and momentous events.
The walk on the beach, the sip of iced tea in the garden with my wife on a warm summer day, the picking of apples from the tree. Those simple things are the best.
As I put together my photo calendar for the year, I pick out the best pictures for my friends. And, this year, the best pictures were the simplest, the ones of ordinary events and ordinary places. What was the best was the flowing of water, the setting of the sun, a bird on the water, a herd of elk in a field, the smile of a baby.
This year, I’ve sat with several young men, men in prison, and listened to their loneliness, their pain, and their search for manhood in trying times, and in trying places. We’ve had serious conversations, but the richest of those has been of simple words, simple and ordinary events.
I ate ice cream with a young man, to celebrate his accomplishment of dealing with and writing about horrific events in his life. I thought we were dealing with those challenges, but in reality, we were simply enjoying his first time ever simply having ice cream with someone who cared about him enough to spend a few bucks on an ice cream cone. In his life, that was a major event, ice cream with a friend who cared.
I ate birthday cake and ice cream with several young men, honoring one of their birthdays. The young man we honored had never had a birthday party before, so eating cake and ice cream, wearing birthday hats, horsing around with paper noisemakers, and singing “Happy Birthday” reminded me of how beautiful and meaningful are the simple things in life we take for granted.
My Thanksgiving dinner this year was in a nursing home. We shared the meal with my father in law, who would die in a few weeks. He was nearly blind and deaf, yet he rolled up to the table in his wheelchair and shared the meal with us. We found pleasure in the meal, the companionship. There were other patients in the room whose lives were even more bleak and desolate than his, tables without conversation, or even awareness of the event. And, I was grateful for the simple pleasure of having a meal with family, and being able to give thanks.
I savored the simple things in life this year, the purring cat falling asleep on my lap, a good book to read, a walk down the lane in the winter, taking in the stars and the stray meteor, the sliver of light in the east reminding me of the possibilities of the coming day, the promise of a cup of coffee brewing as I finish my walk in silence.
As I work out in the gym, and feel a bead of sweat drip down my face, I’m thankful for my health, and the time I have in my life to take care of my body, to get my heart rate up, and burn off some calories. Just being alive is a gift, and each day offers so many possibilities.
Each time I play my guitar, I’m grateful to be able to spend time improving my skills, and bringing the pleasure of music making into my life. The ability to learn and grow, and nourish my talent is a gift I no longer take for granted.
There is simple beauty and pleasure in just being in someone else’s presence. I don’t take my coffee times with friends for granted. Our conversations offer me wisdom, and reflection, and time to simply “be” with someone, to experience love and companionship. We are, after all, human “beings”, not human “doings”.
This year, I’ve found myself less mesmerized, less caught up in the complexities and dramas of politics and social dramas. What I read on the front page of the newspaper is less important in my life now than what I find talking about in quiet conversations, and in gently steering another person along the road of life. The quiet, creative moment has become much more important than the headline of the day, or the latest international cause celebre. The faces on the supermarket tabloids now are strangers to me, the national political figures fading in importance in my lives. (I am searching for the “mute” button for the 2012 election!) And in that realization, I feel richer.
Who really matters in life are the young man I bought a few groceries for today, sitting with him as he wolfed down a sandwich, telling me about his job search; the guys I shared birthday cake and ice cream with in prison, hearing a young man turning 21 in prison talk about his dreams; and the phone call with my brother, fresh out of heart surgery, telling me he’ll be coming home soon.
I want more of that in the coming year, more of the little things, the simple things in life.
--Neal Lemery 12/30/11