Women and the Secret of Life

Twenty five hundred years ago Pericles spoke to the grieving mothers and wives of Athens; women who had lost husbands and sons in the Peloponnesian wars. He told them that their men had given the "true measure of a man's worth." Not in defense of a city-state, but in defense of ideas. In this case the ideas were freedom and democracy. Pericles also assured the grieving women that their husbands and sons would "live on in the hearts of men." Indeed, the leader of the Athenian golden age was speaking of a kind of immortality -- remembrance.

Two millennia hence, Abraham Lincoln expressed similar sentiments at Gettysburg where he spoke of the "last full measure of devotion;" that same classical metaphor for dying -- death in the service of noble ideals. Lincoln was trying to bind the wounds of a nation torn apart, again by different ideas -- different ideas about freedom and sacrifice.

Great adages often become the maxims that bind great men and great eras. Yet, the only certainty, for all generations, is death. What distinguishes one life from another is what we do while we're waiting to die. Pericles and Lincoln understood this; as did intervening generations of poets. My favorite is an anonymous Irish elegy:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
 I am not there. I do not sleep.
 I am a thousand winds that blow.
 I am crystal glints on the snow.
I am the sunlight and the rain.
 I am abundant autumn grain.
 When you waken to morning's hush
 and see the swirling rush
 of gentle birds in whirling flight,
 or pale stars that adorn the night,
 do not stand at my grave and cry.
 I am not there. I did not die.

In another day, I knew a quiet blue-eyed woman from Utah who dedicated her life to teaching her children to love the things that she loved. Among these were long hikes on the Front Range where every ramble was an opportunity to learn about the great outdoors and the comforts of small fires. Over time the mother, Susan, and the daughter, Lorelei, developed a bond that transcended blood -- they became the best of friends. All journeys are shorter with two on the trail.

Irish mothers like to say that your son is your son until he marries, but your daughter is your daughter until the day you die. For a fortunate few, such epigrams are true.

Sadly, Susan died at an early age of causes that are irrelevant here. After Sue passed away, Laurie took her mother's ashes to one of those lovely mountain aeries and threw them to the winds. And now, years after, when time permits, Lorelei hikes to that spot with her own brood; but, she does not weep and she does not cry. Her mother is not there, she did not die.

Sue lives on in the hearts of her children. Given proximity and opportunity, it is astounding how few parents ever develop such bonds with their offspring.

Remembrance provides comfort and wisdom for the living - and immortality for the dead. But remembrance is not the secret of life. The secret of life, as cowboys were fond of saying, is ‘just one thing.' When skeptics ask about that one thing, the reply never varies: "That's for you to figure out!"

The origins of fairs, rodeos, circuses, sports, or any public entertainment are probably rooted in the quest for excellence -- at "just one thing." We are awed by those who achieve great skill in art or science because they touch a cord that resonates in all humans - the need to succeed, at something; a worthy goal while we wait to be cast upon the wind.

The secret of life, and our immortality, is that one thing; finding at least one thing that we can, and should do; and doing that thing well. Such wisdom is no mystery for the great and the small, a Lincoln or a Lorelei.  Unfortunately, too many in the undifferentiated middle spend the coals of their lives before heat ever becomes light. My Aunt Margaret used to say: "Too old, too soon, too smart, too late!" Indeed.

"I owe everything to my angel mother." - Abraham Lincoln
Twenty five hundred years ago Pericles spoke to the grieving mothers and wives of Athens; women who had lost husbands and sons in the Peloponnesian wars. He told them that their men had given the "true measure of a man's worth." Not in defense of a city-state, but in defense of ideas. In this case the ideas were freedom and democracy. Pericles also assured the grieving women that their husbands and sons would "live on in the hearts of men." Indeed, the leader of the Athenian golden age was speaking of a kind of immortality -- remembrance.

Two millennia hence, Abraham Lincoln expressed similar sentiments at Gettysburg where he spoke of the "last full measure of devotion;" that same classical metaphor for dying -- death in the service of noble ideals. Lincoln was trying to bind the wounds of a nation torn apart, again by different ideas -- different ideas about freedom and sacrifice.

Great adages often become the maxims that bind great men and great eras. Yet, the only certainty, for all generations, is death. What distinguishes one life from another is what we do while we're waiting to die. Pericles and Lincoln understood this; as did intervening generations of poets. My favorite is an anonymous Irish elegy:

Do not stand at my grave and weep.
 I am not there. I do not sleep.
 I am a thousand winds that blow.
 I am crystal glints on the snow.
I am the sunlight and the rain.
 I am abundant autumn grain.
 When you waken to morning's hush
 and see the swirling rush
 of gentle birds in whirling flight,
 or pale stars that adorn the night,
 do not stand at my grave and cry.
 I am not there. I did not die.

In another day, I knew a quiet blue-eyed woman from Utah who dedicated her life to teaching her children to love the things that she loved. Among these were long hikes on the Front Range where every ramble was an opportunity to learn about the great outdoors and the comforts of small fires. Over time the mother, Susan, and the daughter, Lorelei, developed a bond that transcended blood -- they became the best of friends. All journeys are shorter with two on the trail.

Irish mothers like to say that your son is your son until he marries, but your daughter is your daughter until the day you die. For a fortunate few, such epigrams are true.

Sadly, Susan died at an early age of causes that are irrelevant here. After Sue passed away, Laurie took her mother's ashes to one of those lovely mountain aeries and threw them to the winds. And now, years after, when time permits, Lorelei hikes to that spot with her own brood; but, she does not weep and she does not cry. Her mother is not there, she did not die.

Sue lives on in the hearts of her children. Given proximity and opportunity, it is astounding how few parents ever develop such bonds with their offspring.

Remembrance provides comfort and wisdom for the living - and immortality for the dead. But remembrance is not the secret of life. The secret of life, as cowboys were fond of saying, is ‘just one thing.' When skeptics ask about that one thing, the reply never varies: "That's for you to figure out!"

The origins of fairs, rodeos, circuses, sports, or any public entertainment are probably rooted in the quest for excellence -- at "just one thing." We are awed by those who achieve great skill in art or science because they touch a cord that resonates in all humans - the need to succeed, at something; a worthy goal while we wait to be cast upon the wind.

The secret of life, and our immortality, is that one thing; finding at least one thing that we can, and should do; and doing that thing well. Such wisdom is no mystery for the great and the small, a Lincoln or a Lorelei.  Unfortunately, too many in the undifferentiated middle spend the coals of their lives before heat ever becomes light. My Aunt Margaret used to say: "Too old, too soon, too smart, too late!" Indeed.

"I owe everything to my angel mother." - Abraham Lincoln