The birds know it -- I spotted a pair of red-winged blackbirds by the pond today, and a flock of robins high in the trees, if my eyesight can be trusted. As soon as the sunlight hits the treetops, birdsong swells and multiplies. It's quite captivating, and keeps me from getting back indoors when I should move on with my day.
It is called "Before I Die" (If you can't get the whole story, try googling the title and "carpenter"). It appears to have been, perhaps, a given title for a school assignment. "What do you hope to accomplish before you die?" I imagine the teacher asking a group of students. Four pages. Due tomorrow. Or maybe he just took it upon himself to write it, who knows?
In the beautifully constructed essay, Carpenter lays out those things he would like to experience and accomplish in order lead a fulfilling life. They include to some extent the visions of great things that are typical of youth -- renown for unique accomplishments and extensive world travel to learn about humankind. But his visions are also tempered with both thoughtful realism and generosity.
He writes of friendship and contribution: "I could never die fully contented unless I knew that those with whom I had been intimate had gained real happiness from their friendship with me." He goes on later: "We all want much happiness in our lives, and giving it to others is one of the surest ways to achieve it for ourselves."
Carpenter also wants to know deep love and great sorrow, two depths of experience without which life would never be fully lived, he says.
"As for death itself, I do not believe that it will be such a disagreeable thing provided my life has been successful." He will, he says, "turn not unwillingly...to the new and thrilling experience of exploring the unknown."
Edmund N. Carpenter died at age 87 in December of 2008, a fulfilled man.
It makes one take pause. Age 17, age 30, age 49, age 72 -- is there any age when it would not be a good idea to ponder what we want our lives to be?
It's never too early. Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney is one of my favorite picture books for children. A little girl decides she wants to travel the world and when she is old, buy a home by the sea. Her grandfather says she also must find a way to make the world more beautiful, which she does.
It's never too late. My great-aunt got a master's degree at 60, wrote a book in her 70's and remarried at age 90. My father helped found a new museum in New York State's Adirondacks (The Wild Center in Tupper Lake - an amazing place for all ages!) while he was in his 70's. Grandmothers and great-grandmothers pour love and wisdom over their littlest descendants. Many people find ways, in the twilight of their years, to offer happiness to those "with whom they have been been intimate."
One fear I have about this process is that I might make a list and then come to the end of it. Being a mother and raising children is such a prominent focus of "before I die" for so many years. Before I die, I want to raise my children well, see them grow to be strong, loving, happy, independent and contributing citizens of the world.
When my children have all graduated and moved on into life, am I done? Is the rest just fluff?
Certainly there is the satisfaction and fulfillment of one major job assignment accomplished. But then it's time for the next - part of which includes continuing nurturing, guidance, and loving of those ever-evolving people that I raised. I have to remember that I still call my mother for support on a regular basis, and continue to learn and be enriched by her.
Spreading happiness and wisdom never loses value.
And also, before I die, there is that book I have to write. Or two or three. A goal in the distance should always be there to light our way.