My high school friend Bob and I used to go fishing every summer in the river that runs through our town. We had no jobs and no pocket money, but fishing was free.
On the way home one August day on the path beside the river, we used Bob’s German boot knife to carve immortality into an ash tree. I sliced my first name in big, blocky letters, cutting completely through the bark to the living core of the tree. On the back of the tree, Bob cut his initials, a plus sign, and the initials of a girl he was sweet on. He and the girl graduated from high school a year earlier than I did. I don’t know what happened to either one of them. I’m sure Bob’s behind-the-tree wish never came true.
I thought my name would remain visible on the tree for decades, causing future generations to stop and ask, “Who was Pat?” I was wrong. The bark grew to fill in my carving, and the remaining scar certainly didn’t look like letters, much less a name. The tree cured Bob’s wounds much more quickly, because his cuts weren’t nearly as deep.
Several years ago, a community group raised money to widen and pave the path beside the river. Hundreds of people use it each month for walking, running, bicycling or skating. You’re just as apt to see a serious runner as you are to see a family with toddlers who can barely keep their miniature bicycles going in a straight line. I rode my bicycle on that path decades before it was paved, and I still ride there. Each time I would ride past the ash, I would look for my name. One summer day, though, a thunderstorm gusted the tree down, ripping it from the ground roots and all. The people who maintain the trail cut the tree into sections and dragged them into the brush beside the trail. At one point I thought I would chisel out the section with my name on it, but visions of insects and rotting wood overrode my idea of physically preserving a piece of the past.
The last time I was down there on my bicycle, though, I didn’t know where to look for my tree. Briars, vines, brambles and the leaves of a dozen autumns have swallowed it.
The disappearance of my tree reflects how time is starting to swallow my health. I take pills to control my blood pressure and cholesterol. I take pills to keep my head on straight and to keep my brain from turning further into mush. It’s tougher to fall asleep at night than it was during my fishing days, when all that kept me awake was teenage angst. It’s tough to find a comfortable sleeping position, given my rickety bones. And, of course, there are the inevitable wake-up calls from my bladder two or three a times a night. The tree of youth, if you will, has fallen.
That’s just the way it is: I’m not bulletproof anymore. To put it another way, I tried to convince a few friends to attend our 45th anniversary high school reunion in June. “We’re reaching that age where we might not see each other again,” I told them. “The warranties are starting to expire.” It’s now a matter of how many years we have left. I can’t say this troubles me more than it troubles anyone else. My father once told me, “Death is a part of life,” and he was right.
What I don’t understand, though, is that the voice in my head, the one that dictates to me what life is like and my reaction to it, hasn’t changed. It is as self-aware as it ever was, but it doesn’t sound any wiser than it did when I first noticed it (and who can say exactly when that was?). It provides incessant analysis of moments just passed and reminds me continually of episodes from my history going back to before I started kindergarten. For some reason, the stories my inner voice tells always have a patina of regret, melancholy, even sadness: stories about when I’ve been a fool, when I’ve been naïve, when I’ve hurt people and not been aware of it, when I’ve hurt people on purpose, when I knowingly did things I shouldn’t have done, when I’ve been embarrassed, and when I’ve felt like an outsider. The voice reminds me of my sins but doesn’t say anything about the possibility of redemption. It is a voice of reproach.
I wonder if this voice ever will speak in a more supportive tone. I tell my students to be their own best friends. “If you don’t believe in yourself, who will?” I ask them. After those chats, I wonder if my students can see that I can’t take my own advice. In fact, my internal voice suggests I’m merely someone who has chosen the path of least resistance through life. As an undergraduate, I was an English major because it was easy. I followed college with a career in journalism because my college mentor and adviser suggested I do so. His suggestion was better than any idea I had at the time. Why not? I figured. And when I finally lucked my way to the top and was in charge of a newspaper’s reporters and editors, I used to joke that I didn’t really do anything—I just walked around with a clipboard in hand and an intense look on my face.
I wish there were an escape from the voice. As Eric Clapton once said, “My definition of peace is having no noise inside my head.” I wonder if he has ever attained that peace. I wonder if it is even attainable.