Observations: A life in the past

Published on: November 17, 2011

As I approached the Chesapeake Bay Bridge the future was wide open.  On that day, I had no idea where I was going or where I would end up.  It wasn’t a good feeling then but now it seems like an adventure. Mitch Traphagen Photo

As I approached the Chesapeake Bay Bridge the future was wide open. On that day, I had no idea where I was going or where I would end up. It wasn’t a good feeling then but now it seems like an adventure. Mitch Traphagen Photo


A guy who has been my friend near forever recently said to me, “The only problem with living in the past is that everything else changes.”


I have a lot to live for in the past. Sometimes it seems for the future, not so much.

A year ago this week, I had just launched my sailboat from a boatyard in Cambridge, Maryland, in order to sail it home. At the time, I had no idea of what lay ahead: the days of bone-chilling cold, ice and even snow. There were so many days on that trip when I was tempted just to give up — to tie off the boat and take a quick flight home. A few days ago, a reminder popped up on my wife’s phone. I had asked her to put it there a year ago. The reminder said, “Aren’t you glad the boat is in Florida now?”

On beautiful fall days like today, I’m not so sure I am glad. The sail down last winter was nightmarish in certain respects, but I never lost appreciation for how fortunate I was to be able to do it. While it was occasionally over the top, the sense of adventure was never lost. Standing here today, I wish I was back there again. I wish I was standing on the cusp of another adventure.

When I was in my teens, I had two priorities in my life: playing rock music and meeting cute girls (I had boundless optimism that one would lead to another). Somehow, college managed to be squeezed in, but even that became an adventure. I went to school in Colorado, was able to keep Wednesdays clear of classes, and thus had the occasional quiet day on the slopes or a hike through the woods in the mountains. Wednesday were always great days — it seemed no one was ever out there.

After that, I spent a few years trying to convince myself that I could become a dedicated corporate executive. That worked somewhat until I read a book about someone sailing around the world. After trying, and failing, to tie my neckties using a bowline (a great sailor’s knot) instead of the more traditional double Windsor knot, I knew the corporate route was a lost cause.

I’m more than halfway up the ladder of life and, from an actuary standpoint, there is more stuff to look down at than up towards. Living in the past is so very tempting because it seems to provide all of the perks of great memories without the pain and effort it took to make them. I can feel what it was like when Michelle and I were at anchor off Norman’s Cay in the Bahamas. I can remember rowing the dinghy around the crashed DC-3 drug-runner aircraft in the lagoon. No doubt, there was a good bit of terror and some bloodshed in reaching that place that is today a tranquil memory, but the bad stuff is all forgotten now. Time has sanded down the rough edges leaving a warm embrace that reaches through the years to my current-day soul. I want to be there. I want to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Staniel Cay. I want to be in Georgetown in the Exuma Islands watching the world go by from the cockpit of my boat. Hell, I’d take being back in Georgetown, South Carolina, as I was a year ago after spending a chilly day sailing down a desolate and far-too-shallow canal through a marsh.

I want. I want. I want. Last year, all I wanted was to get my sailboat home, but having done that, now I want to be back out there again. I am one sorry piece of work. I get everything I want and I’m never happy with it. I always want more.

My friend is exactly right. The problem with living in the past is that everything else changes. Everything keeps moving forward, leaving the past a shadow, not an existence. I can see it in my mind’s eye, but it isn’t really there anymore. The only thing that is real is what is in front of me — and if I’m looking down, reality and the moment that is right now are lost forever.

I see the challenges that so many people live with and overcome, and my troubles pale in comparison. I should be planning a party every single day to celebrate my insanely good fortune. Yet I want. I want an adventure. I want to make some new memories.

Helen Keller, author, traveler, lecturer, and the first blind and deaf person to earn Bachelor of Arts degree said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” The problem, of course, is reconciling the need for adventure with the reality of everyday life. There are bills to pay and commitments to keep.

Author Edward Abbey once said, “Heaven is home. Utopia is here. Nirvana is now.”  A decade or so later he added what I believe to be a companion quote:  “Freedom begins between the ears.”

One of the benefits of looking down the ladder of my life is that I can see that adventure in and of itself really isn’t worth all that much. To get there, I worked towards the goal, I planned and I dreamed. The true adventure was in the journey to reach it — the moment of the adventure is merely a memory.

I need an adventure but, more importantly, I need to plan for one and then work towards it. Despite that my knees and elbows hurt a little and that I’m fairly certain arthritis is creeping into my guitar-playing fingers, I’m not dead yet. I can look up the ladder of my life and imagine what will fill that still boundless space. And then, I can work towards making it happen, living in the moment and using the past for inspiration and guidance. Abbey was right — Utopia is here, Nirvana is now. Heaven is home. And the freedom to see all of that begins between my ears.

I don’t yet know how or what, but I know it starts with a dream that will involve a lot of hard work:  I’m going on an adventure.