Issue No. 50 /January 13, 1996



When I was one-and-twenty

I heard a wise man say,

"Give crowns and pounds and guineas,

But not your heart, away;

Give pearls away and rubies,

But keep your fancy free."

But I was one-and-twenty-

No use to talk to me.

When I was one-and-twenty

I heard him say again,

"The heart out of the bosom

Was never given in vain;

'Tis paid with sighs a plenty

And sold for endless rue."

And I am two-and-twenty,

And oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.

This poem, written by A.E. Housman in 1887 as part of his epic "The Shropshire Lad," comes amid the reflections that often occur to me at the end of the year. But it is also about the apparent ending of a five year cycle and the seeming beginning of a new one. There are, of course, no endings only continuations. It just seems that there are boundaries to us humans.

There are times when cycles feel merged one into the other, where the line separating them is hard to locate, much like what happens to ketchup when you mix it vigorously with mayo. And then there are other cycles that seem to have a clear and discrete line so that we seem to be able to tell when one ends and the other begins. And although in truth there never is such a clear distinction, this present time seems like one of the latter.

When I was one-and-twenty if someone had told me that age brings with it wisdom, I would have snickered. "Dottering old man," I would have thought. "All he is missing is drool coming from the corner of his mouth," I would have said. I knew it all at that age. I had inside my head the accumulated wisdom of 21 years of living and what was there left for me to know? Hot shot that I was.

The twenties did not bring much more wisdom, only a bit more education. I recall, just after passing the bar at age 25, that I felt as though I was the king of the hill. Endless discussions with others convinced me that I knew it all. I could even say it in Latin.

Then, well… then came life.

Marriage. Children. Career successes followed by emotional crashes. Two sons. Divorce. More emotional crashes. Love affairs. Sexual affairs. Love affairs. Emotional crashes. Searching. Finding. Losing. Finding again. Losing again. Emotional crashes. Aloneness. Loneliness. My dog Murray. The beginnings of my heart. The middlings of my heart. Love and marriage again. New dreams. The beginning of a new life. Dreams being born. Children growing up and away. Divorce again. Dreams dying…again. Emotional crashes. Rebuilding. Finding new dreams to dream.

I have often felt that we should be able to live the entirety of our life before we have to make any decisions about anything. Whoever made up the current system, well it simply sucks! We have to decide about who we are, what work we want to do, who we should fall in love with, maybe marry, all these and a myriad of other choices, all without sufficient wisdom. We are pressed early in life to make choices but we are not given the life experiences that create the basis for sound decisions. We have to decide based upon incomplete information. And so we often make what appear to be mistakes.

But of course, as we grow, as we accumulate the originally missing wisdom, we may come to see that that which was considered a mistake was in fact the schooling we were lacking in the first place. We may learn this life lesson if we are wise.

Yes. What I learned at one-and-twenty has served me well. The matters of education have been of great value to me. But they have little to do with life.

What seems to be important is not how much education we have. What seems to be important is how much we know.

© 1996 Ivan Hoffman

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