The title for this post is a line in the poem, East Coker, one of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Eliot writes,
“Old men ought to be explorers.
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
through the dark cold and empty desolation.
I’m sure I had an assignment in college to read the Four Quartets; but wise and true words about a “deeper communion through the dark cold and empty desolation” are wasted on the young. Young men don’t want to explore dark cold and empty desolation. Young men want to read business-like prose about change and corporate growth, structure and achievement. When we are young men building our little personal empires, we are devout students of the process for controlling change and mastering our future. We think about a gold-plated retirement in which we get to do all the things we don’t do now because of our commitment to our careers and the accumulation of capital. In our culture, old men are not expected to be explorers; they are expected to become supernumeraries who no longer have lines to speak on the stage play of life. It’s best if they retire to a warm place and wear pastel colors on the golf courses.
But there is another way for men; one in which they become valuable voices in the community, echoing back the deeper communion we all share. So as I entered into “retirement,” I decided I did not want to end my passage through life slumped over in an easy chair while talking heads on the cable news network blathered on about some reality show star’s impending divorce. I wanted to do something to take a measure of my life and how I was going to play out the fourth quarter.
As one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, says so well:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop. (from “The Journey”)
I learned that we humans are ancient beings. Our lives mean more than 30 years of commuting in closed-up cars to work in piled-up blocks of concrete. So I am putting my feet to the earth, walking 500 miles in whatever conditions nature brings me, staying at places for which I have made no reservations, eating in places not found on Zagat or Trip Advisor. And beyond my primary destination of Santiago de Compostela, there is the final three-day walk to Finisterre (the end of the earth) on the Galician coast. My ego is afraid of what I may find; my soul seems to be enjoying the prospects of finally leading me into a deeper communion.