That was my friend Dave’s response when I told him that I was putting my storytelling business on hold and would soon be leaving for a guiding job in Alaska. Then with a laugh, he continued, “I guess I didn’t get the memo either!” After a long career in social services, at age 67 he enrolled in a masters program and is now close to certification as a psychotherapist. Maybe we should both have our heads examined.
But then there is Captain William Moore, the first resident of Skagway. (formerly Mooresville) His crude log cabin in the center of town was one of the first stops on my tour. I’d tell people how along with his First Nation’s guide, Skookum Jim, he had blazed the first trail from Skagway and up the White Pass, then staked out 120 acres, built a pier and warehouses and confidently and correctly predicted that someday there would be hordes of gold seekers who would use his route. As I pulled away from his homesite I would add that I was withholding an important part of his biography. Then, on the way up the pass, I’d stop at a pullout, point out his original trail clinging to the side of a long and difficult cliff face, and then fill in the missing detail. He was 64 when he made that first trip and he was 74 when he won a contract to deliver the mail on the 600 or so mile route to Forty Mile on the Yukon River So folks I’d say, “ It’s not too late for a career change.”
I guess Moore didn’t get the memo either.
Then there is the example of Pablo Casals, one of the master cellist’s of the 20th century who was still practicing for hours and hours every day. When asked why, he responded, “ because I’m beginning to sense a little improvement.”
“I’m beginning to sense a little improvement.” That phrase has become like a mantra for me, having passed retirement age and with no ability and even less interest in hanging up a career where it’s often hard to delineate where work ends and play begins. It also helped me through this interval where I took people up the same route over 200 times. I prepared long and hard for this assignment, but by the time I’d finished my last tour, I still knew that there is still much room for improvement.
But I invoke Casals for another important reason. He stands firmly in the lineage of elders of the tribe who have guided my own path and career. Here’s how.
In 1961 (?)Casals came to California to teach a weeks long master cello class. People came from all over the country to attend including an engineer from the Bay area, in his mid 50’s named Josh Barkins. Because he was local and knew the area so well, Barkins often took on the role of local guide during breaks. As he would tell me later, towards the end of the class, Casals took him aside and in essence said, “ Josh, you’re a good cellist, but you’ll never be a master cellist. But in another way you are a master. You’ve been a master guide. Have you ever considered doing that for a living?” The very next day, Josh quit his job, and applied for a job as a groundskeeper for the East Bay Regional Park Service. He quickly worked up through the ranks and eventually became not only the chief interpretive naturalist for the regional parks but a legendary trainer for the National Park Service.
Here’s a quote from the NPS
“He practiced the best interpretation, both whimsical and profound. He was equally adept at interpreting for children, engineers, clergy, and fellow interpreters. He was equally at home giving “‘gutter walks” in the city and alpine meadow walks in Yosemite. He thrived on creative use of gadgets, puns and riddles, puppets, music, poetry, world religions, history, and philosophy in his programs. Not only was he unafraid of integrating ethical and moral issues in his programs, he often insisted upon it.”
Fast forward to 1977. I was visiting Berkeley and Tilden Park with another mentor of mine Herb Wong, who was both a jazz and environmental educator. Herb invited me to accompany his class to Tilden to witness Josh Barkins in action. (Freeman Tilden, by the way is known as the father of modern interpretation.) Josh did it all that day, took us on the trail, brought out puppets, children’s books, told Sufi and Zen stories, showed us small wonders with a magnifying glass, and recited poetry. Poetry! At the end of our nature walk we sat in a circle and Josh began,
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune,
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms,
Strong and content I travel the open road.
“Ah… Walt Whitman! Song of the Open Road,” I exclaimed. ((How could I not know the poem. These words are carved in a huge glacial erratic next to a statue of old Walt in Bear Mountain Park near my boyhood back yard and Mecca overlooking the Hudson River)
Josh looked at me, beamed, took off his Smokey the Bear style ranger hat, put it on my head and said, “You recognized Whitman! You can DO this!” I count this as one of or perhaps even the most affirming and encouraging moment of my life. Trying to lead the life of a environmental educator, storyteller, and sometimes guide all these almost 40 years now has sometimes felt akin to walking that precarious and difficult path that Moore ‘found’ and the Klondikers followed, but I continue on, for after all, “there’s gold in them thar hills,” even if it’s fairy gold!
I’ll pitch my blog tent here for the day with this final quote from the Maestro Casals.
” On my last birthday I was ninety-three years old. That is not young, of course. In fact, it is older than ninety. But age is a relative matter. If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that ages does not necessarily mean getting old. At least, not in the ordinary sense. I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.”
I guess he didn’t get the memo either!
(As always, your comments are fuel for the fire and keep me going! How is life growing more fascinating for you? Can you remember a time when you felt truly encouraged by someone you admire?)