[Nyerges is the author of “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “How to Survive Anywhere,” and other books. Information about his books and classes is available at www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com, or Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90041.]
RUNNING A LAP FOR EVERY YEAR, A BIRTHDAY TRADITION
Way back in 1976, a friend who ran a non-profit group shared with me a way to commemorate one’s birthday. Run a lap for every year, and mentally review that year as you run. Relive your life. There are many other details, but this is the essence of it. Take the time to run through your life, and look over how you got to where you are today.
This is essentially what I have done every year since then. My birthday this year in January of 2017 was no different. Though the leaders of the non-profit have encouraged their members to do this run as a group-activity, I felt the need for solitude this year. I wanted to review my past years, without having to talk it aloud to whomever might have come along to run with me.
Before noon, I found a somewhat isolated place to run down in the Arroyo Seco. It had rained previously, so everything was wet and muddy. It was sunny, yet it was still cold and breezy. Birds flew about overhead looking for possible meals in the new pools of water that head developed around the willows. I located one of the catchment basins that had been built to hold rain and river water, so it soaks into the water table. I liked the length of its perimeter berm, and began my run.
I run one lap for each year, trying to remember all the significant events for that year. I tried to remember all my significant events, and how I was feeling about them way back when. Successes, failures, fears, challenges, obstacles, rejections, learning new skills, realizing that people don’t become more skilled and competent just become they grow older.
In the first few years, very few memories were present. I ran in a large circle, trying to not pay much attention to my physical surroundings, trying to get back into the mindset of a newly born child. I saw my parents and I saw my teachers.
I recall the phrase being asked to me so often, in the very early years, and especially as I grew older: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It was an odd question, I always thought, because the person asking really meant “what sort of a job do you think you will do for the majority of your life so you can earn money to pay your bills?” But I only heard “what do you want to be” and “when you grow up.” I had lots of interests, for sure, and I recall admiring other friends or associates who seemed to be so wholly engrossed in one task that they clearly had “become” that activity, whether sports, proficiency with a musical instrument, gardening, whatever. I had so many interests. Did I really have to decide on just one? And “growing up.” Will I know when I have “grown up”? I just naturally assumed that once I grew – that once anyone grew up – they would ipso facto become a stable member of society, an actively contributing member to a family and community, and someone who maturely made all the best decisions for now and the future. But I never saw those adults. I recall feeling disappointed as I “grew up,” seeing what I perceived to be vast incompetence, lack of willpower, and general confusion about what to do in life. I reasoned that if I enjoyed walking in the woods and studying plants and Native American history, what could be wrong with that?
As I ran in early January, I felt that I had wasted so much time in school, constantly resisting the teacher, constantly thinking that my time would be so much better spent being somewhere else. But where? My problem and blindness, which I did not see back in my grammar school years, was that no teacher was ever really going to teach me anything, as if they were to serve me something on a silver platter. The real purpose of teachers and schools, I now realize, was to teach me how to teach myself, how to prime my thinking so that I learn what facts are useful in my life, and which facts are necessary to find out all the other things that were necessary to know.
Round and round I went, in the mud, in the diminishing light of the cloudy day, reviewing school, and job, and relationships, and breakup of relationships, and moving from here to there, and traveling, and writing about things, and feeling the pain of the death of so many people around me.
During that time, I had just finished reading the remarkable book, “House of Rain” by Childs, about the possible fate of the Anasazi the American Southwest, and I could not help but think about people with an incredible low-tech technology, who built great houses and roads and canals, made pots and fabrics, and grew food when there was sufficient rain. Then something happened, and people were dispersed, or killed. As I ran, I thought of the fate of all of us, how we take so much for granted, how water is the most essential key to life, wherever we happen to be.
Now, at 62, I was not so concerned about “what I will do when I grow up.” I was more concerned about the refinement of what I have been already doing. How do I make the world a better place for my having been here? Is any “revolution” more important than a personal revolution of my very thinking and going about my daily life?
As I ran my final laps, it was so obvious that life is about people and our relationships, not about the stuff that we acquire. What we do is what we do, here and now. Live your life, and do it the best you can. Accumulating money, and buying a house, and degrees, and all that, are all OK, but we don’t want to get all caught up by the material things.
I stood in the stiffening breeze with the setting sun to the west, and it was so clear that life is to be lived in the now, and how you go about that doing, is everything.