There has been a remarkable symmetry in my life. That's a perspective that came to me recently in a minor epiphany that - triggered in part by a conversation with a friend - brought several lines of thought together into a more or less cohesive picture. Reflected across a central period where my energies were concentrated on family and career, the early years and later years appear in many ways as mirror images of each other. There are questions for which I hadn't been able to articulate satisfactory answers that, now, within that view of symmetry, seem perfectly natural and almost beyond question.
For example, my sons asked about my interest in recent years for finding details - photos, contact with shipmates, etc. - about my time in the Vietnam War and I answered that it was "old man stuff". True enough, I guess, but hardly an enlightening explanation.
When I first mentioned going back to Viet Nam, Patti said "OK, we can start saving and go when you retire." "Oh, no", I replied, "I meant NOW. I thought we could go for Tet this January." Aside from an only half joking assertion that I might never get to retire, I really had no explanation or even understanding of why I was so hell-bent on going right then. I just knew that I wanted to go. I'd thought about it on and off for years as a "someday" activity but, now, I was ready to go. I actually didn't question it at the time. We just planned, went, had a great time, and felt like everything was as it should be.
Interestingly, my first decision to go to Viet Nam was made just as quickly. I'd been thinking about how I agreed with both sides of the great debate that raged in our country at the time and suddenly decided to go see for myself. Without discussing it with anyone, I went to the USNR office and said, "Send me to Viet Nam." When they said they couldn't be sure where my orders would send me, I went to the USN recruiter and traded my 2-year USNR obligation up to a 3-year USN obligation in exchange for a guarantee of duty "in country". The little girl that I was dating at the time never spoke to me again, offended that she'd had no part in the decision. Her indignation was legitimate; the decision had nothing to do with her. It was about me and was, I now see, stepping through a doorway that led to a period of my life increasingly dominated by ego, by accomplishment, and by effort.
A few years ago, as I passed half a century, it occurred to me to see my life in quarter centuries: the first quarter century, I went to school and went to war; the second quarter century, I raised a family and built a career; the last quarter century, I figured that I'd "meander". "Meander" is a loaded reference: I use "meandering" as a metaphor for a Daoist or Zen-like nondirected life. 85% of the world's streams meander naturally and there is, I suspect, deep insight available in a meander's graceful, passive resistance to the rush to entropy.
A year or so ago, a former shipmate contacted me by email to ask if I was ". . . the same Carl Cole . . . with a shaved head and earring in 1969 ?" My reply was a mildly sheepish "Uh, yep, that would be me. . . . I grew hair but much of it fell out since then. The ear's still pierced but I seldom wear an earring anymore." I told him about the quarter centuries view and observed that his "comment about the way we were and times changing caused me to reflect a bit about each of those quarter century periods and, especially, the transitions between them. The transitions were preceded or followed by great upheavals in personality and intellect, a sort of craziness in which everything got rearranged. Our time with 'Captain Crunch' [ the sailors' nickname for our tin can's skipper, who ran the ship into almost everything he came close to ] and the year or so afterward was certainly one of those crazy times for me. The current post-50 period has begun with equally fundamental changes, albeit quieter and less visible. The result is that I look back at 'that person' in one of those earlier periods with the sense that it's someone else. I know intellectually that it's me, but it feels as if I'm recalling an acquaintance that I just happened to know very well!"
Recently, in the context of the calm and comfort that my life currently reflects, a friend mentioned an Eastern view that adulthood begins after one's parents die (not, as in the West, when we're old enough to become parents ourselves). While that was an intuitively acceptable notion, I also immediately observed that I had, in many ways, become increasingly child-like. Reflecting on that seeming paradox prompted the epiphany, which was largely visual, as shown in the graphic on this page.
The symmetry of that viewpoint and the character of each of the three major periods, gives "sense" to many things that I've little explanation for and I suspect that there are other symmetries yet unrecognized. For years during the central period, I kept a drawing table and painting supplies but was simply unable to paint or to explain why. Now, it seems apparent that a life of effort and attempted accomplishment was also necessarily a life of self-focus and distant from "the Way" and my creative connections. It now seems quite natural that, as I focused increasingly on being a provider, my first marriage fell apart during the uphill slope of that period and that, as a largely single parent, I became more nurturing on the downhill slope.
Going to Viet Nam early in my life was a doorway to one of those transitions, a portal to a period of reconstructive intellectual craziness. It now seems that going back to Viet Nam recently was an exit from the recent transition, a closing of the door behind me. Oh, I'm connected to Viet Nam still - in some ways, still by memories of the war ("Lest we forget") and of the young sailor who "spent most of his money on beer and women but just wasted the rest it" - but much more by new friends and recent experiences. As in the poem for Thuy: "Sandalwood, fish sauce / Old memories give way to / New places and friends."
I have little idea what the remainder of my life will bring - whether, for example, I'll live out this full quarter century or not - but I indeed approach it with "calm and comfort". As a child in the early years of the first quarter century, I was unaware of my own mortality and of material wealth; in the current symmetric reflection of that period, I recall a line from a Youngblood's hippie song ("We are but a moment's sunlight fading in the grass") and I am increasingly unconcerned about my mortality. Intellectual accommodation to the effects of the dot com crash brought me to view financial security and other of life's "good" things with what I call the Bobby McGee Principle: "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." Compared to most of the world's more than six billion people, I've lived a life of unimaginable and undeserved privilege; I've enjoyed years of Patti's ideal companionship; at times, I actually walk "the Way that cannot be spoken"; and almost daily I'm blessed with experiences like seeing the face of God in the shimmer of a dragonfly's wing. As my "Old Man's Poem" says: "Early frost glistens. / Who cares for a distant Spring? / Fall's last yellow blooms."