American poet, novelist, travel writer and editor, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, wrote, “All the best sands of my life are somehow getting into the wrong end of the hourglass. If I could only reverse it! Were it in my power to do so, would I?”
J. Conrad Guest and cigar
I use this quote in the opening of Part One: Old Age in my new novel, A Retrospect in Death, which I finished writing two years ago. It’s a quote that has stayed with me since I discovered it, and I confess that it inspired me during the months it took me to complete that project. A Retrospect in Death is largely a story about regret over missed opportunities, poor choices, and avoiding risk.
I asked my father, shortly before he passed away, if he had any regrets. He laughed and told me, “Hell, yes. No one gets out of this life without them.”
In my youth, I once took a spill from a bike (not my own) that I was riding too fast. I banged my ankle hard, but after making sure I wasn’t seriously hurt, Dad scolded me for riding too fast a bike that was too big for me. The lesson I came away with was to avoid risk.
But life is a risk, largely lived by faith: that our next breath is promised, and when we tell our loved one, as we leave the house for work in the morning, that we’ll see them at the end of the day are but two examples of such faith. There are many things we risk: a change of job, the purchase of a new car or home, our heart to love; these are fairly standard risks. Yet some risk driving down a freeway at nearly twice the posted speed limit, while others risk their paycheck at the track, or their marriage for a sexual thrill.
The key is finding the happy medium. Who wants to get to the end of their life and wonder, Why didn’t I do this or that? I’ve heard too many stories of people who lived miserly, squirreling away their money for retirement, waiting for the day they could take that trip to Hawaii only to die young, before they ever had a chance to sample some of life’s simpler pleasures. Then, there are those who live life hard and fast, from paycheck to paycheck, who retire penniless, to become a burden to their children.
I have more than a few regrets, and working on A Retrospect in Death brought a few of them to the surface. As my work progressed, I thought more and more about that last part in Bailey’s quote: “If I could only reverse it! Were it in my power to do so, would I?”
By the time I typed The End, I knew the answer. All the best sands of my life might very well be in the wrong end of the hourglass, but I wouldn’t be here, writing these words, if not for the life I lived. I’ve made some poor choices along the way, took some risks I never thought I would while playing it perhaps too safe in other aspects of my life. But those poor choices, the risks I took and failed to take, all led me here, to this place, which is not such a bad place. Yesterday is past, and tomorrow … well, take it from John Wayne: “Tomorrow is the most important thing in life. Comes in to us at midnight very clean. It’s perfect when it arrives and it puts itself in our hands and hopes we’ve learnt something from yesterday.”
But what about you? If you were granted the chance for a do-over, would you grab it to live your life over again, avoiding the mistakes you made the first time, grabbing at those opportunities you previously let slip through your grip, risking where before you played it safe?
Please consider leaving a comment in response to that question. After a few days, I’ll select one comment, or maybe more than one, to receive an inscribed copy of A Retrospect in Death, once it launches.