Over the last few months, I’ve lost a marriage and a mountain. During the same time, I’ve found a broken-down old house and a post office. I’ve lost the things that grounded me and gave me perspective, but I’ve also found a whole new set of challenges and responsibilities.
These things that have happened have led me to ask a question both simple and complicated: Who am I?
What defines me? What gives my life meaning?
I don’t think I’ve ever defined myself by the things I have owned or by the things that have owned me. I’ve never found context or meaning in accomplishment or achievement. Money has meant little, and troubles have meant less. Pappaw used to say that if you got 10 people in a circle and they threw in all their troubles and all their blessings, when you got to examining both the gifts and burdens of others, it wouldn’t take long to reach in and grab your own back out.
I worked hard on my place on the mountain. I’m proud and thankful for both the effort it took and the results. I’m thankful, too, for the way the land has nurtured me and given me a sense of place and community. Over the last few years, though, as various health problems have worsened, it has become apparent that my time on the mountain must soon come to an end. It was becoming increasingly difficult for me to maintain the place.
It was clear, too, that my wife was unhappy with aspects of our life on the mountain. She didn’t like the isolation and the effort. I can’t blame her for that; building this place was my dream, not hers. She indulged me maybe far longer than she should have.
On a cold January afternoon, she told me she wasn’t happy and that it was time for her to move on. Her disclosure stunned me, especially when she said there was no use talking about it—that her mind was made up. It took me awhile to understand and accept that, but at some point I realized that discussion is pointless if the other person starts from the premise that you don’t listen.
I’ve loved my wife from the moment I saw her. I loved her enough to want to share everything, and in the end I loved her enough to let her go peacefully and with no ill will. I’m glad for that, because anger and resentment are corrosive and would only prove the love I professed a lie. I’m sad for her choice, but in some profoundly odd way I’m happy for her ability to make it. And in the end, I’m glad that she’s comfortable enough to come visit the dogs and add me to the old men on her soup-delivery list.
So there I was, on an even colder February afternoon, alone with myself. In either a brilliant epiphany or an absolutely idiotic act of denial, I decided to reinvent myself and my dreams by buying a broken-down old house and the post office next door. The house has nothing other than a hundred years of history to offer. It needs love and lots of work, a task made even more daunting by chronic ailments, pending hip replacements, no money and the prospect of lots of emotional effort in letting go of the house and the land in Speedwell.
What kind of idiot, I ask myself, moves next door to his work so people can knock on his door at all hours? With a full plate, why ask for a double portion?
I am back to the question of who I am and what defines me.
And I realize that I am not the man who built a house on the mountain and I am not the crazy old postmaster who lives next door to the post office. I am not the money I have earned, the things I have done or the things I’ve owned. I have been a musician and a postmaster, a husband and sometimes a writer. I am all these things and none of them. None of them define me and none of them explain me. For I am, I realize, the perfect moments of my life.
I think of James. He has brought me a cup of coffee nearly every workday for the past nine years. Happy or sad, sick or well, there is something perfect about the moment he arrives each day.
And I think of the Christmas pageant at the Laurel Branch Baptist Church. Betty, who has worked for me the whole time I’ve been at Webster, invites me every year. I go and I feel welcomed. I watch a play where remembering one’s lines isn’t a requirement. The meaning of the moment is the sharing of family, faith, community and effort.
It is the solo Betty sang last year. Quiet and shy at work, she sings with such strength and clarity that I am sure I finally understand what a joyful noise ought to be.
I think of a Saturday afternoon spent sipping the most exquisite Irish whiskey with a friend. Swapping stories and songs, but mostly just being comfortable.
I think of falling 40 feet from a ladder: the moment in the air, and the moment of impact. The five hours of moments of lying alone on the mountain in 95-degree heat, knowing no one was coming, and the moment of relief when a delivery made on the wrong day arrived just in time.
I think of the saddest moment of my life—one of my last moments with Pappaw. Ravaged by Alzheimer’s, he looked into my eyes, shook his head and said: “I know I should know you … but I can’t.”
I think of one of the happiest—when he looked back up and added: “But I know you’re someone I must have loved.”
I think of the first time I saw my wife, and I think of the day she said goodbye—both moments of perfection in their own way.
Who am I? What gives my life meaning? The only answer I can find is the idea that every moment in life holds the possibility of perfection.
[Mark Jamison lives in Jackson County’s Speedwell Community with his five dogs. When not tending the land or his soon-to-be new home, he tends the mail and the people of Webster as postmaster.]