Riverboats and Bone Yards III

By Stu Whitley

This is third in a five-part series.

It is inevitable that the pressures of the past that are felt by the
present have to be contained in some sort of manageable context. Life
must be worth living.

Gazing upward to the crumbling decks of
those forlorn leviathans from my canoe on the Yukon River, I wondered
about the men who worked those paddlewheel steamers. Back-breaking work
it must have been to feed those enormous furnaces. Even the ship’s
wheel needed to be six feet across to achieve the mechanical advantage
necessary to turn the fat twin rudders under the paddlewheel. It must
have required Herculean effort to avoid the snags and bars of the Yukon
River. Did these men too end their hard lives as empty relics, used up,
discarded on the strand as life’s indifferent perpetual current
continued to flow by?

If one’s experience is viewed solely
though the lens of work, then the aging process seems a dismal thing
indeed. However, a life lived is more than the sum of its individual
parts—more than its total number of years. The sanctity of family
relations, the dignity of parenthood, our contributions to community,
the enjoyment of freedom, and the blessings of those we have loved and
who have loved us count more in the balance than work.

While we
may want to believe that all good and magnificent things will endure
forever, perhaps the simple truth is that only butterflies remain
physically beautiful after death. As long as they, unlike Lenin, are
properly fixed on felt and linden wood.

The full measure of a life lived on purpose can only be taken at the end of it. This is the estimation of a person’s soul.

An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hand and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress.
—Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium (1928)

Attention to the inner being, the
thing we call the soul, is as essential to a full life as the river is
to a boat. It needs tending to until the end, and that means focusing
upon what is essential. Each time we do that, we strike a chord on the
keyboard of our imagination. That is the music that sings, and sings
louder still.

It is an odd thing, the memory: what remains
lodged in the mind’s reliquary often surprises—like the graveyards of
elephants—for the important things do not always present as such at the
time. But almost always, they are rooted in the relationships we have
forged, the work of a thousand small acts of daily compromise and
generosity and loving and things worth doing.

Living well and
paying attention to the soul are not distinct activities. It is saying
to oneself, as did the Laconian women to their warriors, “Come back
with your shield—or upon it!”