It has oft been said that education is wasted on the young. While that is not entirely true, I suspect that some of the niceties of learning are never quite realized until we have experienced more of life. When we are not yet adults our focus is on far different aspects of the world than after we have experienced more of reality without the aid and comfort of our parents. With our widening horizons we are capable of deeper understanding. Somehow the curiosity that pushed us as toddlers resurfaces and we find ourselves seeking answers to a multitude of questions. Like a three year old we enthusiastically enjoy the world with all of our senses, ever alert for new experiences and adventures.
I was generally a good and dutiful student. I even engaged in what might be called intellectual conversations with some of my high school friends, but on the whole my concerns centered on relationships, a sense of who I was, and hopes and dreams for my future. Learning was more of a job than a pleasure, with topics and ideas chosen by some phantom curriculum designer who decided what I needed to know. My education was an amalgam of liberal arts and science with mathematics thrown in for good measure. I certainly received a grounding in knowledge and an appreciation for ideas that had never before occurred to me but in a sense my understanding of what I was being taught was hampered by my own limited point of view.
I never ventured particularly far from home. My life was a routine set by my mother and my teachers. While I knew about the basics of history, language and mathematics, my understanding was still quite superficial. It was in that point of my life when I was filled with hundreds of unanswered questions most of which were not being answered in school. I would have to attend the classroom of life before I began to have a true understanding of the world as it really is rather than the way I had fantasized it to be.
It was while I lived in the protected bubble of my adolescence that I first attempted to decipher Herman Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. I read, or should I say forged, through the first chapter and felt hopelessly lost. I cared nothing for the narrator nor did I understand the implications of his allusions to who he was and why he wanted to escape into the sea. I was sadly unfamiliar with the Ishmael of the Bible. I had not yet learned about the destructive forces of depression and disenchantment. Mostly I was totally disinterested in reading about a journey on a whaling ship. I crafted a well written but fake review of the novel for my teacher, collected my A on the paper, and set the book aside along with other disliked titles such as The Last of the Mohicans. I suspected at the time that I would never again turn the pages of such a horrid book.
Life has a funny way of changing the way we see things. I married a man who not only treasured Moby Dick but also had an unrelenting curiosity about sailing. He built model ships, carefully gluing tiny pieces together and tying miniature knots to secure the sails. He collected books about great adventures on the high seas. He took our daughters on boating adventures in Galveston Bay. His was a love affair with tall ships and the life of a sailing man.
Eventually he learned that a group of his ancestors had hailed from Nantucket. They were the Coffins, Starbucks, and Nickersons who had inspired Herman Melville as he crafted his most famous work. Their lives were inextricably linked with the sea and the grand creatures that reside almost mythically in the depths of the ocean. Perhaps the salt water of those rugged people is in Mike’s DNA. For whatever reason he has regaled me again and again with stories of ships on the high seas. We have visited Mystic Connecticut where we walked on the decks of ancient sailing vessels. We have gone to Chatham on Cape Cod were many of his ancestors from Nantucket eventually laid down roots. We have marveled at Old Ironsides in Boston and looked out to sea in Salem, all places where his roving relatives once lived and as we have seen such wonders my own fascination with those hardy individuals who braved the elements far away from land has bloomed. With Mike as my guide I have come to view those sea voyagers as living, breathing individuals attempting to make a living in a most difficult but also enchanting way.
Now I find myself wondering if perhaps I missed something when I first attempted to read Moby Dick.As a result when Mike took me to a bookstore on Valentine’s Day and told me to choose anything that I might desire, I was drawn to a beautiful copy of Moby Dick. I saw his eyes light up with pleasure as I explained that perhaps I now had enough background information and curiosity to understand what the critical acclaim for this story is all about. It was with a sense of excitement that I purchased the book and brought it home to reside on my bedside table where I always place my current read.
Last night I opened my copy of Moby Dick with a sense of anticipation. I had become familiar with the wreck of the ship Essex which is thought to have been partially an inspiration for Melville’s tale. I now understood the Biblical reference to Ishmael. I felt ready but had little idea how immediately entranced I would actually become. The beginning of Moby Dick is captivating. I understand the narrator as though he were a friend sharing his deepest thoughts. I feel his longing for something, anything beyond the limits of his mundane life. I know him and understand that through his eyes I am bound on a journey that will be both wonderful and horrific. I already know the ending but I nonetheless need to learn about the details. I am so ready to get out to sea.
It is in the living of my own life that I have become more interested in the stories that others have to offer. The slowing of my pace in retirement has only increased my appetite for knowledge of all kinds. I have become a history buff, a political junkie, a lover of mathematics, an avid reader of virtually any topic. I can’t seem to get enough information to satisfy my encyclopedic thirst. Luckily I am able to spoil myself with time to read and write and show others how to master mathematical ideas. I can travel to places that were once just part of my imagination. I find new things to learn everywhere that I go.
People often ask me if I enjoy retirement. Saying that it is the grandest time of my life is an understatement. I have freedom to explore and to simply sit and reflect. Each day is an adventure lying before me. I am my own master, a luxury that is priceless. I intend to take full advantage of my situation as long as I am able. Life has few guarantees. Many with whom I have walked are already gone. Others have been sidelined by health issues. I am blessed to have a mind that is still working quite well and a body that allows me to accomplish most of the things that I want to do. For now I am content and ready to tackle a book that once seemed dry and boring to me. I know better now. Let the journey begin!