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I believe in two things – Service and The Moment

December 8, 2011
Jim Surkamp , Shepherdstown Chronicle

Once when young, I was commuting into New York City. One Friday evening, looking out the commuter bus window at the Lincoln Tunnel, I didn't see Manhattan's bejeweled skyline. I saw the shadow of a thin, tired man.

I hitch-hiked in 1984 out to California, worked at a plant nursery in San Luis Obispo, discovering Emily Dickinson on days off. Sleeping on different soils of fifteen different states under the same old stars drew me into the core of myself, into the core of life. I found peace of mind grows anywhere - and what dies is fear.

I heard about families in New England who prune trees and pick apples. The exhilaration of this new life of hard work is most intensely felt after the last day of picking, when you're just happy to be alive.

At Turner's Falls, Maine in 1983, with our station wagon loaded with ladders and boxes of drops, I remember stopping by the owner's house to say good-bye. I slipped away to say good-bye to the orchard where I had picked thirty tons of apples.

I saw endlessly expanding scenery: mountains in dimming autumnal grandeur, distant glass-top mountain lakes, all suffused in softly thunderous gusts of wind. The sharp white steeple in Turners Falls was a mile away, but you felt as if you could reach out and touch it like a feature in a painting.

Later, in the car, I wrote: "See blessed Land and see Immensity. Hear blessed Land and Hear Thunder in Immensity. Behold blessed Land and Immensity and Thunder with all your heart, And be Broken in the Right Place, Become a River in blessed Land, Become One with the Soul of Souls."

With the echo of my mother's death from cancer, I became a Hospice volunteer as the best use of a precious minute. For 18 years I listened to those grieving in 800 free support groups and many thousands of phone conversations.

Time has taught me how to listen to grief and rage, giving insight rather than turmoil of my own. I tell people to use their good memories to deal

with the bad memories, to follow their heart, to cope until insight comes, to hope till hope creates.

I can't really say why I've been happy living on limited income, no family, and serving my community.

My friends are true. My health is good. I go to sleep actually looking forward to tomorrow. I've listened to too many people tell me on their deathbed the things they wished they had done.

I believe the best preparation for death is to live like there is no tomorrow. And a life given away generously over the years cannot be snatched away from us in the end.

 
 
 

 

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