Wendell Berry has a poem in which the narrator describes traveling, seeing along the way, wistfully, alternative lives he might have chosen: other houses he might have lived in, other women he might have romanced.
That poem resonates with me.
Not that I don't like the house I've occupied 17 years. I do. Besides, houses in general don't engage me. If I've got air conditioning, a bed, a recliner and a TV, I'm happy. I could live in a trailer as easily as in a McMansion.
Nor do I regret my choice in wives. I was married 26 years, and for virtually all that time, I remained content.
But I do think quite a bit about other types of choices I might have made — about, for instance, careers I might have pursued.
My girlfriend notes, with mild irritation, that once a week I tell her, "You know, I wish I'd been a ..."
The ending of the sentence varies each time, she says.
She's right. I do that. Maybe it's a function of my age, 52. I'm nearer retirement than the beginning of my work life, so I tend to reflect on the past. I've realized it's getting too late to change course.
Luckily, I don't really want to start over. If I were discontent with where or who I am, I'd try to do something about it, I suppose.
Yet I can't help weighing the "what ifs." Maybe it's the Walter Mitty in me.
At 18, I went off to college certain of my goal: to become a small-town lawyer. Under the spell of To Kill a Mockingbird, I aspired to be Atticus Finch, nobly righting society's wrongs.
Then, at the University of Kentucky, I took undergraduate courses in law and political science, and discovered they flat bored the bejabbers out of me. So much for becoming a lawyer.
Now, I look back and think, "I should have stuck with it." Practicing law calls for three talents that are, coincidentally, the three I possess: reading, writing and speaking.
I might have made a pretty fair attorney. I'll never know.
Instead, I majored in English. I decided that, if I wasn't going to be an Atticus Finch, I could become a Harper Lee and create fictional characters like Atticus who would touch and illuminate readers. I would be a creative writer.
Eventually, I gained acceptance to a couple of the country's better graduate writing programs. But I let financial woes and my own redneck insecurities prevent me from attending either school.
So some days I find myself thinking, "I should have devoted myself to writing fiction. I'd have a tenured position at some college now and a list of published novels."
I was in my thirties before I decided journalism might be my ticket. It would allow me to write — albeit non-fiction rather than fiction — and provide me a steady paycheck. And indeed, daily newspaper work turned out to be a terrific match for me.
It was fascinating. One morning I'd be interviewing prisoners in a county jail. The next morning I'd be talking with the governor in his private office.
I spent nine years as a reporter before leaving for the full-time ministry.
Sometimes I have this fantasy: I discover newspaper work at 22 instead of 32, stay with it my whole career and win a Pulitzer Prize at The New York Times.
I've been in the ministry now for more than 25 years, first as a bi-vocational pastor, and, since 1997, as a full-time one. I lead a small, rural, non-denominational church.
But lots of folks — including fellow clergy — have told me I missed my calling. They say that by intellect and inclination, I'd have been more successful among the Presbyterians, Episcopalians or Disciples of Christ than among Pentecostals.
I'm not sure that's so. But occasionally I find myself musing, "If I'd gone Presbyterian, I'd probably have a bigger church, a heftier salary and a better pension."
I don't have the space here to tell you about my other visions of myself: as a high school football coach, a long-distance truck driver, a stand-up comedian.
I shoulda, woulda, coulda. I'll wager I'm not the only middle-aged person who asks himself, "What if I'd taken another path?"
The fact is, though, I didn't take another path. I took the one I took.
When I'm downhearted about the opportunities I've lost, I allow my faith to console me. I do believe God is directing my itinerary, and yours, even when we can't see him directing. I tell myself that, ultimately, I'm where I was meant to be.
Sure, maybe that's a cop-out.
But I'm certain of this much: The church I'm in helps make me a more spiritual person than I otherwise would be. I love those people, and most of them love me.
I have no reason to assume that the careers I didn't pursue — a job at a big-city paper, a fancier pulpit — would have served me any better than the jobs I've actually held, or that I would have served them better.
If I'd made it to The New York Times, I'd be pounding noisy, crowded Manhattan streets — and probably wishing I'd become a country preacher instead.