The Land of Might-Have-Been

There’s a song by Ivor Novello called “The Land of Might-Have- Been.”  It begins:

Somewhere there’s another land

Different from the world below,

Far more mercifully planned

Than the cruel place we know.

Innocence and peace are there—

All is good that is desired.

Faces there are always fair;

Love grows never old nor tired.

Life has many might-have-beens, what-ifs, left turns and right turns, regrets, promises kept and promises broken.  There’s wisdom gained in hindsight that’s so often cold comfort for opportunities lost.  If we’re lucky we learn and move on.  Sometimes we get mired in painful nostalgia. It’s the human condition. It’s what pays the salaries of therapists.

When we’re able to take all our might-have-beens and call them milestones we gain a new freedom.  I’m reminded of a watercolor teacher who would say when my picture was hopelessly muddled, “I think it’s time to start a new one.”  When I declared a watery mistake, she would say, “No, it’s a new direction.”

Oh were love as simple as this!


We shall never find that lovely

Land of might-have-been.

I can never be your king nor

You can be my queen.

Days may pass and years may pass

And seas may lie between—

Shall we ever find that lovely

Land of might-have-been?


Where I find relief from all the might-have-beens is in friends and my sons.  My boys are all the joy I hope to have in my life.  Relationships that brought me happiness for a time, ended.  Friends endure, too.  It’s a deep pleasure having friends that go back more than thirty years.  And new friends point to an enriched and enlarged future.  I don’t seek the attainment of any personal legend outside of these truths.

I’ve spent the past month away from home, working with colleagues who are friends, staying with David and Sam, seeing my grandson Max, spending weekends with my longest-time friends, meeting many new people, traveling to old haunts and new territory.  I’ve been in Manhattan, the Upper Hudson Valley, Boston and its North Shore, and Vermont.  It’s been a month of richness for which I’m very grateful.  I’m a lucky guy.

What I find in fellowship is a power—a life force—that’s greater than myself alone.  I find this, too, in all the natural world: mountains and summer meadows, the sea, the rocky coasts of Maine, the sun yellowed hills of Northern California.  What we know the best we grow to love.  Once, when Adam and I were skiing in Zermatt, high in the Alps under the shadow of the Matterhorn, we looked out across the stupendous white vista and Adam remarked, “It’s not as beautiful as Camp Dudley,” situated on its quiet peninsula between the Adirondacks to the West and looking across Lake Champlain to the White Mountains of Vermont on the East.  It’s one kind of heaven.

I have my own heavens, grounded on the Earth, in the here and now.  Bowdoin College in Maine, where I’ve asked to have my ashes scattered under the Pines.  Tassajara, where I once found an unknown happiness.  Midwood, where hospitality, grace and friendship reside.  Howth, where I lived for a year on the edge of Dublin Bay, alone, in a large old Georgian house.  The jagged top of Montserrat.  The Victorian countryside.  The country roads out of Sewickley in Western Pennsylvania where my teenage friends and I learned to drive fast and formed bonds for life.



Why should she give her bounty to the dead?

What is divinity if it can come

Only in silent shadows and dreams?

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning


I’ve always separated work from what I’ve regarded as “real life.”  This has been a mistake.  The problem was all the might-have-beens, those what-ifs.  What if I had become a college English professor, as was once my dream?  What if I had never gone to business school?  What if I had never taken up a career in advertising?  What if I had never moved abroad? What if I had never married my college sweetheart?  What if I had never risked love?

Yet, everything I have, everything I know, everything that makes me the man I am, is the result of what I did in the face of all these what-ifs.  I made choices, many of which I regretted.  But that, too, is a mistake in perception.  All pleasure and all pain came from those choices.  My sons came from a fateful choice that when viewed from that result can only be seen as the best choice in my life, regardless of other personal consequences.  My decision to take a left turn and pursue a career in business instead of teaching gave me an international life I would never otherwise have had, working and living in Spain, Singapore, Australia, France, Japan and traveling everywhere in between.  Advertising has provided friendships and exposure to a wide variety of industries, brands, consumers and creativity. (It’s also helped to develop forbearance and fortitude in the face of instability, setbacks and wacko personalities.)  Had I never risked the lightening bolt of love I would never have known what true love is; nor true heartbreak.  All pleasure and all pain.

This is beginning to feel like an obituary.  My friend Roz Savage, the ocean rower, tells a story of how she took stock of her life and made a decision to change it.  Out of Oxford, and working unfulfilled as a management consultant in London, she sat down and wrote two obituaries: one based on the life she was living and one based on the life she dreamed of.  She chose her dream and changed everything.

Change comes from choice and circumstances.  Sometimes life tosses us an unexpected curve ball and we are forced to make choices.  Sometimes we chose our dreams, as Roz did.  Sometimes we make choices that we know, in our hearts, will only lead to grief—but we make them anyway.  Sometimes we plan our choices.  Sometimes we trust what fate brings.  There are no guarantees.

Choice can be hard and it can be light and free. If I focus on today—doing the best I can just today, one day at a time—I can free myself from worrying about outcomes and all the might-have-beens.  It’s a worthy goal.

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  1. Niland, what a wonderful post, touching, human and insightful. Much of what you describe I can closely relate to, and the idea of writing two obituaries is fascinating. How many of us have the courage to do that, and then actually live it. I will be thinking of this post for some time to come.


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