Three Questions (Or More)

Pablo Picasso once said that “computers are useless, because they can only give you the answers.” It is, of course, the questions that are important. And, I doubt whether computers can answer the really important questions.

Tolstoy was much concerned with questions. Many people do not realize that the great writer gathered and wrote thoughts which he organized for daily reading. I’m told that the original version had weekly stories inserted, but the translation of A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts to Nourish the Soul that I have does not include them. However, one of the readings for October 19 was as follows:

Who am I? What should I do? What should I believe in and what should I hope for? All of philosophy is in these questions, said the philosopher Lichtenberg. But among all these questions, the most important one is that which is in the middle. If a person knows what he should do, he will understand everything he should know.

Three questions, one of which is the most important (according to Tolstoy), and no answers. But well worth thinking about.

Of course, this is reminiscent of the three questions Gauguin plastered right on the front of his magnificent painting (in French): Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? While Tolstoy seems to be struggling with belief, Gauguin is struggling with existential angst (aren’t we all?).

And, surely our questions come out of our beliefs. Here is Jeannette Winterson:

“To live for art… is to live a life of questioning. If you believe, as I do, that to live for art demands that every other part of life be moved towards one end, then the question, ‘How shall I live?’ is fierce.

Yes. And the questions are related. How shall I live? is much like Tolstoy’s What should I do? and dependent on Gauguin’s Where are we going?

But back to Tolstoy, who also wrote a story called “The Three Questions,” where – at least in the context of the story– there are actually some proposed answers. The story starts like a fairy tale (my italics):

It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.

When, who, what? The king asks. After visiting a hermit in disguise and having a series of adventures, the king gets these answers from the wise hermit:

Remember then: there is only one time that is important — Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life!”

Tolstoy is forever interested in morality and happiness, and, for Tolstoy, moral goodness equals happiness. In my opinion, this is not necessarily an absolute truth. And how certain can we be what “moral goodness” actually consists of? One might be reminded (as I was recently listening to an interview with the novelist Deborah Levy) that the only people who are absolutely certain about things are psychopaths.

What are your questions? When I was young my questions were open-ended and expressions of angst rather than clear frames for inquiry. “Is this all there is?” screams the young protagonist in Ryan’s Daughter. By old age, most of us have vented enough. For me, old age has given me the time to start formulating questions and resisting easy answers. You see many of my questions in this blog and most of my novels and stories are attempts to frame and explore questions. For example, as I approached old age, I wrote a novel about what might happen if the middle generation was wiped out, and only old folks and very young children were left. Surely, one of my more fanciful ideas, but one which gave me an opportunity to think about whether being old was different in very fundamental ways (other than the obvious physical changes).

Please, though, try to formulate your questions. When we are young we are full of questions and we express them freely. Talk to any three-year-old. When we are old, we feel vaguely confused about what the questions are. But they are there and you can express them. Not necessarily answer them, but you would be surprised how much framing the questions helps.

Tolstoy wrote another story to answer a question: “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” It is about a greedy man who dies trying to maximize his holdings. The answer to the title question is in the last lines: “His servant picked up the spade and dug a grave long enough for Pahom to lie in, and buried him in it. Six feet from his head to his heels was all he needed.”

This week’s very short story, “Eye of the Needle,” is about questions we never get a chance to ask, and – perhaps – some answers (or hints to answers) that we didn’t realize we knew.

The Truce of Saint Benedict and the Rules of the Road

You, who are on the road,
Must have a code
That you can live by.Teach Your Children,” Graham Nash

Two recent conversations got me thinking about Saint Benedict. One had to do with whether older women (like me) should color their hair. I stopped the dye jobs a few years back, after months of dissuasion from my hairdresser (who had a financial interest) and my daughter (who presumably had my welfare at heart). They wondered: Why would I want to look old, to give up? In the recent conversation at my yoga group, I shared that going gray had been wonderful – no cost and no monitoring of the root line. The group was evenly divided on this topic. The other, much more serious discussion which brought to mind the good saint, was about a friend who had died despite fighting “the good fight” for a very long time. Death was the metaphorical enemy and our friend had “lost.” And why did this all remind me of Saint Benedict? For him, old age was not a battle, it was a truce.

St. Benedict lived a very long time ago, dying around 547. He founded small monasteries which eventually became a religious order and wrote the Rule of Saint Benedict, a set of guidelines noteworthy for its humanity. In the Prologue to this little volume, Benedict tells us that if we grow old it is by way of a truce with God, so that we may have time to “amend our misdeeds” and “to safeguard love.” A truce, not a war. Old age has a purpose for the good saint – one that should not be forgotten or (presumably) fought against.

When we fight old age and death against all odds, what are we fighting against? The universe? The inevitable? Is it heroic (and surely it seems so sometimes) or is it… a waste of the little time and energy that we have? Everyone must answer this question themselves within the context of their situation. But as we have learned the hard way in the United States, not all wars are worth fighting. But how to know what to do? Instructions might be nice.

If you look at St. Benedict’s slender Rule, you will pass a worthwhile hour. For his monastics, he set out the guidelines for life in a simple and humane way. He tells them how much they should work, read, rest, pray, drink. He counsels them on how to treat the young and the elderly (both with kindly consideration). I wish I had such a guidebook for my life. Many authors give us only questions (and this is a topic in itself which I will tackle next time, because it is my belief that the right questions might be even more important than the right answers). St. Benedict looked at his beliefs, and his experiences (not all of which were good), thought and prayed, and then wrote his Rule. It has lasted a very long time indeed. The rule is not primarily about faith – Benedict surely had faith, but his rule had more to do with the day-to-day experiences of eating and working and living with others and ourselves.

Others have written rules. The Old Testament tried to get the major rules down to ten; the New Testament further winnowed it down to one. Philosophers tried writing rules; here is Spinoza:

Yet, as it is necessary that while we are endeavoring to attain our purpose, and bring the understanding into the right path we should carry on our life, we are compelled first of all to lay down certain rules of life as provisionally good.

Note that even Spinoza’s rules were provisional. Parents have rules. As children, we used to joke about the “Rules of Dad,” which were not provisional and covered everything from politics to what time dinner should be served. Our society has rules of etiquette and political correctness. We have game rules and laws of the land. But as old age envelopes us and death approaches, I wish for a manual for this last period of life. And not the Art of War. I know that if I fight I cannot ultimately win, but I would like at least to be graceful in my capitulation.

Of course, to write rules, one must have an idea of what one believes, what one’s aims are. The definition of Credo is “statement of beliefs or aims which guides one’s actions.” Do you have a Credo? I am not talking about a religious creed, although for people of faith this might be the basis for a personal one. Writing a Credo would seem to be a worthwhile exercise and something perhaps we should all undertake just to see if we could put our operating principles into words. And then the rules would follow – “to attain our purpose,” as Spinoza asserts.

This week I have provided the first chapter of The Order of the Stock Farm Jesus, a novel I wrote a few years ago. It’s about an older women and a little girl who embark on the project of writing rules for life. Enjoy. And try writing your own rules.

What If We Started Telling the Truth?

Jonathan Franzen caused a stir last month. Not with a new bestseller (he is the author of The Corrections and Freedom – I strongly recommend the latter), but with a considered piece for The New Yorker entitled “What If We Stopped Pretending” and subtitled “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we have to admit that we can’t prevent it.” Yes we can, says Obama (although he turned out to be wrong in the short run). No we can’t, says Franzen, and we had better start admitting it. The New Yorker was besieged with letters – but back to that later.

What is of real interest here is what Franzen has to say about us old folks and how lucky we are: “If you’re younger that sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth – massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.” So we old folk won’t see the worst of it. We are… lucky. And I would posit that perhaps we are lucky in two ways – we may die before the worst of it and we were young when the world was… less broken. We were young when children roamed neighborhoods and woodlands freely, when traffic was minimal, when shorelines weren’t dwarfed by McMansions and farms were places where there really were animals out in the fields. We have endured the grief of a world faded and transformed, but we did – at least – know that earlier world. We can try to tell our children and grandchildren about that world, but as I have discussed elsewhere (“Teach Your Children Well?”), this is difficult. We can take them to places where trees and open skies still exist, but these are now “special places” and not the world most of us live in. And, of course, we carry some of the guilt for our part in the brokenness of the world.

We also came out of a world that recognized threats and did something about them. Our parents had mobilized to meet the Depression and then World War II; our generation had marched to stop war in Vietnam and to ameliorate the oppression of our own people – minorities, women – at home. Did we operate out of hope? Surely. But it was hope tempered by fear of the reality brought to us by the nightly news. And, in the case of climate change, hope is not getting us very far and slowly melting glaciers are not often making it into the frenetic news cycle. And, perhaps, we have no right to hope as long as we do nothing.

If the old are lucky, it would seem that they have the least to lose in the current battle. Yet, as I write, 81-year-old Jane Fonda has just been arrested on the Capitol steps protesting this country’s inaction on climate change. We do care. We remember the world we had as children. We may be lucky enough not to survive to see the worst devastation, but we also have the grief and guilt of knowing the extent of what has been lost.

In the torrent of letters that The New Yorker got about Franzen’s article, his attitude was called “complacent” and “hopeless,” and he was accused of being “pathetic” and committing “moral surrender.” Others just argued about his facts and/or put their hope in technology and better allocation of resources. I, myself, am rather sick of the technology defense. It was largely technology that got us into this mess, wasn’t it? “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” says the genuine genius of our time. The minority that defends Franzen calls his essay “a welcome discussion of reality, and asks: “Wouldn’t we all feel better if we acknowledged the fact and acted accordingly?” I see both sides, and if Franzen makes some people mad enough to do something (think Congress), I guess that’s good. But I’m mostly with Franzen; I come down on the side of facing the truth. Even discounting global warming (and I say this knowing that it cannot be discounted), we have done terrible things to this planet, to our home, just in the lifetimes of those of us “lucky” enough to be over sixty. This must be acknowledged and it should be atoned for. But not by the telling of fairy tales.

The story for this week is “Luck,” a tale of two strangers and an eavesdropper about the attitudes we carry with us. It is about who feels lucky and who feels unfortunate; it asks who is lucky and who is unfortunate. It is not about how we make those judgments – that is material for another story.

An Old Lady Returns from the Highlands

My husband and I just returned from Scotland – one of our favorite places in the world. But, on the long trip home, we admitted to each other that this might have been our last overseas trip. Scotland was gorgeous – we even lucked out and got an unheard-of two weeks of great weather, but was it worth it?

Air travel has become worse (if that is even possible), and we have become less resilient. Besides jet lag and the need to lift suitcases into overhead compartments, we have about a 50% infection rate – meaning at least half the time one or the other of us (or both) comes home with some kind of infection, presumably picked up on the plane. Sure enough, one of us is sick.

And it is not just our aging constitutions. Cognition is also not as sharp as it might once have been – in any case, driving on the left has not gotten any easier. Neither is deciphering maps or monetary conversion rates.

There is great pressure on the old to travel. In our rather aged community of many retirees, people travel far and often. There is much chatter about the best places to go and the best means to get there. Neighbors are often preparing to go somewhere or picking up the pieces when they come home to the unmown lawn.

Facebook accounts of our peers abound with selfies in exotic places, as the oldsters run through their bucket lists and their bank accounts. If one complains about the difficulties of travel, the solution is group tours, on which one can see foreign places while embedded with other Americans. No thanks. It is hard enough to get the flavor of a new place without seeing it through the lens of your peers and compatriots. One of the advantages of traveling on our own in Scotland was that we could avoid the places where the tour buses spilled out their tired clients. Plus (and most importantly), I am unsocial enough to find the possibility of being cooped up with a lot of strangers on a tour bus… terrifying. And, of course, we were in Heathrow earlier this week when pandemonium erupted as the biggest tour company in Great Britain went bankrupt and left hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded from Singapore to New Zealand.

And then there is this: while it is exciting to wait for an upcoming trip, can’t we all admit that after ten days or so we are simply pining for that flight home and wishing we had Dorothy’s ruby slippers? Don’t tell me it is otherwise. I know.

Of course, I may change my mind about travel. “Today you may write a chapter on the advantages of traveling, and tomorrow you may write another chapter on the advantages of not traveling.” True enough, Henry. Talk to me in another six months, when I have recovered from jet lag and bills from the last trip have been paid off, and I may have another opinion.

Even now I will admit that there are two true values of travel. First, travel makes you appreciate your own bed, friends who know you, food you recognize, and surroundings that are both boring and comforting. What Bertrand Russell called a “fruitful monotony.” Monotony that leaves time and energy for reflection.

Second, absence and return allows us to see the familiar in a different light. Like Thoreau, I am measuring the possibilities of seeing home with the eyes of a traveler. “It takes a man of genius to travel in his own country, in his native village.” Ralph Waldo Emerson traveled widely giving lectures and garnering acclaim. He toured in Europe at least three times, seeing the sites and meeting the intellectual figures of his era. His friend Henry never left North America, and seldom ventured out of Concord – but what he saw every time he left his house was always new and always taught him something. Pick up his journals and open them anywhere.

The story for this post is “Again and Again and Again.” Some people dream of foreign places, but they are forced to swim in their own backyards. In HDT’s case, this was Walden Pond. “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.” Thoreau reminds us that characters were engraved on the bathing tub of King Tching-thang to this effect: “‘Renew thyself completely each date; do it again, and again, and again.’” But it is, maybe, possible to do this without leaving home. At least that’s what Henry tells me and what I want to believe at the moment.

The Advice of the Old

I have written before about the difficulty of the young learning from the old (Teach Your Children Well), and whether we can teach the value of what we have experienced. It is an ancient problem – Gilgamesh and Odysseus are two who scorned the advice of their elders. And then there was Rehobo’am, the son and heir of Solomon:

Rehobo′am went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. 2 And when Jerobo′am the son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, whither he had fled from King Solomon), then Jerobo′am returned from[a] Egypt. 3 And they sent and called him; and Jerobo′am and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehobo′am, 4 “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke upon us, and we will serve you.” 5 He said to them, “Depart for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away.
6 Then King Rehobo′am took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” 7 And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants for ever.” 8 But he forsook the counsel which the old men gave him, and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him. 9 And he said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put upon us’?” 10 And the young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but do you lighten it for us’; thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. 11 And now, whereas my father laid upon you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scorpions.’  1 Kings 12: 1-11

The old men counseled mercy, while the young men counseled the opposite – show them who is the boss. Rehobo′am took the advice of the young men, which caused the division of his father’s kingdom.

Now, old men do not always advise mercy. It is said that old men started WWI and were the ones who kept the Viet Nam War going while the young men paid the price. But I think in many ways, age brings mercy. Understanding. We have seen a lot, and we know that “things are seldom what they seem,” to quote Gilbert and Sullivan. We know that suffering goes on that we do not see for we have suffered and kept it to ourselves. And hopefully, we have realized that we are mistaken often enough not to assume the righteous position.

Maybe this is the most valuable teaching from our experience. When we cannot be sure, the quality of mercy is warranted. Plato tells us that the wisest thing about Socrates was that he knew what he did not know. In The Apology, Plato has Socrates expound on this: “Although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.” It has been my experience that young people are looking for answers; old people have found only one answer: we cannot always know and if we think we know, we may be wrong. We want to cry with Oliver Cromwell, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

My story this time, “Sylvia the Saint,” is about a young woman who is mistaken. It is the kind of mistake that we all have made (and continue making) which teaches us that things are not always what they seem. So hopefully, in times and places of unknowing, we learn to withhold judgment and apply mercy.

Guns, Mortality, and Old Age

During WWI, Freud wrote an essay entitled “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” I recommend it. He says that WWI is a “new” kind of war in its disregard for noncombatants, the wounded, and any rules of engagement. Freud points out that the Great War brought two forms of disillusionment – one having to do with the illusion of the true nature of man and nations and the other regarding our illusion that death either does not exist or is very far away. Massive disruptions and killings make us face the fact that death is close, just as far away as the next trip to the mall. “Death will no longer be denied; we are forced to believe in him. People really are dying, and now not one by one, but many at a time.” So it felt to Freud in 1915; so it feels to us today. People are dying in a way that seems senseless and makes us feel defenseless.

The recent (and continual) rounds of massacres of the innocent scare us with their demonstration of the thin veneer of civilization. They also remind us of our mortality in a way that other things do not. Tactful news outlets do not publish the bloody photos; however, our imaginations are as graphic as any photo. Regardless of how healthy we are, how many sit-ups we can do or how often we get a mammogram, it could be us.
One would think that the older we got, the more we would make friends with death. He is a neighbor, after all, and we have many mutual acquaintances. If you live in an area dense with retired folk, the way I do, deaths come along at a regular pace – sometimes long-expected and sometimes suddenly, but yet we cannot quite believe that it could be… me. Yes, we know we will die; we simply do not quite realize it most of the time.

Our generation grew up under the shadow of the atom bomb. We should know death is never far away. I was a child in Florida during the Cuban missile crisis – we were well aware that we were within reach of short range missiles. My father dug a fallout shelter in the crawl space under our house and stocked it with rice and canned goods. We slept upstairs knowing that someday we might have to retreat to the earthen cavity to end our days, and yet time passed and so did that awareness. It is, indeed, amazing that mankind has not used this technology of destruction in the past seventy-four years. Especially since, let’s face it, we cannot even control the use of AR-15’s.

So we look into the face of random death again. Freud says that facing this unwelcome truth is no entirely a bad thing. It “has the merit of taking somewhat more into account the true state of affairs and of making life again more endurable for us… . If you would endure life, be prepared for death.”

None of this is to say that we should not do something about the violence that surrounds us, should not try to re-establish a civilized society where fear does not govern. If civilization could control the atom bomb for all these years, it would seem we could exert an effort to stop gun rampages, and we should do everything we can to do so. And if we find that the fear that guns engender is to the benefit of any person or agenda, we should wonder about why that is and what we can do about it.

My story this week, “A Spoonful of Sugar,” is about one woman’s insight into her own mortality. I recommend the Freud essay and also recommend Ernest Becker’s book Denial of Death.

Dementia, Creativity, and Forgetfulness

One thing I have learned from my mother’s dementia is that it is not just about forgetting; her dementia has also brought rich imaginings. Surely, Mom has forgotten much – people, where she is, what day it is, what year it is – but she is also constantly constructing stories. Some of her creative endeavors are complex and intriguing; others are horrifying. There are fictions which seem to be born of paranoia – the first time we knew she had slipped over the edge was when she called to tell me all her money was gone. The government had taken it all. Other tales seem to have been spun to explain inexplicable situations or to shift blame. Once, when she found her gallon of milk frozen solid in the freezer, she told me that a whole tribe of boys had broken into her assisted-living apartment overnight and made a mess and hid her milk. This, of course, despite the fact that she lived in a secure building with no children anywhere around.

Still other stories seem to be created just to make her life more interesting. For a fortnight, she was routinely telling me that she had spent the previous night out on a boat, having been evacuated due to impending floods. Luckily, she thought that everyone had a pretty good time on the mandatory cruise, and she would discuss their revelry at length. She has also recounted visits from friends who are long since dead and relatives who claimed they hadn’t been near her in months. Sometimes she conjures up an answer to a question that puzzles her. If I ask her where a bouquet of flowers or a new blouse comes from, she will tell me she won them in a contest. Some tales are funny, some are scary, and some are so outlandish it is hard to imagine how she ever thought of them.

Two themes come back again and again. Although my mother never had an office job (she was an artist), she often talks about all the paperwork she has to do before they will let her “go home.” As she has fallen farther from reality, Mom shuffles the coloring books in front of her and tells me that unless she finishes all this “work” there won’t be any money to pay her rent. She worries that if she has no money, they will not feed her. As many times as we have all told her that she has no financial worries, that everything is taken care of, she responds with more creative tales of men in suits who have come to take her money away.

And she worries about her mother and father, who have been gone for decades. Who is taking care of them, she’ll ask. Maybe she is really asking who will take care of her. But again the stories get elaborate – her parents live somewhere over the bridge, their phone is broken, they promised to come to visit.

Sometimes it is easy to see what sparks her imagination; other times the tales seem to come out of the ether. The stories are more often worrisome than comforting, but they are her stories and she sticks to them. I have seen various articles about fostering creativity in dementia patients, but little about the very fount of creativity they seem to become. We sometimes think of dementia patients as losing their humanity, but isn’t imagination the very kernel of what makes us human?

I was recently reminded by Lewis Hyde in his new book Primer of Forgetting, that forgetting can also be a creative and useful process. If you think about it, you might agree. There are things that we must forget or we cannot go on – either because the memory is so atrocious or because there is no more room. How many times can you relive that humiliating moment when your first boyfriend dumped you? Or the stupid things you did in your younger days? (“Remember not the sins of my youth,” pleads the Psalmist.) How many phone numbers or passwords can you hold in your head? (I think of the story about Louis Agassiz, who was famous for memorizing all the scientific names for fish and their parts. When Agassiz came to Harvard, he decided to put that prodigious memory to work to remember the names of all the students, at which he proved very successful. However, one day he realized that in memorizing undergraduates he had started to forget the fish. He immediately gave up on the students.)

Someone told me a story about his mother who had grown up in terrible circumstances in Hitler’s Germany during WWII. Her childhood haunted her, was written on her face, until she developed dementia in old age, and then it was somehow …better. I understand this and so does Philip Larkin – read “The Winter Palace” and you will sympathize. There are things my mother has forgotten (she almost never mentions her husband of over fifty years), but memories of her childhood seem to have sprouted from some forgotten seedbed and blossomed in full technicolor. In her own way, she has been creative in her remembering and in her forgetting.

This week’s story, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” is about an older woman with dementia whose imagination might be trying to tell her something.