Covid-19 and the Generational Wars

There has always been a generational divide. In our hippie days, we called it a generation gap, but it was more than that. We didn’t trust anyone over thirty. As our baby boomer generation came into adulthood, moved into jobs, then into better jobs, and finally into collecting pensions, social security, and artificial hips, our children and our children’s children started to worry about who was going to pay for all this. These economic fears were on top of the more individual problems of who was going to go stay with Mom when she had her cataract surgery and how to get Dad’s driver’s license away from him.

In some ways, this is nothing new. When Jonathan Swift wrote Gulliver’s Travels, he included the incident of the Struldbruggs, a select group of people who would never die. Their culture did not see them as a source of wisdom, but rather as an economic problem. Their society finally decided to declare them “dead” at the age of eighty, allowing heirs to inherit, taking away their right to vote, and leaving them alone to age while the world went on without them. This just as longevity was starting to increase in the Early Modern world. The younger generations first saw the “baby boomers” hold on to the limited upper-level managerial and professional positions. Then they realized that the retirement of the older generation (us) will be funded by the younger (through the Social Security system, Medicare, and other ways). The economic gerontophobia (yes, there is a word for it!) that Swift outlines is alive and well.

Then, as now, the elderly represent at least three threats. There is the threat that the old will not relinquish control and that their inability to keep pace with change and to release capital will impede progress. Then there is the seemingly contradictory threat that they will have to be supported (both economically and emotionally) in their old age. And finally the very presence of the aged is a memento mori, a threatening reminder of decay and mortality in a culture which does not want to think about these things. This unease is fueled by endemic expectations of scientifically produced and ever-increasing longevity, and juxtaposed with the hopes of the youth that technology will mean that they might, themselves, live long but never get old.

And now we have Covid-19, which is more of a threat to the old, but less of an inconvenience (we mostly don’t have jobs anyway and everyone knows we don’t go out much), and less of a threat to the young and more of an inconvenience (who mostly do have jobs, and may have young children in the house, or could still be looking for partners). I know the young can get Covid-19 and suffer greatly from it, but in Italy 95% of the deaths have been in those over 60 and 84% in those over 70. In the United States, 78% of the deaths have been in those over 65 and 92% in those over 55. Those are alarming statistics for the old, but perhaps empowering for the young.

When these younger folks were our children (or grandchildren), we gave them curfews and told them they couldn’t go to Florida on spring break. Quarantine rules must feel like déjà vu to some of them. How does this all play out? And back to our youthful distrust of anyone over 30. Are we reaping what we have sown?

I wrote an earlier post about whether the old could teach the young anything “(Teach Your Children Well?”), or whether everything had to be learned anew with every generation. Still a good question. In old England, even before Swift’s time, there was an instructional story of a man who made the decrepit old grandfather eat from a trough. One of the young children in the family starts building something, and the father asks what it is. “It’s a box for you to eat out of for when you are old like grandfather,” says the observant child. Thereafter, the old grandfather is treated better. But I am not sure that young people really believe that they are going to get old. Maybe, like our own death, it is too hard to believe. Or maybe we have all gotten too used to thinking in the short term.

Over a decade ago I wrote a novel, The Last Quartet (nod to Beethoven), about a situation that is the exact opposite of what we are facing. In a horrible epidemic, it is the old who survive and have to carry on with the world. I have posted the “Prelude” to this novel here. It is a thought experiment which might be of interest at the moment.

To start thinking about how our view of the aged has changed in the modern world, you might look at the abstract of a dissertation I wrote about the changes that started about the time that Swift invented the poor Struldbruggs.

 

Covid-19 – A Time to Listen?

What is all this silence and solitude doing to you? (This question clearly does not apply to those sheltering in place with three children!) If you are alone or with another fairly quiet adult, stillness looms. Those who have tried silent retreats (three days or more) know that out of prolonged silence some pretty scary things can surface. Even if you have only tried silent meditation at home, you know how focusing on your breath can soon be replaced by that awful memory you didn’t even know you still had. But that troublesome stuff was affecting you, whether you knew it or not. Better, perhaps, to expose it to the disinfectant of sunshine (albeit slowly, gently, carefully). I recently heard a dharma teacher  speculate that what often happens on long-term silent retreats may be the experience of many of us who are sheltering in place from the coronavirus, especially if we eagerly exchange the words in our minds for the digital chatter of technology. Is this happening to you?

We don’t want to listen to ourselves, not really. Most of the time we fight it, even though we may know there is constantly something inside us muttering things to our soul. The poet Christian Wiman puts it like this:

It is as if each of us were always hearing some strange, complicated music, in the background of our lives, music that, so long as it remains in the background, is not simply distracting but manifestly unpleasant, because it demands the attention we are giving to other things. It is hard to hear this music, but it is very difficult to learn to hear it as music.

What we can find in silence can initially be upsetting, but with time, it is music, it is prayer, and it can be a kind of salvation. Real mystics know this and so do good poets. In his poem entitled “How to Be a Poet,” Wendell Berry gives advice that is good even if you do not aspire to meter and rhyme. He tells us to: “Shun electric wire. Communicate slowly. Live a three-dimensioned life; stay away from screens.” And if we do, we can then:

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.

In other posts, I have advocated journal writing and the composing of a life review. Perhaps we all have time and space during this Great Pause in life as we know it. And one of the reasons that writing (just for ourselves) is important is that it forces us to listen to ourselves. The author Shirley Hazzard said that “we all need silence – both external and internal – to know what we really think.” Sometimes, when we re-read our ruminations, there is a sense of surprise. This is because we never really paid attention to our own thoughts. This is somewhat strange in that we all like being listened to by other people, we want to be heard, and this is surely one of the things we are most missing in quarantine. Now we have just ourselves to listen to, if we do not succumb completely to digital chatter.

We should be listening in this Great Pause to what it is teaching us, not only about our lives (micro-level), but also about our world (macro-level). It you have not read it, there is a wonderful piece by Julio Vincent Gambuto at  which includes the following passage:

I hope you might consider this: What happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause. It is, in a word, profound. Please don’t recoil from the bright light beaming through the window. I know it hurts your eyes. It hurts mine, too. But the curtain is wide open. What the crisis has given us is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see ourselves and our country in the plainest of views. At no other time, ever in our lives, have we gotten the opportunity to see what would happen if the world simply stopped. Here it is. We’re in it. Stores are closed. Restaurants are empty. Streets and six-lane highways are barren. Even the planet itself is rattling less (true story). And because it is rarer than rare, it has brought to light all of the beautiful and painful truths of how we live. And that feels weird. Really weird. Because it has… never… happened… before. If we want to create a better country and a better world for our kids, and if we want to make sure we are even sustainable as a nation and as a democracy, we have to pay attention to how we feel right now. I cannot speak for you, but I imagine you feel like I do: devastated, depressed, and heartbroken.

Please take this opportunity while the “world is stopped” to listen to yourself and to the world around you.

This week’s story, “The Listener,” is about how much it means to us to be listened to. In these solitary and silent times, maybe we can start by listening to ourselves and the world around us.

The Coronavirus and Its Gifts

T. S. Eliot famously enumerated the three gifts of old age. I believe old age does have gifts, real gifts. And perhaps so does this horrific period we are going through – at least for those of us fortunate enough to be fearful but yet untouched, those of us lucky enough to have homes to shelter in and food in the cupboard. Without minimizing the pain and fear of this plague, it might be worth thinking about what unintentional gifts it might be strewing in its wake.

For one, there is the gift of time. I must admit that I miss the ritual of my weekly meetings and errands. I miss regular exercise at the gym, and the mental and physical energy I garner from the women I do yoga with. I miss concerts and movies and travel. All of a sudden days yawn wide, and it is up to me to see that as suffering or opportunity.

Time allows for depth. Our generation has seen our opportunities to read, watch, experience, travel and meet people multiply. And yet, there is less and less time to reflect on what we read, what we see, what we really think. Auden was worried about this over fifty years ago:

Again, while it is a great blessing that a man no longer has to be rich in order to enjoy the masterpieces of the past, for paper-backs, first-rate colour reproductions and stereo-phonograph records have made them available to all but the very poor, this ease of access, if misused – and we do misuse it – can become a curse. We are all of us tempted to read more books, look at more pictures, listen to more music than we can possibly absorb; and the result of such gluttony is not a cultured mind but a consuming one; what it reads, looks at, listens to, is immediately forgotten, leaving no more traces behind it than yesterday’s newspaper. (“Words and the Word” in Secondary Worlds)

I have often talked about the joys of “re-reading” (for another view on this see Vivien Gornick’s Unfinished Business – Notes of a Chronic Re-reader or my story “Nothing New”), and now we have the time. The books we love are probably in the house or loaded on our Kindle, and their very familiarity may provide both comfort and surprise at how  different they seem as both we and the world are in a different place.

A second gift of Covid-19 might be an increased cognizance, a more visceral recognition, of our own mortality. The virus reminds us that we are “knocking on heaven’s door.” Most of us have never lived such times; we have been singularly fortunate. For other generations in other places, it was a situation they were intimate with. I am reminded of Freud’s “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” Freud is speaking about World War I, but he could easily have been talking about the coronavirus:

We were [before the war], of course, prepared to maintain that death was the necessary outcome of life, that everyone owes a debt to nature and must pay the reckoning – in short that death was natural, undeniable and unavoidable. In reality, we were accustomed to think it were otherwise…. It is evident that war is bound to sweep away this conventional treatment of death. 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, often ten thousand in a single day.

The world has not gotten to 10,000 deaths a day yet, but over 60,000 people (an undercount assuredly) are being diagnosed every day. Mortality will rise.

Cultures through the ages have understood that people know that they are mortal and yet act otherwise; Sartre said that our own death was “unrealizable.” Yet, in the denial of truth there is no freedom. In the Katha Upanishad, the young Nachiketa goes to Yama, the God of death, and says “O king of death… I can have no teacher greater than you.” In the ancient Mesopotamian myth Gilgamesh, the hero is devastated by the death of his friend Enkidu and goes off on a search for immortality. And when he finds the answer (a magic plant), a snake steals it from him (sound familiar?) and he has to face… his own mortality and the mundane concerns back in his kingdom of Urdu.

The third lesson would entail the virus  waking us up (does it have your attention yet?) and making us realize that we’re part of nature – for better or worse – and we had better start acting like it. Like death, this is something we know cognitively but not viscerally. We are also part of each other and need to do what we can to help. Jung said that “Everything could be left undisturbed did not the new way demand to be discovered, and did it not visit humanity with all the plagues of Egypt until it finally is discovered.” (Thanks to Paul Levy at the Buddhist Global Relief web site for this citation.) Let’s hope it does not take “all the plagues of Egypt” to make us find a “new way,” and let’s pray this particular plague winds down sooner than expected. But let’s also hope that this liminal experience teaches us something about our vulnerability, about our place in the universe. That it humbles us.

Here is a story about a plague/flu that I wrote about a dozen years ago. It is not the coronavirus, though it does come from China. My fictional plague is not often fatal for the individual, but it may be for the species. Just a thought experiment. But doesn’t life feel rather like a thought experiment these days? Be safe and use your time well.

Emily Dickinson, Publication, the Dumpster, Covid-19, and Two Questions

I recently (but pre-Covid-19) had to have a medical test done. Because the procedure took a while, I got chatting with the technician. When I mentioned that I had (in an earlier life) taught literature courses, he effused about what a great writer his wife was – she wrote whole novels even – but other than a few short stories, his beloved had never been able to get anything published. He felt bad. He said a few of her friends were also great writers, but they had not been published either. It was a familiar story and the litany of every writing group I have participated in. I assured him that it was still a wonderful thing that his wife wrote – publication did not matter as much as the process. He looked dubious and sad despite my reassurance. Of course, I was also reassuring myself, reminding myself not to mind about those novels in the bottom drawer, not to look at the statistics on my blog, not to dwell on the thought of reams of my stories ending up in a dumpster when someone cleans up after my existence in this realm.

But these musings led to bigger questions. Would Emily Dickinson’s life have been any less worthwhile if her poems were never found and appreciated? What if Kafka’s instructions had been followed and all his manuscripts had been burned upon his demise? These, in fact, are monstrous questions – but worth thinking about. And how many Emily Dickinsons have we lost because the heirs had to get the rooms cleaned out to avoid paying another month’s rent?

And it is not just writers who face obscurity. There are many artists who face the same problem. I watched my son, who studied opera (but saved his financial future by also getting a degree in computer science), perform with his classmates – some of whom seemed to us to be very talented. At this point, most of them are lucky to be performing occasionally at weddings or at community Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

Two questions: Should a capitalistic framework tell us how to think about everything in life (think the demise of amateur athletics and the monetizing of human lives in all kinds of ways)? Should the artist feel compelled to keep producing (and I hope she does) – what should be done with the results?

First on capitalism. It creeps in everywhere. I go on the internet to look at a meaningful poem and an ad for my favorite brand of sneakers pops up. (They know me so well!) Sellers distract me for their advantage. And don’t get me wrong – I’m not sure that capitalism is inherently evil (but also not sure that it is not), but in the days of global communication, production, and marketing, everyone has access to what society considers the “best” (the most marketable). Recordings of music mean there is less demand for local performances, movies mean local theater is less attractive, and those bestselling books mean there is less need for a neighborhood storyteller. Everything has a price and an approval rating. Even human life is monetized; we might not be slaves but if we die in an accident, the insurance company can tell us what our lives are worth. It was not always so. Capitalism is a form of trade, but I think it must have bounds as to methods and scope. (More on this in another blog.)

And then we have the question of what to do with the art if it is not a livelihood, not part of a financial transaction. Lewis Hyde in his wonderful book The Gift reminds us that talent is thought of as a gift, and that many of the oldest cultures operated on the basis of gifts (think potlatch). Pablo Neruda wrote a wonderful piece about an exchange of gifts in his childhood that gave him the basis on which he wrote and shared his poetry. Both Hyde and Neruda eventually backed off the idea of “free” exchange, but it is an ideal worth nurturing.

Until recently I shared very little of my writing. I have cabinets full of work, for some of which I am the only reader. Sometimes I would send someone a story for which she was the inspiration (if it portrayed them positively); some stories I shared with writing groups. A couple of years ago I gulped hard and started this blog. But this blog only works for me if I don’t worry about the statistics that my provider pushes out to me on a daily basis. Sometimes those statistics are gratifying, but other times discouraging. And yet, I am sharing more than I ever did and that feels like a good thing.

The internet has given us all access to an audience – but while the audience may be almost infinite, so are the creators. I have lost track of so many good blogs because there just isn’t enough time and attention. In the end the real joy must be in the doing.

All of this reminds me of one of my favorite Kipling poems, “The God of Things as They Are,” where he imagines creativity in heaven:

And only the Master shall praise us, and only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money, and no one shall work for fame,
But each for the joy of the working, and each, in his separate star,
Shall draw the Thing as he sees It for the God of Things as They are!

As I was writing this blog, the coronavirus/Covid-19 spiraled into my consciousness. It got me thinking about mortality and time. In some ways, mortality has come to the door at the same time that our sequestration leaves us with time… and perhaps a year’s supply of toilet paper (please don’t hoard!) In the midst of this, this snippet of a conversation with Wendell Berry came to my attention (thanks to Contemplify):

It was the Shakers who were sure the end could come anytime, and they still saved the seeds and figured out how to make better diets for old people. Thomas Merton was interested in the Shakers. I said to him, “If they were certain that the world could end at any minute, how come they built the best building in Kentucky?”

“You don’t understand,’ he [Merton] said. “If you know the world could end at any minute, you know there’s no need to hurry. You take your time and do the best work you possibly can.” That was important to me. I’ve repeated it many times.

It’s important to me too, and reminds me a little of Thoreau’s Artist of Kouroo. The Shakers continued to work and create and improve things, even under the shadow of the apocalypse, even though there might never be people to reap the harvest or sit at their wonderful tables. So we should do what we are moved to do and do it the best we can. As the Bhagavad Gita says, we must attend to the work but not to the fruits of the work.

I once wrote a novel about a pandemic, an abstract of which can be found here. Interestingly, I also wrote a story about ten years ago about a flu originating in China that I am reworking and will post next time. Truly, I had no premonitions. I always thought that if we ended up hunkering down like this it would be due to war or a hazardous waste spill, and not to a virus. How little we know. Take care of yourselves out there.

Metamorphoses, Reason and Another of Life’s Paradoxes

“My intention is to tell of bodies changed to different forms; the gods, who made the changes, will help me–or I hope so–with a poem that runs from the world’s beginning to our own days.” Ovid, Metamorphoses

While my stories are generally realistic (at least they are about the kinds of things which occur in my reality), I have also written many tales of wondrous changes – young men turning into dogs, old ladies into songbirds, middle-aged women into foxes. I have been inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses and impelled by the need for profound metaphors when words themselves don’t seem comprehensive enough. Most of what is below was written as a tentative introduction to a never-completed collection of those stories, and yet it seems to have a lot to do with old age and so here it is.

We know that life is change; we see it all around us. Yet, we value permanency, dream about the forever after. Marriage promises that we will always love each other. Children mean that there will always be someone there for us, someone to remember us. We go to the doctor to preserve our bodies and to the dentist so that we can keep our teeth. We celebrate great birthdays, long tenures at jobs, endurance in marriages. Individually, we want to remain the same and we want the people in our life to be unchanged. Our fairy tales end with life happily ever after and our doxologies with world without end. But, of course, life is not like that, and our beliefs and desires for constancy set up a basic paradox which is the cause of much anxiety.

Intellectually, of course, we know that things change. After Darwin and Lyell, we know that transformations happen on such large and slow scales that we can’t even notice them. (Global warming may be speeding such transformations up to the point of getting our attention.) But we also know from our own observations that people grow up, have children, age, suffer tragedies, cope or fail to cope, suffer good fortune or bad, age, and die. Yet, we choose to worship the illusive stability rather than the pervasive change. In our culture we have very few metaphors for the benefits of change; it is good to be as solid and stable as a rock, but it is not usually a compliment to be a chameleon or a shape-changer. And woe to the politician who admits to changing his mind – flip-flopper comes to mind. Would we really want to live a life where we never change our mind? (Think of your first spouse.) Perhaps the wise have always known that sometimes only change can save us.

Ovid, of course, knew. He was at the end of an era which internalized myths wherein physical metamorphoses were used to demonstrate the power – for good and bad – of change. His tales are full of transformation, starting from the changes that formed the earth and ending with the alterations in his own world and contemplations of the changes that death will make in his own body. He puts the most direct sermon on the subject of change, however, in the mouth of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher of music, vegetarianism, and reincarnation, who admonishes us:

                                                    Remember this:
The heavens and all below them, earth and her creatures,
All change, and we, part of creation, also
Must suffer change.

Ovid relates tales of change, and while they may begin as stories of psychological or spiritual change, they end as stories of physical change. The intangible becomes manifest. He believed that to truly understand the change that happens to another person, we readers need a material phenomenon. Why? Again, perhaps we need such a transformation because we are programmed to look for, to hope for, to believe in permanence. It takes powerful evidence to remind us that stability is an illusion. Perhaps the fantastic is necessary for us to comprehend that reality is a constantly metamorphosing world around us. And sometimes it takes a fantastic view of the world to make us take a fresh assessment of normality.  (Think of Gulliver’s Travels.) It is a paradox.

While comprehension of such extraordinary changes requires use of the fantastic, the fantastic requires metaphors.  By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the “enlightened” western world lost one set of metaphors, but soon replaced them with new ones. The void must be filled. Metaphors of progress replaced those of redemption. (Think the Wall Street bull vs. the sacrificial lamb.) We tend to think we are in the Age of Reason; reason would figure everything out and solve our problems. But maybe that hasn’t worked out so well. We might remember that even Milton calls the imagination (fancy in 17th century language) the most important faculty serving reason:

But know that in the soul
Are many lesser faculties that serve
Reason as chief, among these fancy next
Her office holds.

This is something that even the ancient Greeks knew, but we seem to have forgotten.

This week’s story is “What Crime Is There in Error?” Other stories in my Metamorphoses series available on this site include “Every Winged Bird According to Its Kind,” “Gift to the Widows,” and “Fable About a Soccer Mom.” Let your fancy roam and then see if it can bring anything back for your reason.

More on Writing a Life Review, Spinoza, and the Blind Turtle

My last blog was about the “how-to” of writing a life review, a memoir, an autobiography. But I have a little more to say. First, let me reiterate that you must write such a memoir for yourself – if you have any other audience in mind, it will not work. It took me a while to realize this, but now I realize that everything I write (including fiction) is in order to teach myself something, to memorialize something for myself, to figure out something for myself – and mostly the latter. Even this blog. It makes “viewer” statistics less important (good thing), and it makes me more honest.

Second, I dealt very lightly with what we should do with the bad things that surface, memories and emotions we have tried hard not to think about for so many years. If you have ever gone on an extended silent meditation retreat, you know that long periods of silence bring these memories back with a vengeance – and so does writing about the period in which they happened. Bad things caused by natural events or other people are, on the whole, easier to deal with than disasters we prompted with our own actions. And the worst are situations we caused that harmed others. But let’s go back to my favorite philosopher Spinoza – the one who told us that cheerfulness (refer to earlier blog) was the highest good – and hear what he has to say on repentance or regret: repentance is not a virtue… instead, he who repents what he has done is twice wretched. This is not to say that we should not learn from our mistakes through “true reflection or reason.” It is only to say that we should not let it take away from our power to live. He says that it is bad enough that we made an error in judgment; the second error would be to let it impede us forever. It is akin to the Buddha’s “second arrow”:

The Blessed One said, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental. (Sallatha Sutta)

The point of a written life review is not to shoot the second arrow; it is to pull out the first arrow and become reconciled to the scar it leaves behind. I am not saying this is easy, but I think it is worthwhile. Again the object is to bring reason, words, to bear on the unbearable and to move on with Spinoza’s “cheerfulness” and power.

Writing a memoir, life review, should not be a chore. It should be a joy. In All Passion Spent, Lady Slane calls “looking back on the girl she had once been” as the “last, supreme luxury…. She could lie back against death and examine life.” Old age has many benefits (yes, it does), but among them is that “last, supreme luxury” of reflection. Putting the words on paper is necessary for me so that they do not just glide away among the jetsam of my wandering mind. I recommend it.

And one more very important thing. Don’t think for a minute that your life is not worth examination, not worth telling. In the Chiggala Sutta, the Buddha tells the parable of a blind turtle swimming around in an endless sea. On the sea floats a yoke or ring (think life preserver). The blind turtle surfaces once in a hundred years, totally randomly. What are the chances that he will poke his head through that ring as he surfaces? Those are the odds of existence as a human being on the earth – a precious and unique opportunity, according to the Buddha. Your life is to be valued. Your tale is worth telling. We have all made mistakes; it is part of life. And, as the manager of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel says, “Everything will be alright in the end so if it is not alright it is not the end.” It’s not over yet.

For a story about repentance, regrets, and the truth of the matter, you might try “The Iscariot.” Or you might look at your own life.

Feast on Your Life – Writing a Life Review

Feast on your life. This imperative is from a poem (“Love After Love”) by Derek Walcott and it should, perhaps, be a slogan for old age. Intentionally or not, our lives led us to where we are today. Like it or not, the past haunts us – both because it was wonderful (and we miss it) or because it was awful (and we regret it). The value of writing it down in some form or another is that we look at it consciously, instead of letting it influence us in ways we might not be aware of.

I am not necessarily talking about writing an autobiography in the classic sense. And I am certainly not talking about getting published – if you write with an eye to the public, you will certainly be wasting your time. You will not tell the truth. (I once wrote a piece about my family’s summer home on the occasion of my folks’ 50th. It was lovely, fit for the occasion, but full of omissions, half-truths, and lies.) You might want to share your document in the end, but you cannot write with that intention.

There are many ways to write a “life review” – here are just a few suggestions:

1. The traditional chronological method. Start with your birth (or go even further back and talk about your ancestors) and work forward. Even if you do it this way, it may help to set up your thinking in accord with the next suggestion.

2. By life “blocks.” The traditional divisions of life are seven (so say Shakespeare and Augustine) – but yours might be different. “Childhood,” “adolescence,” “college,” “first marriage,” “parenthood” – these might all be divisions that would work for you.

3. By topic. No chronology here, but rather reflections on how different parts of life affected you over time. “Money” might be a topic. Or “love.” Or “addiction.” Or “pets.” You could divide your work by the houses you lived in (55 Bricker Road) or what you wore (The Mini-Skirt years). Use your imagination.

4. By people (or animals) who have affected your life. There might be chapters on your mother, your favorite teacher, your best friend, your children, the boss you hated, your therapist, your hero. Or your pets over the years. Out of all of this, the story of your life will emerge.

5. By focusing on turning points. What were the moments when you made big decisions that – in retrospect – changed your life? Decisions could range from whether you went into the military to what stocks you bought. Penelope Lively wrote a whole book (Making It Up) speculating on what her life might have been like if she had made a different decision at each fork in the road.

6. By turning your life into fiction. I often do this when I can’t bear to get too close to a topic or when I want to share it without fully admitting how much of the character is me and how much I made up. Turn yourself into the protagonist and watch what she does. Again, this could be a novel or a series of short stories. And don’t be afraid to fool with the truth – this is fiction (another kind of truth). You will still learn a lot about your life.

7. By writing letters. Write letters to all the people (living or deceased) who were part of your life. Tell them things. Ask them questions. You can think in terms of an epistolary novel, or not. You can decide to mail some of the letters, or not – but better to assume “not” when you are writing them.

Here are some tips on the “how.” Don’t just sit down starting at the beginning and proceeding to the end – even if you are doing a chronological autobiography. Set up folders for each chapter or category and write just five sentences in each on what the chapter is going to be about. (These folders can be real or virtual. For a good discussion of how writing longhand might make a difference, read this.) Give each folder a title that will be easy to decipher (“My first three years” or “My relationship with money” or “Parents vs. Grandparents). Then pick the thing that you think will be the easiest to write about and start there. If, after a few hours, days, or weeks, you run thin on that chapter, move to another topic that interests you.

There will be subjects that you will avoid. There are memories that we all avoid. I don’t need to tell you that these will probably be the most rewarding to “write out,” but if you start with them, you will never get anywhere. Circle around and you will eventually find out what you need to say about that huge error in judgment or devastating event.

Again, there is no need to share, but if you do, you may be doing someone a great favor. American Indians considered sitting in the presence of elders and being “gifted” with a story one of the highest honors there is. Even your flaws could be a gift. It would let readers know that they are not alone.

This week’s story, “No Change Orders,” has some autobiographical elements, even though I was never an architect and never renovated a nineteenth-century hotel, and yet…. It may be a situation you can relate to in one way or another.

Routine is the Housekeeper of Inspiration

This is the time of year we all try to amend our habits – and rightfully so; habits are our best friends and should be treated accordingly. What we cannot discipline ourselves to do on an ad hoc basis, habit does automatically. I have heard it said that it takes three weeks to entrench a habit or routine, and I think this is probably true. But by the end of three months, something you could not bear to do last year can become something you cannot live without. Believe me.

My morning reading is a good example. I am, generally, an undisciplined reader. I often pick up the easy stuff rather than the hard stuff, what I like rather than what I need. Long ago, I started the habit of having some daily reading to do in the morning after my meditation time, but before the house wakes up. For many years this has consisted of at least three parts:

1) The daily lectionary reading from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which includes (usually) an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, a New Testament reading from the Epistles or Revelations, and a reading from one of the Gospels. I keep track of this through a little quarterly publication (Day by Day) that also gives a very brief commentary for the day. Probably takes about ten minutes total, unless one of the readings grabs or confuses me, wherein I go digging. You do not have to be religious to justify this; Biblical literature is at the basis of much of the literature, history, and culture of the West. And much of it is very beautiful, a good bit of it is brutal, and some of it is very wise.

2) A poem. I have used several sources, but for many years have used the three volumes of A Poem A Day, published by the Steerforth Press, started originally as a hospice project. This year I am back to Volume 3 again. Some of the poems are familiar, some are strange, and none are more than a page. Highly recommended. Other sources I have used include Harold Bloom’s The Best Poems of the English Language and Till I End My Song (poems about old age and death).

3) Another book of daily readings. I just finished the magnificent book of daily readings by Tolstoy, A Calendar of Wisdom. This book, which Tolstoy worked on and used for years, has been recently translated by Peter Sekirin. I guess the original included stories for Sunday – and I wish someone would bring out the full text, but meanwhile this is a treasure. We get Tolstoy’s thoughts, as well as those of everyone else he reads and admires. This year, I am using a volume of daily readings by C.S. Lewis. Other years I have used Sister Wendy (on art), Rilke, you name it – very eclectic choices and I almost never keep the books once the year is over. Tolstoy might be an exception.

4) I usually have a book on the morning table that I dip into if I finish the other reading before my husband gets out of bed and breaks the spell. This year it is Easwaran’s second volume of verse-by-verse commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (Like a Thousand Suns). The Gita is another book that can be gone back to again and again, and Easwaran is at once interesting, comprehensible, and scholarly. Highly recommended.

The elderly field a lot of criticism about how mired they are in their habits. It is true that once I have acquired a habit, I become a little hard to deal with if it is interfered with. This has meant – for example – that I have sometimes had to excuse myself for my mid-afternoon meditation. But, in the long run, this is probably a blessing for everyone involved. And I get my reading done, I go to yoga class, I spend my three hours a week at the gym, and meditate twice a day (all these habits are longstanding, but were painful in their establishment). I started keeping a journal in 2004, and that is a terrific habit – more for its therapeutic value than for the accumulation of pages. In recent years, I have also had to break a number of bad habits – but I have only been able to do that by substituting a more desirable habit for a less desirable one (soda water for Diet Coke, for example). I am not holding myself up as a model, but just pointing out that almost all the positive things I do, I do because they have become habits.

Some habits need reinforcement. I force myself to work on my fiction by belonging to a writing group that expects me to contribute something every couple of weeks. I used to take piano lessons to encourage practice, but now I belong to a group of players who meet and perform for each other monthly, and that serves the same objective in a very pleasant and less expensive way. I have gotten on the scale daily for decades and – while I know it does not work for everyone – the number I see almost magically guides my eating for the day. And so it goes. While there is much to be said for habit, I know it is not a universally held value. Friends comment to my face that I am “very disciplined”; I suspect that behind my back they say I am “very rigid.” But habit only partially ties me down; habit also allows me to get those goals accomplished that mean something to me.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon said it best: “Routine is the housekeeper of inspiration.” For me it is so.
The story for this week is “Again and Again and Again,” about the value of routine and habit to keep ourselves sane, whole, and human.

Whispered Words of Wisdom – Let It Be

I like autumn as a metaphor for old age. I know it is not a perfect metaphor; golden leaves on the trees renew themselves in the spring, but we cannot renew ourselves in the same way. Hopkins points out that the “Goldengrove unleaving” is a reminder of the “blight  man was born for.” And it is. And yet. I recent read a memoir by Pico Iyer entitled Autumn Light and would highly recommend it – or any of his books. There was this about fall in Japan:

And every year the autumn poses the same question, which I, every year, am barely able to answer. There’s no time to waste, the yuzu-colored light reminds me; and yet it would be a crime – a sin – to turn away from the beauty of the season. The bright days make me unable to resist the impulse to go outside; the days of sudden, unrelenting rain commit me to solitary confinement. I am not always ready to accept that it’s in surrendering my hopes and careful designs that real freedom comes. (my emphasis)

And it is really surrendering that I want to talk about – letting go. It should be so easy, and it is nevertheless the hardest thing. And not just for me. Every meditation or contemplative group that I have participated in comes back to this again and again. We know it will make our life easier; we know it is inevitable in the long run. But we cannot do it. And I would note here that letting go is not the same as disregarding; detachment is not apathy.

I have always known intellectually that letting go would help. When my son complained of stress at work, the only advice I would give him that I knew was right, was to not take it seriously, to let it go. To do the job well, but with detachment as to results and the regard of other people. This was advice I was never able to follow myself, but I knew it would have allowed me to work longer and healthier. And better. It’s even true of relationships – we all know of relationships that fell apart because one of the partners tried too hard, held on too tight, as William Blake knew:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

Maybe it’s a little like dieting. It should be the easiest thing in the world not to eat. So it is with worrying, fretting, blaming, catastrophizing. Who wants to frighten ourselves to death? Apparently, most of us.

In old age many of the worries of our youth should have dissipated. Our children are grown, ambition has run its course, (most) passions are dulled. But that seems to make little difference. We worry about our grandchildren, our aches and pains, our declining loved ones. There is always something. But we also have our own very real experience proving that 99% of the things we worried about never came to pass – and even when catastrophe materialized, it was seldom as bad as we expected. Shouldn’t we have learned? The truth, I think, is that we have learned, but old habits die hard.

One thing we know will happen. We will die. Worrying about that not only won’t help, but it will diminish the days we have left. I started with the metaphor of autumn for old age. Autumn is a wonderful season, my favorite. But it would be spoiled if we just saw it as a harbinger of winter. Let it be say Lennon and McCartney. Fear no evil says the 23rd Psalm. You can only lose what you cling to says the Buddha. Consider the lilies says Jesus.

If you have figured out the trick to this – to letting go and letting be – let me know. Let all of us know.  Please.

My story, “Every Winged Bird,” does not give us an answer, but it does give a picture of someone who has given up everything which does not give her joy. It was part of a series I wrote inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphosis. Ovid knows about change, and in another poem he said “happy is the man who has broken the chains which hurt the mind, and has given up worrying once and for all.” He doesn’t tell us how, though.

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.