Old Karma, Instant Karma

I have heard the word karma tossed around a lot lately. There is a subtle thread that postulates that humanity is reaping what it has sown in terms of overpopulation, globalization, and racial inequities. Buddhists will tell you that there are many kinds of karma. I am partial to John Lennon’s kind of karma – but we’ll come back to that.

Karma literally means “action,” it is what we do or think. Because the world seems to work on a cause and effect basis, what we do has consequences. This is the good news and the bad news. It means we can get ourselves into trouble, but it also means we can get ourselves out of trouble. As older people, most of us are well experienced with this concept. The sins of our youth might still haunt us, but most of us have learned some lessons, overcome some of the consequences of our misjudgments, and carried on. Maybe not entirely, though. Cicero continually reminds us that a well-spent youth is the “best armor of old age,” but Cicero is not right about everything. Erasmus, on the other hand, quotes a common medieval proverb that a “young saint makes an old devil” and vice-versa. In any case, the good news about karma, even if you do not believe in multiple lifetimes in which to reap the consequences, is that as long as we can act, we can change our karma. And, I believe, this is even true on an individual daily basis and collectively over the long term.

None of this is to say that bad things (or good things) cannot happen to undeserving people; earthquakes and rainbows are indiscriminate as far as I can tell. And I am not saying we could even figure out the ramifications of our past or present actions very accurately – even the Buddha said such an effort would drive one to madness. But it would also be madness to think that our actions have no consequences. It is a kind of madness that we apparently have collectively, and the earth and its creatures are suffering for it.

Again, old people know all about this. We know it with our bodies – we are dealing now with the sins of our youth when we got too much sun, smoked, did drugs, or didn’t eat well or take good care of our teeth. And we know it in our hearts. It often occurs to me that I have far clearer memories of my mistakes than I do of my successes, that I can summon up the details of bad times more easily than I can remember the good ones. Karma.

You might remember one of Lennon’s last creations – “Instant Karma.” Here are the chorus and some of the lyrics:

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Every one, come on

Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Every one you meet

This is the karma of conscience. Things I did, things I didn’t do (and should have); the guilt, shame, and remorse of such things don’t wait for another lifetime. They are, as Lennon says, instant. These pangs don’t disappear instantly, however. In the little book on conscience by Paul Strohm that I have been reading (highly recommended), there is talk about the “black book of conscience” that we must carry with us to present to the “Final Judge.” Oh boy.

What we’ve done or not done, where we come from, what we’ve thought, has repercussions throughout our life. Of course, we cannot change the past, and yet… one spends a lot of time with regrets and might remember Yeats words about remorse:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest. (“Dialogue of Self and Soul”)

May it be so! But how to “cast out remorse”? And do we always want to?

But here’s the thing – I have remorse that I spent too much time in the sun, didn’t brush my teeth enough, didn’t drink enough milk. But I don’t spend any time berating myself about it – I just get a good dermatologist, a decent dentist, and take my Prolia shots for osteoporosis without complaint. So far, however, there have been no such “remedies” for the bad karma we have inflicted on the earth and its creatures. Covid and the Black Lives Matter have reminded me of this. And I know remorse won’t help unless it is fueling action (new karma) and a new heart (instant karma).

The story this week, “The Widow’s Dream,” is not so much about karma within one woman’s lifetime, as about how the past can cripple us if we allow it to. Let it not be so.

In The Imagination of Their Hearts

As I am writing this, it is Visitation Day in the Christian tradition – the day that pregnant Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth (who is herself pregnant with John the Baptist). Elizabeth acknowledges that Mary is carrying a very important baby. Mary responds with the Magnificat, which includes this line in the King James Version: He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts (Luke 1:51). I have long been puzzled as to what “the imagination of their hearts” might mean (surely nothing good from the context), but I found this alternative translation in the Good News Bible: “scattered the proud with all their plans.” This would certainly seem to be a lesson for our time. How many plans have been turned upside down by Covid-19? By the recent unrest in our cities? By life? As older people, we should have learned by now to expect the unexpected, and yet we look at each other over the breakfast table as life changes unexpectedly in yet another way and say, “Can you believe it?”

Of course, lately this blow to the way we anticipated life to be is collective. We are all suffering in some form of quarantine. My daughter recently gave birth to twins in a distant state, and we are pining that it is probably not quite safe to travel. I had to cut my own bangs and now I look pretty much the way I did in my second-grade pictures. Big things and little things.

But to realize that plans (and the way that we cling to plans) are just a trap – isn’t that one of the things we should have learned by now? We cling to our plans because we want them to come true. We cling to many beliefs that we would like to think are totally rational. Mostly this is a survival mechanism, but sometimes it is a threat to survival. Sometimes it is downright dangerous. Think about not preparing for a pandemic. Think about not responding to climate change.

There is a famous essay written in 1877 by an English mathematician named William Clifford. He starts by giving the example of a man who believes his ship is safe; it has problems, but he has convinced himself that it is plenty seaworthy. It sinks and passengers die. Clifford says that the man is guilty because he “had acquired his belief not by honestly earning it in patient investigation, by stifling his doubts.” Stifling doubts is a comfortable way to live as long as there are no repercussions, no instant karma (more on karma next time). In addition to meaning that we plan inadequately for things like pandemics and climate change, it means that we panic when things don’t turn out as planned. And they almost never turn out as planned. My daughter did not intend to have twins; I did not intend to have to cut my own bangs. Accepting this means a couple of things, I think. It means that we would plan for more contingencies (from pandemics to cancelled flights), and we would be less upset when things don’t proceed as we anticipated.

Everyone likes to think their life is a story and they know how the story goes. In Finite and Infinite Games (highly recommended), James Carse says that “there is a risk of supposing that because we know our lives have the character of narrative, we also know what the narrative is,” but, he concludes, “true storytellers do not know their own story.” True individually and communally. Who would have guessed that Covid would have been overlaid by civil unrest, a time when people are so angry and frustrated they ignore the risks to their health and safety and take to the streets? Who can know how it will end? The ones who think they know are dangerous. The ones who think they can control it are even more dangerous.

One might remember Oliver Cromwell’s admonition: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.” You may be right, but (unlike the Fonz) think that it is possible that you are mistaken, that you do not know.

The old have a reputation for being set in their ways. Maybe we are, but you would think it would be the opposite. We elders have had so much experience in having things deviate from our expectations, flexibility should be something we have learned well. But, sadly, that it is not the case with me or many others. However, this quarantine season has forced me to rethink many things, including my beliefs about how things are and (more importantly) how they will or ought to be. We cannot turn into total sceptics; it is reasonable to assume that the sun will rise tomorrow. But putting our faith in unexamined beliefs, mistaking beliefs or hopes for facts, can be deadly. I don’t like the results when other people do it, when my government does it, and I will redouble my efforts not to do it myself.

You might try reading my story “Back to the Garden” to be reminded of two things: 1) anything can happen, and 2) Joni Mitchell was right that we have to find our way back to the garden. When we marched in the 60’s, we thought we were on the path (in the “imagination of our hearts”), but we seem to have lost our way.

Letters from an Old Person (To a Stranger)

In the hiatus of the plague, I have been trying to convince my eleven-year-old granddaughter to spend some of her spare time writing about what she is going through – from piano lessons on Zoom to way too much time with Mom and Dad. I tell her that her own grandchildren, her own older self, might be interested someday in the 2070’s. But the greatest value would be, of course, that she would have to process her thoughts about this major disruption in her young life. That is the same reason we should all do it – especially now that time is often not an issue. If you haven’t gotten around to keeping a journal or writing your life review yet, let me give you another way to think about it, another way to do it. And a book endorsement.

At the recommendation of one of my readers (thank you!), I recently read Meet Me at the Museum. Besides being a good read, it was interesting to me for a few reasons. The two main characters are reasonably old. And it was the debut novel for Ann Youngson, who was seventy when the novel was published – there is hope for us all! She apparently wrote it after a career in the automotive industry, and I surely hope she writes another.

A woman on a farm in England writes to a professor at a museum in Denmark, whom she remembers corresponding with as a class project over fifty years prior. Since that man is long since gone, another administrator at the museum answers her letter and thus starts the correspondence which makes up this epistolary novel. Without having ever met (and never meeting within the timeframe of the novel), these two older adults start telling each other bits and pieces of their own histories. Either one can stop writing at any point, but they do not. And soon we know a great deal about two very private people.

There is something about talking to strangers. While it is hard to get started, we all might admit to some very delightful conversations on airplanes or in waiting rooms. I think there are two reasons for this. First, because the person knows nothing about us, we are forced to try to relay our history – who we are and how we landed in this place and time. Second, because we don’t know them and have no reason to think we will ever see them again, we are more open. We are less likely to edit and abridge, which is something we do constantly even with people who are close to us. And if you want to see the epitome of this, look at the rosy view of their lives most people portray on Facebook.

There is a long literary history of telling tales to relative strangers. One might remember Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the old man stops a young wedding guest and spills out his story. Or preludes to the tales the travelers tell in Canterbury Tales, where – for example – the Wife of Bath spills out what appears to be an honest account of her life before she goes on to tell her tale. Or one might think of the letters that Celie writes to God in The Color Purple.

In any case, it might be worth a try to address your journal, memories, life review to a stranger. You surely don’t have to mail it and the person can be alive or dead – but who would you like to talk to? Most of us need someone to talk to these days, and a one-sided conversation has its limitations, but also might give you a new and more honest perspective. By addressing an imaginary audience, their reaction is not really an issue. We have all spent more than enough of our lives thinking about the reactions of others (she says with much experience). Old age is a good time to stop such lunacy.

Try it. Pick someone you would like to talk to but not a member of your family, not someone you know at all well – preferably someone you don’t know at all. Alive or dead. And write to them. Tell them about yourself – past and present. Soon you will know a great deal about yourself. And it does not have to be prose – it could be poetry, song. Leonard Cohen did something like this in his “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

Of course, there is the question of the ultimate disposition such writing. First, assume that no one will see it, otherwise it won’t work. The value is in the process and not the product. But what to do with such manuscripts in the long run? I have saved years of journals, and still ponder the proper time to dispose of them. Covid has made me consider this problem again – you never know when you will leave your belongings behind permanently. But my guess is that no one would want to wade through that material anyway, and in the meantime, it has value for me.

So, I will try to continue to encourage my granddaughter to write it all down. Who knows – I never thought I could teach her to knit, but since our Zoom lessons, mile-long scarves have been proliferating.

And, by the way, if in writing these letters you should realize how fortunate you have been in your life, particularly in getting help from others when you needed, consider writing a check to your local food pantry. Their clients need assistance, nourishment, now more than ever.

The story for this week, “Luck,” is about two strangers on a bus and what they learn about each other and themselves.

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.

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.

Vollendungsroman, Again and “Olive, Again”

A while back, I wrote about the Vollendungsroman, a term for a novel about the “winding down” of life. It is the counterpoint to the Bildungsroman, a “coming-of-age” story about young people approaching adulthood. There are thousands and thousands of the latter, and as young people, we lapped them up – trying to figure out what life was about, what we were supposed to think, to do. They came in all varieties – from Little Women to Catcher in the Rye. We read them all and we read them for at least two reasons: 1) because we wanted to know how to live our lives, and 2) they made us realize that we were not alone in our human predicament. As we age, those two needs have not gone away.

It is important to me to think consciously about what old age means, how it should be considered, lived. Many of us did not consciously grow into adulthood – we did it messily and often badly; there were repercussions because our dayspring was mishandled. We made the mistakes of youth and sometimes we kept making them even as we left youth behind us. Marriage, parenthood, middle-age often found us too busy to be conscious of anything – our lists were short-term, by psychic necessity. Some of us did plan financially for retirement, but not, perhaps, in any other way. And now we are old. Yes, we are. Call it what you will. I have time now to age consciously. And I look to literature to help me. Philosophy, science, and psychology are good too, but literature about old age allows me peer into the possibilities rather then the probabilities and the logic of it all. And particularly to see how people grapple with their pasts.

For the Bildungsroman is about the life of our origins, of what we were born into – and usually about the process of breaking away. But the novel of old age, the Vollendungsroman, is often about reconciling with our own pasts – the mistakes, the errors, the patterns, that we made along the way. This may include some debris from our family of origin, of course – that business is never over. But mainly it is about the life we have lived, the children we have engendered, the people we have loved, the people we have hurt. Some of it is to be valued, some left behind, some used as a lesson.

I just finished Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful new book Olive, Again. Definitely an example of the Vollendungsroman. The novel reminds me a little of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but set in the world of the elderly. Olive is the central character, but there is also a wide range of people, of family stories. In Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, the writer/character says of another writer: “And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” And this is what Elizabeth Strout does – she writes about the human condition and lets us know that 1) we are not alone, 2) it is never easy, and 3) there can be great dignity in it. And Strout knows that aging with dignity is not about acting as young as possible. In the words of one of Strout’s characters, “our job – maybe even our duty – is to bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.”
Amen to that: with as much grace as we can.

Olive is old when the book begins and very old by the end. We watch her get used to widowhood, struggle with an imperfect relationship with her son and his family, and slide into a second marriage and second widowhood. She finishes in a kind of assisted living center where she is typing on an electric typewriter (her choice and supplied by her son) because her computer and its printer had made her “so frustrated she shook.” (Yes.) Olive is typing up memories, trying to make sense out of the past. In the last chapter, we find Olive marveling at the new buds on a rosebush and contemplating her own impending death; in this juxtaposition “the sense of wonder and trepidation returned to her.” She sits down and writes these two sentences:

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing.

Yes. Not many of us can be that truthful. But we can read about people who are (Olive is often truthful to the point of offensiveness), and consider what it is we really think, what we believe, and how we should act on those beliefs.

Elsewhere, I have provided some lists of readings on old age, including novels, essays, poetry. Today’s story, “Last Things,” is about one woman’s approach to getting old. As might be obvious, I try to figure out how to age not only by reading, but also by writing. In any case, enjoy.

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.

If I Should Die Before I Wake…

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about letting go. There are many things that we have to let go of – the past, our youth, our mistakes – but the one I didn’t mention, that seldom gets mentioned, is death. Having just heard Mr. Rogers (in the body of Tom Hanks) telling me that there is nothing about life that is not manageable if it can be talked about, maybe it’s time to talk about death. (Highly recommend the movie.)

Early religions – Judaism for example and the Greeks – relegated the dead  to a shadowy place which did not seem very pleasant. The Greeks had Hades and its “shades.” (Remember Aeneas’s trip to the underworld?)  The Old Testament Sheol was held to be a still and dark place where souls – good and bad – went after death.

Eventually there was some belief in a more substantial afterlife –it was the Pharisees who believed in resurrection (but not necessarily of the body) and the Sadducees who did not. Paul had been a Pharisee so he was already half way there when he was struck by the light and began to preach the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Of course, hand in hand with the possibility of heaven came the threat of hell. In Buddhism and Hinduism, souls were reborn again and again until they got it right. Interestingly enough, the goal for Buddhists is nirvana or extinction, non-returning, while the goal for Christians is eternal life. In all cases, however, death is a threshold to be gotten over. And that threshold is constantly at the end of our horizon whether we acknowledge it or not.

In Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death (also highly recommended), the author discusses the way we all deal with death. Some of us believe (or try to believe) in an afterlife. Some of us think that our lives will live on in our deeds, a ripple effect (think of Fred Rogers), some that our projects will live on after us (our immortality projects), and some that we will live on in our posterity, our children and grandchildren. And some of us think all of the above, depending on the circumstances at the moment.

And some of us just keep hoping it will be otherwise – that medical technology will somehow solve the problem before our time has come. There is apparently a thriving business in this aspiration in Silicon Valley.

I thought about death as a child. Every bedtime ended with this prayer:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

This was followed by a list of “God blesses,” which always included members of the immediate family, Nana and Papa, and sometimes visiting friends or beloved pets or teachers. But the line, “if I should die before I wake,” left this particular child with the specter of departing sometime before the oatmeal was ready in the morning. Think about that. Adults may often wake in the middle of the night thinking about their own extinction (a la Larkin’s “Aubade”), but what did it mean for every child in a culture (this was not something my parents invented) to end every day with a reminder of their mortality? And did I believe that I would go to heaven if I did die before morning? Somehow, I think I did. But it is harder now.

Jung, among other, talks about the therapeutic value of a belief in an afterlife. Yes. But the key word there is belief. That is one way to cope. Another is acceptance of death as part of life, as necessary to life, as what gives shape to life. There is an article in last week’s New Yorker by the art critic Peter Schjeldahl, who is living with a diagnosis of “rampant” lung cancer. He is going to die before long, but has had a chance to reflect on it for those of us who think we won’t die “before long” and this is what he recommends: “Take death for a walk in your minds, folks. Either you’ll be glad you did or, keeling over suddenly, you won’t be out anything.”

Whatever method we choose, death has more power when we don’t face it in one way or another. Only then can we get on with it. Shakespeare said it the best:

So shalt thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

One more thing – this is the season of Old Father Time who is pushed out of the way by the Baby New Year. I have written on these symbols before, but it is worth noting on the eve of a new decade that the year may become young, but we will not. Let us keep this truth in mind (and here we are facing facts again!) as we watch the celebrations and frame our resolutions. Let us resolve to live within our own time. We can chuckle at the baby new year just as we delight in our grandchildren; but we are in a different time of life. And I, for one, am often glad of it. I think of the words of Don Mclean’s “Wonderful Baby”:

Wonderful baby nothin’ but new,
The world has gone crazy, I’m glad I’m not you.
At the beginning or is it the end?
It goes in and comes out and starts over again.

The story for this week, “A Balm in Gilead,” is about accepting the ending of things (or not). Here’s to the New Year, and may it be full of meaning, acceptance, and peace.