Wisdom and the Rose-Apple Tree

I have spent a considerable amount of time speculating about whether we get wiser as we get older, and – if so – can that wisdom be communicated?  But what if the end of learning, of trying, of experience, is to simply realize what we knew in the beginning?  Stay with me.

After the future Buddha had pursued years of ascetic training and sacrifice, he was still not enlightened. He asked himself whether there might not be a better way.  Immediately he had the memory of sitting as a child under the shade of a rose-apple tree watching a ploughing ceremony his father was participating in.  He remembered the relaxed joy and communion his younger self felt with the world around him and immediately knew that this was the way to Enlightenment – back to that simple childhood awareness.

I recently came across this quote from a Japanese Zen master (thank you Tim Miller) who was writing just a few days before his death about how he had finally come to faith and resolution about life:

One might ask if it wasn’t just an accident that I came to faith after engagement in strenuous study, but I would say it was not an accident. It was essential that I should do it this way. My faith has within it a conviction that all my self-power efforts are futile. But in order to be convinced of this futility of self-power, it was necessary to exhaust all my intellectual resources and get to the point where they would not reassert themselves. This was a most strenuous business. Before I reached the end of it there were quite a few times when I thought I had acquired a religious faith. Yet, time and again my conclusions were shattered. As long as one tries to build up a religion on the basis of logic and intellectual study, one cannot escape this difficulty.

This idea that one only understands by “giving up” or looking back to what one knew before one started comes up again and again in wisdom literature.  We could recall the motto of Socrates:  “I know only one thing–that I know nothing.” One might think of Job, who tried to figure God out, only to be struck down in simple awe at the end.  Or Saint Teresa of Avila who entered joyful trances as a child by twirling around with her brother chanting “Forever, ever, ever” – a level of contemplative ecstasy she only came back to in later life. But it would seem that we must go through the process of trying to get there.  But (and this is one of those big buts), then, we must step back.  I have often talked about the value of quiet and reflection in old age, and maybe that is the purpose of such reflection.

Then there is my friend Spinoza.  Spinoza wrote an entire book (Ethics) trying to use the geometric/logical method to figure out the nature of man and the best way to live.  It is full of axioms, propositions, and postulates.  It is a great book.  But in the end, we get this: “The greatest striving of the mind, and its greatest virtue is understanding things by the third kind of knowledge.”  And what is the third kind of knowledge?   It is intuitive knowledge.    And yet, the last paragraph of the Ethics cautions us: “If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found.  And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard.”  So it would seem that Spinoza agrees with my Japanese monk – study hard and then – step away?

One of my favorite pieces by Spinoza is the manifesto he wrote as he started out as a young man.  It delineates what he was looking for (“knowledge of the union existing between and mind and all of nature”) and how he is going to live and work as he gets there (great rules of life).  As far as I can tell (and I am no Spinoza scholar), he followed those rules and tried to find out how humankind fit into the scheme of things. He studied hard, thought much, and wrote it all down.  But he ends up by talking about intuition.

Here’s a story.  When I went back to piano lessons as an adult, I told my wonderful teacher that I loved to play but had no ear and was almost incapable of memorization.  After a few lessons, he told me I was mistaken – he had been watching me play and said I seldom looked at the music.  I did not believe him.  I believed – to some extent still believe – what I was told as a child.  You have no ear.  Maybe the trick is to clear away things we were told, not keep adding to the logjam of debris in our minds.  To let go.  Clear the decks.  Get back to the rose-apple tree.  It’s not easy though.

Fiction reading for this week is a new story, “Reflections,” which thinks about ways that our younger selves can (sometimes) pull us back to our centers.   It is about physical reflections and mental reflections. Enjoy.

Covid-19 and the Generational Wars – Part 2

As I listen to the debates about opening schools and universities, I ponder again how this pandemic pits young people against old.  It is a struggle that is going on in households (I want to go to the party! cries the teenager), in extended families (have the grandchildren been quarantined safely enough to allow me to visit? asks Nana), in communities (can we safely open the schools? frets the school board), and on a national and global scale.  Opening the schools provides a good window into this conflict.  Children are less at risk, but how about everyone else they come in contact with?

Having tried to Zoom with my grandchildren (where did he go?), I know that distance learning is not a great way to teach the young.  I can’t even imagine how the teachers do it.  I think children need to go back to school.  But they need to go back safely.  I think old folks need to be protected.  We need a culture which values everyone, and the stock market is not the measure of all success.  I may be an old lady, but apparently all the idealism hasn’t been beaten out of me quite yet.

Some few of you may be members of the “greatest generation,” who lived through the Great Depression as young children and then fought WWII.  I give that honor to my elders; I was a boomer baby.  But during WWII it was the young (male and female) who went off and fought, staffed the field hospitals, went into the munitions factories.  They were defending the old, who stayed home and planted victory gardens, kept track of food coupons, knit gloves and sweaters for the troops, wrote letters, and prayed.  The old knew that the young were fighting to defend them.   The young knew who was thinking about them back home.

In my last post on this subject, I cited the statistics as to who was getting Covid-19 and who was dying from it.  The statistics have not changed much, although there seems to be an improvement as nursing homes have implemented stricter procedures for testing and visiting.  We are all getting tired of whatever level of quarantine we are at, but the old seem to have hunkered down while the young are often frustrated and rebellious.  Maybe the difference is that younger people do not have a clear path for action, as the greatest generation did when this country entered WWII.  Or maybe we do not have a national voice (think FDR) which can inspire when motivation lags.  Maybe the young partying on the beach or at the bars do not mean any harm.  But apparently no one has quite convinced them what the right thing to do is.   We wonder if they appreciate that their risk is our risk; we wonder if they care.

And some of us older people have difficult decisions to make.  My daughter, a single mother by choice, decided to provide her 2-year-old with a sibling this year.  It turned out to be twins, born in the middle of the epidemic and now, after an extended hospital stay, at home.  My daughter lives in a college town where the students are returning (physically not virtually), and yet we feel the need to go visit and show some support.  I am at once thrilled to go and scared to death.  I know families all over the world are facing these kinds of dilemmas.  The real prospect of our own mortality makes such choices stark and real.   I fear those local college students won’t be thinking about my safety, but I wish they were.

In this topsy-turvy time, the old need protecting.  I hope that as schools and businesses open, they think about the older employees, the elderly members of households, the general level of infection in our communities.  The economy is important, but it is not the most important thing.  Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

Maybe we need a slogan.  “Save Grandma!” “Children need grandparents!” “Do the right thing!”  I am not a speechwriter; there are speechwriters galore in Washington, yet I am hearing little that helps.

I have posted my first “Covid story” this week, which I think has a little something to say about quarantine, social media, and human nature.  (And with a nod to Becoming Duchess Goldblattthank you Sean – highly recommended.) Like war, however, I really don’t think we will write about this time well until it is over.  Assuming it is ever over.

 

Money, Time, and Old Folks

Covid has turned the world upside-down in some strange ways in relation to age, time, and money.  Let’s start with the money.  We old folks – with our social security, pensions, savings, and Medicare – are perhaps a little better off than some.  We don’t have jobs to lose, children to feed, college loans to pay off.  We are in appreciably more danger in other ways than the  younger folks (see earlier post), but we are arguably a little more economically secure for the time being.

In relation to money, old folks have a long history of being classified as covetous, miserly.  Going back to Horace (Ars Poetica), the old man is described by his “desire for gain, miserliness, lack of energy, greediness for a longer life, quarrelsomeness, praise of good old days when he was a boy, and his condemnation of the younger generation.”  Famous examples of old misers might include the fictional characters Ebenezer Scrooge and Silas Marner.

Of course, in times when there was no provision for the elderly except perhaps the good will of one’s children (remember King Lear?), it made sense for old people to hang onto their money.  Neither do the old have the time or energy to start again.  When Benjamin Franklin admonishes a “Young Tradesmen” to “[r]emember that time is money,” one can only wonder if the implication is that the old – with little time left – are poor by definition?

Incidentally, time and money are intimately related – as was most apparent in the early Christian church’s opposition to usury. One of the Christian arguments against usury was that all time is God’s time, and that charging interest is profiting from something that belongs to God.  For many years, the term has been used only for the crime of charging exorbitant interest, but there was as time in the Christian church when no interest at all was allowed, when belief in usury was a heresy.  But where would the modern economy be without usury?

Similarly, using probability tables to predict life expectancy for annuity and insurance purposes assumed that someone was betting on one’s death, and that someone (other than God) was sure enough of when our “number would be up” to put money on it.  When life insurance came into being in the 18th century, there were many who thought that it also was a heresy, a presumption.  Only God could know when our time was up.

Here is the paradox: We older people have time, and yet we are running out of time.  Retired and quarantined, we have oodles of hours on our hands when we might not be able to count on years, or even months.  It is a strange situation.  One might consider Wendell Berry’s view that “time is neither young nor old”:

I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don’t think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse.

As we watch some young people flaunting the quarantine rules and endangering the lives around them, our lives, it seems that perhaps they think they have plenty of time.   They do not think that Covid will kill them (and statistically they are correct), and they do not think about dying much at all.  Neither did I at their age.  And yet, the elders – who are busy trying to make peace with the nearing end – see the possibility that the “truce of old age” (St. Benedict) will soon be broken, our lives will be precipitated into immediate danger.  Usually, as in war time, it is the young who are in danger, fighting for the elders and others at home.  This time we are the potential casualties.  It is a topsy-turvy world.

For more perspective on how Covid is exposing (and creating) stress between the old and young, see my post, Covid-19 and the Generational Wars. This situation is taking on a new dimension as we begin to open the schools.  Children and young adults seem to be at low risk, but how about older teachers, custodians, librarians, and bus drivers?  For a fictional take on the generational gap, you might try “Common Enemy.

 

Three Truth-Tellers

In this era of “fake news” and “truthiness,” I still like to think I know a real truth about life when I hear it.  I am, of course, particularly interested in the truths of old age.  (If you are an old age denier, I suggest you stop here!)  Three truth-tellers who come to mind are a motley group: the Buddha, Virginia Woolf, and Albert Camus.

The Buddha started his teaching with the Four Noble Truths, of which the first is “all life is unsatisfactory.”  The is sometimes translated as “life is suffering,” but it is my understanding that the original Pali text connotes stress rather than suffering.  In any case, it was a relief to me that someone important acknowledged that life is not a breeze.  I no longer had to ask myself what on earth was the matter with me!  The Buddha came to this conclusion after escaping the royal palace (in which he had been raised in opulent isolation) and meeting the divine messengers – an old man, an ill man, a corpse, and a wandering yogi.  Note that the first of these divine messengers was an old person.  Such a shock for the young prince to realize he too would get old!  In fact, of the five daily recollections that the Buddha recommended, the second is to remind ourselves that our body is subject to aging and decay.  This would seem obvious, but I still seem to be spending a lot of psychological effort to deny it.

When I was a young woman, I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time.  There was much there to inspire me, but the passage I most remember is this:  “Life for both sexes – and I look at them shouldering along the pavement – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle.  It calls for gigantic courage and strength.”  Why did no one ever tell me this?  It certainly wasn’t in the advice I got from my parents or the music I listened to.   As I was growing up, Madison Avenue led me to believe if I made the right choice between Coke and Pepsi, Covergirl or Maybelline, everything would come up roses.  In another essay, Woolf talks about the “great wars which the body wages with the mind” and goes on to warn us that “to look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer.”  Yes.  And somehow it was easier to summon up that courage once I knew it was not supposed to be easy.

And last there is Camus.  Camus tells us in The Myth of Sisyphus that life is absurd; that there will always be a gap between “the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”  Unreasonable because we are going to grow old and die and it would seem that the earth does not care.  If we are aware at all, we will suffer.  “To a conscious old man, old age and what it portends are not a surprise.  Indeed, he is conscious only in so far as he does not conceal its horror from himself.  There was a temple in Athens dedicated to old age.   Children were taken there…”  Old age is not punishment though:  “That is the rule of the game.  And indeed, it is typical of his [the conscious man’s] nobility to have accepted all the rules of the game.  Yet he knows he is right and that there can be no question of punishment.  A fate is not punishment.”  This is an important distinction.  Think about it.

OK – this all sounds somewhat dismal, doesn’t it?  True, but dismal.  How do these folks recommend that we handle the facts of life?  The Buddha said that we needed to loosen our attachments to the way we thought things should be because craving was the root of our suffering.  This, presumably, would include the wish to be young.  Woolf, you say, committed suicide.  Yes.  But until overtaken by depression, she lived the most creative of lives and even, in her suicide note, assured her husband: “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.”  And she wrote her wonderful books out of an ecstatic appreciation of life set within the limits of biology and fate. She has one of her characters say, “the compensation of growing old… was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained–at last!–the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.” And so she did turn experience round and round.  Read the scenes where Mrs. Dalloway traverses London on a spring morning or the interludes in The Waves.

So, if Woolf  found happiness, it was through creativity. This is also Camus’s answer.  His solution to the absurdity of our life is to be creative and make our own meaning – knowing all the time the absurdity of it.  Having, as Simone de Beauvoir would put it, our projects.  Camus says that “in this [absurd] universe the work of art is then the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures.”  He quotes Nietzsche: “Art and nothing but art; we have art in order not to die of the truth.”  Or in another translation (Will to Power): “Art is with us in order that we may not perish through truth.”

Camus contends that art/creativity is the solution for the  writer, the artist, the dancer, the liver of life.  Living one’s own life is the ultimate creative art form.  Thoreau told us (and lived) this secret: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  Yes.  I guess this is all by way of saying that living in ignorance might be easier, but it is not an art.  Living despite some hard truths is the highest kind of creation and the best solution.  True of life.  True of old age.  Blessed be the truth-tellers.

This week’s story is “The Mustard Seed.”  I have been told by someone who edited the piece for me that the ending was unsatisfactory.  Perhaps the Buddha would agree.  Perhaps the ending is always unsatisfactory in some way.  You decide.

 

 

 

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.