Air Travel During Covid and Mount Pisgah

We recently took our first flight since the pandemic started.  Not a good idea.  We are still sitting out a self-imposed quarantine period so we don’t inflict our recklessness upon the neighbors.  The trip left me with great compassion for the workers who have no choice – flight attendants, security workers, people who must travel for business.  Never a casual air passenger, this time I worried not at all about strange engine noises, but panicked as the man behind me kept clearing his throat.   I see no way they can make air travel safe.  We did what we could (practically pickling ourselves in hand sanitizer and hiding behind scarves and masks); it will be a few days before we know if it was enough.  The incubation period of Covid ends for us on Election Day.  An uneasy time in many ways.

It was not a completely abysmal experience, though.  We had not flown in a long time; I was newly awed by the view from on high.  From my window seat, I could see the contours of land brought into geometric definition by the hand of man.  I could see cars like rolling BBs and houses like sprinkled confetti among the autumn foliage.  I could see the top sides of the clouds and imagine the rain that was falling away from us rather than on us.  It gave me the long view; I thought about Moses.

We live on the edge of Pisgah National Forest, which contains Mount Pisgah.  The forest and the mountain were named for the mountain in the Bible from which Moses saw the promised land:

And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea, And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar. And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.

Moses sees the promised land but will never get there.  But seeing it seems to be enough; knowing that his people will thrive in the land of milk and honey presumably gives him solace.

Martin Luther King referenced the same Bible story in his “I Have a Dream” speech:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

These two speeches assume that while the speaker may not be around to see how things turn out, things will definitely be OK, that times on the other side of the mountain will surely be better.  We old folks are always trying to look over the top of the mountain to see what things will be like for our children and grandchildren.  For the times we will never live to see.  But what if what is on the other side of the mountain is not better; what if it is worse?  What if the view from the mountaintop fills us with fear rather than inspiration?  This is not just about politics (although that is heavy on my mind these days), but about climate change and environmental degradation, about the lack of economic opportunities for younger people, about the stranglehold of technology on the lives of us all.  I have high hopes for my grandchildren as individuals, but I tremble for the world they will live in.  Do I want to live to see that world?

One of my heroes, Leonard Cohen, died the day before the U.S. election in 2016.  Go back and listen to “Democracy.”  I remember thinking that I was glad he did not live to see America delivered to isolationism, fear, and studied ignorance of both the scientific and the moral.  I am eager to see what happens next in the world; to resume life after the enforced quiet of the pandemic.  But do I really want to see what is on the other side of the mountain?  Can I really believe the long view is better?  Much hinges on this election – including the view from the mountain.  Moses was reassured by God; Martin Luther King was inspired by the progress already made.  I want to be reassured and inspired.  I want the view to be comforting.  I want to end my life believing that things are getting better. 

My husband and I climbed Mount Pisgah a few times after we moved to North Carolina five years ago.  I must admit that the wooded slopes of the milder climate here do not give the panoramic views we used to get from the bald tops of New England favorites like Mount Monadnock.  And I am getting older.  The last time we reached the peak of Pisgah, I realized that although I can go long distances on gentler slopes, the scramble up is getting too much for me.  So I am probably never going to see that view again.

And I will probably not see the Promised Land.   When I was young, it looked like things were getting better.  Civil rights were being granted, women were welcome in more places and professions than ever before, the rivers were actually getting cleaner.  I came into this life on a hopeful note.  I pray that I can go out that way.

This week’s fiction, “Going Down is the Most Dangerous Part,” takes place on Mount Monadnock.  Enjoy.

Some (Unspoken) Thoughts About Old Folks and Reading Aloud

I recently read an article about the value of reading aloud for memory.  For both children and old folks, material listened to was retained better than text read silently; words we read aloud to ourselves were even more likely to be retained then words read to us.  Old people in particular benefit from this differential, retaining about 20% more when reading aloud.

In the beginning, almost everyone read out loud. (By the way, aloud is the formal and proper term; out loud, however, has come into common use and is apparently here to stay.)  “Listen to this tablet” said the writer of a message inscribed in clay.  The first real record we have about reading silently comes from Augustine, who described how singular it was that Saint Ambrose read without moving his lips.

When written literature was in short supply or only a minority of people were literate, much reading aloud imparted the content of books, newspapers, and pamphlets.  Many 18th century books were largely read aloud by family groups around the fire in the evening.  Now, of course, almost all adult reading is done silently.   We lost something.

Human culture started with an oral tradition, and old folks have been particularly affected over the ages by the shift from an oral tradition to widespread literacy. Before general literacy and availability of books, older people were more valued for their experience and history.  How to plant the crops or tend a baby was information that we got orally (and sometimes loudly) from people who had done it before.  I remember my own grandmother taking umbrage at my mother’s attachment to Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care – which contained advice that did not always jive with earlier custom.  My mother stuck to Dr. Spock; I wonder if my grandmother felt less valued. 

Also, when literacy did start to take off in the eighteenth century, it was usually the young who learned their letters first.  This often meant that offspring of the household – the children and grandchildren – could read the new broadsides and chapbooks that their elders could not decipher.  We could imagine that, instead of tales told around the hearth by the oldest member of the group (the member with the longest memory and the most to “tell”), the literate were now reading to the illiterate.   Imagine a grandmother having to rely on a grandchild to write her will or to read to her the latest popular broadsheet.  We might think of the relation between young and old these days in relation to technology.  Who hasn’t relied on a younger member of the family to set up their computer or teach them how to stream a movie?  But also, who of my generation does not remember the joys of being read to by Nana or Grandpa, in those days before competition from TV’s and iPads?

Reading aloud is akin to thinking aloud, and we all know the value of spoken thought in clarifying our minds.  Often, I can ponder a problem or decision mentally for weeks without coming to any conclusion.  What helps most at that point is a long talk with a trusted listener.  There is something about having to frame the issue in communicable terms and tones that illuminates the question in ways that unexpressed thought cannot.  Of course, writing about such things help too, but you lose the ability to use vocal inflections and to monitor the facial responses of the person listening.  You need a really good listener to do this well, and when that is not readily available, writing and then reading one’s words aloud to yourself (or your cat) is the next best thing.

 Confession, too, seems to work better when it is spoken.  There is something about putting the words out in the world that helps to dissipate them.  Churches now often have a scripted group confession prayer that is intoned in unison by the congregation.  While this is somewhat purgative, it does not force us to enumerate and enunciate our specific failings.  Perhaps they shouldn’t have gotten rid of those confessional stalls.

There are other benefits of reading aloud.  For one thing, it precludes skimming (my great vice).  And for a writer, the process of reading one’s own work out loud is invaluable – both to catch simple errors and to feel the tone of a piece.  I have been in writing groups that circulated pieces ahead of time and then had meetings where we only critiqued the writing; my current group reads the pieces out loud at the meeting and sends along the critiques later.  The reading aloud makes a tremendous difference.

Reading aloud is also a bonding activity.  As we peruse the Sunday NY Times at the breakfast table, my husband and I take turns reading interesting tidbits to each other.  He tires of this before I do, but newsprint is dull and rarely elicits the laughs, groans, or shrieks that oral delivery of the news can bring.  It allows us to express the emotions elicited but usually unexpressed as we ponder the events of the world, and to do it communally.

You might want to revisit my story “Playing by Ear,” and try reading it aloud.  Or read anything aloud today – to yourself, to the canary, to someone over the phone.  You will remember it better and appreciate it more.  You will exercise the speaking apparatus that is probably atrophying a little in these times of little social interaction. 

Vollendungsroman, the Apocalyptic, and “What Are You Going Through?”

I have written several times about a genre called the Vollendungsroman – novels about becoming old.  There is also a particular category of stories about people who are confronted by a terminal diagnosis, well aware that they are facing death and living through their “end times.” I don’t know whether there is a specific label for such writings.  (Readers, help me with this!)  Anyway, there are some very good examples out there, and I recently read a new one.  It was What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez.  Here is the thing that is different about this novel: it combines a story about age and the end of a life with the prospect of the universal end of life as we know it.  The microcosm and the macrocosm, both facing apocalypse.   Think about it.

The book opens with the narrator going to a lecture by a man who has written an important piece of work about the irredeemable damage humans have done to their planet.  It ends as the narrator stays with a  friend who is planning to end her own life before the final assault of the cancer that is killing her.  In between, there is clear contemplation of aging, death, and disaster.  The latter are on levels – from runaway global warming to a terminal cancer diagnosis to an overflowing bathtub.

One might question whether the prognosis for the earth is really as apocalyptic as is presented by the speaker in the first chapter, but no one can debate whether death is apocalyptic for the dying individual. (Even if one believes in an afterlife, death is still the end of this life, life as we know it.)  And it is not apocalyptic as in the warnings of Jeremiah or Jonah, where the purpose is repentance.  It is more like the irreversible prophecies of Cassandra, which no one believed but were nevertheless true. There is no real hope for the terminal patient.  The question is how is one – one person or one people –  to deal with the reality of the situation.

I have written elsewhere on the pre-Enlightenment view that the human body was a microcosm of the macrocosm, the world – both of which were decaying from their Edenic self.  The earth was growing old and decaying and so – once we had reached the peak of our life cycle at 33 – were we.  Not the view of infinite progress that the Enlightenment drew, but, rather, apocalypse all around.  Was it easier to die knowing that the world was dying too?

What Are You Going Through,  the title of Nunez’s novel, comes from an essay by Simone Weil.  She quotes it as the magic question in the search for the Grail and says that “the love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’”

Henning Mankell asks and answers this question in a memoir he wrote just before he died.  The author of the terrific Wallander mysteries and also a theater producer and a crusader for the rights of the oppressed, Mankell was given an “incurable” diagnosis of lung cancer in 2013 and died in 2015.  His account is called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human BeingA human being, one particular human being.  Quicksand is a record of Mankell’s thoughts as he goes through chemotherapy and the realization of his mortality.  He chooses, however, to dwell on the positive, the gifts that life has bestowed on him.  Although he is only 65 upon his diagnosis , he realizes that he has escaped his end many times and has had a far longer life than many people on this planet can expect. While he admits that death is always an “uninvited guest,” he puts it in perspective:

…if, like me, you have lived for approaching seventy years, longer than most people in the world could ever dream of, it is easier to become reconciled to the fact that an incurable disease has taken over your body.

Maybe.  The Bible only offers us three score and ten, but we have come to expect more.

Once Mankell tells us how he has come to terms with what has happened to him, he does a kind of life review, dwelling mostly on high points of his life.  It is not the rituals of our culture, the technical progress, nor political movements that he dwells upon; it is the wonderful people he has met who rise up despite the obstacles that civilization erects in front of them.  It is the joys of creative interaction. The book ends when chemotherapy has given him a “breathing space” (which turned out to be brief).  He says this:

I am living today in that breathing space.  I occasionally think about my disease, about death, and about the fact that there are no guarantees when it comes to cancer.

But most of all I live in anticipation of new uplifting experiences.  Of times when nobody robs me of the pleasure of creating things myself, or enjoying what others have created.

Mankell’s is a kind of gratitude journal for his life.  I hope when my final diagnosis comes, I can be so positive.  And before then, I can more often ask myself and those around me, “What are you going through?”

I recommend both these books about dying – one fiction and one non-fiction.  Neither takes us to the utter brink; no one who hasn’t been there can know and those who go over aren’t around to write about it.

For a little comic relief about aging (and you might need it at this point), this week’s story is “Closing Time.” Its title is homage to the wonderful song about the end of the party by Leonard Cohen.  Enjoy.

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.