What Old Folks Know About Miracles and Limits – “Speak Yet Again”

Do old folks have any wisdom to share? In King Lear, the Fool scolds Lear: “Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.” (I, v,28) Are we wise? It occurs to me lately that we are wise about two especially important things.

I have been reading Wendell Berry’s book, Life is a Miracle: An Essay against Modern Superstition. Berry actually starts the book with this line that Edgar speaks to his father (Gloucester) after the blind old man, intent on suicide, has been tricked into thinking he has jumped off a cliff and survived: “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.” (IV, vi,55) Thy life’s a miracle. This is the first thing old folks know. Review your life and think about how it all could have gone differently – and more wrongly. Think about near-death experiences and medical procedures that saved or prolonged your life. Think about how lucky you were to have parents or caregivers who nurtured you until you could stand on your own two feet. Our old lives are miracles.

The other way that we know the miraculousness of life is through all that science has learned about the big bang, evolution, DNA, chance. Do you know that if the rate of expansion of the universe was different by even an iota, life on earth would not be possible? The multitude of variations and mutations that life had to go through to make us human? The number of sperm that were competing to be the person you became? Miraculous. Old people know this. “Thy life’s a miracle.” Truly, it is. In his old age, Henry Miller said: “The worst is not death, but being blind, blind to the fact that everything about life is in the nature of the miraculous.

The subtitle of Wendell Berry’s book is “An Essay against Modern Superstition.” For Berry, the “modern superstition” is that science can eventually know everything and everything can be dissected into… data and facts, I guess. It is a resistance to limits and promotes a world view that puts all faith in progress and assumes we can, eventually, understand and control almost everything. Berry says “the mystery surrounding our life is not significantly reducible. And so the question of how to act in ignorance is paramount.” This is the other thing we know.  Old people know there are limits to knowledge. We have learned this the hard way by making mistakes when we thought we had all the answers. And if we didn’t know this before, Covid-19 might have taught us a thing or two.

Old people know that not everything that can be defined as a “problem” with a definitive solution. I think of Schumacher’s differentiation between convergent and divergent problems in his Guide for the Perplexed. How to build a diesel engine is a convergent problem; scientists can work on it and come up with an answer. How to use such an engine for the benefit of society (i.e. transportation of goods vs. preservation of the environment?) is a divergent problem. Adolescents often think all problems are convergent and often think they know the solutions. Most old people know that the important questions are divergent and can (and should) be grappled with, but cannot be “solved.”

To summarize, I would posit that there are (at least) two things that old people know: 1) life is miraculous, and 2) there are limits on everything. And these two things are related. Every one of us has come up on limits again and again in our lives, and as we face old age and death, we are coming up on the biggest limit of them all. Yet, all of us have an increasing awareness of the miraculousness that we are here at all. No matter how many scientific books I read that try to scare me with their tales of how brief the existence of the earth will be, these cosmologists mostly just convince me of the miracle that I am here at all to experience it and appreciate it. (You might read Robert Frost’s “Desert Places” or “The Star-Splitter” in this regard.)

And there is another analogy one might make.

There are some Buddhist scholars (David Loy), Christian theologians (Thomas Berry) and renegade cosmologists (Brian Swimme) who muse that perhaps the universe has evolved humans to order to have a way for the cosmos to appreciate its own existence. This is a nice story. It could also be the story we tell about the old. From the far end of our existence, we can appreciate life in ways that young people cannot. We have come to appreciate life and all that it involves. We recognize the limits and respect them. And we acknowledge the miracle of it all and are in awe.

I recommend that you re-read King Lear and think about limits and miracles. To encourage yourself or for a way for thinking about the play later, you can read my piece “Lear at Great Books.”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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