One of the constants in my life has been the request of others for me to donate money. An endless list of charities find their way to my email box asking for me to donate to a cause. Usually, via some internet magic, the requesting agencies are in line with my interests, beliefs, and passions. More recently, political entities ask for me to support candidates who promise to further the causes I believe in. Sometimes, I pass people who appear to be either homeless or hungry and ask me directly for a handout. Today, one television commercial showed me starving, mistreated dogs and another, the plight of elephants with babies in tow. Their messages tugged at my heart and my purse strings.
The quest for financial resources is endless but, since I don’t have an endless supply of “extra” cash, making decisions about what to give is a dilemma. Even after I develop a process and or guideline for who to give and how much, the question of trust arises. How do I know if these requests are legitimate and how do I know if the funds are going to the intended recipients and if they are, what percentage may be going for administrative costs?
Over the years, I’ve asked friends how they make decisions about donating. As you might guess, it varies from person to person but none have an absolute, clear-cut formula with one exception. In this case, if he’s asked, he gives. If he encounters a person who is sitting or walking on the street and they make a request for cash, he gives with no exception. He has chosen to completely accept that if they are asking, they are needy and he gives them money unconditionally. If they chose to spend it on liquor or drugs or food or clothing, he contends that is their choice. He is only responsible for responding to the act of one human asking for help, not to bother himself in the affairs of how the individual choses to use the help given. It reminds me of our conversation about labels and judgments. I might find it irresponsible to enable someone who is intoxicated to use my money to buy more alcohol so I would likely not give them money. Of course, in that case, I’ll never know whether this was a moment when this person may have chosen to use my contribution in another way to help themselves; all because I speculated that I knew better. Who is to say? In the end, if giving this person money that I didn’t need, money that wouldn’t negatively impact my life, might the feeling of giving with the hope of helping, add value to my life?
I enjoy helping others but still hesitate to give out my “hard-earned” money to strangers who may not have “worked hard” and who are “deserving” of charity. But as I grow older, I am re-examining those old beliefs and am reconsidering the idea of unconditional giving. I look forward to seeing my own reaction the next time I pass a person who asks me for money.
Giving is a Function of Trust
I’d argue that giving money or donations to others is the same as the decision to place love or trust in a relationship. In a perfect world, the opportunity to ‘pay it forward’ would be limitless. In practice, there is always a part of me that wishes to hold something back — whether it’s trust or donations, is immaterial — but that’s my quirk.
However, one thing is clear to me: I won’t donate without some level of trust having been established. Hen raises the point that perhaps it doesn’t matter if the recipient uses the gift in a manner in which you approve. After all, ‘help’ is defined by the receiver. And yet… remember a few years ago, when the Cancer Fund of America, Cancer Support Services, the Children’s Cancer Fund of America, and the Breast Cancer Society were accused of diverting $187 million dollars to lavish salaries, trips, and perks? In fact it was alleged that only 3% of the donations actually made its way toward cancer research. (NB: these groups are not affiliated with the American Cancer Society). Even in respected charities, the CEO may earn penthouse-level compensation. Charities are big business – and somehow this seems like an oxymoron to me. Ah, there’s me being distrustful!
We all feel better when we give of our resources. Sharing is an essential part of living with others. It is a recognition of another’s need and our ability to nurture those in need. However, many of us also give as an antidote to guilt. The paid advertisements Hen described certainly appeal to that motivation. Such appeals feel like manipulation and I won’t have it.
My giving formula boils down to this: I will give generously to those I know and love, even if they do not use the resources as I would. I will give regularly to community institutions that are local and I have seen their good works. I will take a chance on giving to an individual I don’t know, if a connection is made that doesn’t tingle my distrust. I will not give to a suspected liar – or to most national fundraising organizations. In other words, I mind my patch and invest in my community, trusting that the investment will help others.
The Act of Giving
Lately, I have been generously giving contributions to people on the street who ask. I figure I can afford to donate a ten-dollar bill to someone down on his or her luck. I know it could be a total sham but I figure if by chance it is legitimate I could contribute to someone’s getting a meal or paying a bill and that would make their day and mine as well. Of course you just never know. When I was going to Vermont every weekend I used to see the guys with signs in the entrance to the shopping malls. The signs usually indicated the guy was an out of work veteran who was hungry, many times small children were holding the guy’s pant leg or something for an additional emotional tug. The Rutland Journal did a report and followed one guy and found out that he raised over $100,000 in a year’s time. When you think about it, it is hard work and probably won’t get you a pass at the Pearly Gates! Sometimes I think I often give to people out of guilt. How come I had the wherewithal to have spare cash while others can barely make it day to day?
A year ago Christmas I was especially tender for many reasons and watched the shivering puppies chained to an old fence and became a monthly “Guardian” with the SPCA. I can’t stand to see animals suffering because of human cruelty! And the next commercial was of St Jude’s Children Hospital and became a “Guardian” there as well. I chose to believe that most of my monthly contribution goes to helping animals and children but I just have to have naive faith about that! Don’t burst my bubble please.
But donating money was never a problem for me. Both my kids worked in restaurants and taught me to give hefty tips as well. However, my shortcoming is giving of my time. I have never contributed a few minutes to talk to the guy begging on the street or actually going with him and buying him a meal. The nursing homes are full of lonely people abandoned who would love to have a conversation or a hug. I realized that this year as the isolation overwhelmed me. People in these facilities live like that from year to year and not because of Covid. Perhaps it is the sadness factor that stops me. My tears come much more easily now and I’m not sure I can deal with the sadness I would see around me. I actually feel terrible admitting to this but it has always been a shortcoming of mine. I should know better, I was that outcast kid in school for several years and knew how it felt. I need to be as generous with my time as I am with money. Maybe then the Pearly Gates will open for me!
Maundy Thursday is a profoundly sad day. It reminds me of our unfailing default behavior of cruelty and self-service. It doesn’t take much to see how that behavior is still present in our DNA. Perhaps it is a collateral requirement for survival that we can justify any action which assuages our fears.
This is a day when I confront my beliefs about faith. After all, faith is about hope – hope that there is a better version of myself and all of us; something timeless and clear, synchronized to a cosmic truth. That’s why I’m thinking of Bertrand Russell’s teapot.
If you missed it, Bertrand Russell stated his reluctance to believe in God and placed the onus on religion to prove that God existed. He put forward an analogy: what if he stated as a firm belief that there was an undetectable celestial teapot traveling in an elliptical orbit in space? Who could prove him wrong? Russell’s argument is that the burden of proof does not fall upon the skeptics, but rather the proponents.
At first glimpse, this seems like a reasonable assertion. It is always a good idea to examine the basis for your own assumptions; what you cannot prove should be placed in that Box of Uncertainties. And yet… that box of uncertainties is pretty large. Sometimes, planks in that box are needed to bridge gaps in understanding how the world works – or how you should work within the world. As you construct your personal bridge, some of the planks are less than solid. So, do you stop your journey, turnaround, or continue on?
I’m reminded of that 1970’s bestseller Don Juan, A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. This was the first in series of books which chronicled the socialization of an anthropologist into the world of a Native American shaman. Don Juan recalibrated the perception of the young anthropologist to identify strong forces at work in the world; how to use that power; and how to identify ‘witches’. Objective proof: doubtful. By the end of the books – which were the basis of the anthropologist’s doctoral dissertation – Carlos Castenada had absorbed the shaman’s worldview to reflect a philosophy which was compelling enough to attract a number of fans. Could it be possible that today’s mysticism is tomorrow’s science?
Every journey requires some degree of faith in assumptions that cannot be proven. The need for proponents to prove their case is only necessary if they attempt to press their assumptions onto others – and I accept that this is pretty common in day-to-day life. Yet, the tyranny of Russell’s teapot argument is that it precludes ‘possibilities’.
If I were to counsel my grandchildren, it would be to rename the uncertainty box as the ‘Box of Possibilities’ and use some of those planks in their bridge construction. I think it’s better to be open to a broad vision when facts don’t connect the dots.
Not A Religious Man
I was never religious. I always questioned it and asked for proof which I never got. I considered myself spiritual. I was raised Catholic, my mom was Congregational, but I went to Mass every Sunday with my dad. That lasted until they dropped the Latin and started saying Mass in English. My dad stopped going because he said now that he understood what was being said he couldn’t sleep through it! We still did the no meat on Friday thing, always having macaroni or spaghetti (I never heard the word PASTA til I was married). On Good Friday my brother and I couldn’t play outside or watch TV between noon and 3. It seemed more like superstition than religion. My Aunt Eleanor was the only one who was really into Catholicism. She said the rosary every day of her life until her death at 99. It gave her comfort and serenity and I wanted that for myself but couldn’t find it through religion.
I guess I always believed in God but didn’t subscribe to the rigors and routines of Catholicism. As my sexuality developed it estranged me even more from organized religion but I didn’t want to give up the promise that a spiritual life provided and I kept questioning and praying that the “All Mighty” would show me, give evidence to me that it truly existed. Then I kind of gave up the search. Life was busy and exciting and I stopped questioning and searching. College, marriage, family, buying houses all got in the way and there was no space for my search.
When all that calmed down I began experiencing things that I couldn’t explain. My wife and I divorced and she moved out. I think it was the first night I slept alone. I woke up in the middle of the night, sweating, scared, and crying. I felt as if I was cradled in someone’s arms and it soothed me. I heard inside my head a voice that said, “It is going to be okay, everything is going to be ok!” I woke up in the morning feeling secure, knowing something had happened that I could not explain. It was years before I ever told anyone about that, even admitting I thought it was Jesus who rocked me. Many years later, after retiring, I experienced two other events that helped me answer my questioning. My partner and I were traveling through England visiting friends we had met in Italy. They wanted to take us to the place where paganism and Christianity was supposed to have met. It was a little island they referred to as Holy Island, but is named Lindesfarne. We traveled to Northumberland in northern England. You can only reach the Island at low tide so you have to know in order to get off the island before the tide comes back in. On that island is the ruin of an old Cathedral where they ancient saints, Saint Cuthbert and St Aidan tried to convert the pagans. Upon entering that sacred space, every hair on my arms and back stood straight up and a cold rush went through my body. My partner was Jewish and he experienced the same thing. We prayed at what was left of the altar and escaped the island just before the tide returned. It was spiritual, eerie and freaky. I had never experienced anything like that before and never expected to again! Wrong! Several years later on a trip to Italy, promising my aunts to go to Assisi, we stopped there and visited the churches of St Clara and St Francis only to be disappointed by the touristy nature of the city. We spoke to a local shop keeper who told us if we really wanted to experience St Francis we should go to a little mountain town named LaVerna not far away. The next day we drove up the mountain and parked outside the little town with the Franciscan monastery. We discovered that St Francis slept there in the caves and that was where he experienced the stigmata. I didn’t even know what that meant but it was explained that it was where he bled from his wrists and feet from where the nails held Jesus to the cross. We headed into the caves and without realizing what cave we were in, once again I experienced that sensation of cold rushing through me as all the hair on my arms and back stood on end. My partner also was experiencing it as well. The guide told us that it was on that rock in front of us St Francis experienced the stigmata. It was a very special experience that I hope to experience once again. I sure could use that voice telling me everything will be all right once again!
Wal begins his piece by confronting his beliefs. I love the notion that while we can accept who we are, it can be healthy and helpful to challenge what we have learned to believe. For me, time can lull me into complacency about viewpoints that I’ve adapted and practiced. As I tell my stories, I inevitably reinforce those perceptions and they become a baseline or context from which I live my life. But, as Wal mentions in his post, he questions his beliefs in hopes that he can become a better person. As I think about some of the things I “knew” to be true when I wore a younger man’s clothes, I realize that my thinking wasn’t as broad or open as it is today and some of those beliefs have given way to very different notions.
As I examine and re-examine long held ideas I find I am becoming more comfortable with uncertainty. Years ago I needed to know. The answer was important. Right and wrong were clear-cut and necessary. Today, like my hair, I find life is much more grey than black and white. I more often understand multiple sides to an issue or belief and recognize how often I missed opportunities for connection by holding fast to one side or another.
There is also value in strong beliefs. To feel passionate about faith, religion, or some form of source energy gives us a foundation from which to make decisions and guidelines for how to live and what to teach our children. However, even within this commitment to our faith, I believe there is added value to re-examine and question what we hear, read, and practice. This self-reflection can help us confirm, adjust, or re-align what matters and prevent us from blindly following the wrong path just because it is so well worn.
As I grow older and recognize that each day matters more to me now than it did when I was younger and invulnerable, I look forward to attempting conversations with my grandchildren about what we believe and what we assume, and what limitless possibilities exist for them as they make choices and the importance for them to continue to challenge those choices.
I recently received a package from the executor of my brother’s partner’s will. In the envelope were letters that my dad wrote to my mom during the war when he was stationed on Iwo Jima. The picture is a photograph of my mom, my dad, and big brother. It was taken sometime in 1941 or 1942 in my mom’s parents’ house in Pennsylvania. My dad enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942 and because of his age, being 32 at that point, he had to get a Congressional appointment because he was officially too old to be called up. My mom’s uncle, Uncle Ivor, was a sitting Congressman in the voting district they lived in and he wrote the letter for my dad. I am assuming shortly after this photo was taken Dad left for boot camp.
I spent one entire evening reading through letter after letter that my dad wrote to my mom during the war. Needless to say , it was a night of tears and questions. The tears flowed easily and it was a good cry. The questions flowed equally but there were no answers and no one who could answer them as I am the solitary living person of my family with the exception of my two kids. I must have stared at that photo for an hour, talking to it as if it was going to answer me. I looked at their faces, one by one, and didn’t recognize them. I was more than 4 years away from existence and I was staring at these three strangers. These were not the people who raised me! Sure, I recognized the features but the expressions were so different from what I remember. I look at my mom in that picture and I see a woman at peace, a strong woman who defied her dad and left home to go to the big city and train to be a nurse against her dad’s will. I see my dad’s picture and I see a young man with confidence and a devilish, mischievous smile on his face. And then there is my brother, what a cutie! I cannot remember a time when he wasn’t intensely overweight. This was his family, mine was different!
I read each letter in chronological order, from boot camp to shipping overseas, to fighting on Iwo Jima to the bombing of Hiroshima. It was like a personalized history of our lives, our country, our world as it existed at war in the 40’s. The last letter my dad sent to my mom in October of 1945 was written right after his ship docked in California after crossing the Pacific. All his letters referred to my mom as “Honey” or “Dearest Mary” and all kinds of affectionate terms for my brother. His last letter ended with a thought I am sure many service men had as they were returning from combat. He ended it with, “I bet Little Jerry would love to have a baby sister! We’ll talk about it when I get home!” I arrived about 10 months after he returned but to their surprise I was not the sister they apparently wanted.
I was born in Bellevue Hospital in NYC where my mom got her RN degree and worked. We lived in a railroad flat on East 23rd St and 2nd Ave just blocks away from my Italian grandparents. Several years later we moved out to Queens and my brother would tell me stories about how he had a different dad than the one we have. He told me that the difference was significant from pre war Dad to post war Dad. I listened to that for years as my dad developed a drinking problem and mom worked herself nearly to death. The serenity on Mom’s face was gone and the happy, mischievous smile was gone from my dad’s face. My brother gained a large amount of weight and the daily grind became arguments over money every night at the dinner table. They didn’t know a lot about PTSD back then, in fact I think it was referred to as shell shock. Dad never told stories about the war and rarely shared any feelings he had about going to war. Don’t get me wrong. I knew my parents loved me and my mom was the most loving, understanding mother a kid could have. My dad did things to make my life and my brother’s life better but the affectionate terms they had for each other were gone. Our extended family members were always telling us how proud my dad was of us but he could never tell us that- we always had to hear it from others. So when I saw that photo this week a real sense of sadness came over me. I wished I had known those people in the picture. I would give anything to see mom’s face light up with happiness or dad’s mischievous smile come over his face. Life became hard for them, for us! I can’t help but wonder if the faces would have remained more like the picture if Little Jerry had gotten the baby sister they wanted…….
I enjoyed reading George’s story of his parents through the lens of his father’s letters. What a fabulous insight into a time of mass upheaval! It’s easy to understand the fascination with the time before your birth to get a clue about the antecedent conditions. It’s sort of “You – the Prequel”.
I’m imagining that George’s Dad was changed by the war, but also returned to a different environment. Women had joined the workforce in huge numbers and no doubt enjoyed the freedom of choice and self-confidence gained through achievement at work. The post war world integrated returning service men into the workplace, but change was already in play. Perhaps that accounted for some of the differences that George described?
I can share my family’s story in part – with some similarity to George in that it seems hard to form an accurate impression of their hopes and dreams. My mother was raised in a warm, but scrappy Italian family – the youngest of five. My father was also the youngest of five in a single parent family of emigrated Londoners.
Both parents were pre-teen during the Great Depression and grew up with a strong understanding of being without – whether that was food, or simply money. Mom lived in a family enclave a block from Rockaway Beach – her fond memories included the “League of Nations” diversity of her summer friends at the beach. She won the art medal at her High School graduation and hoped to attend tuition free Cooper Union – but that was not to be. Her yearbook comments suggested she was friendly and upbeat – -with the nickname Sunny. She took a job at a Grumman Aircraft and was a literal Rosie the Riveter.
My Dad struggled in a dirt poor environment. He experienced abandonment by his father and the deportation of his older brother to Australia. At thirteen, he was shoveling coal in the school boiler, while his mother worked in the school cafeteria. His high school yearbook comments indicated that he was a science whiz. After graduation, he was also hired at Grumman Aircraft, but took a hiatus to join the merchant marine, rising from machinist mate to Chief Petty Officer during the war. Although he did not encounter enemy fire during WWII, he was shot in the shoulder walking the streets of Astoria as a teenager – and was later shot at by striking maritime workers while in the merchant marine.
I see pictures of my parents at a roller-skating rink and horseback riding during their courtship – activities that didn’t survive past their marriage vows. Mom and Dad did not have the blessing of their families to marry; apparently, Italians thought the English never bathed – and the English apparently had similar hygienic thoughts about Italians. So my parents eloped. Things eventually worked out, however: soap was in abundance.
Once married, both my parents worked – all the time. Dad had two jobs until my younger brother was born. Clearly money was tight and there simply was not room for many social pleasures. I sense that was the same for George’s family.
What I appreciate the most about my parents is that they never allowed their tensions and worries to affect the love they showed my brother and I. They coped. Like George’s father, my folks had hoped for a daughter to add to the family – but they were proud of their sons. All in all, I can only hope to do as well as a parent as they did.
Unlike my blogging partners, I know little about my parents as partners. Back in my day, very little was shared with children about family and, I would hazard a guess, there was background information that they wouldn’t mention to many adults as well.
I am the oldest of three children and though I’ve been around the longest, I have little first hand knowledge of my father. In addition, my mother and her parents felt children shouldn’t be exposed to “adult” matters. There is a strong likelihood that there was wrongdoing and legal ramifications of my father’s actions that likely added to the censorship that I was surrounded by.
My mom had two brothers, one older and one younger. Her father came to this country from Austria and was a musician. He made a living by playing the bass in the orchestra at the Waldorf Astoria. Her mother came from Rumania and worked as a seamstress there as well as where they lived in the Bronx. My mother grew up at a time when many left-handed people were forced to write with their right hand and young women were expected to become housewives, not college students. With a musical talent for the piano, my mom was accepted to the Julliard School of Music and secretly attended classes for one year until her father found out and ended her studies. She met and married my father and had three children. I wonder what her choices would have been had she had the support of her parents to finish her degree and write her own music with the freedom to use her left hand. Would she then have developed the confidence to understand that she truly had the right to determine the course of her own life? Would she have married when she did? And, from all that I can determine, if she did, it would likely not have been my father.
My father was born of Russian Jewish parents but grew up with them and his older brother in Italy. His father owned a large shoe repair factory, and his mother, (who was educated as a doctor in Switzerland, but was only allowed to be considered a healer at that time in Italy) apparently enjoyed a well to do life until they were abruptly placed in an internment camp. My father and his brother and his brother’s wife were able to escape to the United States. Not having finished a formal education my father used his charm and natural intelligence to make his way. He was adept at convincing people to trust him and to give him undeserved opportunities as well as loans and investments. However, he would often take advantage of his benefactors and after moving about from one career to another and one part of the country to another, he ultimately disappeared abandoning all who had known him, including his family. It has been easy for me to judge him from the standpoint of the effect his actions had on my life and that of my mother and sisters, but I don’t really know what it would have been like to follow his path of survival as a young adult. He arrived in this country knowing he’d never see his parents again. His brother had made a life for himself and his wife with little room for my father. He had no degree, spoke English with an Italian accent and had to forage for his twenty-something self, alone in a foreign land. I suspect meeting my mother offered a path to citizenship and stability more than the lure of young love. If he had come to America under different circumstances, these two very different people would likely never have married. Of course in that case, I wouldn’t be around to speculate!
Regardless, my mom managed to raise three children with successful careers, beautiful families, and more happiness than either of my parents likely experienced. I’m content to wonder what it would have been like for them under different circumstances but whatever they had to struggle with and whatever choices they made I’m grateful for the role they played in helping me and my sisters get to where we are today.
I find it nearly impossible to negotiate in this world without attaching labels. That labels help us organize and categorize, thus giving us a sense of order, I understand. It’s the extension of that practice beyond the need for context that causes me to question my reality.
While labels are beneficial they can also negatively impact our ability to objectively enter into a decision about a person or thing. From an early age, I remember being taught which behaviors were good or bad. This included labeling a person as good or bad based on their actions or reputation. Not until middle age, did I soften my opinion enough to question its absoluteness. I was able to then understand that we all function on a continuum of behaviors and, while some cross the line of what we label as acceptable or not, some are closer to the cut-off than others. In fact, even if someone fits into my label of good or bad or supports a cause I won’t, the range of differences within that group are often more broad than I would think. And, the similarities they have with me are also likely greater than I would anticipate.
Yesterday I went to town hall to pay my local taxes. It was cold and rainy and as I exited the door a man of similar age was entering. I held the door and said hello and he smiled (at least his eyes did as his mouth was also covered by his mask) and begin a friendly conversation. As I walked to my car I was quickly reminded of how warm and friendly people are and how this person could likely become a friend if we had more time to get to know each other. Next to my car was his vehicle with a bumper sticker of the political party I don’t support. For a brief moment, my perception of him immediately changed. Then, it got me thinking about how quickly I label people. What if I had seen the bumper sticker and then met the man. Would I still see the potential for a friend then, or by grouping him with all the other members of his political party, see that as an impossibility?
For years my business partner and I consulted with school districts and social service organizations. Part of our work was to help leaders understand and deal with conflict. In the process we helped participants recognize that even if they had an issue/conflict with a colleague or client, it was usually around a particular behavior or action not with the entire person. Sometimes we would sketch an outline of a person and then shade in a small portion to illustrate that point. We hoped to help them understand that the mistake of labeling the whole person as a problem because of a behavior or incident was diminishing their ability to maintain the relationships that were so important in their work and personal lives. Given a mix of strategies, positive intention, and patience most relationships could be maintained if not strengthened.
As with many things in life, it’s easy for me to understand and even to explain positive principled behaviors. To consistently practice those desirable beliefs is clearly a work in progress. Today I’ll remind myself to be more aware of what labels I might use that are unnecessary and replace them with simple observations. It won’t be the first time I’ve tried and I’m sure it won’t be the last. And that’s neither good, nor bad!
Tag – You’re It!
Let’s step back from the term “label” for just a minute and substitute the term “metadata”. Sounds more dispassionate. All of us check off little boxes of these attributes – companies have made fortunes using little pieces of information that describe our physical measurements, social affiliations, economic status, spiritual and political leanings, food choices, fashion tastes, and more. Thousands of ways to be assessed.
And we do assess – and make judgments – and rather quickly as it turns out if you’ve read The Tipping Point. John Hume, the Scottish philosopher, believed that the intellect serves our emotions. And if our passions wish to raise up some while denigrating others, we can use that intellect to select a few specific descriptors to caricature others, as well characterize them. I believe that this is what Hen refers to when he talks about labeling. It’s the root of what some would call profiling – or its sibling by a different parent: cancel culture. Both only need one or two pieces of data to make major assumptions. Tag – you’re it!
Yet each of us has many facets: in any given situation, we could be the goat or the G.O.A.T.; the hero or the jerk; the thief or the benefactor; the lover or hater. Already a lot of labels!
In my last post, I tried to make a topographical analogy about people: we’re more asymmetric than spherical. We grow unevenly: we feature breath taking mountain views and hide dark crevasses, contain placid lakes and strong ocean riptides. When we make connections with others, we first look for common ground. From that initial vantage, it is easy to assume we know the entire territory – but that would be a mistake. (Now cue in background music from Sting: Nothing ‘Bout Me). The view from 50,000 feet is different than the view from 100 feet. Labelling is the act of retaining the view from 50,000 feet without ever feeling the desire to explore with boots on the ground. The trouble is that the exploration is where all the fun lies.
Label Here, Label There, Label Everywhere
When I was a kid, a teenager, someone got me one of those hand held machines that you could make labels with. Being a wiseass even back then I went around labeling everything in my house to the chagrin of my parents. When they lifted the lid there was a label that said, “toilet.” I labeled our seats at the dinner table. I even labeled my brother’s Ford (Found on Road Dead) Falcon on the steering wheel. From childhood we are taught to label things and we are taught that we ourselves have been labeled. My smart friends in Junior High School in the NYC public schools were selected for SP or special progress completing 3 years in 2. They were labeled as the smart kids. My IQ didn’t qualify me for that distinction! In high school we were labeled “Regents” or “Commercial.” That meant college bound or not. And our social groups were even labeled. There were the jocks, the hoods, the beatniks (hippies hadn’t evolved yet) and the clean cut/penny loafer set. Everyone fit neatly into one of these groups.
All labeling depends on making judgments, placing people into categories that define them. First impressions often categorize people even if it seems too judgmental or spur of the moment. As a result I grew up being a judgmental adult who feels comfortable compartmentalizing people until they prove me wrong. It is definitely one of my shortcomings, and I know it. I chose my friends that way, even courses of study, even the school I was employed by. All of these decisions depended on my judgment. With judging people, I question myself more than with other decisions. It is so ingrained in my fiber that it happens automatically and only afterwards do I question if the labeling was accurate or not. I have been the subject of much labeling over the years, scaredy cat, momma’s boy, queer, liberal, ad nauseum… Some labels I wear proudly, some make my skin crawl but all too often I fall back into the old patterns of judging and categorizing before taking the time to evaluate more fully. That’s why I wish I could be more like Henry when it comes to this because most of the time I don’t even realize I’m doing it!
I’ve been thinking about friendship, particularly since Jack and Gregg commented about the desire to call a group of friends together after this COVID isolation. Friendship — The ancient Greeks had a name for it: Philia – and they held it separate from affection of other sorts: Storge: nurturing love given to children and those dependent upon you; Eros: erotic, sensual love; and Agape: transcendent, spiritual love.
Taken to a deeper dive, Aristotle declared there were three types of friendship: a) utilitarian friendship based on mutual help, b) friendships that involve activity around mutual pleasure or interests – Birds of a Feather friends, and c) friendships built on mutual respect and admiration: shared principles and goals. I wonder if such strict separation is necessary – doesn’t friendship include some or all of those aspects at different times? Maybe Aristotle was off the mark — he also believed that women had less teeth than men. So who is a reliable authority on friendship?
Well, it may be anthropologist Robin Dunbar. His research indicates that the average human has an upper limit on the number of friends that can be maintained. This number tends to be around 150 individuals – and only includes those folks who you know, and in return, know you. This number is widely known as the Dunbar Number. For the purposes of his research, ‘friends’ are defined as “… people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.” I suppose that would corral everyone in Aristotle’s a, b, and c – and for some individuals it could substantially increase that upper limit.
Now Dunbar went a bit further. He hypothesized that the energy needed to maintain a friend network of 150 must necessarily cause a person to do some ‘social layering’, that is, to group certain players according to the level of intimacy. The research generally supported the conclusion that one individual usually has an inner circle of five buddies, followed by a grouping of ten mates, then thirty-five old faithful’s, and lastly, the centurion pack of 100 friendly relationships.
Hmm… how many friends were in the Rat Pack? I recall it was Peter Lawford, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop. There are other notable quintets: the Jackson Five, the Dave Clark Five, the Spice Girls, the Scooby doo gang, and the Cincinnati Gang of Five. Maybe Dunbar is right? But wait, I guess that if you have five people in your BFF chain, then it is really a sextet, counting yourself. Then Dunbar has to be right, because the cast of Friends included Rachel, Monica, Ross, Chandler, Phoebe, and Joey. Now this is all very difficult to square with the Four Musketeers and Ocean’s Eleven (or twelve, or eight). And what is Rocky VII all about? Very confusing.
Now, I’ve maintained that friends are like asteroids (as opposed to hemorrhoids). There might be 150 of us that kinda fly in the same orbit, tumbling through space/time; sometimes together; sometimes at distance. But more importantly, friends are asymmetric. Each has striking features, majestic promontories and smooth plains. But there are parts of an asteroid that are generally not observed, aspects that are inhospitable, perhaps icy or rough terrain. However, we find some mutually attractive gravity which helps pulls us closer; we celebrate the beauty and help each other maintain stable flight. After all, we are only small entities flying around in a large cosmos. Together we have greater mass … and there is shared laughter in the universe.
And of course, laughter is the key – at our foibles and misadventures; at enjoyment of successes; and mutual discovery of hope after disconsolation. C. S. Lewis wrote this about the joy of friendship and it still rings true:
“He is lucky… to be in such company [of friends]. Especially, when the whole group is together, each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others. Those are the golden sessions; when four or five of us [or six?] after a hard day’s walking have come to our inn; when our slippers are on, our feet spread out towards the blaze and our drinks at our elbows; when the whole world, and something beyond the world, opens up itself to our minds as we talk; and no one has any claim on or any responsibility for another, but all are freemen and equals as if we had met an hour ago, while at the same time an Affection mellowed by the years enfolds us. Life – natural life – has no better gift to give. Who could have deserved it?”
Friendship, Friendship, Just the Perfect Blendship…
Friend- the Miriam Webster Abridged dictionary defines friend as “a person one likes.” I don’t buy it, well I did cause it is on my shelf, but what if that person doesn’t like you back? Is that person your friend because you like him/her even if it isn’t reciprocal? I think the definition of friend is flexible and evolutionary and varies as one ages (or should I say matures?)
As little kids your friends were whoever was out in the street playing ball, especially the kid who owned the ball! Now he was your friend… there were always kids playing in the street when I was growing up. Our block had probably 20 or so kids of all ages. You knew them all as well as their parents because you would go ring the doorbell and ask Mrs. Jones politely and respectively if Johnny could come out and play. Occasionally there was a kid from the next block who ambled in to join us which was good cause it evened up the sides.
Then came junior high and we stopped playing in the streets and started listening to music and going to dances and instead of friends you were part of a clique, and playing in the street was replaced by going to parties in people’s basement on the weekends and hanging out on the phone. High school brought changes too. You were part of a group now- there were the preppies and the hippies and the hoods. But it was the first time I had a friend who I would confide in and tell serious stuff to. Things were maturing as we were! You’d tell these people about your secrets, girls you liked, things you were mad at your parents about—and relationships were becoming more precisely defined and specific. You had friends who shared your interests, and friends who you shared your fears with.
College was when deep friendships developed for me. Feeling things I never felt before toward people developed. Long talks, and confidential sharing of who we were, cemented these connections. And then graduation and a whole new world comes at you. Previous relationships became a little distant as we geographically separated and the focus changed to professional pursuits knowing that if the connections were strong enough those relationships would last through the expansion of locations and interests and ideas.
All the while you never took the time to appreciate what these relationships provided you. But as the years pile up you begin to value the connections you made and continue to make in a way you never appreciated before. Through your professional lives you accumulate people into your circle, and then they start to retire and once again you are re evaluating, encircling those people who have contributed to your life. You re-connect with people who were important to you, kids from the street all grown up, teenagers from junior and senior high school, who are in the same boat as you and also reaching out. And as a senior citizen, all of a sudden you finally realize what you have been working toward your whole life. The people who you still call friends know so much about you, share your secrets and your desires and are willing to be there for you!
I am a lucky man. My high school friend is still my dear friend. She knows a lot about me and my family that no one else knows. The painful secrets we shared are still confidential but the burden is gone cause it was shared. The college friends who reconnect at a reunion 50 years later and decide to write a blog reconnect with ease and grow more connected than before. The new friends you met after retirement with common interests brought you together add to your wealth. Finally you realize the real value of friendship. The importance knowing there are people out there who care and have your back if needed, is the currency that friends trade in. It means so much more than anything measured in dollars! A wise old man once said that a friend is someone who will listen when you need to talk! That wise old man was not Aristotle, nor Galileo nor Zorba the Greek—— it was me!
On Being a Friend
Wal returns to the subject of friendship. And while we have written about it before, it is indeed, a topic with multiple facets and ever-changing impacts. I agree with Wal that even though Aristotle categorizes several types of friends, when we’re in a relationship with them, it’s not clear-cut and, I might add, the overlap often enhances the original interest in the friendship.
George challenges the notion that friendship can be a one-way street and talks about the benefits gained by both parties. This concept is grounded in most of my experiences and makes perfect sense. Yet, I was in a very close friendship with someone for over thirty years and even though he ended the relationship, I still refer to him as friend. He was and always will be my friend, even though I am no longer his. Semantics, perhaps, but friendship often elicits strong emotions and, for me, emotions often determine the status of a relationship. George also ends with his definition of a friend that reminds me of both sides of friendship.
While we often give much thought to what we look for, desire, and expect in a friend I suspect it’s not as much as we give to being a friend. I’m reminded of a book written by Dr. Gary Chapman (author, speaker, counselor, and pastor) entitled, The Five Love Languages – (Quality time, Gifts, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, and Acts of service.) The notion he puts forth is that of the five ways people often show their love for another, (I will substitute the word caring for the purpose of this post) we typically have one or two that we consider primary. In my case, I know which are most meaningful to me and I tend to give the same ones to those who I care about.
Of course that behavior makes the assumption that what matters to me, must matter to you. What if, I really like someone and consider us to be friends. Of course, I’ll want to be there for that person and to let them know that they matter to me. And what if gifts and words of affirmation are what I need to know someone really cares about me and I give those selfless offerings to my friend who really wants quality time with me more than gifts or kind words? Over my lifetime I can remember being confused by the lack of response and connection I was feeling from someone to whom I was being extremely caring. And, the less they were moved by my generosity, the more I increased my efforts. Duh! Of course matters only got worse. All of this is to say, that being a good friend means understanding what the other person wants, not what I would want or even what I think they want, or worse, what I think they should want! Sometimes, I even think to ask what they need from me during times of need or stress. This is easy to write about but difficult for me to regularly remember when I’m with my friends. I intuitively offer what I think is helpful, important, or supportive without stopping to think about what they need. George talks about the importance of listening in a friendship. I agree completely. And, even though I might enter into a zoom meeting or a personal interaction with the intention of deeply listening and understanding before I speak, I find it hard not to jump in and even interrupt when I’m reminded of a related story or anecdote. It’s easy to blame the reduced contact I’ve had with others throughout this pandemic but it still begs the question of how well am I listening and am I being a good friend?
I have always loved to be around people. Coming from a loud, touchy Italian family I rarely was alone. Actually I disliked being alone and still do. My careers lent themselves to enabling me to be around people most of the time. A class full of children or an innful of guests was what was comfortable for me.
After retiring from both I found myself for the first time in my adult life living alone. But I filled my days and evenings meeting colleagues for lunch or dinner, and going out with friends in the evenings. Shaking hands, hugging, a slap on the back helped me feel connected. In my family, a regular conversation included touching at various points for emphasis or emotion. That was part of learning to speak. All of this helps explain why I have had such difficulty with Covid 19 self distancing and the subsequent isolation it required. At first it was just uncomfortable. The touching, hugging, shaking hands was adjusted to a fist bump or elbow tap when accidentally I ran into someone. Awkward, it still provided human personal contact. As the year progressed we all seemed to withdraw more and more into ourselves. Loneliness crept in especially at night. From a social being I had become a recluse. From a social society we became a society of hermits.
As the months of masking and isolating passed, I fell into a routine. My house became my world. One day just bled into the next and routine became inertia for me and loneliness slipped into depression. All I wanted was to be with people again and it is still what I want! What I need.
Then, last week, my daughter and I were going to pick up food and go to her house and watch a movie which we had been doing once a week for several months. I looked forward to our movie nights. But then something came over me. All that day I was resisting the idea of going out. I didn’t even want to get dressed, the effort to get ready to go out seemed overwhelming. Suddenly, I didn’t want to make the effort to go. I just wanted to stay in my chair and watch TV. This was not like me. The other contradiction I realized was that my house was a mess. The dust was pretty thick, the newspapers were piled by the door to be recycled but never got into the bin in spite of all the time I had on my hands. I have become the exact opposite of who I always thought I was.
I’m smart enough to know depression can do this kind of stuff and believe once this pandemic has eased enough to go back to where we were last February, my Italian traditions and inclinations will return. I like myself much better as a social insect rather than the spider who sits alone in its web waiting for its next solitary meal! This too shall pass……..
Now, in an attempt to make this pass sooner, last week I was rummaging around in my basement trying to better organize it. I stumbled upon (not really stumbled upon but forced myself to climb up on the cement shelf) boxes and boxes of my model railroad stuff. I think I have mentioned before that that particular hobby was the only thing my brother, dad and I ever did together. Every Christmas Dad would drag out the platform, claim half the living room floor and set up our Lionel Christmas village. The three of us would be crawling around on our knees arguing over whether the Plasticville church should go near the overhead trestle bridge or near the firehouse. In an effort to feel a little close to them and as a definite distraction from inertia, I started opening up boxes and smiling at what was inside. Later in my life I actually had a layout in my house in Woodstock, NY at which time I built structures from models and from scratch. I built a model of every house I had ever lived in up to that point. Though I have more exploration to do in those boxes I pulled out some very nice structure kits that got me excited and brought many of them upstairs to the dining room table- a perfect work space since I wasn’t doing any formal dinners at the moment. Naturally, I had to go and buy some supplies as most of the paint and glue I had used some 25 years ago had pretty much dried up. I now own a brand new Xacto knife set, multiple use brushes, glues of various varieties and a plethora of acrylic paint bottles and am in the process of setting up my work space.
Right now the resistance is… which kit to start first. I remind myself that inertia is a strong force to be dealt with that requires fortitude to overcome and encouragement, mostly from the dog, to get at it. That is my primary objective for this week…….to get at it! I have promised myself that I will beat this inertia! Could someone give me a little push please? More to follow!
Don’t despair, George – we’re here to nudge! I recognize the feelings you expressed. When you are under duress, the world gets smaller. A body at rest stays at rest… bits of your repertoire tend to disappear; motivation lags. It’s sort of a confinement syndrome.
The lovely aspect of people is that we are so adaptive. We can even get used to our Covid gulag. It’s easy to lose ambition in the process.
I appreciate Hen’s point of engaging in a new project and taking satisfaction from projects undertaken. When I’m stuck, I break large problems into small packages. Even if it seems to take forever to overcome some of those issues, focusing on limited “wins” keeps me on the right road and helps me avoid becoming disoriented or overwhelmed.
It’s important to keep on moving, physically and mentally, particularly at our stage of life. Lately, I’ve been more aware that there is limited time remaining for me to engage in activities that have been taken for granted up to now. That is what is so telling about our constrained period of social interaction during the time of COVID: it has stolen a precious year (and more) from our remaining time.
Even if the task is not something I prefer to do, I encourage myself by saying a prayer of thanks that I’m still able to do it. Small wins. Look for areas of enjoyment and set goals that support some measurable achievement.
And, of course, share your victories with your buddies!
The Big Test
George captures the feelings of many as we sludge along this unknown path of living. I expect, at times, we’ve all know what it feels like to be uncertain about our future or the outcome of a path chosen. In my experience, this occurs infrequently and even more rarely when one or two of my network of supporting friends and family were also in the same boat. However, as we move into year 2 of the pandemic, it feels like everyone is significantly impacted and in need and, to make matters worse, the timeline for managing it to a point of renewed stability keeps being pushed just beyond our reach. Truly, we are, together, in uncharted waters.
I also have encountered evidence that I might not be as together and happy as I might think. The other morning I found myself calmly pouring orange juice into my cereal bowl and, as I watched from what seemed to be another being, realized how long it took for my brain to realize I was in control of my hand and could stop at any point. Yikes! And then there was the time I texted a friend to wish her good luck on her upcoming workshop, knowing full well it wasn’t for three more days but simply responded to an incorrect reminder from my iPhone. Duh! Last, but certainly not least, is how quickly I can turn from a calm, easy-going mood into anger and upset over meaningless, even laughable triggers. Yup, George, something is definitely out of whack!
To the rescue comes George’s project. More than just a distraction from daily sameness, it stimulates old and new brain functions and brings back a purpose that results in joy and satisfaction. Then, the next time we connect with friends via phone, Zoom, email, or in person at the supermarket, we can replace the distancing conversation of politics or COVID with something that is “new” and that brings an energy to our voice.
I’ve found the time I’m spending with my GoPro camera learning everything from scratch and the continued culling of stuff I no longer need or want in my house, to offer the same effect. I look forward to the progress I make each day as well as the related (yet unexpected) activities that spiral outward from this work. It also lends credence to looking beyond to even bigger “new beginnings.”
As with all experiences, if I am able to step back and look at what I’m going through from afar, I get a more comprehensive perspective. In this case, when I’m not caught up in the negative emotionality that isolation, sacrifice, and limited choice can bring, I recognize that this is just another test that life presents. A query of how I can continue to appreciate what I have rather than what I’ve lost, to remember it’s temporary, no matter how long that may be, and to learn from these events so that I will emerge even better prepared for the next test. So far, perhaps a “B” but hoping for, at least, a “B+.”
Extending the question of self-reflection from our last post, I wonder aloud if I’m still in the right place.
Putting down roots has been fairly clear and straightforward for me. It took two years of weekends to find the place I now call home. As soon as I stepped out of the car I was drawn to a nearby deer path that led down to the stream. Before I set foot in the house, I knew this was where I wanted to live. This was the place where I would grow old with my wife. It was to be the place where family and friends visited often and stayed long. It was the place to joyfully integrate with nature until my dying day. And, despite an unexpected divorce, it remains a sanctuary for me as well as a retreat for friends and family and pets.
For nearly twenty-one years I have enjoyed this space. It has healed me when I needed healing, provided joyful celebration when I wanted to celebrate, and has given me nurturance each and every day. But with every choice for the many things that matter, comes an acceptance of not having all that matters. And, it seems to me, as I move into this last season of my life that it may be time to exchange this space for one that gives me more access to those other things/people that matter – my children.
As I seriously consider whether I still want to live out my days here or consider pulling up stakes and moving closer to my family I am both energized and anxious. Do I leave what I know so well and what has given me so much, in search of being a more integral part of my children and grandchildren’s lives? Leaving the comfort of what I know and starting over with a new home, new friends, and all the people and services associated with daily living is scary. Being able to regularly spend time with family, meeting new people, and blazing new trails, is exciting!
I’m a firm believer that given careful thought and ample time, whichever decision one makes, will work. How well and for how long it works depends on keeping an open mind and trusting that we have the power to find happiness and fulfillment in all choices. So, for now, I’ll explore my options by looking at the proverbial pros and cons, consult with family and close friends, and then decide. I love where I live and I would love to be closer to my family. Whichever I decide will be good.
Leaps of Faith
Often major life changes are accompanied by tremendous leaps of faith. As we go through life sometimes such changes are brought on through careful deliberation with the hope of improving our lives and sometimes they are thrust upon us. Significant life changes like marriage, divorce, death in the family, moving, retirement and many other things- seen and unseen, can be very traumatic or wonderful and we strive to make the best of them. In my life, perhaps the biggest life change occurred at the crossroads of several altering events. I was in a new relationship, my kids had moved out and I was living alone in the big house, I was retiring at the end of the school year after 35 years in the classroom. Retirement hung heavily around my neck as I pondered what I would do with the rest of my life. Anyone of these events was stressful enough and combined it was overwhelming. One day my partner asked if I would like to join him in following one of his dreams. Since I had none of my own, I took that leap of faith and agreed to take on his dream as my own. He had always wanted to own an inn! I listed pros and cons, read up on innkeeping, It would give us freedom to travel, visit our families, and be productive professionals. After 35 years of teaching I defined myself as “teacher.” It was as much a part of me as my name was. After much deliberation and conversations I jumped in. I put my house on the market, we contacted realtors who specialized in hospitality and for a year before my retirement we visited 30 or 40 properties all over the East Coast.
I had purchased 4 houses throughout my life and each time I knew the minute I walked into a place whether that was my new home. Just a feeling I got, a sense of comfort and safety, and yes – style. Every weekend during my last year of teaching we went looking at real estate. My house sold quickly and I moved temporarily into an apartment. One weekend we went to New Hampshire, the next to upstate, NY, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and in the first week of January we spent the weekend in Vermont. We were pretty discouraged because the places we looked at were lacking mostly a nice place for the innkeepers to live. We didn’t want to just live in a spare room that wasn’t rented out. This particular Saturday, we had almost decided that we would give ourselves a break until spring if nothing materialized. Our realtor took us to the beautiful community of Woodstock, Vermont and brought us to an old farmhouses, built in 1820. It had been a 300 acre dairy farm but over the years the land was sold off and a small development off the main road was made into a nice neighborhood for about 10 families. The farm house sat right on the main road across from a babbling brook they called a river. We met the innkeepers who were selling the place and they toured us through the building. Great place, they had build an addition in 1985 for themselves, finally a place with owners’ quarters and each bedroom had a private bath This was definitely a possibility. As they were walking us up the stairs to the guest rooms I was struck by a familiar smell. I didn’t recognize it at first but then I was thrust back in time to my grandfather’s house in Pennsylvania. It was a sweet, country air kind of smell and that was it! I knew this place was to be our inn. We made an offer, it was accepted only after we stayed for dinner and met the entire family because they wanted to be sure we were the right buyers for their baby! We all hit it off, they loved us, we loved them and sometime that night it sunk in… What the (expletive deleted)….am I doing? And here is where the biggest leap of faith I ever had to take kicked in. What the hell did I know about running an inn? I depended on my partner for knowing about the business end of it. Are there reasons for people to stay here? what kind of rates would we charge? how do we handle unhappy guests……. that was his jurisdiction. SO the remaining months of the school year dragged slowly by until closing over Memorial Day weekend.
Things were hectic for my last month of school ever. I raced to Vermont every weekend, back to NY every Sunday. We were learning the trade from the previous innkeepers. She taught us her recipes, how to clean a bathroom, haw to take a reservation. It was un while she was still in charge.. The next leap of faith came after the closing and we were doing stuff to freshen up the place and put our touches on it. We worked all day and well into the night painting the living room and hallway and staircase one Saturday. It was a long day, and as it got dark we turned all the lights on in all the rooms so we could see what we were doing. Just before midnight we were done. We sighed with relief and went from room to room shutting off the lights and turning down the heat. We collapsed into bed as I had to return to NY the next day for the last 2 weeks of school. The next morning we got up and decided to go upstairs to see what the paint looked like in the daylight. In Room 3, every light was on in the room and the heat was blasting. I asked my partner if he had gone up during the night.. He hadn’t and I hadn’t. Odd, yes but these things happen. I returned home, finished the school year, had my retirement party and moved into the inn full time the next day. We had a few guests and were learning the ropes. David did the cooking, I did the cleaning, we both greeted and schmoozed with the guests. I was cleaning Room 3 one day after a lovely couple left. I Vacuumed, changed the linens and cleaned the bathroom. I placed a nice wrapped bar of soap on the sink and a fragrant boxed soap in the shower, finished up and moved onto Room 4.. I had to go back to Room 3 to get the vacuum and noticed that the nice boxed soap was on the sink and the wrapped soap was in the shower. Was it me? Was I crazy? The previous owner was also our Fed EX guy and he dropped off a package that afternoon. I asked him if anything strange like that had ever happened to them. He said, “OH, you mean the presence?” The presence? And you are just telling us now? He assured me the guy was friendly and mischievous. By this point I was playing leap frog with my leap of faith. To make a very long story short I grew to like Mr Kole (it had been the Kole Farm) as we were able to identify who he was. Everyday when I cleaned his room I would talk to him. He continued to switch soap bars for 15 years, Occasionally gave the guests foot massages in the middle of the night which led to great breakfast conversation, and became a part of the lure of our inn. People came requesting that particular room. The point is we took several leaps of faith and became very successful and had a wonderful span of 15 years. I discovered that being an elementary school teacher and an innkeeper used pretty much the same skill set. We were selected innkeepers of the Year in 2010 for the State of Vermont and I loved my life there. Leaps of faith can be wonderful things if you believe in them. Changes can be exciting life experiences.
Fast forward to Covid 19 and a major life change would be an exciting adventure. Henry has some exciting times ahead. Right now the most exciting thing to happen to me is when the dog and I run to the window to see who is passing the house!
A Grand Adventure
Hen is not alone in contemplating a move and starting a new chapter in life. What a grand adventure! If you believe that ‘where you sit determines what you see’, then it’s a good practice to change your seat from time-to-time, if only to gain a new perspective.
In practice, it’s not easy to walk away from an environment that you’ve worked hard to create – and all the memories that are linked to the bricks and mortar you touch every day. In my case, we’ve spent almost fifty years in our home – it was a starter home we never left. In truth, I have a love-hate relationship with my abode. I know we should have shifted gears long ago and left it behind. I guess grad school and work left me distracted… and even a five year stretch of commuting 200 miles a day should have been enough impetus to address a decision to move. But we didn’t and now the starter house fits us again, even as it ages along with us.
The house has a story which is only partially ours. We bought this place from Mr. K. who was 92 at that time. Quite a character. Mr. K. built the house while he was in his sixties for Caroline, whom he then married. A bit of a scoundrel, folklore has it that Mr. K. went afoul of the law for some type of fraud. I know that Mr. K. blackmailed his neighbors into buying some of his property – basically a drainage ditch – by telling them that he was allowing the fire company to install a siren there. People talk about him with a scowl which gradually turns into grudging admiration for his scheming ways. A character you love to hate.
He made his living as an itinerant carpenter and his houses were simple, but overbuilt. If you needed 10 nails to attach a board, Mr. K. used 20. Of course, if you didn’t have a board the right size, well any two pieces might work, even if one had been used as a cement form. He milled his own walnut wood to use as door trim, but left it plain and poorly joined. Not one with an eye for detail, Mr. K.
However, the main point is that I believe that Caroline saved Mr. K. She had long passed by the time we bought the house. He still grieved. Mr. K. cried when he showed us the bedroom where his wife died. Her touches around the house were evident by the old fashioned plantings around the property: bleeding heart, mock orange, honey suckle and lilacs were well established. I think her spirit still imbues the place. He picked up her deep faith and joined a fundamentalist church (many “Jesus Saves” reminders were pinned throughout the house and workshop). Of course, Mr. K. also enjoyed the attention from the church ladies who knew Caroline.
Caroline’s bedroom is now the kitchen. Walls have been removed to provide a sense of more space in this small building. The structure is a one-and-a half storey cape: balloon construction. The downstairs is plaster over lath, but the second floor was done quickly with knotty pine and beaver board. And yes, Mr. K. actually rented the second floor as an apartment: a unit with kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bath accessible by a separate entrance. A very strange floor plan for a cape cod design.
I’ve spent years reworking the house: every window has changed, siding, decking, enlarged entry porch – all the services. You name it. Woodshed, chicken coops and dog house have bit the dust. The fieldstone barbeque Mr. K. built in the front yard is demolished – he’d be very unhappy about that, since he gathered all the river stone from the trout streams he fished.
Unfortunately, all of those changes now need a version 3 renewal. Yikes, there are times when I feel like I’m yoked to Mr. K. toiling fruitlessly to further the project he started – and probably with the same limited skill set. Those are the times when I’d like to join Hen and look for a totally new experience! But Hen is a man of action – he will act on the decision that makes most sense. Me, I just like to dream!
I have reflected back on my life at several different times. Taking an honest look at yourself is scary and sometimes dangerous. As a young kid I often wanted to be anybody else but me. I saw my friends on the block and was envious for all kinds of reasons. Stephen and Brian across the street had wealthy parents, Bruce up the block had cool parents, much younger than mine, Adele’s dad was a doctor and I could find a million reasons to be envious. As I matured that envy morphed from wishing I were them into wishing I could be more like them. This one was 6 feet tall and athletic, this friend was kind and thoughtful. I wanted to be more like them, a more realistic and mature approach than wishing I were them.
High school and college went by and I was comfortable for a long while pretending I was like everybody else but that pretense had a price attached to it. I knew I was different and thought I was the only one. I pretended way up til my 40’s. The toll it took was enormous and as the marriage fell apart once again I had to reflect, consider and accept the truth. I came out at 46 after months of considering and reflecting. Knowing full well that if I came out it would have to be all the way out- to friends, fellow workers, my school district, my kids and they would have to find out from me personally. It was a tough time, consequences were difficult but surprisingly not overwhelming. Most people said they were wondering when I was going to tell them. My best friend, over a drink at the Woodstock Pub, asked me when I was going to tell him about my alternative life style. So I did!
Reflecting has always been significant for me! Just as an aside, to those people who think being gay is a life choice please let me assure you no one would CHOOSE a life style of pretense and denial if there was a choice! Honest! People of my generation didn’t have a choice!
In spite of all this I have been fortunate. I had two wonderful careers that I loved, a family to love, I traveled all over Europe, I have had a good life. I always gave everything I had to my jobs and was rewarded for it. For that I am truly grateful. Fast forward 15 or so years and along comes Covid 19. With so much time on my hands, another opportunity to reflect on my life has arisen. This time it is coming toward the end of my span and with new appreciation for what I have experienced and what I have become as well as with a realistic recognition of how this could be my very last reflection period.
At this reflection point reality has imposed its heavy hand on an unedited evaluation of a life lived. No more self deception, no more rationalization, just pure and simple honesty. And surprisingly I have learned some things about myself that surprised me. As Wally and Henry will tell you, as can just about anyone who is close to me, I am a glass half empty kind of a guy. That was self defense as a kid and served me well for years to cope with life. Breaking a life habit that was a shield for years is difficult. But I don’t need that anymore. I have to stop now before I react to anything and consider how I want to perceive things. I indeed have a choice! Yell at me if you catch me falling back. Life is generally good and before Covid my life was comfortable and fun. I have also been quick to judge and not very forgiving but I have noticed in roads in these categories as well- unless you hurt an animal or a child and then you are dead meat to me. But probably the most unrecognizable feature I have noticed in me is patience. I miss being with people in person. I miss shaking hands, hugging, patting on the back, kissing on the cheek. No Zoom meeting can replace that. I miss sharing meals with friends, and I miss laughter. LAUGHTER! Living alone I realize that sharing something amusing or comical with another person makes it funnier, and I guess that is true of a lot of things, like seeing a beautiful sunset, or a parade passing by with another person makes it more beautiful or more patriotic. But what I realize now, is that I can wait for a better time when I once again can shake a hand, share a secret, giggle over some silly thing and the joy that it will bring me will be intensified because of the void we have been forced to experience. I will be a better person for it….I will feel more compassion, more empathy, more alive because these things have been denied me for almost a year now. Reflecting is hard work! It makes us accept our shortcomings and file away our accomplishments. Life will be so much richer when this is over! Patience……
Could sure use a hug now!
George challenged us to write about what we learned about ourselves in 2020 – and here I’ll include the horrific events of Dec 37th. Each of us wrote without seeing the others’ responses. It will be interesting to see if our thoughts intersect.
I worked at my son’s restaurant most of the year – thirty hours a week washing dishes and scouring pots and another six doing accounts payable/bookkeeping operations. Last year, via a dozen webinars, I learned to talk PPP, EIDL, and PPE grant language. From this experience, I determined that I have a strong aversion to filling out government forms – but that’s neither original nor meaningful.
Instead, I’d like to share three conclusions about myself that became clear during the time of COVID:
1. My color is now gray. Once, my color might have been wide-open blue or deep green the shade of the holly leaf. Gradually it had morphed into a warm chestnut brown – at times even a burnt orange. But now it’s gray. Johannes Itten, the Bauhouse color theorist, said that in equilibrium, our brains resolve the sum of all colors to gray. Gray is peaceful and soothing.
This has been a tough year. While trying to keep a heartbeat going in our business, my wife Linda almost relinquished hers. We’ve lost more friends this year (although not to COVID) than would have been imagined. It’s almost as if this past year offered incentives to give up the ghost.
Now, entering a new year, I don’t feel isolated, lonely, or depressed; just beat-up. I need healing and the soothing power of gray.
2. I have stopped taking things for granted. This year banged hard on the reset button. COVID pressure per square inch has squirted excess emotion in unpredictable directions. Imagine people being murdered for requesting facemask usage; police stations burned; swarming the capital of the US. We’ve witnessed a storm surge of acting out. Not to mention that it was a bad year to be a statue.
It’s doubtful the social environment will simply revert to what it had been pre-COVID. Competing ideas always result in a new thought profile. Can’t un-ring the bell. That’s dialectic, baby! We synthesize and move on. Now is not a time to take anything for granted.
In a way, this is healthy. We have the freedom to rethink… which leads to my last conclusion.
3. I need to empty and refill my cup: The question is not whether the cup is half empty or half full – or even whether the cup is overflowing. The question is what is in the cup. I have come to appreciate that I have spent a lifetime both fashioning my cup and refining my drink. It’s time to analyze how I take nourishment.
My cup often contained a measure of anger and judgment when life didn’t offer me what I wanted. A dose of entitlement, preconditions, and control confused a clean aftertaste. While I won’t completely eliminate those ingredients, I intend to add a bit more acceptance, humor, love, and gratitude in the mix. I’m also looking for that small bottle of wonder that used to provide the high notes.
In order to do this, I need to empty my cup, so that it may be filled once again.
Reflections During COVID-19 Restrictions
Many of us are living in the great “Pause.” For me this means an interruption in the everyday, automatic, often, unconscious way of going about our daily lives. George encouraged us to take advantage of this shift and to consider what we’ve learned about ourselves.
In some cases it is more of an affirmation of what I thought I knew about myself rather than a wide-eyed epiphany. I’ve always loved spending time in nature, especially in the woods. Given that I spent more time there this year than in my last ten years, I can verify that, yes indeed, I love the serenity, exercise, and fresh air it provides for me. Encore!
I also reaffirmed how important family and good friends are to me. It has given me the impetus to make time to be even closer to them.
I learned that I could do without much of what I thought was necessary and still be in a positive and often happy state of mind. As I continue to discard items from my closets, basement, and garage, I realize that I no longer need what I felt was important. Lightening the load helps me feel freer.
I’ve learned that more time at home provides me with opportunities for developing new habits. I have gone from occasional grilling to preparing relatively sophisticated meals in ten months. I went from finding any meal preparation a burden to looking forward to cooking dinner. I’m surprised but happy to realize that I still have the capacity to make significant changes in my outlook on things I believed would never change.
I’ve also learned to develop a more critical eye when listening to the news. The inherent bias of most major television news networks rings loud and clear. Having time to really listen and think about what was reported has given me some pause to consider whether I am as open as I thought I was. Now that I can more easily separate out judgmental comments and derogatory remarks made by newscasters who promote my viewpoint, I can better monitor my own dialogue.
Finally, I can say that I’ve discovered my capacity for greater patience. Now, I’m not saying I’m a patient man. However, I am more patient than I was last year. The question remains, will I maintain this more desired state, or will I relapse when the more rapid and busy pace of life returns?
Overall I’ve learned that I can have a smile on my face and in my heart whether I’m out and about or in isolation. So far, I’ve been able to accept what is and still be content. Knowing that this is temporary helps. I prefer to look at this year of pandemic restrictions as a test that I’ve been studying for my whole life. Luckily, I’m the only one who decides how I did. And then I can begin preparing for whatever next test comes along.
We have been trying hard to turn the page of the calendar to a new year, but the bad karma of 2020 wants to linger. The unimaginable events of Dec 37 makes you wish we could skip ahead in time – or go back and change decisions. Usually, when I think about time, it’s from the vantage point of examining time as a commodity, as in, ‘wish there was more time for this or that’. Time usually seems in such short supply. Don’t you wish it could be mined and saved in a repository like a bitcoin?
What really is the nature of time? Can we suspend time, reverse it, or experience an alternate timeline? I don’t have the chops to figure this out — we need a quick trip to wiki! George is going to hate this, but I‘m going to need citations.
There are a number of definitions that can be found on the web. Some take the easy way out: time is what is measured by a clock, and so forth. Others approach time as a fundamental quantity, experienced as a sequence of events. Hen sent George and me an article which defined life as change. Is change also the essence of time as well: Time = Change? Simon and Garfunkel sang about the “leaves that are green turn to brown” – is that a function of a life cycle – or simply time? Does life depend on the action of time? Some philosophers, including Anne Conway believe that. In the 17th century, she put forward a view that life cannot exist without time… and that time is change.
Stephen Hawking* wrote a book, A Brief History of Time. He concluded that the arrow of time only moves in one direction: forward. In fact, he identified three arrows of time:
Psychological arrow: the inexorable flow of existence – a sequence of events
Thermodynamic arrow: the sense that in a closed thermodynamic system, time is represented by things losing coherence or degrading; the entropy of green leaves turning to brown
Cosmological arrow: time was only introduced at the big bang and is measured by the continued expansion of the universe. If that’s true, then time may not be infinite.
If time is not infinite, what happens when time ends? Could it be that there is an eternal ‘Now’? If life is change, can life exist in an eternal Now? A great deal of meditative discipline is devoted to the goal of being ‘present’ and attuned to the NOW. Where does Now exist? The 6th President of the US, John Quincy Adams, wrote in The Hour Glass:
“…Time was – Time shall be – drain the glass –
But where in Time is now?”
Heidegger used the term “Dasein”, meaning that while we are all in the present, we are simultaneously anticipating and planning for the future. And if you consider that technically, our nervous system has a built-in delay in reacting to stimuli, our ‘present’ is already an artifact of history. The Now balances on a knife-edge.
Not only is time a finite quality, according to physicists, time is also relative. Einstein described it as follows:
“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute, and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”
Dr. E continued that time is affected by gravity, which can bend space-time and slow it down. That is why time proceeds faster at the top of the Eiffel tower, than at its base. Experiments are in process to physically slow time, as well as to measure its speed across quantum particles. These experiments are closely connected to properties of light. One such experiment recently measured the speed of light in zeptoseconds — one millionth of a second. This approach may change our lexicon: “In a New York Zepto”, or ‘just a zepto, Honey, I’ll be right there’. This could put “one Mississippi” in a bad spot.
However, I’m more interested in the experience of time – Hawking’s psychological arrow. Mainly, I view it as island hopping – from memory to memory. There are no objective time distances among these memories: some old memories seem vivid and close by, while other more recent memories have faded. Research suggests reasons: heightened emotional states can alter a person’s perception of time passages. George wrote about this in an earlier post, As Time Goes By; that for him time is measured in events – not necessarily in a linear progression. He’s in the same line of thought as Heidegger, who felt that time can only be understood as events in the past and only from the perspective of a fixed lifespan. I’d agree that time is only experienced in the rear view mirror of memory. Because so many moments are simply repetitions of daily tasks, they are completed with little ‘present’ attention. So when we talk about ‘being present’, what does this mean to you?
*Funny anecdote about Hawking. He decided to prove time travel was impossible by hosting a time travel party, but sending invitations after the event. Since no one showed up, he jokingly “proved” that the arrow of time cannot be reversed.
Time, Time, Time is on my Side
I’m trying to think of a way to define time without using the word “time.” I’m not smart enough. It is a measurement of the passage of WHAT? I can tell what it is measured in- seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, seasons, years, decades, centuries, eras, ions…..but that doesn’t help with the definition.
My perception of time is more based on experiences in my life. Time doesn’t appear to be a standard measurement. An hour today is much shorter than it was in my youth. A day used to be an eternity when I was in grade school but now it goes by so quickly that sometimes I feel I get up in the morning and the next thing I know I’m climbing back into bed. I find it is variable from day to day. Some days I can’t find enough time, or there’s all the time in the world and I can take time or I have time to give. Sometimes I’m ahead of time or it’s about time. Time is very flexible and isn’t consistently the same unit.
Time can be evaluative. I had a good time last night or I had a great time or even I had the time of my life! OR, I wasted my time, I had a bad time , or I had the worst time ever! When I evaluate my time I divide it into sections: childhood, college, marriage, post marriage, retirement, future. I can evaluate each section. College and retirement are in the time of my life category. Where other sections were good to great, and fluctuated therein. Fortunately, my bad times faded as good times replaced them.
That’s another aspect of time-you can do things with it. You can waste time, spend time, share time, you can even take time and even do things in timely fashion. Time has a mind of its own. It can lapse, drag, fly or be sensitive or even stand still, and sometimes it is even on my side, yes it is! And time is even different from one species to another. At the end of a year I am a year older but my dog is seven years older, whew!
I guess the point is we can’t live without time. Try to count the number of times in a day you say the word TIME. Sometimes you are referring to the scientific definition of time but more often used in different contexts: on time, in time, overtime, time and a half, once upon a time, time capsules, times up, yada, yada. OMG, I’ve had too much time on my hands! It’s bedtime anyway…
Wal has given me so much to think about in his presentation of time. It seems, as we grow older that its passage gives us pause to reflect upon it more and more.
For me, it is no longer the commodity it once was. Working full time took, well, lots of time. As Wal mentions in his piece, there never seemed to be enough time. Never enough time to get all the work done; to be an attentive parent/partner, or to adequately care for my emotional and physical health. As I got older I slowly moved from wanting to “find” more time, to realizing I needed to “make” more time for the things that mattered most. But still, there never was enough time. But now, mostly retired, single, and easily enjoying my completely independent children, I have all the time I need. Upon my retirement, I remember being asked by a colleague, what I’m doing differently with more time on my hands. “I can now change a light-bulb as soon as it goes out!” I replied. The hurried world I created in which every waking moment was accounted for, was no longer.
I like Wal’s comment regarding living in the now; “Our present is already an artifact of history.” I agree. Now is only here for that Zeptosecond before it’s behind us. However, can we not flow with the now? Isn’t our quest for mindfulness and awareness staying with where we are for as long and often as we can? The present always becomes the past but, not falling prey to thinking of what just past, can keep us one step ahead, in the present.
I had another thought about the notion Wal brings up from Heidegger’s explanation that time can only be understood as events in the past. Does this preclude the impact anticipated time (imagined time in the future) can have on us in the present? According to a 2010 study published in the journal Applied Research in Quality of Life, just planning or anticipating your trip can make you happier than actually taking it. Perhaps the perception of time that hasn’t yet occurred but has had a measurable impact on one’s present life, can expand its understanding beyond past events.
As to the speed of time passing more rapidly for us when we’re older, some research suggests that over time the rate at which we process visual information slows down. Thus, we end up interpreting less information than we did when we were kids. As a result it feels like we get to the end of the day faster than we used to. The March 2019 blog from Harvard University entitled: No, Its Not Just You: Why time “speeds up” as we get older, explains this in more detail. I also remember reading that the more we remain habituated to our daily routines the more quickly we get to the end of our day. But, if we seek to insert new and creative challenges into our lives, the more the brain has to consciously process and our days seem longer, time seems to slow down.
On a related note, I want to recommend a wonderful four-minute movie created by artist and musician, Prince Ea. He puts time in perspective by overlapping the 4.5 billion years the Earth has been in existence with the approximately 140,000 years of mankind. If we were to consolidate that into a 24-hour period, we will have been around for 3 seconds! The video is entitled, “3 Seconds.”
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t include my relationship with being on time. I never was. I would usually leave for an appointment at the latest possible moment and then hope against hope that nothing would hinder or slow me down. Life almost always does! I was late for meetings and late picking up my children, and when I did arrive, I was usually stressed. One day, someone who also kept a calendar with a very busy schedule told me to write down the time to leave, so that I would arrive fifteen minutes early. Problem solved! I’m almost always where I need to be with time to spare and in a much more relaxed frame of mind.
According to Wikipedia a New Year’s resolution: “is a tradition, most common in the Western Hemisphere, but also found in the Eastern Hemisphere, in which a person resolves to continue good practices, change an undesired trait or behavior, to accomplish a personal goal, or otherwise improve their life.”
While the intentions are sincere, more often than not, people find they are unable to sustain the quest to change and the resolution is dropped, reduced, or entirely forgotten. As a result, it appears that people of my vintage no longer make promises to themselves. One T-shirt I recently saw captured this notion: 2021 – Eat, Sleep, Fail my New Year’s Resolution, Repeat! Another stated their goal simply and clearly: First Rule of 2021 – Don’t Talk about 2020! (Yeah, Good Luck!)
However, I like the idea of looking back over the year to consider what worked and what didn’t and then making a plan for moving forward. Perhaps asking myself some questions might give me the foundation from which to be more successful in my commitment to change.
Question: What do I want to get rid of?
I’m tired of feeling defeated, deflated, angry, and surprised when I expect life to be fair! I’m tossing that out and replacing it with fairness as a preference but not an expectation. If I can remember to chuckle or say, “Isn’t that interesting!” when something turns out unfairly, I might have a chance!
I’m concerned that my children will be forced to sort through all of my “stuff” when I’m gone. I’m going through file drawers and basement shelves each week and am throwing out, recycling, and donating. A secondary benefit of less clutter and more room is also appealing.
Question: What do I want to do more of, less of, and keep the same?
I want to spend more time laughing. I need to spend more time with people who are uplifting, sincere, energizing, and enjoy a sense of humor! Applications are now being taken! Grumps need not apply.
I want to feel more of the creative energy and sense of purpose I used to get from my work. Recently, I had a conversation with my granddaughter about creating a video collection of daily, interesting experiences. She is interested in working remotely with me on the artistic and editing end of it. What a wonderful opportunity to kick off the New Year in a joint venture with Kylie! Delicious!
I want to spend less time agreeing to situations that drain my energy. Warning! If I say no to you for something you may request, I’m really saying YES to me.
I want to maintain the time I now spend communicating with my children. (Due to COVID, we talk and FaceTime more than ever before!) Amen!
Do you have an “end of year” question to suggest?
Before addressing Henry’s questions let me preface this by saying that I always approached New Year’s Resolutions in the same way I gave up stuff for Lent. As a kid I thought I was so clever giving up homework, peanut butter (which always made me gag), Brussel Sprouts, and the like as sacrifices for Lent. If you are going to give something up, give up something you were supposed to do but hated doing! Makes sense, right? My resolutions were similar. Mostly they were things I promised I wouldn’t do anymore in the new year. And I would pick things I hated to do. In the new year I am not going to make my bed cause I can use the time much more pleasantly, or I’m not going to clean the garage cause I have too much stuff to store in the house and it has go somewhere. In general, I never thought of these things as ways to improve myself but rather ways to get out of doing stuff I hated. That served me well as a young adult but alas I, too, had to grow up and with growing up comes the nagging nuisance thought of improving yourself, being responsible and mature. Acting like an adult can be very draining. One last thought before answering these adult, mature, personal improvement questions is that Henry may not want me for a friend anymore because on my application form it will admit grumpiness is part of my make up! Ggrrrrrr!
There’s a lot of stuff I want to rid my life of. Definitely clutter. For years I’ve collected things. Things that mean something to me but not to those near me. What will happen to that all? And that is stressful to think it will all wind up in the dump. Stress! The question is for a person who is a habitual stresser, what things could I do to reduce it. I would prefer if it would just go away rather than my having to do something to cause it’s exit. Drama, I have two kids so it is hard to eliminate drama which just leads to more stress! Covid, I’m doing my part but not sure it is working to eliminate the disease which causes me more stress yet again.
There are things I’d like to do more of in 2021. For years I was an avid model railroader. It was the only thing my dad, brother and I ever did together. I have collected mounds of paraphernalia- trains, structures, everything all neatly stored in my basement but the hobby has progressed technologically well beyond my capabilities. I would love to set up a layout again and play with my trains. I’d like to write more and make my voice heard. I’d like to be the perfect dad ( wait, that takes real effort). And I’d like to get some things accomplished at my house which requires organization, money, and planning, 3 more things I’m not very good at which just causes me more STRESS!
I am truly grateful for the relationship I have with my kids, I have friends who sustain me and actually tolerate my quirks and sense of humor, and I have a constant canine and 2 feline companions that have been with me throughout this entire Covid journey. I am truly thankful for these things.
So what do I resolve to do to improve ME in this coming year? Wait a minute…..last year I resolved not to make anymore New Year’s Resolutions this year! Nevermind……
Best Foot Forward
I admire Hen – if he says it, he will do it. His goals for 2021 are bound to be achieved! On a less reliable note, here goes a shot at his very good questions:
Question: What do I want to get rid of?
First, I share Hen’s desire to prefer life to be fair, but on the other hand I believe that we should continue to press for fairness as an expectation. If we all can imagine it and believe it, I suspect we can tip the scales to get closer to that end result. Sure, we will be disappointed now and again. However, keep in mind that fairness does not mean that there is always a happy ending – or even an ending, for that matter. I think of it as a never-ending thread in the warp and weft.
So what do I want to get rid of? Well, off to Hen’s second point: clutter. Now, if you have ever visited Hen, you realize that clutter is a relative concept. He is so neat and organized that I have a hard time picturing what he is sorting through. You want clutter – I’ll show you clutter!
Among other things, I hoard wood. Slabs, crotches, burls, spindles, blocks or all kinds. All air-drying for potential projects. Beautiful specimens of huge black cherry butt logs, walnut, flame box elder, osage orange, buckeye, kingwood, coyote wood — A to Zed: afzelia to ziracote. I am a wood ho’(arder). My aim is to clear out the excess wood under tarp and under roof and send it to Hen, so he really has something to sort through! Truly, I will reduce the dragon’s treasure of wood in 2021.
Question: What do I want to do more of, less of, and keep the same?
Stay in touch: If 2020 has taught me anything, it’s not to take anything for granted. I’m not alone in losing – or almost losing – friends and dear ones. Strangely, only one loss was to COVID, but this season makes every loss more tangible. So, my desire is to stay in contact with those I care about and be more present and engaged. Left to my own devices, I would normally just stay busy and let the world pass by.
Continuing that thought: I tend to believe that while we all are the main characters in our own screenplay, sometimes we forget that at best, we are simply character actors in other people’s movies. In 2021, I’d like to do a better job of performing a supporting role in some wonderful stories.
Creating: Linda and I find we are happiest when we are making things. I think for both of us, it’s a calling vs. a preference. Collaborating with my wife is a win-win! A must-do for 2021.
Last, I will work hard to attain an “attitude of gratitude” each day. Starting each morning, I will focus on three things for which to be grateful – and not the same three each morning. I won’t get out of bed until these are visualized.
Less: (correspondingly, less elaboration)
Less time imagining every worst outcome. Boy, does that sap energy.
As above, less time overly planning and constructing narrow definitions of success. Less time building mental labyrinths.
Less sedentary activity. Humans are meant to move.
See the humor in this existence. I can be intense at times, but the saving grace is always humor. Who could invent some of the situations in which we find ourselves enmeshed? Regarding many of today’s items of obsessive focus, I continue to ask myself, “Who will remember this in 50 years?” If the answer is ‘no one’, well then, ease up.
Stay in balance: life IS change – no two ways about it. We experience new terrain every day. When we walk on uneven ground, we shift our weight, juke left or right – but maintain our balance. There’s no telling what new contingencies will be introduced in 2021, but maintaining balance is the key.
When Christmas and Covid intersect it brings out some strange feelings and reactions. Reflection usually is nostalgic for me. Pleasant memories waft through my mind. Smells carry me back to the warmth of grandparents and holidays and the intersection of both those things! Favorite past times rush back and desire wells up inside me wondering why I stopped doing them.
But the intersection of Christmas Blvd. and Covid Ave. bring up less reassuring feelings and I want to get things off my chest. Odd even for me at Christmas. Things are annoying me. They crop up every year around this time and for probably 50 or so years I have stuffed them away but now I want to say them, get them off my chest. Let me dive into my point….”Keep Christ in Christmas.” We have all heard this or read it assuming that the X is a way of eliminating Christ from the most revered of Christian holidays and cheapening it. Somewhere along the way I heard the derivation of Xmas and asked my friend Siri to tell me again. She confirmed my belief that it does not remove Christ from his own birth! It seems it was first used in the year 1021 by a scribe. Back then, parchment was scarce and expensive and because the name Christ was written frequently he came up with a way to abbreviate it. Greek was the language of the New Testament and X was the Greek letter “chi” which was the first letter in the Greek word for Christ. The scribe used X to stand for Christ. So for a thousand plus years the X has been misunderstood and therefore Christ is in Xmas and in our hearts if we believe.
What about this so called war on Christmas? Are you afraid to say, “Merry Christmas” or is it politically incorrect? Hardly! If I know someone celebrates Christmas I always say, “Merry Christmas.” If I know they are Jewish I wish them a Happy Hanukkah. If I don’t know their religious history I will say, “Happy Holidays,” out of respect. I remember years ago my parents would send out Christmas cards but to their non-Christian friends the term back then was, “Seasons Greetings.” It was an acknowledgment of the fact that other people celebrate holidays different from our own. Nothing political about it! Respectful, thoughtful, all inclusive!
One last gripe. For years as a school teacher I would hear how the public schools took prayer out of school and it had dire effects on education. That, too, is a falsehood. Prayer was not prohibited in school. Just the open recitation of a prayer from one specific religion was done away with. When I student taught my cooperating teacher made the class stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer. That was years after that practice had been abolished. I wonder how the Jewish or Islamic kids in those classes felt reciting such a prayer. Probably no different from the class standing and reciting a Jewish or Islamic prayer would feel to a Christian child. I was never very religious but spiritual and prayed all the time in school. I have to admit sometimes it was to please make the day be over quickly or even pray that tomorrow would be a snowday. I know that kids prayed at their seats when they were taking a test or as in my case in gym class that I wouldn’t get picked to be on a basketball team or something! No one was ever told they couldn’t pray in school! EVER! Ok, I’m praying now that I will regain my more positive feelings for Christmas now that I verbally regurgitated these long standing complaints.
Incidentally I read somewhere that there are about 14 religious holidays between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and so Happy Holidays doesn’t sound so bad!
Whatever holidays you celebrate this time of year may they be peaceful and enjoyable, happy or merry, but may they lead to a hell of a better new year!
War with the Newts
The first thought I had after reading George’s piece was: Here we go – War with the Newts. This is a dark satire written by Karel Capek just prior to WWII. In a nutshell, humans discover a breed of intelligent salamanders and the book highlights how our unique ability for quarrel and aggravation turns an opportunity into disaster.
There are whole industries based on whipping up contention. Aren’t you tired of the talking heads braying about real or manufactured issues, with less an eye toward solution, than toward retweets or ratings increase? I am. It’s time to give the drumbeat a rest. Let’s heal.
I view this time of year as an opportunity to celebrate the wonder of an existence that depends on faith, because we don’t have all the answers. In fact, I celebrate the faith journeys of any point of view that focuses on achieving harmony. If you focus on the joy, there’s less room for the gripe, Grinch — no Rant-a-Santa.
It’s a question of balance. As a person following the Christian path, I embrace all the non-religious aspects of Christmastide. After all, it’s a great social occasion – and has had its ups and downs (check out History Channel’s Christmas Unwrapped: the History of Christmas). Christmas, the holiday, fosters goodwill and generosity of spirit. Good things! Since Christmas has secular and commercial acceptance, some states have even pushed for resolutions renaming their Christmas trees ‘Holiday trees’.
However, since parchment is not an issue, I will still write out ‘Christmas’ and refer to our tree as a Christmas tree. It has nothing to do with Chi-Rho, or Constantine’s dream of military victory (i.e., “in hoc signo vinces”). Rather, it helps me focus on the fact that Christmas is a holy day, as well as a holiday. Shorthand ‘Xmas’ is what I associate with ‘XmasSale!!!’ It’s a preference to avoid a commercial connotation, nothing more.
In addition, I will share the joy of Christmas with my friends, who are diverse enough and nuanced enough to appreciate this is a special time and accept the greeting as it is meant.
Merry Christmas to All!
While I personally don’t find the challenges George raises as significant concerns, I do agree with his approach to greeting others during the holiday season. Essentially, if you know what they celebrate, name it, if you don’t, wish them a happy holiday. It feels respectful, inclusive, and thoughtful.
As a child, I celebrated Chanukah. And, while I lived in a neighborhood where fifty-seven of the sixty families celebrated Christmas, salutations of “Merry Christmas didn’t offend me. However, when kids who knew I celebrated Chanukah, said Merry Christmas to me, I felt more ignored or dismissed than included. And those who made a point of saying Happy Chanukah or Seasons Greetings gave me a recognition and a visibility that felt like it was okay to be different. It was never a huge issue to me. It was just learning how to cope when you are in the minority.
I appreciate the good will that abounds around this time of year. Gifting lifts the spirits of both the giver and the receiver. Greetings and smiles (although masked this year) and holiday music wrap me in a warm and joyful feeling. I am thankful for all those who make an effort to bring a bit more joy and connection to their daily interactions and hope they feel the same from me.
I wish you all a most Joyful and Healthy Holiday and a very Happy New Year!
English — you have to love it! The title comes by way of WordGenius, a daily feed of words you never knew existed — and may never have a chance to use.
My high school English teacher used to encourage us to use “thousand dollar words” in order to expand our vocabulary. I still love to collect such words — they are fun!. Considering inflation, thousand dollar words in the 60’s are probably ‘hundred thousand dollar words’ today. Are they worth knowing — or using? Like rare stamps, some words are treasures, but not meant for the daily mail.
In fact, words can be temporal: usage waxing and waning — or in fact changing. For example, within 100 years the term ‘tory’ morphed from describing an Irish ‘bandit’ to describing a conservative member of parliament! The popular use of slang, like carbon dating, can place a word squarely in a timeframe. Today’s lol was yesterday’s belly laugh. BTW, isn’t it time for lol to FITS (fade into the sunset)?
It’s no coincidence that groups of words are called passages — a conveyance for understanding. However, choice of words can create distance and draw more attention to the author than to the subject. A learned pastor — and excellent speaker — I know used to rail on about people who ‘bloviate’ and inserted the word frequently in sermons. Whether you find this ironic or irenic will say a lot about your communication philosophy!
Yet at times, arcane words do fit the need. ‘Mellifluous’ sounds like what it is — and it’s easy off the tongue. Unfortunately ‘ratiocinate’ sounds like the starter is failing in your car. So, I must confess a bias: a preference for words with lots of vowels vs. the chitinous sound of consonants clicking together.
Words can speed progress or slow you down to a crawl — try again to read the fine print and boilerplate in legal documents. After reading hundreds of scholarly articles in professional life, I grew a bit tired of third person passive, densely packed language. It’s not that written discourse needs to be pointed to the lowest common denominator, it’s just that reading — and then rereading — passages seems inefficient. Lately, if I invest time in reading (or listening), I’d like to get to the point, particularly if the information appears useful. So, accessibility is key.
Accessibility is important, but so is precision. No one benefits by vague descriptions that declare people or efforts are “fantastic”, “beautiful”, or “nice” (or nasty). Some politicians prefer that type of 50,000 ft. explanation, but other than providing a blue or pink litmus test, what do you really learn? Descriptions long to be clothed elegantly! Why are results ‘fantastic’, the person ‘nice’, the program “beautiful”?
If I were to give my grandchildren advice, it would be: choose your words to suit the subject, the audience, and the medium. Mutual understanding is the aim. Realize that words have their moment. Don’t be afraid to show off a special word, if it is a precise modifier — but a little goes a long way. Conversely, verbal shortcuts or initialisms may be a long-term trend, but consider the depth of information conveyed. Verbal shortcuts are your acquaintances, but your real friends are words that make your thoughts come alive.
Parting Words. Food for thought: what is the word you would most like to hear initially — and the last word you would like to hear? (Mine — for both — might be “welcome”). What’s yours?
The Spanish Disquisition
I must admit I had to reread Wally’s piece a second time with my dictionary just to figure out the title. True confession…my title has nothing to do with what I am writing. Just a play on words. Words have always been a favorite of mine. I’m generally good with words, hmm…. does that mean I know a lot of them or perhaps I’m just kind to them when they are struggling? Interesting conundrum! Well at least to me it is. To you it may be neither interesting nor a conundrum, if you catch my drift. Drift being used in the slang sense, not being pushed around by the wind. OMG I am very confused. I have to clear my head- what the heck does that mean? If I clear my head what happens to my nose and eyes? Where do these expressions come from?
Words develop over time as Wally said. Can you imagine George Washington telling Martha that Mt Vernon needs WiFi or tech support for their computers? So new words have to be invented as society progresses. “Martha, you are interfering with my digital networking! I’ll burn the garbage later!” Each day in my classroom for many years I would write a new word on the blackboard with its definition before the kids arrived. The kids knew they would get extra points if they used that word in their speech or writing that day. “The Word of the Day” became popular and sometimes kids would bring in words for me to use.
My brother and I growing up in Flushing invented words for specific situations. Goodhumerical, an adjective used to describe a hot summer day when a nice ice cream bar from the Good Humor truck was in order started our private word development. He and I developed quite a few adjectives to describe many of our relatives. “Nissengnat” was how we would refer to our uncle from the Bronx because he would always finish his sentences with the expression, “ and this and that….” but with his heavy Bronx accent it came out as, “And nis an nat.” My brother used to tell me I was being cataclusional, when I would come to a cataclysmic conclusion as I usually did about most things. So I too always thought of words as being fun. And the combination of words into phrases even more enjoyable. I’m feeling very scatter brained as I write this rejoinder today. Does that mean parts of my brain have been scattered around my house? Maybe, like Maria, who the nuns couldn’t even deal with, I’m just a flibbertigibbet! I have no idea where that word came from derivatively speaking! Not sure how you speak derivatively but it just rolls off your tongue, actually made me giggle inside. Sometimes I giggle outside but it was too cold this morning!
Oh, I almost forgot. Probably the first word I heard in my family was, “d’yu eat?” And that probably will be the last thing I hear as well!
I was immediately taken with the word knowledge and wit of my blogging partners. They keep me on my toes and always in learning mode as I read their posts and listen to their stories. This is yet another reason why I appreciate them and what they bring to my moments of thought and reflection.
For a period of time, words served me well. Fortunate to have intelligent colleagues and family, critical friends, and a love of my work, I readily found the words I needed at the right time and delivered in the right tone. Clearly I’m not, nor ever was a grammar maven. I was adequate, at best. Yet, as well as I can recollect, I was usually able to find just the right word or phrase to help express what I meant or to affirm what I heard. It was critical to my sense of value and good work. However, that capacity is now diminished and continues to decline as the years advance. I feel the loss of words I can’t retrieve, shorter moments of clear focus, memory confusion, the list goes on. I appreciate what I can do but am inexorably aware of what I do, less well.
Early in my career a student came to me at lunchtime and asked if I could help her. She wanted to know why she didn’t have any friends and wanted to know what she could do about it. She was bright, as cute as any of the girls in her class, and mostly upbeat. And, she loved to talk. She spoke of her vacations, her adventures after school, and about the books she read. Together, we came to the understanding that perhaps one of the most important things people want is to be heard. She agreed to practice spending less time talking about herself and more time listening, really listening, to the words of others in the hopes of making friends. Later on, we formed a small group of students with similar needs and focused on using “words of connection” to help them address their needs.
I often think about what word to use to capture, with absolute precision, my feelings at a particular moment. And while I know the feeling, I cannot find the words to do it justice. You know, the feeling that is a bit more than one descriptor but a bit less of another. Sometimes we find words in other languages that aren’t directly translatable and that seem to better convey what we mean. They can be described in English but the native speaker will tell you there is no way to explain it accurately. The Yiddish word Kvell, is defined as a state of being extremely proud. Yet to me it’s more than that. It is a feeling that comes from within that goes beyond pride. It is like an act, a feeling, and a thought, intensely combined.
Wal challenges us to identify a first and/or last word we find meaningful. I choose delicious! I often use that word beyond the context of how food tastes. It’s how I sometimes feel about a morning walk, a loving friend, or a perfect moment. Delicious! I would also use Thank You! Some days, I find myself so appreciative of what I have, where I am, and what I’m doing that I shout out, “Thank You!” Most often only Duke hears it as it’s usually when I’m with him in nature but sometimes I do so with a trusted friend. It’s an expression of gratitude to whomever or whatever in the universe might be listening.
Most of us desire to be in community – a place where people feel valued, accepted, and connected. And, while communities are often founded around common goals and interests, they vary greatly in regards to their openness and collaboration with other communities and with society as a whole. It appears that we are currently experiencing more entrenched attitudes and behaviors within and among these groups and fewer opportunities for open dialog toward the common good.
The “ends justify the means” seems like the present mode of operation by many groups. And, while it may lead one collective or another to a temporary victory, is the long-term cost worth it? In our righteous indignation and justification for winning at all costs, is the angst, corruption of our principles, and the constant attention we give to defensiveness and negativity how we want to live?
Even when we feel we have no other options, we are often avoiding the hard work of finding or creating alternatives. Sometimes, rather than picking one side/approach or another, we can merge the two into an even more effective one. Martin Luther King spoke at the 10th annual meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967 about two approaches that often provoked one choice, the path of love or the path of power. His stance was that we couldn’t be effective without both. Perhaps it’s time for us to reconsider where we stand and whether the communities we align with have the best interests of long-term goals and those of our children.
Is our community behaving in ways that illicit trust? Do we act in ways the make it difficult for the other side to challenge our civility, dignity, and authenticity? If we don’t because they don’t, how will we ever get there?
Where do we go from here? Isn’t it up to each of us to decide how we act to bring about the future we want for our children and ourselves? And isn’t that future dependent on how we respond and embrace other communities?
After reading my friend Henry’s blog post I have to confess I have been naughty this year, well these past 4 years. You see I have had very strong political views that often crossed the “being appropriate” limits. I was often angry, outraged even and vociferous in my expression of that outrage. I said mean things on Facebook and listened to only one tv station news coverage- the one that I agreed with.
I always considered myself a reasonable, intelligent person. But I just couldn’t accept imitating a handicapped journalist or calling people names based on their appearance or physical features. In my heart I knew that was wrong but our leader was displaying this behavior publicly, snd I saw our interaction between people becoming caustic and aggressive. Santa, I gave into those feelings I had and expressed them instead of trying to find common ground.
We now have an elected leader who is trying to model appropriate behavior and I promise to follow his lead. I will do things to try to bring our country together again. I won’t say mean things or cause disagreement to intensify. I promise to try to reconnect with people I may have upset. That way my letter to you next year can tell you that I have been a good boy and have everything I need so give my stuff to kids who are more needy. This pandemic will certainly cause people to need things that they normally would have. Hopefully by next December this Covid thing will be gone but if not I will ask for enough masks for everybody in our country and the general acceptance that masks help! Please forgive me Santa. I tried but just couldn’t live up to my wish to be a good boy. My friends Henry and Wally were gooder than I was this year so you should give them what they ask for. Well, maybe they were a little naughty too! Your friend, Georgie
I suspect that we each have an urge to assimilate and an urge to be distinct. We try to solve that tension by finding a reference group (or several) that allows us to do both. In a healthy society, just as in a healthy individual, affiliation in various ‘communities’ is fluid enough to help us practice seeing different points of view. I tend to think about this condition as one which features permeable boundaries – like a biologic cell wall — allowing traffic of ideas (like RNA) through the walls. This allows analysis and accommodation among varying points of reference.
When ideologic boundaries harden, it’s no wonder that commerce between particular communities tends to stop. So for me, it’s about permeability – allowing flow. Carrying the analogy a bit further: if we each act as a unit in a living entity, our function is to pass nutrients throughout the system and keep it thriving. It’s also our job to defend against threats to our ability to do so.
If the body encounters a destructive virus, it tends to attack anything which looks like a threat. Sometimes it overreaches. Hen describes a situation where our communities seem to be ill – and some functions are not working well. A healthy community, like a healthy body – should rebound from most infection. However, that rebound depends upon various organs working in concert, not shutting down. The individual’s essential job is to continue to pass nutrients through the system. Now I know that I’ve set the stage for some to liken our current state of affairs to a cancerous growth. Okay, maybe we need chemotherapy – maybe our living entity will die. Or maybe our society is suffering from a malady that can be treated with an injection of common sense and affection. Either way, I believe that our boundaries need to be permeable enough to receive both familiar ideas and new ideas and pass along the useful bits of both which allow the whole body to thrive.
I did! One of the most incredible experiences I ever had was going back to where I came from. My entire life I was surrounded by the crazy Italian Family that I came from- or at least half of me! Holidays consisted of people yelling at each other, all at the same time. Half in English, half in a bastardized Italian that was spoken in southern Italy. I should refer to it as a dialect but if you speak ITALIAN you might agree that the dialects were bastardized. The area I came from in Italy is Basilicata. The arch of the boot. Calabria was to the west (the toe of the boot)and Puglia to the east(the heel). The minute you drive south of Naples you begin to feel the difference!
Planning the trip was a trip in itself. My partner called the only hotel in the area but they spoke no English. So he called an Italian friend of his to call for us. She arranged a conference call and within moments we realized they were speaking 2 different languages. A subsequent call with someone on their end who spoke “English” resolved the issue and we were all set to go.
The trip was phenomenal. As we flew into Rome I became very emotional. We drove from Rome south to the little town of Pietrapertosa, a little mountain town in the Dolomities(Little Dolomites). The drive was incredible. Dirt roads through the mountains, pigs blocking the roads, rock slides to drive around and then miraculously the town was right in front of us. As we drove up the cobblestone street the emotion overwhelmed me. Here I was on streets that my grandfather played on.
We pulled into the only hotel in town and parked. It was 2 pm in the afternoon and judging by the lack of anyone around it was the traditional siesta time. But the smell was unmistakable . From the kitchen wafted the smell of my dad’s sauce. I broke down! The owner came out and introduced herself. When she heard my name it was as if the world erupted. Moments later we were in a car driving through the village to “commune” which we learned meant town hall. Once there the mayor introduced himself snd obviously knew who I was as he went to a closet and from an old waterlogged shoe box took out my grandfather’s birth certificate from 1881. From that point on the trip was out of our hands. We went to every household in the town where my family lived, had grappa everywhere, then to the mausoleums. In that part of Italy the dead are not buried but placed in mausoleums and I met many of my dead relatives.
To make a long story short, all of the living relatives in the village are teachers, and our guide whose great great grandfather was my great grandfather’s brother, had been a teacher but left teaching and like me became an innkeeper- Coincidence????
This does not do justice to the incredible feelings and emotions that I experienced, about the story of my Aunt Eleanor as a young girl, walking with Bartolo Longo who has become a saint since my visit, about having to eat at every relative’s house still there. This is a case of not really being able to express the depth of emotion and love that overwhelmed me in this little mountain town from which I had originated. We all came from somewhere else. Ellis Island has all our names engraved there. If you EVER get the chance to go back where you came from, GO!
NoWhere To Go
I envy George’s sense of place. But what do you do when there’s no specific place in which to return? Like George, my grandparents came to the United States in the early 1900’s. However, where they came from is not clear. Technically, my grandfather and his brother left a farming village somewhere near Rome and struck out for a new life in America with the idea of sending for their wives and family. Two years later they both returned to Italy and only my grandfather returned with his bride via Ellis Island in 1904.
On my father’s side, my grandparents emigrated from Walthamstow, UK in 1924. The area in Walthamstow where they lived was devastated by Nazi bombing during WWII and was significantly redeveloped. Unlike George’s story, there are no memories and close family to investigate. I did recently learn that my grandmother was one of twelve children; it appears that this cohort was involved in railway occupations and distributed themselves far and wide. One granduncle left for South Africa, got into some trouble as a result of a railway accident and hightailed it to Argentina, then Uruguay to work in the railroad industry. A cousin now living in Mexico City has filled me in on their exploits.
Now, my grandfather (who served in the RAF) may have come from Edinburgh, Scotland, but since he sort of disappeared shortly after arrival in the US, there’s no way to confirm. My father’s older brother Alfred went with my grandfather when he left – soon after, it seems like Alfred may have stolen a car and was deported to Australia. He later died during WWII serving in the Australian Airforce. I do sense that the English side of my family tree had a strong sense of adventure and were not afraid to strike out boldly. My father used to say “scratch an Englishman and find a pirate”… seems like this could sum up our family tradition.
Honestly, I don’t have any desire to search out places near London, Rome, or Edinburgh – I sense that these are places my forebears really wanted to leave behind. I did not grow up with fond retellings of life in the old country — I don’t feel a connection. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate and honor the effort it took to transplant a family in an entirely new country. It’s simply that my good non-piratical memories sit in this little corner of the world.
Going Back – Moving Forward
George’s piece likely triggers different memories and emotions for each of us. His desire to go back to his family roots and the feelings that were evoked for him, brought up another kind of “going back to where you came from” for me.
My father rarely lived at home due to the nature of his business. One day, when I was in my teenage years, he stopped coming home altogether. For a short while there was some correspondence and financial support, but then that ceased as well. Except for one ambiguous letter from him while I was in college, I knew nothing more about the man, his history, his intentions, his beliefs, or his rationale for abandonment.
When I turned forty, I felt the urge and found the courage to seek him out. All I knew was that he had left the New York area due to legal issues and was absorbed into some other part of the country with no address that was made available to me or my mom and sisters. I knew someone who knew someone who could, for a price, get me my father’s location. The source turned out to be sound and one summer’s day, I found myself on a plane bound for Houston, Texas, with an address, a phone number, and a load of questions.
Good fortune was on my side. After settling into my hotel room, I called the number and told the woman on the other end of the line that I was looking to talk to Joe and that I was an old acquaintance who would like to surprise him without giving him my name. He was indeed surprised, and after a few awkward minutes where I could hear my heart beat louder than his voice, he agreed to meet me at a diner I had noticed on the way to my hotel and not far from his home.
I remembered my father as an imposing figure. He was six feet tall, always confident and self-assured, and always in control. Now, as I watched through the diner window, I saw an old man struggle to get out of his weather beaten sedan and lumber up to the door. He was in his late seventies, just a few years older than I am now. His gait was slow, his posture slouched, and he was clearly not in control as he walked in the door and I went up to introduce myself. Uncharacteristically, he went for a hug but I offered my hand. We shook and I took him to where I had been sitting. I asked my questions and received vague responses, deceptions, and mostly evasive language. In truth, he had no answers for me, nothing of substance that could help me understand how he could leave the four of us without explanation or support. I felt little to no empathy from him when I told him how the man he had sold our mortgage to, foreclosed on our house and how we lost all of our possessions and had to live in a motel until we could reclaim my grandmother’s 800 square foot cottage from a reluctant tenant. For whatever reason, I don’t believe he was capable of truly feeling another’s emotional condition and, time, it seemed, hadn’t changed that part of him. As he spoke of his hardships I recalled he had always told us stories of his heroic efforts to ward off injuries and illnesses, injustices done to him, and fantastic tales of survival. Most, we later learned, were fabrications and exaggerations. It’s just who he was.
Since he had shown no interest in contacting my sisters or me over our adult years, I chose to answer none of his questions about my mom, or us other than mom was still alive despite what he claimed he had heard. In less than an hour I confirmed what I had suspected about this man. I had given him a chance to prove me wrong, to hear the other side of the story but, for me, there was none. I shook his hand and wished him well as he ended our meeting with another one of his woe-is-me stories about an upcoming surgery that was critical for his survival.
On the flight home I reflected on my journey. Meeting my dad as an adult I realized that despite our shared DNA and many similar characteristics, I was not, nor would I become, my father.
It was also fortuitous that I chose to “go back to where I came from” when I did. As it turns out, his last story was indeed true and his surgery, six months later, was not successful.
I’m glad I got to see him and was able to address the issues that were on my mind. And while I would have preferred a different kind of reckoning, it provided the closure I sought.
Afterthoughts: Today my reflections of that time include more questions than answers. Was I really interested in listening and understanding or did the anger and fever of the moment keep me from hearing? If we had established any kind of relationship, would he have been able to be more honest? Can I ever truly understand the intentions and choices made by another, having had only my experiences and not theirs?
George hurt himself. He was simply trying to put out the garbage one evening when his dog, Devin, body- checked him and proved once again that stone is harder than face. George wound up with a boot on his foot and luckily did not need one for his face. Devin was apologetic, but Devin was a hockey defenseman in a past life, so he was doing just what came naturally.
George felt bad about this accident, but it was dark and wet – and hey! – unplanned. George’s incident was on my mind when I took a wrong pivot during a tennis serve return and heard about it from my hip. It was the final point in our doubles match and I was still talking to myself about being a clumsy idiot as we all gathered our stuff to dress and leave the court. In the process of limping back to my chair, I managed to spill my water bottle into the tennis bag and knock the open can of balls back onto the court. Naturally, bending down was not on my bucket list at the moment, so I expressed some displeasure. (Well, that might be a euphemism for my actual words).
Rich, one of our foursome, said: “You know, Wally, we are old enough to forgive ourselves for these kinds of things”. That brought me up short. He is absolutely right! We talked in the last post about asking for and accepting, help. Forgiveness – particularly self-forgiveness – is a necessity as one ages. (Of course, you could make the argument that it is essential at any age — but you might also figure that younger folks at least have a longer runway left to learn this lesson). If you can’t achieve a reckoning in later life, what a tortured soul you will have been. Don’t ask me how I know this.
I confess to storing a long list of my gaffes that remain unforgiven – well, at least by me. Most are not blockbusters, but rather insensitive sins of commission and omission over the years. These items, like the Ghost of Christmas Past, often impinge on my consciousness at pretty inopportune times – you can tell by the sudden scowl on my face while involved in some otherwise pleasant conversation. My wife calls me out on this (rightly) and suggests that I have on my ‘Isabelle-face’ (my good-hearted mother was also similarly afflicted). Rich’s comment brought home that we ourselves have the tools and ability to come to terms with these silly aggravations. Items that no one will remember in 5 or 50 years. He was giving me permission to forgive myself for not being always at my best. It felt good! I’m going to start giving myself some mulligans… why not?
The Ho’oponopono Prayer is an ancient Hawaiian practice of forgiveness. It goes like this:
Please Forgive Me
I Love You
I remember reciting this once at a large Thanksgiving gathering at my home.
I said I was sorry for anything I had said or done to offend any of the guests seated at the table.
I asked for their forgiveness for those shortcomings. (I also added that I forgave them for anything they may have done to offend me.)
I thanked them in advance for forgiving me and for being significant in my life.
I told them all that I loved them.
One person came up to me afterwards and shared her appreciation of the sentiment. However, it mostly made the rest of the family uncomfortable, if not bewildered. Several wondered if I was referring specifically to them, some became defensive, and others had no idea why I chose to share this piece on a day of giving thanks. It was one of my greatest miscommunications in a group setting. This time, I was able to smile and quickly forgive myself for causing more disconnect and confusion than the sense of closeness and clarity I had sought to create.
Wal reminds me that I haven’t always forgiven myself so readily and even when I did, the occasional flashbacks and corresponding emotion – – feeling like I was just punched in the gut, still lingered. I wonder if there will always be a consequence of a wrongdoing that while forgiven, is permanently linked to guilt. Or, if I am able to truly forgive myself, is the connection broken and I am free from ongoing remorse.
Of all the words I value, acceptance is number one. Indeed, if I accept things (people, incidents, actions) as they are then I would have no reason for forgiveness. If I never judged something or someone to be lacking or wrong, or a mistake, it was just as it was supposed to be. Thus, there is nothing to forgive. And while I subscribe to this concept and practice it when I harken to do so, it is not yet (and likely never will be) a consistent habit. So, for now, I’ll use Wal’s story and my age to remind me to allow myself more forgiveness and perhaps find it easier to forgive others along the way.
Reflections on a Brittle Body
I’ve said before that during this pandemic isolation a lot of reflection happens. Thinking occurs when there isn’t a lot of activity to distract and I have had some very pleasurable moments reflecting. I took time to look around and see things I never noticed before. However, sometimes reflection can go south and stir up concerns that may never have surfaced otherwise. Such is the case when I collided with my pup. The night was dark, the ground was cold and wet. I had taken out the garbage and recycling bins and was headed inside to chill. Just at the moment as I was headed up the path to my back door, my devoted companion came charging around the back of the garage and at top speed came 60 lbs of muscle . It happened too quickly for either of us to dodge and in an instant there I lie on the cold wet stones on the path to my house. I fell forward and was worried I had hurt my face so just for a moment, stunned, I stayed put and took inventory.
It’s incredible what you think of when your head is under an evergreen bush and you feel the wetness of the ground soaking into your body. Immediately feeling foolish, I took stock of any pain that would need attending to and all felt good til I tried to stand. I realized my left foot was most likely broken. Carefully I climbed up the brick steps on my knees and crawled all the way into bed. There was little doubt in my mind that indeed a bone had snapped . The dog, feeling guilty and repentant, kept licking my foot saying he was sorry.
I began thinking how in a moment things can drastically change. My body, which years ago would have sprung back with a little bruise, had become brittle and rigid with time. While lying in bed looking up at the ceiling all kinds of fears came rushing in. Will I need surgery, will this be another part of my body forever aching and causing pain? Is this the moment where I am no longer able to care for myself and live alone? Will I no longer be mobile, able to get upstairs to the bathroom, drive my car? All these thoughts came rushing in during this forced reflection, things people my age have to consider. Did I do something stupid to cause it? If I am more careful in the future can I prevent accidents from happening. My imagination was running away with me and not in a good way. I remember saying out loud, “All right! Knock it off”. Tomorrow I’ll have it checked out and do whatever has to be done!
But the feeling still lingered that as we age we become more susceptible to silly little accidents that could cause a drastic change in our lives. So, do I spend the rest of my life carefully studying the landscape for mine fields or just dismiss the whole thing with the …whatever is going to happen will happen… attitude? Hopefully, somewhere in between is middle ground that doesn’t inhibit my lifestyle or cause it to come crashing down.
Asking for help has never been easy. As a child I believed that working hard, persevering, and striving for independence was the way to be. And since my mindset has always been to do it myself, asking others to lend a hand, especially with something I could somehow figure out on my own, is not easy for me. Even though I could save time, attempt challenging tasks more safely, and end up with a more refined end result, I almost always chose the solo route. My belief has always been that if I could accomplish a task by myself, I would be seen as successful, capable, maybe even better than those who needed assistance. I’m not sure how I developed that belief but it’s been part of my thinking for a very long time. Whatever the psychological underpinnings, I’m not very good at asking others to help me.
I am a fan of Stephen Covey. In his work on defining the behaviors of highly effective people, he talks of an evolution from dependence to independence and finally to interdependence. It is not enough for us to be independent and expect to live well in society, especially in this global society. He contends that we must collaborate and recognize how we need each other to grow into our best selves and accomplish our best work. From personal experience the beginning of a most successful business partnership began when a friend asked me to co-present a topic with which he was less familiar. This collaboration led to almost a decade of some of my best work and I’m convinced, could only have happened through the interdependent relationship we had developed. It all happened because of a request for help.
I actually enjoy helping others and appreciate when friends and family ask. It enhances my sense of connection, I feel good being there for others, and it sends a message that I have value. If I receive these benefits from helping others, it is likely that others will feel similarly if I ask them for help. My hesitation though, comes from a rationalization that everyone appears to be so busy dealing with the challenges of their own daily lives, that even if they gain something from helping, they are still being inconvenienced and I’m still adding more to their list of things to do. As I think about it though, perhaps this is a way of justifying my old habits and beliefs. Perhaps I can have faith that if they are too busy, they will simply say so.
I truly value the idea and practice of interdependence. I love the idea of Amish barn raising. In an article in the Family Handyman, Alexa Erickson writes, “Barn raising combines socializing with a practical goal of building or rebuilding a barn, and allows for everyone involved to feel helpful. With all hands on deck, no one has to work too hard, while also getting an opportunity to catch up with friends and family.”
In fact, for a period of time, many years ago, my family joined with two others to cut and split enough wood to feed our wood stoves for the winter season. Each of us ordered about eight cords of uncut tree trunks delivered in sixteen-foot sections. We would spend entire weekends together at each home cutting, splitting, and stacking. The children played with each other, we ate meals together, and we were able to get more work done than any one of us could have accomplished alone. And, we had fun in the process. I’ve tried to replicate that over the years. More recently, I asked a group of friends over to help me with the spring tasks of weeding, pruning, and mulching my gardens. I provided the meals and the after party! Once again, we got a tremendous amount of work done and had a great time doing it. A few weeks later, one friend asked us to help her start a garden. In one day about a dozen of us turned over the soil, built a fence, and planted her garden.
I cherish those times. For me they were brief but powerful experiences of being in community. And each one began with a request for help. Perhaps this is as good a time as any to begin to think of ways we can help each other.
Help Me if You Can
“When I was younger, so much younger than today… I never needed anybody’s help In any way…..” so go the lyrics of the famous Beatles’ song and they are so not true according to my experience. I have always needed help from infancy to old age. Asking for it? Well that’s another issue! In my early years I discovered if I played coy around the right people someone would say, “Do you need a hand with that?” Of course I did so once it was offered I jumped at the chance. Funny expression about needing a hand. I guess it is derived from the concept that most situations require lifting or carrying things hence additional hands are always welcome.
My situations were usually more involved. As the years progressed that coy technique became a little counter productive as I was supposed to feel a bit more self assured (borrowing another lyric from Help). I think that is the root of difficulty for me to ask for help. It would show my weakness, my insecurities at a time when I was maturing into adolescence and supposed to be coming independent. HAH! So I struggled. I had great ideas but many went unfulfilled because I just couldn’t get the words out, “could you help me out here?”
I wonder if it is a guy thing? Or I just know many insecure guys. When I have asked for help I have always been rewarded not just by the actual project but by the camaraderie and friendship that it enhances. But why is it so difficult to get those few words out? Other things are easy to say like, “I’m sorry,” “I Love you,” “Could you please leave me alone?” et al. But those “I need help” words just won’t come out easily.
Funny thing is, I love being asked to help somebody. Oftentimes just offer help before being asked. Love being asked for advice because that means somebody thinks enough of my intellect or opinions to seek it out. Makes me feel important and smart. Much more important to me than physical help as I carry the remains of a scrawny little kid around with me who couldn’t do much physically or mechanically, or technologically as Hen and Wal will attest to. Anyway, you get my drift! Let me know if I can be of any help!
Well George, the rest of that stanza goes:
But now these days are gone, I’m not so self assured Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors
That hones in on an interesting point. As we get older, what’s our greatest fear? A survey of seniors indicates that it is the fear of being marginalized – because we are no longer instrumental. Here’s the dilemma: we’ve reached a point where we realized that it’s not a crime to ask for help, but worry about the consequences of being seen as incapable or ‘past it’. Those consequences for older individuals can result in real life changes (such as how much independent living you may be allowed to engage in).
So when do you ask for help? Laurne Sanderson nailed it:
I need help It’s so hard to admit when I ask myself If I need help I need help
The question is HOW to ask for help. Now I had an elderly friend who sort set the right tone. He looked at asking for help as not “doing for me”, but rather “doing with me”. The focus is participation – helping one another. He would invite folks to work with him. Another friend adopted a “home and home” approach where one visit is devoted to a project of his choosing – and the next visit is the partner’s project choice. These are effective ‘guy-solutions’, due to the reciprocity inherent in the activity. No one feels indebted or inadequate. (Actually, most of the time, we are inadequate together, but in a good way)! In fact, struggling through projects with someone else — or several ‘someone elses’ — is a terrific opportunity for learning and laughing. At the least, it establishes a basis for later legends.
George mentions that he feels good when asked for his opinion. Of course! That just underlines the fact that he is still instrumental… the problem is when you are never asked for your opinion. That’s why I think it is important to build a social network of friends who can be asked for their opinions. It’s as important for them to be asked as it is for you to get the feedback.
It takes a village to raise a codger, so start early!
During this time of sadness and concern due to the intersection of this horrid election season and COVID-19, a time when little is happening to be positive about I actually became surprised. In fact, when I think of these last 7 or so months, where days pass by almost unnoticed, one sliding into the other without much distinction, it is hard to list anything good to take note of. We’ve been living more in our own minds and inside our homes oftentimes cause a kind of negative reflection and poor me-ism! I have been stuck in that space for a longtime until just recently.
I think it started about midweek last week. I was staring out my bedroom window as the sun was rising and I noticed something on my neighbor’s lawn that I never noticed before. It was always there I just never noticed it. There is a clump of white chrysanthemums in full bloom but the shape of it looks just like his white SUV parked next to it in the driveway. It hit me like a brick and I began to scan the whole neighborhood that I can see from my bedroom. It was amazing what I saw for the first time. Door decorations, a broken window, a package on Gail’s stoop that I realized has been there for at least a week. I was always too busy to look closely at things right in front of me. And that began some soul searching about what else I may have overlooked.
Last night, Sunday night, as is our ritual, my daughter and I had dinner at a favorite restaurant, sitting on the side deck, lit up by white lights and heated with towering propane heaters. It is our “check in” time and we share feelings and events of the week. We have been doing this since restaurants reopened. But this time I realized that as a result of these Sunday night meals together we had become really close. There it was in front of my eyes but I just never saw it til now. In this case it wasn’t just seeing something that was there but there was an incredibly warm realization of our connection and how important it was to both of us. We laughed and cried. We relived events that went on in the family over the years. We talked about my relatives and things she remembered about my parents and her uncle. She reminded me of times I embarrassed her as a teenager and chided me that she’s almost 50 and how I shouldn’t treat her like a teenager still….point well taken! When I drove her home and said good bye last night it was different. We hugged and kissed good night, but held on longer and looked into each other’s eyes and we were both tearing up! We both acknowledged who we are today, how life is different but how our bond grew a little tighter and closer because of what we are currently experiencing. Guess I have a lot of things to be thankful for that I wasn’t even aware of and may have never seen without the current situation we are all experiencing. That old expression, “take time to smell the roses” may apply. Glad I did!
Surprised by Joy (Apologies to CS Lewis)
My wife and I have vastly different modes of experience. Linda can sit on our deck and enjoy the birds, flowers, and outside awareness, becoming refreshed and renewed. Me – I usually see this as an impediment to finishing one of those tasks that I’m woefully behind on completing. So, when we sit together in an idle moment, my impatience usually trumps enjoyment.
Except last week.
On an enforced hiatus after returning home from my colonoscopy, I helped Linda disentangle a wild grapevine from a forsythia bush. We pulled out the invasive plant and in the process noticed the tendrils that wrap around host branches in order to support the climbing vine. The tendrils are tough, forming spirals and curling shapes. Hmmm, perhaps they could be used in a woodturning project that I’ve had on the back burner?
Well, I started unraveling the tendrils and cutting them off the main vine. After a small space of time, I realized a real peace of mind and enjoyment in harvesting these little guys – hence, the title of this piece: the feeling of joy sort of snuck up on me. Of course, the title of CS Lewis’ autobiography dealt with something far more significant, but I hope he would not mind me stealing his turn of words.
I kept at it for the good part of an hour, resulting in a box full of curlicues. I was having such a good time that I hardly noticed that it was raining. It resulted in a bit of an epiphany: ‘you don’t need much to be happy’. Even in this time of isolation and tension, happiness is literally right at our feet.
Part of my joy had to do with the anticipation of how the grapevine could be used in my project. I felt in the creative flow — and that is where I find my best self. Linda achieves that state much more frequently; I admire her capacity for joy.
Perhaps, I’ll try sitting on the deck for a while each day…
The Positive Side
“The bad things in life open your eyes to the good things you weren’t paying attention to before.”― N.M. Facile, Across The Hall
It looks like George and this author have much in common. And what I like most about George’s piece is that he uncovered this understanding naturally. It wasn’t like he read the quote and then told himself to pay more attention. He fell into it on his own, perhaps without even looking for it. I find it rare to “wake up” to those experiences without prompting, searching, or following the guidance of others. But when it does occur, it becomes something one owns and feels rather than something one learns and understands. Here’s wishing us all, such awakenings!
It is not easy to see joy and beauty and normalcy lately. If we’re fortunate to have friends and family who spend more time being and less time focused on the heavy and threatening issues before us, we can be uplifted when we spend time with them.
Thanks to George, I’m even more aware that looking deeper at what I see and do each day can be a powerful antidote to the toxicity of the negativism that surrounds me. And, like George, I’ve found my relationships with family have gotten stronger. Even the close connection I already enjoy with my daughter has changed. We have more honest and open conversations, I feel more accepted and appreciated (a term that carries much meaning to both of us), and I’ve gained a new-found respect for the way she juggles the additional pandemic challenges of a working wife and mom with humility, perseverance and love. My son and I have more contact than ever before. Our conversations are deeper and more thoughtful as we talk face to face via FaceTime on a regular basis. His care and understanding were always there but I’m more aware of the feeling behind his words and we smile and laugh together more than ever. And while they both live too far to enjoy an in-person weekly meal together, I recognize how much I have to be thankful for as they fold me into their busy and often overwhelming lives, with sincerity and love.
Recently, the Three Old Guys discussed what we thought would become the new normal following the pandemic. Many thoughts were offered and analyzed. But if those new normals include an increased sense and appreciation of the present moment and the maintenance of those meaningful relationships we’ve grown to further appreciate and nurture over these many months, perhaps the post pandemic future will be even better.
Once upon a time I won an award for achieving outstanding quality in an organizational context. I also taught six sigma concepts to managers in the company for which I worked. If you missed the six sigma effort, it had to do with reaching 99.99966% accuracy in deliverables or products by engineering efficient and repeatable processes. Sigma, of course, represents one standard deviation from the mean in a normal distribution (bell curve). Six sigma exudes absolute confidence in (close to) perfect achievement, all of the time.
Now you might suspect that the discipline of six sigma would also seep into the personal life of its practitioners, but sadly, that is not always the case. My workshop motto is “Oops!” and my crooked headstone will read “This Will Have to Do”.
How could a person sink so low?
Well, as I age, the goal of perfection seems further away. It’s like the Big Bang: the universe is expanding faster than my ability to keep up. Certainly there is a red shift in my ability-to-aspiration ratio. Pursuit of excellence has been replaced by pursuit of ‘okay-ness’.
Social psychologist Gordon Allport used to say that individuals generally adjust their goals, based on a recent track record of successes and failures. This concept was strongly brought home in a recent project I attempted – installing a planked ceiling and crown moulding in my second floor stairwell. Naturally, I researched different methods of cutting compound angles and I built a stair box to support my ladder. However, try as I might, I could not envision the correct method of cut… and due to a long standing reversal problem, one third of my stock was wasted. However, despite uneven walls, ladder balancing, and (what is the opposite of ambidexterity? – well, that), it got done.
In retrospect, I wonder if pursuit of excellence is at times hijacked by a simple desire for personal control – a goal that is usually self-defeating. In that regard, it’s easier to understand the artists who intentionally mar their work as a recognition of impossible standards. Clearly, my work embraces this wabi-sabi approach.
So these days, I’ve attuned my goals to pursuit of small successes… anything more falls into the category of ‘minor miracle’. But you know what – that’s okay. Maybe one sigma is enough…
Pursuit of Perfection
As Wally suggested, I’m one of those people who missed the Six Sigma program. But after admitting my lack of knowledge in this area I think in my field of work, perfection is rarely achieved and we settle for doing our best, at least the conscientious ones do! I can’t imagine what perfection even looks like in education, or in my second career of innkeeping, for the simple reason that our final product is people and I don’t think there is anyone perfect (to the chagrin of those who think they are!) How is perfection measured when you don’t know the results of your input for years to come? But loving what you do makes the striving for excellence easier. And when success is reached the pleasure and pride is shared with those who are benefiting from your hard work! That is a feeling that is unlike any hallucinogenic drug can deliver. And it propelled me to do it again tomorrow, maybe with modification or maybe not. I did that for 35 years and it never got old. Don’t get the wrong idea. As much as I would like to think that level of excellence was reached everyday in my classrooms, I know there were low days and bad days interspersed with the good ones but there was always tomorrow to win my respect back!
Innkeeping is similar. The end product is a happy tourist. I was good at that too. We always went out of our way to please and delight our guests. If they mentioned something they were looking for, kind of off the cuff, we arranged it for them to their delight. Cleanliness and good food are requirements in hospitality so that was a given. Excellence came in the trimmings. One of us met them at the door after dinner every night just to see how they enjoyed it. The fire was always going in the living room for late evening schmoozing with a glass of wine, and a willing ear to listen to their stories. But once again we were doing what we loved so striving for excellence was an achievable goal not an obligation to merely get through the day!
Now, however, with advancing age and social distancing the trouble is I have lost my purpose, my definition. I was a teacher, then an innkeeper, but now I’m a lonely old man with inertia. I do believe I’m probably pretty good at inertia, too. After all my entire life I strove for perfection. I know I’m good at it cause when I try to get out of my chair, there is this weird groaning noise and I realize there is no reason to get out of my chair. Looking for purpose is hard, and I’m not really good at it now, but hopefully as the world opens up new purposes may provide themselves to me and I will find another one I love and strive for perfection once again!
The Stigma of Perfection
I am a firm believer in personal growth and self-improvement. I have a dear friend who displayed a quote on the wall in her office that said, “If you’re not working on yourself, you’re not working.” But even the six sigma model allows for a small degree of error affirming that perfection is not the goal. And if the quest is for improvement in efficiency and effectiveness then doing the best we can under the circumstances can be pretty darn good.
I’m also a firm believer in “good enough isn’t.” Let me explain. I once worked for a boss who would often challenge my idea and requests, especially if they exceeded standard norms and resource distribution. Her response would usually boil down to, “Can you live with what you have?” Even now, I feel a visceral reaction to those words. Of course I could “live” with it. We don’t need even what we already have to “live.” But to excel, to improve, to energize, and to engage my staff and colleagues to provide excellence, good enough just wouldn’t do it. So when I talk about doing the best we can, I mean, doing the best we can which is definitely more than okay or good enough or even the infamous – “I’ll try” which, of course, allows for failure.
But none of this implies perfection. Early in my career, I would hear the wise words of my senior colleagues who would remind me that I’d never get it all done because no one is perfect. And while I understood them, I secretly strove to prove them wrong. Even when, at times, I may have reached a six sigma level, it not only didn’t last, but it took its toll from other parts of my life. Later on I would learn that balance and working to be my best self were necessary companions in living a good life.
Today my best isn’t what it once was. And while it’s better in one or two areas that have unfolded from the wisdom of many years of experience and self-reflection, it cannot, nor should it be, compared to days of yore. “Oops!” and “This will have to do” accompanied by an understanding and accepting smile may also be a sign that not everything that used to matter, still does and what didn’t appear to carry much significance, now holds more of our attention at doing the best we can.
My red-tinged maple
Duke by my side
The sharp line of shadow and sunlight on my garden
My own schedule
Freedom of choice to do as I may
Time to wonder while I wander
The gentlest of breezes
Endless blue sky
Learning to be in stillness as an end in itself
Accepting the rush of others without judgment
Trading later for now as well as I can
This is – enough.
Simplicity is a word I have not been familiar with for most of my life. Simple does not exist in my vocabulary, well at least my pre Covid Vocabulary. My life has always been complicated and I have succeeded in surrounding myself with other “complicated-lifed” people. I know there is no such term but the condition exists. See, maybe this is why my life has been complicated. Plus my progeny also learned to be complicated and so the cycle continued!
Then slowly at my increasing age several goal posts were reached. 35 years in education and then WHAM- retired. And immediately 25 or so lives were out of my jurisdiction but no, I opened an inn in Vermont and suddenly groups of people regularly entered and left my life. I loved both occupations but , come on- simple? Huh uh!
And then……Covid 19 came to
my house! At first there was the scramble to figure out how to socially distance and self isolate. Do I barricade my front door and move heavy objects in front of it? Worry and confusion muddled my life until I found a routine to follow and the realization that I would be spending most of my time alone, which immediately eliminated a huge portion of anti simplicity in my life.
I first was uncomfortable with the quiet. Initially people stayed off the streets. There was very little traffic noise in my area. Even the dog stopped barking because there was nothing for him to bark at! Simplicity was seeping into my life a little bit at a time. And I didn’t like it! But like a numbing gas seeping under my door I was getting used to the quiet and the simplicity of life. The biggest complication was what to have for dinner. Hell, I can always have pasta! Simple!
Then at night I began sitting in the dark on the back porch. My neighborhood is quiet at night and dark. I can feel the gentle breeze and the cool air and I have learned how to sigh. It sounds like this, “Aaahhhh!” My dog and I are pretty much in sink and often our sighs are synchronized! He gives me a lick on the face and then goes and cuddles in a pile with the two cats. I watch, feeling a little left out and wonder why we as people can’t get along as well. My wine glass is getting a little empty so I refill and sit back in my rocker and just as I close my eyes to chill and listen to the silence. I hear the train whistle as it comes over the trestle across the creek and I smile. I imagine hoboes hitching rides in the boxcars taking them to new adventures and I let my imagination go wild. Simplicity has its advantages!
Simple is a Reprieve
Simplicity is a reprieve. It is a respite from the daily ‘busy-ness’ and complications of daily life – I sincerely doubt it is a steady state. But, hey, I’m no expert – so a quick survey of the internet was in order. I checked out a paper from the Journal of the History of Ideas, called Simplicity, a Changing Concept. Unfortunately, it turned out to be too complicated to easily apprehend.
Next steps: poems, quotes, and sound bites – my go-to’s (now there’s simplicity in action)! Usually, poetry expresses larger concepts in fewer words… however, I found no real affinity in the poems that I looked up. Again, they were not delivered in the shape of simplicity. In fact, one poet wrote about morning: “Whether it’s sunny or not, it’s sure to be enormously complex—“(William Meredith, Poem About Morning). He goes on to suggest, why take it on again (i.e., the complexity), when you were duped yesterday. Yikes!
The philosophers have more succinct quotes. Lao Tzu wrote that he had only three things to teach: simplicity, patience, and compassion. I’m pretty sure that Lao Tzu did not write the pictograph instructions that came with the ‘shed-in-a-box’ that I just constructed to store my woodturning logs!
Even Thoreau, the prophet of the Walden Pond, may have been seeking refuge from more than life’s usual complications (although working in a pencil factory wouldn’t appear to be like a telenovela at first glance). Apparently, two years before he moved to the Concord woods, Mr. T almost burned it all down by starting a forest fire (the consequence of trying to barbeque a fish in a hollow stump). Perhaps he relocated because he was tired of being called ‘Hank the Skank’ by the angry townspeople. It sort of gives new context to his quote: “We are happy in the proportion of things we can do without”.
Even Albert Einstein weighed in with his three rules: a) out of clutter, find simplicity, b) out of discord, find harmony, c) in the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. To test this out, I reposed to my messy office, but after two days – dehydrated and weak from hunger – my wife showed me the path out of the room. Strangely, I did find some measure of harmony in the disorder, as though that was meant to be my steady state. However, in regard to Einstein’s third rule, I found that in the middle of difficulty lies more difficulties. (Try filling out a grant application for COVID Personal Protective Equipment).
In sum, I learned that my state of harmony lies smack in the middle of chaos — not apart from it. In homage to Hen, however, I found a quote I think he would like from author Sharon Salzberg:
“We can travel a long way and do many things, but our deepest happiness is not born from accumulating new experiences. It is born from letting go of what is unnecessary, and knowing ourselves to be always at home.”
This past winter slowly, almost imperceptibly melted into spring. Winter temps were very mild and snowfalls almost negligible. But as spring arrived so did Covid 19 and the accompanying isolation. Spring, usually accompanied with people spilling out of their houses, going to yard sales, nurseries, flea markets with their friends were stifled by the need to socially distance ourselves from one another. Spring temperatures revved quickly up to the 80’s and days became indistinguishable from summer.
The Spring months were lonely, solitary, fearful months as we began to learn more about Covid. Instead of spring clothes we adorned masks and carried hand sanitizer whenever we dared venture out of our domiciles. Days flowed one into the next unnoticeably, I lost track of the day and the date and it really didn’t matter. Because of the heat of this past spring I hardly noticed when the solstice arrived and the season changed. The brightest day and longest day of the year was hardly discernible because sequestered inside the house, little seemed different. Perhaps the only recognition of the change of season was the sound of mowers more frequently resonating around the neighborhood. Little social interaction between neighbors occurred cause we were all trying to feel our way safely through this pandemic.
Now with Labor Day over we are about to slide into the next season. As a kid, autumn was always exciting. In NYC we used to rake all the fallen leaves into huge piles on the edge of the road and jump in them. Running, leaping, screaming into the piles. Then our dads would light the pile of leaves at the curb and we would all stand around and watch them burn. That’s something you can’t do today but on any fall day, on any block in the suburbs of NYC, you could find a pile of burning leaves to warm your hands with. The smell of the burning leaves is emblazoned in my nasal cavity for life and the thought of it, not it’s presence, still warms the cockles of my heart! Autumn was for kids, for artists who tried to capture the incredible colors of the leaves, for bakers, with apple and pumpkin pies in the oven and their aromas wafting through the neighborhoods.
During my teaching years, fall brought the first day of school. I loved the excitement of setting up my classroom, loved decorating it for fall and meeting all the new students. During my innkeeping years in Vermont it was the start of “leaf peeping” season and dealing with a month straight of full houses and welcoming new people from all over the world. It was exciting, special, I was surrounded by people in both experiences and loved it. At the inn in the evenings it would mean schmoozing with guests in front of the raging fire and bottles of red wine. There was joy and laughter and incredible conversation with people from all over the country and around the world.
So how am I going to distinguish the arrival of fall this year? Of course, it comes with the 19th anniversary of 9/11, an event emblazoned in my mind and heart. We are at the beginning stages of socializing and I have noticed a red tinge on some maple trees. The light in my house has shifted slightly- the light from outside entering with a slight yellowing tinge. I am grateful for that. My dog and I wake up to a dark sky now which I can deal with because it is the natural progression of the world and it comforts me. But little else is different from summer. I suspect soon I will smell the wood burning stoves and fireplaces as they come into action and rubber gloves and masks will be replaced with knitted gloves and scarves, or at least I hope so! I’m too old to do flips into piles of raked leaves and you can’t burn them anymore at the curb. I’m ok with
those traditions passing but I would like to find a way to celebrate the autumn and would appreciate any suggestions as to how we can acknowledge the world turning during a smothering pandemic and once again discover some joy and youthful excitement. Suggestions greatly appreciated!
The lead in to autumn is my favorite time of year and September my favorite month. George is right — this has been a time devoid of social landmarks that help keep track of the seasons. It is a shame, because we like to celebrate the seasonal transitions: winter into spring, spring into summer, and the coming of fall. The sameness of limited activity through the pandemic has dampened our collective activity. Unless you are a potential super-spreader, you have likely narrowed your social outreach. Schooling, zooming, or working from home has you staring at a screen of one sort or another for a good portion of the day. Is it possible to get a “blue tan”?
Yet, there is something about the fall which you feel in your bones. The high pressure weather systems and cooler temperatures encourage me to move, finish projects, and prepare for winter. Autumn is large muscle time – outdoor projects and sports take center stage. Growing up, the Fall Classic was the World Series which was played out in September. It was football weather in October, marked by homemade confetti and the smell of oak leaves. These days it’s the start of the indoor tennis season. I don’t see this time of year as the end of summer so much as the beginning of a new round of events.
If summer is the celebration of flowers, the fall is celebration of leaves – and the harvest. Vegetable gardens are bountiful. Nothing better than fresh tomato sandwiches! Farmers markets share the bounty. It’s time to plant mums!
This year has dulled the social aspects of the seasonal celebrations and looking back, it seems as though we have been robbed of our preparatory rhythm. Rhythm is important. Many of my friends are having difficulty remembering the day of the week, so it’s no wonder the weeks have passed in homogenous similarity. George asked for suggestions… I’d offer these:
The nights are cooler. Take advantage open windows and regular sleep patterns
Buy new shoes. Go for a walk in your new shoes… be aware of the new bounce in your step
Pretend you are starting school – get up at a regular time; dress for the day
Prepare your garden for winter rest – spend an hour a day outdoors
Start an indoor project
Take vitamin D – less light, more Seasonal Affective Disorder
Less TV, more book
Celebrate the bounty of the season with fresh foods, a new coffee, a different tea
We can make our own seasonal markers. Make your kitchen table the center of the celebration. As Joy Harjo writes:
“The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.”
Moving Through the Seasons
My blogging partners raise the question of how the pandemic influences our movement through the seasons. Certainly the transition of summer to fall is most noticeable to those of us who have connections to schools. Whether we have children or family and friends who are school employees, the summer vacation typically comes to an abrupt halt after Labor Day and marks a shift from more leisurely living to more rigorous schedules
The pandemic has certainly impacted this tradition. While children and staff are back to school, they are returning in new and untested ways. Hybrid models of in-person to full time virtual learning have unfolded with uncertainty as each district and state interprets the data and readies their school communities for potential shifts and adjustments over the coming months. Add to that the challenge for working parents, who may or may not be working from home, to supervise their children when they are not in school, and we have a fall season like no other.
Yet autumn still signals us with diminishing daylight, cooler temperatures, changing leaves, and flowering grasses. The days no longer sit heavy with heat and moisture and the cooler temps and falling dew points encourage us to get up and out, to breathe deeply and to enjoy our natural surroundings. Duke and I have more energy and a quicker step during this time of year. In this pandemic fall season I am still able to hike, garden, split wood, and sit on the porch with my laptop. What’s changed is the lack of group gatherings around the fire pit and visits to see my grandchildren and to help out with their online learning while their parents are at work. Not being able to help is my biggest challenge and not knowing when this will change, adds yet another layer.
However, fall only lasts so long. Right now I am still able to have a friend or two over to sit on the porch for a meal or for a walk in the woods and to play outdoor pickle ball in the local park. When winter arrives, these options will no longer be available and I must ready myself for a season of solitude (SOS). While the last few ideas Wal offered can apply, like George asked in his opening post, I welcome suggestions for those indoor days.
I’m sitting at the dining room table with my grandsons. We’re discussing the use of semi-colons. Yikes, why? Well I read a squib in The Week, indicating that young people find it hostile when older people, such as myself, use a period in a text message. I wondered why and asked my two young consultants. My youngest grand said that periods are called for at the end of a thought and are not a signal of hostility; my older agreed with the The Week, feeling that the period expressed a position of stark finality – in the vein of a proclamation from an adult — and possibly too strong for a short informal text. He felt that lack of a period leaves a sense of open-endedness in the exchange. That led to a discussion about other punctuation, including the misunderstood semi-colon. I mined Wikipedia for its guidance on the “;” and we had a lively conversation on punctuation. Who’d a’thought?
Let’s segue to the well-used pronoun “I”. It is used four times in the paragraph above – four times in nine sentences. If we add the use of ‘my’ or ‘myself’, that is nine times in nine sentences. Sounds like it’s all about me, doesn’t it? Sometimes this is called ‘self-reference’ writing. Does it seem to you that self-reference is an over-used trope in both writing and speaking? Perhaps it is a sign of the times that one’s point of view overshadows all forms of communication. When was the last time you heard a reporter simply read the news, versus opine about it? Maybe it’s time to consider a different approach.
A book (Wake Up and Live) written in 1936 explores the idea that self-reference discourse freezes a person in their own opinions and hardens his/her/they/one’s point of view. Sure, describing a personal experience requires the use of personal reference, but perhaps that need not be dominant form of daily communication. The author, Dorothea Brande, suggests avoiding the use of “I” or “my” as an exercise in damping down the subjective or egocentric nature of our thinking. Her thesis is that substituting “we” in our conversation nudges a person to find common ground with others – and may in fact make a person a more interesting communication partner.
Walther Conkite was the trusted voice of reason. In an article written by Scott Simon for NPR, Simon says:
“Cronkite was a great broadcaster. He spoke to masses, not niches. He grasped that when the news was urgent, people would turn to the broadcaster not only for information, but for sincerity and calm. Millions of people felt better to hear from this man who seemed experienced, but not jaded. He had a visible sense of grief in tragedies, and a little boy’s delight in the glory of space shots. He had gray hair and hound-dog bags under his eyes, but ageless sincerity.
Wal (another Walter) nudges us past what is, to what might be, and in the case of Walter Conkite, what was)
The notion of speaking and writing from “I” is something well practiced, especially in the United States. Emily Landon, the chief infectious disease epidemiologist at University of Chicago Medicine writes:
“In all honesty, if we say, ‘This is like the flu, we’ll be all right,’ that attitude is going to harm other people,” Landon told The Post. “And it’s really hard to wrap your head around that, especially in American culture: We’re individualistic and we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and find a way to make it through. And that’s not going to work right now.”
On April 1, 2020 Jane Hyun wrote an article for Fast Company about the impact of culture on how we approach the current pandemic.
“Geert Hofstede, renowned social psychologist, measured the differences in individualism vs. collectivism across nations. The “hugger” approach is a prime example of American individualistic culture. It is expected that each individual act for him or herself, make their own choices, and that individual needs take precedence over the group’s. In South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and China, where the collectivist orientation is prevalent, preferences are given to the rights of the community, team, or organization and standing out is not encouraged; therefore decisions are made that take into account the best interests of the group. Employers (and institutions) take responsibility for their employees and recognition is given to groups and teams as a whole. In times of crisis where we need to move quickly to contain a pandemic, the collectivist orientation perspective has its benefits.”
We are a country that fiercely celebrates independence, so it is not surprising to find the “I” influence in our communications. Earlier in our culture, it was more common to find families living in closer proximity and each member accepting responsibilities that contributed to the greater good. It could also be argued that family elders were looked upon for their life experiences as well as the stories that bound the kinfolk. This interdependence was often necessary for the survival and success of the family. Perhaps this is a seminal time for us to consider a shift in our way of thinking that goes beyond the “I.” Perhaps, in addition to the benefits of independence, there are significant consequences we wish to avoid and the bygone benefits of interdependence are worthy of renewal.
Me, Myself, and I
I am the oldest member of this blog group. Henry won’t be my age for another 2 or 3 months and Wally, well he’s much younger! So, I’ll just say that if wisdom comes with years, I should receive respectful deference for my opinions! I’m glad Wally didn’t talk to his grandchildren about the use of exclamation points cause I use them all the time! Not that everything I say requires emphasis because of it’s value but I’m old and need humoring! I will, however, adhere to the concept: one sentence, one period at the end. I am not very cerebral. I think with my gut. I often use wrong parts of my body to do different functions than were intended. But I digress! After several readings of both Wally’s and Henry’s pieces I began to understand the concept of I-dentity. I slept on it…I contemplated over late night snacks on it, I mused over how to write without using it. And(never start a sentence with “and” nor end one with a preposition) I questioned what the heck was I going to write about! After several failed attempts I realized my writing was about my personal feelings and experiences. I always value hearing other people’s personal experiences and feelings about those experiences. In a political time when social discourse is mainly “them” vs. “us” I would rather hear about you personally. I am comfortable reading an entire story about someone in the first person. I don’t feel that the decline of western civilization is based on our ending I-dentity in our literary genre. I commiserate with 3 important people in my life I this time of pandemics, Me, Myself, and I. Therefore, I will write in the first person. For me my ideas, experiences, and struggles are valuable to be shared. If something I write gives someone an idea how to deal with something, I have done a good thing. If you are experiencing something that I may have already gone through, it may make you feel good to know you aren’t alone! I know that has happened to me. If just for a moment something I said put your mind at ease, I have succeeded! If something I said gave you an idea of how to deal with something, I have succeeded. If you chuckled, I have succeeded. It has to do with authenticity. This IS who I am. But now, one must stop and get one’s butt into bed!
We all have different thresholds for what moves an inconvenience into the struggle category. And, because words have different meanings for each of us, to acknowledge struggle doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone – anyone for that matter.
Some define struggle as “work hard to deal with or overcome a difficulty or challenge.” Notice this is written in the singular, which implies that we perhaps “struggle” with one thing at a time. But wait! It has been my experience that when one thing stands apart from the many, I am more easily able to marshal my energies to focus on a solution or best choice scenario. In fact, I am often energized in this case because most everything else is in synchrony, relative harmony, and in alignment. I have the luxury of allowing an unrelenting focus on my issue. Yum! Nope, that doesn’t define struggle for me.
For the purpose of this post, I need to pluralize the definition to include the feeling of being bombarded by multiple difficulties and challenges for a significant period of time. Add yet another factor of not always being able to clearly identify all of the assailing projectiles, and you might better understand where I’m coming from when I say, I’m struggling. And now add the component that there is no convincing evidence to support an end-date by which most of these trials will resolve. Ugh!
I recently went for my physical exam. Prior to and throughout the process, I was asked as a matter of a new standard protocol, if I was feeling depressed. Is this not a sign of that many of us are struggling during these times?
It’s one thing to know about struggle and how to address it. It’s another thing to be able to step back to see yourself more objectively as others may see you. But it’s an entirely different thing to be able to apply what you know and what you’ve learned to move forward toward improvement and out of that almost seductive black hole that spirals downward into an emotional abyss of despair.
Throughout my life I’ve ridden the roller coaster of good and bad, happy and sad, fulfillment and desire, success and failure. When I look back though, I realize how thrilling it has been, how much joy I’ve felt, and how many people I’ve interacted with and with whom I’ve influenced and been influenced by. The bumps and bruises of the wildest part of the ride have left scars, yes. But they also taught me when to pull the seat belt tighter and when to loosen it, when to hang on tight and when to weave and bob and be more flexible. Each incident gave me more reason to keep at it. It always, always, got better.
If you asked me last week, I would have told you the current events in my life during these extraordinary times have given me good cause to say I’m struggling. Today I would say I’m not! Not so much has changed since last week. But the few simple things that did, allowed me to remember to have faith, that life is good, it all works out, and the struggle makes me stronger.
Some things that help me with struggle:
Reach out to friends, especially those who know how to listen.
Nature heals, even when it’s too damn hot to feel it.
Exercise, keep moving, motion is lotion (for my old achy joints)
Hug – thank goodness for my dog Duke. (He’s much softer than the trees.)
Get back up – every time
Keep an attitude of gratitude, even when you’re not feeling it.
Drink chocolate ice-cream sodas with whipped cream. (My two secret ingredients are a splash of heavy cream and a squirt of raspberry syrup.)
Be helpful to someone other than yourself.
Life is uncertain so eat dessert first. (Did that last week with George and Wal!)
A Struggle Snuggle
I’m glad Henry raised this topic. I’ve struggled my entire life for all kinds of things, mostly trying to hide who I really was. That was a struggle that took somewhere upwards of 40 years to resolve. It was a struggle I had to manage all alone and without help, advice, or encouragement from anyone. That’s probably why it took so long!
Historically, I have always had trouble asking for help from anyone. For most of my life there have been unresolved issues that were easier to let sit and fester than to resolve by asking for help. Simple kinds of things, decisions about career and family, daily life stuff. Just let time pass, they will work themselves out. Of course my internal worry system would have time to kick in and often built the struggle way out of proportion from what could have easily been resolved yesterday.
But I notice now we all seem to be struggling. Not just from the virus and the quarantine but the news cycle as well. The struggle is an internal struggle. How do I deal with the loneliness, the isolation, the news of hardship and pain, the inertia that months of separation have allowed to set in? Things are easing a little and I find it becoming an effort to get out of my chair and do things. I miss people and touch. Reaching out isn’t easy. Each evening as I climb into bed I have an overwhelming feeling of sadness oftentimes driving me to tears. The sadness is sometimes brought on by something I saw or read about someone else’s misfortune but sometimes it is just a heavy dark sheet that covers me in self pity! The cause undetermined other than these crazy times in which we live and the lack of knowing if letting time pass will bring back NORMAL!
Things are so strange. The other day my neighbor introduced me to someone who was working on his house. I reached out automatically and we shook hands. Immediately we both apologized but it was automatic, sincere and comforting to do it. Something so natural has become another struggle. Common daily practices become part of the problem.
Living alone now has intensified my struggles. Not because I would have asked for advice or help but because my struggling is always easier with a snuggle when someone just understands you are going through something that a hug, cuddle, or pat on the back could help. I, like Henry, have a dog to hug who isn’t a bad snuggler and seems to have a sixth sense about when the dark sheet starts to cover me. We are all dealing with our own demons, and I’m afraid each of us has to find our own way to slay them!
Struggle — whether you oppose, contest, fight, endeavor or find yourself in a conflict, encounter, or skirmish – means you are rubbing against the grain.
I admire Hen’s ability to profit from a struggle involving multiple and/or serial difficulties, but I can’t seem to embrace a positive position on this subject. Mandy Kloppers writes: ”With struggle there is no joy and rarely any reward. In fact, for some people struggle is the reward. They are a little lost without it. There is comfort in what you know.”(mentalhealthnet).
Perhaps that better describes my position – I expect to struggle, so I do. I expect to contest, churn, and endeavor – but not to enjoy it. When it seems like a flight of arrows forces you to tuck and roll – my primary focus is simply to survive. Generally, I put my head down and grind through it. When it’s over, the overwhelming feeling I have is relief – and the satisfaction of remaining somewhat intact. And perhaps a little lingering adrenaline high.
Hen says what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The Jamaican version goes ‘what doesn’t kill you, just gives you gas’. Struggle is a case of indigestion with a heartburn topping. Struggle is roadwork on your metaphysical highway. Struggle of any kind looks just fine in the rearview mirror, but there are plenty more visible in the road ahead. What’s to like?
I suppose I’m a big fan of inertia in the sense of moving in a straight line at a constant speed, unimpeded.Inertia isn’t laziness – it’s the need to channel energy to stay on track to reach a targeted goal. George is right: most of our struggles are internal. My guess is that many internal struggles are manufactured distractions. Perhaps that’s why Matthew Wilder’s anthem sings:
Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my stride Nobody gonna slow me down, oh no I got to keep on movin’ Ain’t nothin’ gonna break-a my stride I’m running and I won’t touch ground Oh no, I got to keep on movin’
Granted that presumes a limited amount of self-reflection. But I can identify with the aspect of powering through some internal doubts or struggles in order to face the basic conditions of life: we do our best in the moment, understanding that we have limited control of all the variables and we may not make all the right choices, but we move on and hopefully live to fight another day. In the end, it is not clear that ‘struggling’ improves the choices that we do make. And yet, I’ll likely continue to struggle with this concept.
During this quarantine and period of reflection my daughter and I have been ordering in food on Sunday evenings and the three of us(my dog) enjoy each other’s company for a couple hours. We sit in her living room and watch movies on her super gigantic Smart TV screen. The movies we have watched are mostly historical in nature and have led to some very interesting conversations afterwards.
Let me preface this by explaining that I am the sole survivor of my family with the exception of my kids. I regretted not asking a million questions of my aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents. Not to mention my brother who for the last few years before his death was the verifier of family lore and associated historical family events!
Last Sunday we settled down with Mexican food and watched a movie called, “Motherless Brooklyn.” It took place in the 50’s in Brooklyn and Queens and dealt with racial discrimination and unethical politics. Very timely and appropriate to today’s conditions. After the movie ended my daughter asked if that was what it was like in the 50’s in the boroughs. Of course the cars and the architecture took me back to my childhood, but so did the politics of the time and the accents. And at that moment I had that “AH HA!” realization. I said to her that I regretted never asking my family about so many things. Did my grandparents ever become citizens? What was life like in the little hill town of Pietrapertosa in Basilicata? What happened to Gramma’s brothers when they arrived in Ellis Island and had their names changed from Matiacchio to Madison and why did they lose touch? And a million other questions that I am still sorry I never asked.
I then told her, with tears in both our eyes, to ask away. Now is the time! We don’t know how long we have together to fill in the blanks, and I don’t want her to regret living with all those unanswered questions like I have to do. Her questions began to spill out. She had heard stories all her life about Holy Mary, better known as Aunt Mary, who we would always laugh about because she would always tell us to say a Holy Mary, meaning Hail Mary, after we prayed each night. My brother and I coined that name for her and would laugh whenever we thought of her. She was my dad’s uncle’s wife. My daughter never met her but heard about her her whole life. And who was Muddy Ette? Another name she had heard about her entire life and had no idea who we were talking about. That was Aunt Eleanor’s best friend in NYC who grew up with her. Her parents came from the same town in Italy as our family. Her name was Marietta but with our regional accent it sounded like Muddy Ette!
We sat that night laughing and crying together as her questions kept coming. I know there will be more thoughtful questions coming and I welcome them. I look forward to sharing whatever I know about our family with her. It was a significant moment in our relationship and so glad I had thought to open that door for her. It was apparent she has a lot of questions to ask. I savor the opportunity to share these moments with her! We said good night and gave each other a long overdue, real, long lasting, unmasked hug for the first time in 5 months. Covid-19 be damned!
The Story of Us
I took away two major conclusions from George’s piece: a) the sweet need to connect to a story and b) the importance of making the story interesting.
After all, we are simply the latest product of a long line of forebears – we’re one chapter in a very large book. In a world that hungers for prequels and sequels, it’s no wonder that we dig in to our origin stories – the story of us. What’s really nice is the closeness it can bring to the teller and the listener. It says you are not alone in the wide world – and we have special stories that should be handed down, so that ‘our’ people are not lost. How many of us have boxes of old photographs that are not labeled, featuring individuals we can no longer identify? I know that I do. Seems a shame.
Of course, our stories need to be interesting in the telling. Carl Jung called this myth making – in a positive sense. A friend of ours – possibly, the best story-teller I have met – explained it this way: she read a book which detailed a series of dramatic events in an elderly woman’s life. However, the book did not develop the characters very well; the facts were simply stated. So, even though the events were compelling, the reader remained disengaged, because it was hard to care about the central character. She said that it could have been an excellent multi-generational saga, if the author had spent some time putting the events in a larger context, making the character more three dimensional.
George uses the story teller’s hook to make his history interesting: providing monikers that have a back story. It makes Holy Mary and Muddy Etta special. They have earned a brand for which they are remembered! They are elevated into heroes and heroines – legends of a sort. Our story teller friend also populates her tellings with individuals whose Damon Runyon sobriquets include Wayne the Flame (alleged arsonist), Lancer the Romancer (local playboy), and Dead Betty’s house (used to be Live Betty’s). Now, here are characters who are larger than life (except poor Betty)! It makes you want to know more about them.
How do you pass along your family stories?
Tell Me a Story
When my grandchildren were younger, the first thing they would ask me as soon as we got into my car was to tell them a story. It didn’t matter if it was something I recently remembered and hadn’t yet told them or if it was one of the stories that they heard me tell dozens of times before. Over the years we’ve spent hours laughing at my childhood and family adventures and mishaps. They especially enjoyed hearing stories of their mom when she was a little girl.
As they got older and it was harder for me to infuse my energy and silliness into stories I’d told over and over, so I introduced them to a new approach. We began to use “…and then!” to mix fantasy with family memories. We took turns starting a story, usually made up, and after a few minutes of developing a character or plot the speaker would stop at a critical juncture and turn to the next person and say, … and then! Of course it was then that person’s turn to continue the story in his or her own way. It provided wonderful opportunities for us to share ideas, our fears, and, of course our silliness, while passing the time and having fun.
More recently, we would play “farm.” Each of us assumed a role as a member of a family who lives on a farm and, while tending to our animals, had to prepare for a town festival on our property. Either we were driving to pick up materials or food or delivering horses or pigs, or we would scatter about the property of whose ever house we were at, pretending to set up booths and parking areas, etc. I’m wondering if these times will be the family stories my grandchildren will tell when their children ask them about the “old days.”
George reminds me of the importance of family connection and history through story and conversation. While my playtime with my grandchildren is now limited, I do spend more time with my children on the phone or in weekly video-chats. Perhaps the next time I speak with them, I’ll ask them if there are any questions they have or stories they might want to hear of days gone by.
We’re sitting in our truck, parked along the periphery of the church parking lot. It’s a hot morning and we’re taking advantage of the shade provided by the catalpa trees. There are a number of vehicles around the lot, spaced like a string of pearls. Only two brave souls are in the middle of the asphalt field.
Each of us had options: we could have stayed home and ignored a call to worship. We could have stayed home and participated by Zoom. Or we could drive to the church and park. The folks who drove to the church are listening to the pastor broadcast from the sanctuary on our FM radio… his broadcast range is about a quarter mile radius. We are listening to the organist sing and play from her Zoom connection. I look at the other folks, all gray headed and think: how many more years can this last, before we all die off and leave the church without a congregation? What would be the consequence?
When we three old guys started this blog, one of the main objectives was to express how we experience the aging process – things that you aren’t taught when young. I would tell my grandkids that you might expect that worship in a group is an act that you may find more pleasing as you grow older. If you are wise, you may realize it sooner than later.
Certainly, I didn’t. The idea of attending a worship service seemed a waste of time when I was a teenager and young adult. There were better things to do than spend time in a boring service with hypocrites that prayed in one fashion, but acted in an entirely different fashion. Besides, who has a monopoly on the ‘real truth’?
So, why are we at this service in the hot sun? I think there are two reasons: a) the act of exercising faith is important personally and collectively b) we are community-building.
My opinion is that by worship, one humbles oneself before the great unknown. In addition, it is part of a compact to improve oneself morally. It is a discipline that is common to all faiths. It is a visible act, witnessed by others that says I’m willing to do better, to be better — to think of others. Worship in a group multiplies the effect in my mind – it’s an implied public commitment. Participants are joining in common purpose, if only for an hour or so. Is it perfect – are we perfect? Of course not. But it is brave. And what would be the consequence of never honoring the possibility that we are purpose-made? The consequence would be the negation of the second reason: community-building. As an example, our congregation is a mix of people with all kinds of varying opinions. Yet we put all that aside for a weekly meeting to focus on spiritual matters. People chose to drive to this place of worship to sit in hot cars – because we have a need to see our neighbors and recognize a common purpose. Showing up expresses mutual respect. I call this community-building. It is quiet affirmation that the larger community in which we live still binds us together, regardless of our political persuasion, personal pursuits, or aspects of our lives where we miss the mark. We are not here for a party, nor for protest – but rather to remind ourselves that there is a great beyond which deserves homage.
Note: the image is from a 1945 painting by Marianne Appel, who was a member of the Woodstock School of Art. She later focused on puppeteering with Bill Baird and later, the Muppet Show. She remained active in the arts community in Woodstock. I wanted to reference a local artist who depicted a community working together — what better than a barn raising? Although this Indiana community is pretty homogeneous, it shows inclusion of all neighbors, regardless of age or sex. In other words, I value the spirit of people working together to build something; doing the heavy lifting made easier by many joined hands.Do you have a favorite piece of art that represents your view of community building?
Being in Community
I appreciate this message Wal leaves for his grandchildren. Faith, self-improvement, and community are words that hold great meaning for me.
I no longer worship as a member of a religious congregation but I once did. I fondly remember an instance when we were all singing a well known, uplifting prayer and my friend glanced at me and smiled. It was a look that said, isn’t it great to be standing here with all these people, giving thanks and feeling good? It was a powerful moment that could only happen in community.
Years ago I was a member of The Caring Community. We defined our community as a place where people felt valued, accepted, and connected. We came together regularly for two reasons: to participate in personal growth and to provide service to others. I never thought of it as a religious organization but it served similar purposes. We were a diverse group and while we did not live in the same area we were committed to each other and to our intention. We had lots to celebrate despite (or because of…) our challenges and struggles. For five years we endured and when we realized we could no longer sustain the rigors and responsibilities of our group, we met in solidarity to honor what we had learned and experienced and then went our separate ways. I am wiser, more self aware, and a stronger person because of this amazing collaboration of people.
For fifteen years I was part of another extraordinary community – my place of work. And because we built this union of some seventy-five people around respect, hard work, cooperation, celebration, and fun, it never really felt like work. It was, in many ways, a second home for me.
Recently, I was part of an Alliance created to provide support and guidance for a friend at her request. It was an example of a brief but powerful community of service. I hope to be part of one again in the near future.
And finally, during this time of continued isolation and restrictions due to risk of exposure to COVID-19 I realize how fortunate I am to be in community with two remarkably wise and caring men, Wal and Geo. Working, serving, and playing with groups of people continue to be, as Wal puts it, the ties that bind. I always feel more complete and fulfilled when I am part of such a community.
The Need to Belong
Ever since I started school I always wanted to fit in. Even at a young age I knew I was different but didn’t understand it. (That just intensified my need to be accepted. Later on, I would define that difference and still struggle to be a part of a group). I was too small and too skinny to be much good at sports. In school it was hard to be a part of a group if you couldn’t make a basket because of your skinny arms and lack of muscle structure. Team sports was an opportunity to fit in with a group that was denied to me. And, though I was popular in high school, I never had a clique to belong to.
Finally, in college I was accepted into a fraternity and for the first time I had a group of friends with a common purpose and a place to belong. It made me feel special and accepted, and made friends that have lasted a lifetime.
The need to belong followed me into my adult life and I became a part of groups with common purposes that changed as careers and interests evolved. I became president of my kids‘ PTA, president of my local teachers’ union and active in regional teachers unions. When there was no professional group to join I helped organize one for innkeepers to talk out common problems and encourage tourism to our area in Vermont. I even fulfilled a lifelong dream and auditioned for a part in local community theatre where I achieved the official part of Salesman #1 in “The Music Man“ and suddenly I was a part of a cast of some 40 people working together to entertain our community. That further led to joining the Northeast Chordsmen, a barbershop chorus out of Dartmouth College. All of these organizations had the common purpose requirement that I so desperately needed all my life!
Now in retirement, that need is still present. Unlike Wally, my faith has always been individually practiced, praying silently or out loud at bedtime! It gives me comfort in that I usually pray when something is eating away at me and it forces me to focus on the prayer rather than the irritant until the irritant lessens!
Today I belong to two very important groups in my life with common goals that help me find purpose. I have a community of LGBTQ friends where I finally fit in like the last piece of the puzzle waiting to be positioned to create a beautiful landscape. The other and equally important group is this 3 member blog that has become all the more important to me due to this crazy pandemic with which we are all infected.
I’ve always been drawn to animals. When asked what animal I would choose to be other than human, I immediately think of wolf. But, since I can’t become a wolf or have one in my home, I’ve enjoy the companionship of dogs.
When I was eight and my father still lived with us, he brought home, what he said, was a direct descendant of Rin Tin Tin, a dog hero in a 1950’s family western TV series. We named this beautiful German Shepard, West. He was a perfect pet with one minor exception; he hated children. And, since my sister and I were children as were our friends, having a dog that growled at us and bared it’s teeth every time we approached, didn’t bode well for anyone. West was returned shortly after he arrived.
Mickey came next. My parents got him from a nearby farm when he was a puppy and he lived with us until he wandered off to some unknown resting place when he was seventeen. He was a beautiful Shepard Collie and while he was no relation, he was the spitting image of Lassie. In addition to his kind and playful attitude, he was a problem solver. We had an outdoor kennel for him but he dug tunnels under the fence and would sit on the front porch as if to say, sorry, I need to be free. When we tied a long rope to his collar and the other end to a stake in the ground, he turned around, backed up until he slipped the collar off, and headed to the front porch. So, we replaced the collar with a harness. And then we watched him from the window as he turned around, backed up, put one paw through the strap, then the other, slipped the entire restraint off and, well you know, proudly walked to the front porch. Finally, we would put him in the garage when we needed to keep him in (my mom didn’t allow dogs in the house). This seemed to work until we arrived home from shopping one day to find him sitting on the porch. The two-car garage door was closed and no one was around. The second time this happened we decided to see if Mickey had enlisted the aid of another or if one of my friends was playing a prank. We put him in the garage, closed the door, and peered through a crack in the basement door that led to the garage. He walked over to the side of the double door, grabbed the rope that hung to the side, backed up with great effort pulling the double wooden door up maybe a foot off the ground and then, released the rope and dove though the opening, as the door came crashing down. I enjoyed his antics but what I loved most was the companionship Mickey gave me.
While I was in college I met several dogs that came in and out of my life (and other dog loving students) at different times. Thor was a jet black German Shepard who would often come to the pond behind our dorm and loved to fetch the puck as we attempted to play hockey. He soon realized we wouldn’t follow him if he left the ice so he learned to run and slide, as he stayed close enough for the chase but never close enough for us to catch him without great effort and coordinated teamwork.
Wazu was a campus beagle who wandered daily for food and hugs and seemed to be one of the happiest creatures I’ve known. He would often join me on short local hikes.
Sam was a large mutt who would find me, often, and who would walk me to classes, wait for me to come out, and walk me home. In the extreme ups and downs of college life, it was comforting to know Sam and Wazu seemed to be there for me. I assume he gave many college kids a similar gift.
In my senior year, I happened upon Josh, a small, white, terrier mix who belonged to someone I knew but can no longer remember. For some reason he needed to find a home for Josh who had a personality that was compatible with everyone who met him. My future wife’s parents and Josh were a perfect match and home he went to live on Long Island. Josh was so friendly that when my in-laws’ house was burglarized, he remained in the house throughout the experience, with little to no trauma. In fact, we’re convinced he either unlocked the door for them or at least showed them around the house.
Soon after beginning my teaching career, the parent of one of my students offered me one of the kittens from her cat’s litter. My wife and I were both working and traveling about an hour each way so the idea of a self-sufficient cat seemed to fit the bill. Mew (short for Bartholomew), was jet-black, full of piss and vinegar, and used his claws, often. We were given the name of a retired vet who would neuter Mew for far less than the usual fee. You know the phrase “you get what you pay for?” With his shaky hands and uncertain manner and Mew’s fierce dedication to independence, we witnessed what looked like a movie scene where the mad scientist was chasing the cat from hell all over a large cluttered room with a hypodermic. Finally, in desperation, the former doctor (we wondered if he was ever a licensed vet) threw the syringe like a dart into the cat and then pounced on him to plunge the tranquilizer into his system. As fate would have it, it wasn’t enough and now we have a groggy but angry wildcat stumbling through the room as the determined doc reloaded for another dose. By now we decided it was too late to grab the cat and leave so we sat horrified as Mew was knocked out and neutered. After the surgery, the vet announced that our cat might not survive and needed to stay with him overnight. Convinced that this man who was nursing his bloody hands from the scratches Mew induced, was determined to seek revenge and make sure recovery was not an option, we put some money on the table, grabbed the cat and ran for the car. After a night and a day of care and attention, Mew awoke and went on to live a long and even more fiercely independent life.
Years later, I took on a second job managing an after-school center for elementary aged children. It was there that I met Cocoa, a beautiful bronze colored collie mix.
He lived in a small apartment with one of the kids in the program and the child’s mom. She would often bring him to the center to pick up her son and it was there that she mentioned she needed to give up Cocoa for numerous reasons. I brought him home for a weekend on a trial basis and while he and Mew had little to do with each other, Cocoa was hit with our two children. He was a mellow, gentle soul who loved everyone, including the neighborhood bully dog that would frequently beat him up every time Cocoa approached him. Not necessarily what you would call a quick study, but he added many years of pleasure and love to our lives.
Josh, who had been living with my in-laws, joined Mew and Cocoa after my father-in-law died and my mother-in-law moved to an apartment. The three got along well and each, in their unique way gave us joy and affection that would last beyond their years.
Fast-forward to a time when many things had changed, all three pets having lived twelve, fifteen, and seventeen years were gone and our children were now adults. My wife and I were no longer together and I was once again ready for another pet. My adult children came to visit to help me find an appropriate rescue dog at a local shelter. The match was instantaneous as we all agreed that Jeb, a three-year old black scrawny mutt who was a mixture of Shepherd, Newfoundland, and Rottie was the one for us. After we brought him home the kids went to visit their mom. When they returned they gave me a newspaper clipping of a rescue dog being advertised as needing a new home that their mom had clipped for me knowing I was in the market. Unbelievably, it was Jeb, the same dog we had just brought home. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. Jeb, who grew to over one hundred healthy pounds, exceeded his life expectancy and died well into his seventeenth year.
Now there’s Duke. His alluring photo on a dog-rescue website captured my interest and that of my partner. He was being shipped up from a kill shelter in West Virginia to a pet supply store for adoption on a first come, first served basis. The doors opened at nine but we were advised to come early, as there might be a crowd. So, despite the heavy snowfall that morning, we arrived shortly after seven only to find twenty-six other pet lovers waiting on line, in the snow and cold with almost two hours left until opening and more and more people arriving every few minutes. When we were finally allowed in to meet the dogs, we waited while one of the hopeful adopters was getting to know Duke. When she stepped aside we sat by his side and were hooked. A member of the adoption team approached and asked if we wanted him, we were clear in our desire to have him but mentioned there was another who had expressed an interest and we didn’t know how the process worked. After a quick check of the list of visitors that was written in order of arrival time, it turns out we were one place in front of our competition. We later found out that the person second in line had also come for Duke but fell in love with another dog. Another case of Karma?
Now it’s just the two of us as we give each other comfort and companionship during these limited times for social interactions. I am so thankful for this guy. And, so is my former partner who Duke happily gets to visit from time to time.
I Paws for a Moment…
When we moved into Queens I was 5. My dad and mom got us a dog. We named him Tim and he was a sweet mutt. But never having had a pet he scared me cause he moved fast and licked everything! Shortly after that my brother “found” a puppy and brought him home and now we had Tim and Tiny. I got over my fear and picked up a few cats over the early years. Tiny and Tim died when I was entering high school, and my dad bought a pedigreed German Shepard he named Baron Ludwig Von Vlushinger, better known as Sarge! I picked up a few parakeets along the way and several goldfish. One lived in a round flat bowl for 6 years and was big enough to eat by the time he passed. We called him Goldie. That was the story of my early years through high school.
In my senior year of college I snuck a puppy into my apartment every night for 4 months who moved with me to my first teaching job and our first house. He met a rather unfortunate demise at the hands of my neighbor who shot him one day and never told us. We found out months later and moved into the big city of Kingston immediately after. My wife surprised me with Dagmar when I got my masters degree. She looked like a black Irish Setter. Dagmar lived with us for 17 years. She was a sweety and learned to love the kittens and strays my kids brought home, including a great chocolate lab mix called Daisy! He came along with a beautiful all white kitty named Pegasus who lived a long and healthy life many years after moving to Woodstock. All my pets were family members! My last dog came after my wife and I split. Julie was a Shepard mix and I found him one day driving through the country when I saw a sign saying, “PUPPIES.” How can you pass something like that!
Fast forward- years go by, the dogs passed of old age, I retired and was moving to Vermont to own and operate an inn. Couldn’t own dogs cause they wouldn’t insure you if you did. But I managed to adopt two beautiful little kittens who loved mingling with the guests!
Fast forward again to the present. Sold the Inn, moved back to NY and for the first time EVER I am alone with my two kitties. But I missed having a dog! So I began my search. I went online, visited shelter after shelter , nothing! After over a year of searching I had given up but had some quilts from the inn that I wanted to donate and went to my local SPCA to help them out and just casually asked if they had any puppies. I was told they just took a mom and 3 pups in the day before. They let me into the play room and released all of them. I sat on the floor and this one guy came over to me, crawled in my lap and laid down. The rest is history! But this time is different. In the past there were other people playing with them and feeding them, usually my dad. They were always his dogs. Then my kids were there and played with them and I was at work. Suddenly there was no one but me and my little pup! Nothing took me regularly out of the house. Devon followed me everywhere, if I sat down he sat on me. If he was hungry he let me know, if he had to go out he pulled my hand. Suddenly we were reading each other’s body language. He began to sense my moods and knew when to stay away and when to cuddle. It was a whole new experience with my dog. I never shared this with my previous pets because there were always other distractions. Then came COVID-19 and Devon and I have become the best of friends. We finish each other’s sentences! Without him I’m not sure how I would have made it through the sheltering in place. I will forever be grateful to him. He is my buddy!
Well, I love pets, but dislike the term ‘pet’. I prefer ‘companion’ – or even ‘familiar’, if we can get past the supernatural subtext — or ‘partner’, if the animal is purpose-bred or used for a functional project, such as hunting or herding. The point is that there ought to be an implication of choice, mutual benefit, and some autonomy in the relationship. Pet seems entirely too one-sided.
That said, a healthy relationship with an animal companion is amazing. For a young kid, it teaches respect and responsibility – but more important: empathy and love. At least that’s how it worked with me through a succession of cats, dogs, guinea pigs, turtles, chameleons, and one surprisingly large lab rat (Rosemary). But my favorite companions have been dogs – and I’ll focus on three.
The first was a slap-happy, peripatetic Boxer provided by my uncle, after my Dad’s German Shepard (Dick) passed away. My parents asked me to name her – and without any hesitation I said “Juno Virginia”. I don’t think they expected that moniker from the four year old sitting in the back seat of the 1950 Plymouth. They laughed and the name stuck. Juno was an outside dog who was generally tethered in the dirt floor, detached garage. Letting Juno off the leash would result in a neighborhood manhunt – she was an official flight risk. Happy to follow her nose, she would have reached the Pacific quicker than Lewis and Clark – I should have called her Juneau, Alaska! Over the years, we have received postcards from Juno in a number of exotic places.
A longer term companion through grade school and college was a Dachshund titled Baron Dach von Spritzen, AKA Doc, AKA Rug Rocket. Doc’s last appellation was derived from his habit of sliding across the carpet on his belly. He would rev up, tuck up his front legs, and surf the rug, sliding past my brother and me as we watched TV or played a board game. Doc literally rubbed all the fur off his chest. When we took Doc out in our small runabout in Great South Bay, he would launch himself like a canine dolphin through the shallow water, leaping rather than swimming. Doc had a zest for life and lots of affection to share — how could you not love such a being? He was both friend and confidant. I’m reminded of the Kingston Trio song, ‘Speckled Roan’: “I used to ride a little old speckled roan. I told him lots of things I wouldn’t have told at home”. I shared all my thoughts with Doc as he laid his head on my leg in-between surfing sessions.
One Thanksgiving I came home from college and called for Doc – but no Doc appeared. My Mom confessed that she had let Doc outside to run instead of walking him, as was our custom. He ran into the road and was killed. It’s hard to tell which of us felt worse. I missed the old guy terribly – and the subsequent animal boarders did not begin to fill his absence. There was a succession of nasty, abused rescues my softhearted Mom brought home: Chico (AKA the Couch Cobra), Charlie, the four-legged prostate (AKA the Urinator), as well as the canine formerly known as Snarl – who didn’t stay long enough for a naming ceremony.
However, good things eventually happen. After Linda and I were married, we rented the first floor of a house overlooking the Hudson. Our next door neighbor was an elderly lady who was in the process of moving back with her children – she begged us to take her dog, a Collie-Shepherd mix she named Beauty. We rechristened him Toby and he was a pleasure. Toby was likely between a year and two when we received him and subsequently moved with us through several relocations over twelve years. Initially, Toby stayed outside in a fenced-in area, until our upstairs neighbor came home drunk and left the gate open – and then backed over poor Toby with his truck (he later confessed what had happened). We came home to find Toby huddled on the open porch, quietly enduring the pain. The vet reset and put a plaster cast on one broken leg, but his tail was permanently damaged – no more wagging to signal his mood. Toby made up for that by swinging his hips when happy… playfully batting our three year old son – and us around.
We had plenty of adventures… our second move was to a farmhouse near a large forested ridge and next to a stream. Toby and I tramped the many deer trails, hill and dale, summer and winter. Old Toby thrived — he loved to be outdoors. Yet he stayed close and showed no urge to follow Juno into the great beyond. However, as he aged, he began to have fits: epilepsy was diagnosed. When he started to meander in confused, tight circles, we knew he was pre-seizure. Phenobarbital would usually do the trick. Toby seemed restless with our last move to a more constrained neighborhood — whether it was the increasing bouts of epilepsy or lack of woods to wander, I’m not sure. He had moved indoors during cold weather and one day pushed the porch door open and vanished. Two weeks later the NYS Thruway Authority called to say they found his body miles away.
Perhaps he made a decision to exercise his freedom – maybe, he was in the midst of another confused seizure. Either way it was a heartbreak. We had a family pow-wow and reached consensus that we would not try to find another dog. The end game was just too rending.
However, that did not stop us from enjoying our friends’ animal companions. Without a canine companion, I’m so aware of the number of household dogs. Many are professional yardbarkers and I wonder if they are trying to say “Set me free!” These days I’m partial to animals who can find their calm like Hen’s Duke or my friend Steve’s Jonesy. I miss sitting on the outside steps alongside an alert, but peaceful dog, the two of us augmenting our senses in the early morning or late evening natural world.
I have always lived in old houses. Not historical old houses just old. Since I was a kid I have lived in 7 houses. I always found comfort in each house by finding a place that made me feel safe and invisible. As a kid those places were away from the family usually in the attic. The attic was a place for boxes filled with previous life stuff that for some reason was not needed in whatever house I was in at the time, but it was great for searching through stuff that used to mean something to somebody. And in every house there was always something left there by the previous family and when I found a treasure like that I could spend hours looking through the box or examining the item and wondering why it was left behind. Each time we moved I was sure to take something left behind by the previous mortgage holder to the next house we were moving to.
I felt safe nestled between the eaves looking through old boxes often mislabeled and tossed aside. I was safe from my brother finding and taunting me, from my parents yelling at me for some chore I failed to do and the treasures were so rewarding. As a young teenager I found a box of my parents’ love letters from the war. They were from before I was born and I could not match the two lovers in the letters to my parents at all. There were sweet names of affection used for each other that I had never heard. Seemed like two different people but there they were in black and white. They were in those funny envelopes with the barber pole stripes around the edges and airplanes on the stamps. Years later I shared them with my brother. We sat on the floor in the cold attic and read through every single one. He remembered some of those pet names and I remember seeing him shed more than a few tears. Years later after my parents passed away that box wound up in my brother’s attic.
Probably the most treasured treasure I found and kept, other than the love letters, is an old clock that was left in our very first house by the previous occupants. It was an old two faced wall clock, a Perpetual Calendar Clock. It was left in a corner of the attic by a window, lying on the floor with its back against the wall planks and leaning to one side. It fascinated me because not only did it tell the time on the large face but it also told the day of the week. Underneath that was a smaller face that told the month and the date. It is a Welch, Spring & Co. clock dated 1864. What I didn’t know at the time and didn’t learn til many years later, it actually kept proper time and dates even in leap years!
When developers came and bought up our entire block I made sure the clock moved with us to the new house and then eventually to my first house. It never worked and there was no key but I had a friend from college whose dad loved to fix old clocks and offered to fix it. That was over 50 years ago and it still works today with a minor adjustment of the hands needed which I am afraid to try for fear of breaking them. It has hung in every house, including my inn, that I ever lived in. I have to get the hands fixed professionally so I can again enjoy its company.
As an adult that special place evolved to sitting on the floor in front of a raging fire in the fireplace late at night staring at the flames. I guess I no longer need to hide but it still makes me feel safe!
Funny what your mind conjures up when you have a lot of time on your hands and nothing to do. With this crazy virus still attacking us I could sure use to feel safe again!
A Spectral Place
George and Hen’s discussion of special places – particularly in regard to their homes – brought up a different type of recollection.
My formative years were spent in an old two family house my parents owned. It’s difficult to picture a special place in this structure, because the house was always in flux. Early days, we had a variety of boarders and my father was constantly making changes – my brother and I had at least three different sleeping arrangements, including a stretch where the whole family slept in the same room.
Eventually, we took over the second floor and my brother and I had separate rooms… but we never felt comfortable being in this space alone. The second floor bathroom was located at the end of a very narrow corridor. It had room for one large window looking down on the backyard. My brother’s bedroom connected to an unused upstairs kitchen through a passage that likely was a pantry in past times. All the windows in the top two floors were large and seemed to grow up from the floor, providing the sense that one should not approach too closely.
However, unlike George, the one space that we never came to grips with was the attic. It was special – but not in a good way. Access was gained through a door which was always closed. A narrow staircase led to the two-room attic. All, including the staircase, was clad in floor-to-ceiling wainscoting – likely varnished spruce. At the top of the stairs was a spacious area with cathedral ceiling tapering to six foot knee walls. Large, rattling double hung windows had sills which were knee high ((for a kid). When looking out the window, I had the feeling someone was right behind. Piles of boxes populated the main room, complete with porcelain dolls peeking out, showing cracked faces. The effect was not conducive to exploration – it rather screamed “Touch me and die!” A second room contained a bed and mattress, unused for years it seemed. Our attic gave the sense that this space had been long abandoned and never contained a happy spirit. Stephen King would have been very comfortable here.
On a number of occasions, my brother would rush into my room and beg to sleep with me because of the sounds. Oh yes – the sounds. We would lay awake listening to the footsteps walking back and forth across the attic above us. We were frozen in place, too scared to run downstairs to our parents’ room. We dreaded the time when those footsteps would find their way to the staircase descending toward the closed door. It would not be good to be asleep in that eventuality.
Naturally, we reported this activity to our parents, who comforted us. They even moved their bedroom upstairs. The sounds seemed to go away after that – except one night when our parents were out for the evening and our babysitter (Cousin Paula) was sleeping downstairs. That evening kicked off a marathon of wandering above us. I t was an episode where you felt your own pulse in your ears and you tried so hard to be small and undetectable.
Years later my parents admitted that they too, did not venture much into the attic; that the boxes belonged to the prior owner; and that the folklore was that an elderly person had died in that bed in the attic.
A few years later we moved to a smaller, more modern house – with no attic!
Places of Comfort
George describes the attics of his old houses as places of sanctuary and exploration. As a child I lived in a two-family house in the Bronx that was shared with my grandparents, a relatively new ranch house in central Westchester when I was eight, and then my grandmother’s two-bedroom cottage throughout my college years. I would have to say that in each instance, the place that gave me the most comfort, was in the kitchen.
My mother and grandmother were both extraordinary in their ability to prepare delicious meals and create tantalizing baked goods. The kitchen sourced the aroma of comfort foods and was the place to go if you were feeling down, or happy, or celebratory, or bored. There was always something yummy to taste and, it was the place where I could most often find my mother or gram. Either they were cooking or baking or cleaning up. It seemed they spent most of their time in the kitchen; clearly it was their “happy place.”
Meals were always eaten together at a table tucked in a corner within arm’s reach of the stove. We rarely used the dining room or went out to a restaurant and take-out was an occasional pizza on special occasions. At the table we shared the stories of our day, tried to remember what we learned in school, renewed our membership to the “clean up plate club”, and always had room for dessert. It was a ritual I could always count on. And despite how routine and boring it may have seemed at the time, it provided a place of safety, nurturing, and comfort.
My place of solitude was (and still is) the woods. There, I could stretch the boundaries set by my mom, knowing my dog Mickey would never tell on me. I could take chances climbing a dangerous tree, set rabbit traps with a box, a string, and a carrot, jump off of high rocks, and even utter bad words! It was a place to be comfortable with myself. On rainy days, I was drawn to a section under a thick canopy of leaves where I felt particularly free and yet secure as I remained protected and dry while the rest of the world seemed to be relegated to their houses. Even today, I enjoy the feeling of being in a tent in the rain especially when I’m playing with my grandchildren.
And, like George, I am most comfortable in front of a fire, inside or out. Alone or with friends and family, it is always my “go to” place.
Fiercely independent! Enjoys his own company Shares moments with others on his own terms He is authentically his own person
A biker, a hiker, he enjoys the outdoors Windows wide open on an aging, weathered face Like a moth to the flame, he is drawn to the horizon A modern day cowboy, he rides solo into the sunset
A husband and father He values loyalty, compassion, and connection He enjoys a great love with his late-in-life mate Wrestling with acceptance, he struggles as a dad Tenacious and loving, he has not given up Disappointed yet proud, discontented but fulfilled
A mentor and teacher and coach par excellence A master trainer/presenter, he shared what he read, what he learned, what he loved He dug deep into the why and how and challenged my growth along the way Much of me, is because of him
A friend for many seasons We rode, vacationed, debated our readings We shared family, friends, and secrets We bumped heads and rebounded, often, until the end
Strong personalities, leaders, and men often clash around things that matter least They jockey for recognition and value around superficial triggers Recognized or not, the core issues often go untouched, until it’s too late For one, when the plug is pulled, there is no turning back For the other, the friendship remains, celebrated alone
Haiku for Jerry
Press the steel softly Peeling delicate shavings Like downtown
Hen did such a good job with his poem… but I needed a shorter venue. Reading up on Haiku, it seemed a better alternative for me. Haiku is typically measured in syllables: five in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the last verse. The twist is that in Japanese, syllables ending in “n” may count as two. The essence of Haiku is juxtaposition, which I tried in the last line… but is explained at the end of this piece. The Haiku is for my friend Jerry who died this week from cancer. We were woodturning partners for years and I always sat behind him in church. Not sure why, since he was a big man and hard to see around. I think it was the solidity of Jerry – I enjoyed patting him on the back – it was reassuring. A gentle man with a bone crushing handshake. He was a rock. It’s hard to believe that strength couldn’t withstand any assault. Jerry was a Pittsburgh native, Korean War vet, Penn State alumnus, and retired math teacher. He lived 90 years and his presence blessed us. I learned from Jerry, that learning truly is lifelong, that one can have strong convictions, but still keep an open mind for new ideas. He did not press his opinions on others, but rather enjoyed an open discourse about topics. Our woodturning group on Thursdays explored many such conversations. His favorite saying, when something turned out well, was “just like downtown”. Apparently, this was a popular saying in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s – and lived on in Jerry’s vernacular. I guess this could be a good description of his life – a life that was well lived.
The Cane Lady
She wore a long tattered woolen winter coat that almost dragged on the ground. A black knitted cap covered her head. She had old lady black shoes and was never seen without her cane and shopping cart- the kind people used in the city to bring their groceries home from the market.
Everybody on the block knew her but no one knew her name. She lived in the alley behind our building, situated under the first fire escape platform, sleeping out on an old mattress someone had discarded and covered with blankets people from the buildings had donated . All of her worldly possessions were in that frail wire cart! The first Mobil home!
She could have been in her 40’s or 80’s, like her name, no one knew her age either. She never spoke and many believed she couldn’t. She would beg on the street indicating her hunger by coming up to you and pointing to her mouth. I gave her a bag of pretzels once! My brother called her the Cane Lady and the name seemed to stick.
She scared me and most of the other little kids in the neighborhood. Some parents even resorted to telling their kids if they didn’t get to sleep they would call the Cane Lady!
Maybe it was a more forgiving time just after WWII, but people seemed concerned for her and would give her miscellaneous foods at various times. My brother would taunt me that he was going to bring the Cane Lady up if I didn’t do what he wanted.
The long and the short of it is that as much as I was afraid of her I had admiration for her and wondered how she could survive on the street. I was afraid of the dark and didn’t even want to be outside after sunset but she lived out there. She was brave! She was independent- sort of! And I worried about her! I hadn’t thought of her for years but then the quarantine came and with all the time on my hands and the loneliness, she came to mind. I don’t know what happened to her as we moved to the country when I was 6. But thinking of her struggle to live, my quarantine was nothing. I said a prayer for her that wherever she is now is better than her earth life and thanked her for the gratitude I felt for how fortunate I have been. Thank you, Cane Lady!
From early on in my life I have had people come into my life. Some came in, stay for a while and then disappear. Some others come and pitch camp here. Some of those people had a heavy impact on my life intentionally or not. Sometimes they were the people you would least expect who impacted you the most.
When I started PS20 in Flushing in 1952 I loved school. I soon became the teacher‘s pet until the last week of school. Anyone who knows me has probably heard this story! As we all remember, at the end of the day you put your chair up on the desk before leaving. I don’t remember if I put the seat on the desk upside down or simply stood the chair on the desk top but whichever way I did it was the wrong way! Mrs. McNulty, maybe had a fight with her husband that day, but she was not happy with how I did it. As she was reading me the riot act she probably accidentally hit the chair and it fell back and hit me. I ran home the 8 blocks devastated. I refused to go back to school for the rest of that last week and my parents didn’t push it cause it was the last week of school. Fast forward to the Fall and second grade. Nope, not going! We had a round dining room table and I remember my mom chasing me around it trying to get me dressed. I was determined not to go! Poor mom, she would get home from the hospital from the midnight to 8 am Shift and had to deal with me. Dad had already gone to work. This went on for weeks. Finally the school stepped in and said I had to be home taught and assigned Mrs. Duncan To me. Mrs. Duncan was a large robust lady with a big flowery hat, very little patience, and a stern demeanor! Everyday though she would bring a dozen Dunkin Doughnuts with her. She made my dad put up an American flag in our dining room and everyday I had to say the pledge to myself and sing My Country ‘Tis of Thee…..by myself! I went through most of the year that way- hating every day of it but too afraid to go back to school!
They didn’t have psychologists in the schools then but there was a thing called Child Guidance and the school insisted I go. So every Thursday my mom and I took the Q 65 bus to Jamaica to Dr. Arciary at Child Guidance. The funny thing is the person who affected my life was not Mrs. Duncan. I liked Dr. Arciary (it wasn’t him either) cause we played games together and I could talk to him about anything. At one visit he asked me if I would mind another one of his clients joining our session. I did but he had been so nice to me I agreed.
The following week Edward L. joined us. Just so happened Ed was a kid who had been in my first grade class. He was pretty severely disabled and developmentally behind. He was a nice kid but the kids at school always made fun of him. I don’t remember how the session went but it had a profound effect on me. When we got home that night at dinner I asked my parents if they and the school thought I was like Edward. My mom asked me what I thought. I said I didn’t think I was like that but why were Edward and I going to the same place for help? I went to school the next day. Already mid June. My parents had to fight with the principal to make sure I was promoted to third grade instead of repeating 2nd. To this day I attribute my success in school and my emotional well being to Edward L. I never got to thank him! But he turned my life around and I am forever grateful!
I Need Thee Every Hour
I loved Hen’s organizing principle of people entering your life for a reason, season, or a lifetime. George met Edward L. for a reason, resulting in a life altering decision. Hen made a friend for a season in Bob – and experienced the vagaries of childhood loyalty. So, I will write about a person who entered my existence for a lifetime.
Of course, this will be about my partner, lover, and friend of fifty-one years. In fact, I’m writing this on our anniversary … all the more meaningful to us, because Linda almost didn’t make it. Three weeks ago, the emergency room doctor told me that they could not treat her and she needed to be rushed to a more specialized hospital. He said that in the ambulance, Linda’s heart stopped for 45 seconds – her condition was serious, he said. I needed to confront the possibility that our limitless horizons were in fact approaching rapidly. (Spoiler alert: Linda is making a fantastic recovery).
I first saw Linda on the main quad at college – -she was racing some other girls across the green. They looked happy and laughing. A couple of years later she was assigned to help costume me for a contest the college was running. We married at twenty-one and had absolutely no idea what we were doing. We simply had a resolve to co-author a life together. I guess there’s a learning lesson in that act: if you make that vow central to your being and subordinate other impulses, well, you become part of a new creation. Together we make a statement. Our shared history defines us. Sure there is plenty of yin and yang in the installation art that is our life – and times when it unravels a bit. However, our temperaments meld well on all the important aspects of our lifework. Linda is spunky, buoyant and wise, when I am dogged, dour and doubtful. I keep us grounded, she lifts us up.
Whether the time that is left to us is measured in decades, years, months, weeks or days, my sweet wife, — as the old hymn proclaims — “I need thee every hour’.
People Who Leave People
George’s title immediately reminded me of Barbra Streisand. And yes, I need her. Unfortunately, she’s married, but this post is about people who need people, not about availability… but I digress.
It is said that people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. When you know which one it is, you will know what to do for each person.
I have often confused reason and season with the idea that each positive encounter must undoubtedly be for a lifetime. I now know better. Not in a bad way as if, now I know not to trust that someone will always be there for me and I must always be guarded. But in a peaceful acceptance way of understanding that life (and relationships) is fragile and there is no way of knowing in advance, how long we have to enjoy what’s before us.
When I was a young boy, I had a neighborhood best friend, Bob. Neither of us fit into the athletic, “with it” social groups. Both of us listened more to our parents and followed the rules than the other kids. We rode bikes together, played in the woods, and confided in each other about the things that were on our minds. I trusted him.
There was another group of kids in the neighborhood who were way cooler and, because we weren’t, had nothing to do with us. One summer they built an underground fort in Pete’s backyard but still within eyeshot of the road. One day, walking along the road with my dog Mickie, I saw Bob go into the fort with a group of them. The feeling of betrayal swept through me. Had he been hiding his friendship with them, had he told them my secrets? Later, when I asked him about it, he lied and told me it must have been someone else. Now, I not only felt betrayed but began to question my sanity. I know I saw him, yet how could my best friend lie to me? Shortly afterwards, he confessed and explained that they enlisted him in a plot against me and threatened to beat him up if he didn’t cooperate. While I understood his dilemma, I knew I could no longer trust him. That was my first but not the last example of how people come and go into our lives.
What’s interesting for me is that each time someone has changed the rules and left or caused me to leave, despite vowing never to be like the others before them, I expect it to be different. I guess being labeled a rampant optimist holds some truth. Regardless, I try to use each of the experiences with the people in my life, past and present as a way of reminding myself to appreciate their impact on me. Each left or continues to leave a gift. How I choose to view those gifts is up to me.
For me it’s letting go of the notion that “for a lifetime” is the goal and accepting that each connection, no matter how brief, adds value to my life. Perhaps that’s what it is about after all.
Hen suggested the topic of diminishment — particularly of physical decline. We wrote about a similar sense of aging in George’s earlier post The Golden Years. However, this topic is a bit more pointed. George ended that post with a poem that fits the bill – about the inevitable crankiness of the body… or as Leonard Cohen sang: “I ache in the places where I used to play”.
Ending on a poem was a nice touch in The Golden Years, George. I drift toward poetry when confronting life issues. Somehow poets seem to capture large thoughts with few words. Three poems catch my fancy in this regard:
1. Dylan Thomas’ Don’t Go Gentle into that Good Night
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night… (and further verses)
Dylan Thomas kicks it up a notch! Some years ago, this was my anthem. Thomas not only wants to resist the acceptance of diminished ability, he wants to fuel his energy with anger. Go out with a flair! In addition, this poem conjers up the lament that one feels not just at physical decline, but the accompanying despair that life is too short and accomplishments too meager to meet the first rank. Thomas wrote this lyrical poem for his father, but he himself raged so at the loss of youth that he drank himself to death at age 39. Thomas spent his energy rubbing against the grain. He never came to peaceful terms with the inevitable arc of life.
2. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses
…Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
This is the stoic solution – head down, keep moving forward. Marcus Aurelius would have endorsed this sentiment. If you ever followed Rumpole of the Bailey, that aging barrister used to quote these verses to pump himself up to face difficult circumstances. The context of the poem chronicles poor Ulysses, forced to wander for many years and fight battle after battle, who finally makes his way home and finds he has to fight one last battle to reclaim his household. It’s a call to marshal one’s infirmities and soldier on. However, I’m not sure that it encourages a person to find new solutions, but rather to make good use of what you still possess – work with what you’ve got.
3. Emily Dickenson’s We Grow Accustomed to the Dark
…The Bravest – grope a little –and sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead –
But as they learn to see –
Either the Darkness alters –
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight –
And Life steps almost straight
I find this portrayal by Emily Dickenson most apt, most human. My friend Lee recently pointed out that we are bound energy… energy can’t be destroyed, but it can be transformed. As our physical presence transforms over time, we learn to adapt. We find a way. Senses and abilities previously dormant begin to bloom. We compensate. And perhaps we better appreciate the skills still remaining in our tool bag.
Oh – so why is this post entitled Tower of Song? Well, it’s a song by Leonard Cohen. I consider him more of a poet than a performer. If you chance to listen to this wistful song, it might touch a chord. I’m pretty sure that Cohen was contemplating something other than a jukebox. Perhaps eventually some remnant of our energy will reside in a Tower of Song.
Accepting My Diminshed State
Wal’s invitation to reflect on diminishment as we age provides, as one might expect, a range of perspectives. And offering it through poetry and song only enhances the number of interpretations.
Refusing to go quietly into the night reminds me of my friend Bill who once told me that when his time comes, he wants to be completely used up, having lived fully, without compromise, until there was no more left to give. I get that, I too, fueled by a youthful spirit and sense of adventure, welcomes the adrenalin rush when I can. But influenced by life’s experiences and the ever-increasing limitations of the body, they are less spontaneous and more measured. As Wal, continues in his post, the wisdom of working with what we still have and consciously honing skills we may have barely acknowledged allows us to adapt to our new normal and still live fully.
For me, it’s about acceptance. Not acceptance of defeat. Acceptance of what I can still do, with or without difficulty, and recognizing when it’s worth it and when it’s not. Acceptance that it’s time to shift my tempo, or ask for help, or be more forgiving (of my limitations.) Acceptance that it may be time to let go and revel in the joy of watching someone else dance wildly into the night. So easily said, so challenging to practice.
I came across the two following poems that represent many of my feelings. I also liked I Still Matter, by Pat A. Fleming but didn’t include it in this post.
The Little Boy And The Old Man by Shel Siverstein
Said the little boy, sometimes I drop my spoon. Said the little old man, I do that too. The little boy whispered, I wet my pants. I do too, laughed the old man. Said the little boy, I often cry. The old man nodded. So do I. But worst of all, said the boy, it seems grown-ups don’t pay attention to me. And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand. I know what you mean, said the little old man.
I like the parallel that we end in similar ways to how we begin.
Maya Angelou wrote:
“When you see me sitting quietly, like a sack upon a shelf, Don’t think I need your chattering. I’m listening to myself. Hold! Stop! Don’t pity me! Hold! Stop your sympathy! Understanding if you got it, otherwise I’ll do without it! When my bones are stiff and aching and my feet won’t climb the stair, I will only ask one favor: Don’t bring me no rocking chair. When you see me walking, stumbling, don’t study and get it wrong. ‘Cause tired don’t mean lazy and every goodbye ain’t gone. I’m the same person I was back then, a little less hair, a little less chin, A lot less lungs and much less wind. But ain’t I lucky I can still breathe in.”
Getting old sucks- sure it beats the alternative but it causes us to watch the demise of the persons we used to be. Sure medication helps- Blood pressure, cholesterol, and other old age conditions can be controlled with pills but the one thing that can’t is the mind. The mind remembers how it used to be and wants to be back there but the body says, “No way, Jose,” unless you aren’t Spanish and don’t know the expression. Things hurt, slow down or function differently than in the past. And you remember how it once was and wonder why it can’t be the same as it was. But intellectually you know that things wear out. Tires go bald, mower blades dull, plumbing breaks down. Same thing happens to our bodies. The only difference is there is no technician who can come and service your furnace, repair the elimination system in your body, or even fertilize the hair on your head. You know what I mean!
But we are complex! Our bodies consist of organs that break down, but we also have senses and sensitivities. My ears have diminished. Tinnitus and hearing loss have cause me to say, “What?” My eyes have deteriorated so I have to have my glasses on my forehead at all times so that I can see clearly. Fortunately smell and taste have not deserted me. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t smell the lilacs or taste the sweetness of an apple pie! But touch- now that is a different case. Living alone during the pandemic I don’t get to touch another person. I crave the feeling of someone’s head on my lap or a good foot rub! Sure I can feel the dishes while I am washing them, the soap when I am washing myself in the shower but I can’t feel the human touch! The feel of a hand touching my face tenderly or shaking my hand or brushing the dirt off my arm after I come in from cutting the grass. My sensations have been diminished!
In general my world has diminished. No poetry can express it! My family has diminished. From a large Italian family we are reduced to 3. My son moved south but my daughter is nearby, thank God. In the last two weeks I have lost 3 friends. I didn’t lose them, I know where they are…. they died! So my sphere of people who make up my world is diminishing as well. It is hard for me to be optimistic in this limited environment. In my youth I could always say things will get better. In my senior status I know more than likely my world will continue to diminish so I have to accept it and find a way to be comfortable within this circle of life. Life can still be comfortable! I can take comfort in the fact that over the years I have gained experience and wisdom that merely passing through years afford us. It feels good knowing that wisdom can be accumulated over the years IF you are open to it. Some people never gain wisdom. It is just who they are. I am fortunate in that I have accumulated positive information that I can apply when needed. And at this time in my life and this time in a country full of unrest I guess I have to take comfort in the fact that it may be all I have left to give and that has to be enough! As the body deteriorates, that isn’t such a bad thing!
Continuing George’s topic of random thoughts, I wanted to share some musings about my grandmother.
After the death of my grandfather, gram came to live with us and became an integral part of our family. At sixty-nine, she was still a great cook, mobile, and strong-willed. She could also sew everything and anything having been a seamstress in Bucharest Romania as a young girl. At the time, we lived in a comfortable 4-bedroom ranch in a small but growing town in Westchester, just north of the Bronx where Gram and Grandpa raised their family. Gram had her own room as did I. My sisters bunked together and my mom had the master suite to herself as my father had disappeared from our lives leaving behind nothing but his empty side of the bed.
Gram was always there when we came home from school. Food was her love language and there was always a snack or treat for us before we went out to play.
In the summer of 1960 we lost our home to whom someone my father had sold the mortgage and we temporarily moved to a motel until the lease was up on my grandmother’s cottage. In the fall, I went off to college, gram went to stay with my uncle in Long Island, and my mom and sisters rented a summer bungalow. With only a kerosene heater for warmth, they managed and eventually moved into Gram’s 650 square foot, 2-bedroom, one bath cottage in mid-winter. This is where I called home through college and into my first two years as a teacher. Gram had one bedroom, my mom and sisters shared the other and I had the fold up bed stored in the living room closet.
Throughout my college years, grams health declined and she eventually became bedridden with rheumatoid arthritis. She was no longer able to move around much and was unable to cook. However, she could still hold a needle and thread and would often mend a tear or put on a button for us as needed. It gave her great pleasure to be able to help us despite the struggle it was for her to use her fingers.
Gram had few things that motivated her to sit up or venture off her bed and into the kitchen or living room. She loved good food and looked forward to my mom’s meals. Of course it always needed a pinch more salt or slightly more sweetener, but she always ate it up. And, every day at 3:00pm, Gram would will her body, aided by her small wooden cane, into a chair in the living room. She would lean forward and pull out the on/off button on our 15” black and white TV and watch General Hospital. How she loved that show. She would laugh, get angry, call a particular character names, and become completely involved in the story as if it were really happening. Her eyes would sparkle as she spoke aloud to them as if they could hear her warnings or displeasure with a decision they made. I loved watching her watch her show. Then, when it was over, she would use the tip of her cane to push in the button to turn off the TV and amble back to her bed hoping someone was home who wanted to hear what had just happened in the lives of those doctors and nurses.
Gram also loved money. She loved seeing cash, feeling the bills in her fingers, and counting them one by one, over and over again. This was the ritual every two weeks after I would get paid. I would cash my check and bring home the bills for Gram to count. She was thrilled that I had a regular job and was able to bring home what she considered to be a considerable amount of money on a regular basis. But somehow it wasn’t real unless she could see it, feel it, and count it. I still remember how animated she would get as I watched her lick her fingers to be sure she didn’t allow any bills to stick together as she checked and rechecked the amount.
We didn’t have much during that time, but somehow Gram always gave us something to smile about and something to feel good about.
Baby Girl: Maria Matiacchio ……Born June 21, circa 1881(birth records a little sketchy back then) …..Cirigiliano, Basilicata, Italia.
Definition- unconditional love
Where do I start? I never knew my grandfather. He had had a stroke and was bedridden from before i was born til he passed away when I was 2. My first memory of Gramma was when I was maybe three or four. Gramma and my two aunts lived on the corner of 1st Ave and 23rd St on the Lower East Side in a 6 story walk up apartment building. We lived a few blocks away then and every Sunday we would walk to their apartment for Sunday Dinner. I remember turning the corner and we could see Gramma sitting in her fire escaped kitchen window waiting for us to get close enough to throw down sugar cubes for my brother and I. As silly as it sounds it was very exciting for us. She said it gave us the strength to make it up the 6 flights of stairs! I question the science there but if Gramma said it it had to be true!
She was unconditional love and I would feel totally safe wrapped on her lap, she in her house dress and b old lady black Italian shoes. For some reason my dad was the patriarch of the family and relatives from far and near would come to see him to get permission to get married, or buy a house or move out of the area. The only person who had any kind of authority over him was Gramma. She was a tough old broad, and I mean that in the best of ways. She loved American tv! Her “shows” were sacrosanct and everything had to stop when The Millionaire came on and she would keep listening to hear someone walking up the stairs to the apartment with Mr. Anthony who she was convinced was going to give a check for her a million dollars. She would always remind us that John Bears Fatipta would provide for us. You have to be old enough to remember that show to know what that was. And above all shows was her all time favorite….Hopalong Cassideetch! You could not make a sound when good old Hoppy, as she called him, was on the tiny 13 inch screen with the rabbit ears on top.
Life was pretty simple back then and routine was rigidly enforced so we saw Gramma every Sunday til we finally moved out to the country when I was 5. My folks wanted me out of the city before I started school and we bought a house in Flushing, Queens. My dad soon after found an apartment for Gramma and the aunts two blocks away from our house, so I could now stop in and visit on my way home from school to see if they needed anything from Bohacks or the A&P just around the corner.
She and I had a special bond. On my 12th birthday, a few months before her death, she got me a miraculous medal. Most Catholic kids in the city had miraculous medals, but this one was special. My dad worked for a prominent doctor in NYC who had high end clients. One client that my dad became very friendly with was Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. (He is currently up for saint hood). He had a TV show called One Life to Live and he was a very controversial, sort of liberal, Catholic Bishop who was expected to become the next Cardinal for the city, but he did something to tick off the powers that were and Cardinal Spellman got the promotion. My grandmother insisted that my medal be blessed by Bishop Sheen and so my little MIraculous Medal that to this day still hangs around my neck was blessed by Bishop Sheen.
Several months later, just before midnight we got a call from my aunts that Grandma was having one of her spells. Dad and I rushed over to the apartment and even I knew as a 12 year old that this wasn’t just a spell. Gramma was trying to hold on but I remember her saying good bye to my two aunts, my dad and then me. She took my hand, squeezed it as bet she could and said good bye. My dad got on the phone and called Bishop Sheen and within 45 minutes a limo pulled up in front of the apartment and His Eminency came rushing up to the apartment to give Gramma the last rights. She passed quietly shortly after he finished and I saw my dad close Gramma’s eyes for the last time. It was a very intimate moment and I will never forget my dad’s face, my aunts silently crying in each others’ arms and Bishop Sheen’s hand on my shoulder. But for the last 52 years that medal hangs around my neck and at difficult times I still hold it in my hand and conjure up the one person who always made things better for me!
I envy Hen’s relationship with his Gram. My maternal grandmother died when I was three or four and for a number of reasons we did not have a close relationship with our paternal grandparents. Luckily, our paternal grandpa was a treasure.
My grandfather was a man small of stature, but solid. He led a physical life – as a farm worker, shepherd, navy cook, iceman, and masonry contractor. He was an orphan, unschooled, who taught himself to read and write, both in Italian and English. As a young man, he prided himself on his luxuriant handlebar mustache – bright red. No wonder he loved my red-haired, blue-eyed brother so much! By the time we knew him, the mustache was trimmed and gray.
This man was always cheerful, whistling and singing Italian folk songs. But perhaps this was not always the case. In early pictures, you could sense a steely-eyed gaze. Grandpa had one distinguishing physical mark: his nose was crumpled with a pronounced scar, the result of a fight. Supposedly, his opponent had tried to bite his nose off. That had to be painful! I read somewhere that a guy had bees sting him all over his body to measure pain – and he reported that the nose was clearly the most painful place (thank heavens for such pioneering research).
Well, this is the stuff of legends — and hard to reconcile with the gentle, happy-go-lucky guy everyone call ‘Pop”. And when you think about it, what kind of fight results in someone trying to bite off your nose? I mean, seriously, who gets close enough to do that? Sounds like a last act of desperation. Let me ask you, would you want to bite off someone’s nose? Food for thought. Okay, enough about that…
I have many memories about Pop, although we did not see him regularly. He lived with my aunt, cousins and second-cousins in a stucco three story block building in Rockaway Beach – two blocks from the ocean. The place looked like a white fort, built flush to the sidewalk with a courtyard behind the building. You entered the rear of the building through a stucco arch, which is generally where we would be greeted by Pop with an orange and a dime. He had an apartment in the back where he kept his fig tree and goat.
So many stories: Pop was the one who had his own method of potty training (taught me to pee in a bottle – a habit I’ve since broken, but may be revived in further old age). He considered wine quite healthful, so he started my brother on 8 oz. glasses of wine – at seven years old (‘Mom, come quick!’). We had our first taste of raw goat’s milk from Pop’s goat. I remember him staking out the codfish on a board in the sun to make Baccala – salt dried codfish (another taste sensation – not!)
Pop used to make coffee in an open pot on the stove. He’d bring the water to boil, then add coffee grounds to the pot and liberally pour in Four Roses whiskey to make sure it all went into solution properly. I guess that’s how the pre-WWI Italian Navy rolled…
However, what I remember most about this man is how he took my brother and me aside for a discussion one day. In his broken English he told us “You be good men”. This was not a throw-away line – it was a moral imperative which we took – and still take — very seriously. It’s the prime value I assign to people: is this person a ‘good person’; am I acting like a good person? I hope so, because I’d like to please him.
Anthropologists talk about the strength of the ‘skip-generation’ relationships. It makes some sense in that grandparents can be life coaches without the day-to-day authority issues parents have to deal with. My life coach kept it simple: ‘Be a good man’. I still have his beat up fedora and briar pipe…
Thinking for me was always a form of worry. Even as a kid I used to worry about my dad coming home late a night after drinking with the men at the Knights of Columbus. Or wondering if I would have to go to Mc Auliffe’s Tavern to bring him home for dinner. But whenever I had a spare moment there would always be thoughts to fill the time. It wasn’t all bad! I was a creative kid which would sometimes get me in trouble like the time Steven Bell from across the street and I decided to play mailman and we collected all the mail from the entire block and redelivered it to other people’s mailboxes. It was fun and we were just trying to see what it was like being mailmen. Unfortunately, our neighbors didn’t see the humor and Steve and I and my father redelivered the mail to the 30 or so houses on the block along with sincere apologies! I decided I wouldn’t be a mailman even at age 6! I did dumb stuff like this growing up, even after much thought that at the time seemed very logical!
Now some 70 years later I am still thinking a lot cause during this quarantine there isn’t much else to do. My thoughts go back to those years sometimes and sometimes they look foreword. There is a big bay window in my living room that looks over the neighborhood. I stand in the window each morning just checking things out. I have observed things I probably would not have noticed without this down time. Everything is viewed through the lens of a street kid who grew up In NYC. The first thing I realized is kids don’t play in the street anymore. We used to play catch or stick ball in the street, and when a car came somebody would yell, “Car, Car, C-A-R” and everyone would scatter to the sidewalk til it passed! We picked sides by doing Boo Boo Boo, One Potato, Two potato…..we Used Spaulding balls and we always had a bucket attached to a pole to retrieve the ball after it rolled down into the sewer. But the streets are quiet now and empty. There isn’t even much traffic!
Today, I look for neighbors to wave to or yell to. Just a connection to make me feel like part of the neighborhood- any kind of connection to help me feel like I belong.
Then my mind wanders to my family. They have all passed except for my kids but now, with all this time on my hands I have a bunch of questions for them. Like I wonder if my grandparents ever became American citizens. What made them settle in NYC? I have a hundred questions for my dad about being on Iwo Jima during the war. And how did he get to write a column in Semper Fi Magazine. He never talked about the war. And my brother who was 8 years older than I ( pre and post war babies) said that he wasn’t the same dad who came home. They called it shell shock back then not PTSD! Later, he wrote a column in a little local magazine called The Gramercy Graphic in NYC. My mom used to play the banjo! I never asked her why. My aunt was a tatter in a sweat shop on the lower east side. And another aunt, my mom’s sister, had a wing in the Mahanoy City Public Library named after her.. And I don’t know the answers to any of these questions!
The remainder of my day’s thoughts move to life after Corona! What will school look like? Maybe kids will start playing in the streets again? I imagine a world where people are kinder, more neighborly, helpful and friendly to one another. Unfortunately, the answers to these questions will be played out in the future. I hope when it does that younger generations can look back and remember with fondness the way I remember stoop ball or I Declare War!
Ode to A Spaldeen
George’s memory has gotten me to thinking about street play. Perhaps many of us share the memory of playing stickball in the street… if the ball went two telephone poles it was a homerun… in a fly past the second baseman (if there was one) it was a double – and so on… Sometimes we would walk to the park a couple of blocks over and play two person stickball, using the cement wall as the backstop – drawing the strike zone in chalk.
The one thing in common with many of the games – stoopball, stickball, or handball – was the gold standard Spaulding (or should I say the “pink standard”?). It bounced the best and felt just right in the hand – neither too hard nor too soft. We never bothered with the marketing name ‘hi-bounce’, but did call it the ‘spaldeen’.
When we used the spaldeen for handball, it was usually Chinese handball – that is bouncing it once before it struck the wall. Sure I know, a real handball is black and much harder, but we used the Spaulding. However, we did watch the ‘old men’ play American handball (hit the wall on the fly) with their gloves and hard little black sphere rocketing around – looked fierce and painful to us eight year olds.
You could bring a Spaulding to school and play against the brick wall at recess or after school. I mean, the Spaulding wasn’t the be-all and end-all – it was simply a requirement. You had to have one. And of course, inevitably they would get lost.
Each week, my brother and I were granted a 75 cent allowance (do you realize that there isn’t even a ‘cents’ key on my qwerty keyboard anymore?) and our aim was to trek two miles into the hobby shop and buy a plastic WWII airplane model to build. The two of us would sit on our front stoop and glue it together. However, when the Spaulding was hit into the undeveloped lot, rolled into a storm sewer or landed in unfriendly territory – well – we’d have to divert part of allowance (was it 15 cents?) to getting a new one at the hobby shop and possibly forego the airplane model. I guess the Spaulding was like a utility for kids… we didn’t pay electric bills, but we had to have bounce energy.
I have read that the pink Spaulding ‘hi-bounce’ was discontinued in 1979 due to decreased popularity of stickball (or maybe it was the rise of disco), but it was reintroduced in 1999 in a variety of colors. Amazing that such a simple object can be the source of such enjoyment.
The New Thinking
George opens up another facet of this pandemic that also affects the majority of people around the word; what are we all thinking about during our minimal interactions and limited options for mobility? Are some of us simply contemplating more of the same kind of thoughts? Are some of us more reflective, now that we have fewer distractions and obligations? Are we turning to the past for comfort and guidance, or are we thinking this is the opportunity to break old habits and move forward?
Depending on the day or my mood, I can accept responsibility for being in each of these categories. Most of the time though, I’m inclined to use this experience of isolation to rid myself of actions/reactions that don’t feel good. It is a perfect time to reflect. I find it easier to focus on what I’m doing and being present. My daily mediation (from The Daily Stoic – Ryan Holiday) is devoted to paying attention to a habit or behavior you wish to diminish or eliminate. The process involves setting your intention and then marking off each day you can accomplish it, extending your streak for as long as possible. My progress is painfully slow but moving in the right direction.
But, like George, I also find myself drifting back to my childhood. I recall many days of wandering about in nature, more often with my dog than with friends. And today, as a senior citizen living in New York during the Coronavirus pandemic I spend my days wandering about in nature and only with my dog. However, unlike my childhood, instead of sprinting down a hill or climbing a perfectly laddered sapling, I stroll down the hill and simply gaze up at the tree. Every once in a while though, as my boyish sense of adventure wells up in me, I smile and think, maybe tomorrow I’ll sprint and climb. But then I remember that I haven’t yet taught Duke how to fetch the first responders from my driveway and bring them to my side if I should fall and break a bone or two. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll teach Duke, or take a chance like I did when I was a kid.
I also think about how much I miss sharing my space and my adventures with friends and family. As much as I receive intense satisfaction from my daily escapades, it’s never as grand (this word’s for you Laur!) as sharing them with others.
And again, like George, I think about post stay-at-home life. I try not to think about my re-emergent world without hugs and handshakes. I remind myself to be grateful that I’ve lived a long and happy life without restrictions, extreme cautions, and with great freedom. And now, I’ll prepare myself for appreciating what remains. At least that’s what I think right now.
Even if you haven’t picked up a Bible, you know Ecclesiastes. You know it if you have listened to ‘Turn, Turn, Turn‘ by the Byrds, or have heard ‘there is nothing new under the sun’, ‘vanity — all is vanity’, and other familiar quotations which have come from this contentious book in the Old Testament. I say contentious, because it lays out the case for existential despair, without a clear message of hope.
I’m reading this now, because of an article written by Douglas Groothuis in Touchstone magazine. Dr. Groothuis is a professor of philosophy with a keen interest in epistemology: “the study of the nature, means, and scope of knowledge.” His thesis is that Ecclesiastes is an excellent treatise about obtaining wisdom and a good pivot for understanding our ignorance within a larger structure of knowledge.
The main voice in the narrative of Ecclesiastes is Qohelet, the Teacher, who claims to have been a king of Israel in Jerusalem (a ‘son of David’). He chronicles his search for knowledge and meaning, but concludes that it is all “chasing after the wind.”
In sum, Qohelet declares that there can be nothing new in this world (under the sun), where we all toil endlessly, live briefly, and are forgotten quickly. The old sun “pants” across the horizon in exhausted labor. The wicked may or may not prosper; the good may or may not suffer – all meet the same end. Individuals obsessed with material goods will never be satisfied with the goods they own. In fact, there is no reward that can fully satisfy in this earthly existence. He sees humankind as endlessly cycling through failed behaviors — rinse and repeat.
Qohelet describes his disappointment in chasing wisdom through either work or pleasure-seeking – and concludes that it might be better to have never lived, than to try to make sense of this world. He has no hope for succeeding generations — and seems resentful at God for instilling the concept of ‘eternity’ in the human mind, when our lives are so truncated.
Yikes! Not much to hold onto, here…
Yet, he is not entirely clear that his search was wasted effort. For instance, he settles for the conclusion that it is better to earn some wisdom, than to be a fool. He urges an epicurean approach to life by moderation of desire, cultivation of companionship, and enjoyment of daily bread. He says that although none of our existence makes sense, we should find joy in what is available – after all, it is a gift from God. He also says that what you turn your hand to – “do it with all your might”.
In other words, make your own meaning. Make it count. Live morally and purposely, even if God’s overall plan is inscrutable.
Qoholet tried to achieve ultimate understanding and determined it was an exercise in vanity. His fallback position is to find happiness in everyday activity. This starts to make sense for me. The happiest folks I have known find joy in all the ordinary things they experience. I used to play golf with a man who obtained delight in finding an unbroken golf tee on the grass. Don wasn’t a fool – he knew the difference between small and tall travails. But he chose to be open to all gifts under the sun. The interesting part is that the rest of our foursome delighted in his delight – he lifted us up. It’s catching. And maybe that is the hope for us who struggle under the sun. James Oppenheim said:
“The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance
The wise man grows it under his feet.” I can live with that.
Wal’s piece is timely. In this moment of extreme caution and reduced freedoms, it is so easy to fall prey to feelings of loss and powerlessness. Those of us with silver (or is it “slivers of”) hair, who have arrived at the point in our lives where we can travel, spend more time with friends, watch our carefully planned investments grow, find ourselves suddenly quarantined, fearful of catching germs that are more fatal to us than our children, and worried if we’ll be around long enough to recoup our financial losses. Everyone’s world was turned upside down in a matter of weeks but with the hope and belief that in time we will return to the lives we knew. But we “Over the Hill Gang” members are wondering if it will happen in the time we have remaining.
If our goal in life was to live mainly for this retirement period so that, after a life of hard work and frugal practices we could finally enjoy, we feel robbed, certain that life is unfair, even worse than Quohelet espoused. (At least we had a plan and hope that in the end, we’d catch up and all would be sandy beaches, warm sunshine, and comfortable living.)
However, if we considered his fallback position to find happiness in every day choices, we’re in a very different place. We have memories of times well spent and of contentment and joy. Even now it’s not too late to initiate a mind-shift and focus on what we have rather than what we lost. Whether it’s a temporary loss or long term, we can all find gains if we really want to.
Many years ago I had cause to look back on my life to put in perspective whether it was a life, if ending, was well lived and complete, or found wanting. I found peace in knowing that what I was able to accomplish and who I was able to be, was enough. And while I am most happy and grateful that my time continues, that experience helped me shorten my moments of struggle with those things of which I have no control, and to spend more of my time with those things that I do.
Perhaps the response to Quohelet’s findings that seeking knowledge and meaning is all “chasing after the wind” is to adjust what we bring to the meaning of seek to allow for discovery along the way and not fixate on uncovering the source-answer to life.
Pessimism at It’s Height
I am not a Bible person. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe in God. It is clear to me that the Bible is not the word of God but was written by worldly beings as imperfect as you or I. They were almost like reporters of their times recording what was going on and trying to explain it. Some of it even sounds like real fake news and preposterous to me.
But this guy, Quoholet, is the penultimate pessimist! I thought I was pessimistic but I wither in comparison. I am not claiming to have any stature like he had but come on! Ultimately cycling through failed behaviors and nothing new under the sun? Really? That may fit if one lived forever but we know that isn’t true. Our existence, if lucky, lasts for maybe 8 or 10 decades, a relatively short time in the scope of the age of the earth and the prehistoric record of life on it. So perhaps cycles repeat themselves but we rarely live long enough to see that happen so to me, anyway, things seem new when they happen for the first time in my experience. Is this sheltering in side and social distancing that is going on now not new to most of us? It sure feels that way to me. And what is new anyway? To me it is something that I have for the first time or never experienced before.
And perhaps the reason we cycle through failed behaviors is simply because this all seems new to us and we have to find our own ways way through them. This can’t be any more relevant than right now as we all sit in our homes and try to figure out what on earth are we supposed to do to protect ourselves, our families and our society. So we try things…. we wash our hands for two Happy Birthdays every couple of hours because we may have touched something contaminated. We use sanitary wipes to wipe off the gas nozzle, the steering wheel, our doorknobs and counters. We avoid crowds. Living alone I wonder if families sit at night 6 feet away from each other watching TV. Thank goodness my dog isn’t human because he is on my lap most of the time. Are these “failed behaviors?” I wish I knew because my hands wouldn’t be as coarse and flaky as they are if this is just a failed behavior. But we try things to see our way through. We take the advice of people who have experienced similar things and hope they are right.
And as for material goods, I have to admit I like collecting stuff, too. I have several collections in my house of material things that I covet, I know you aren’t supposed to covet either, at least certain things! But I do! I have a Jeep that I treasure, a house that I love and a collection of paintings that I enjoy daily. And will more than likely continue to collect until my time here is spent.
Should people our ages not get excited when their first grandchild is born? Isn’t that new to them? Or should they just shrug it off and say, “Oh well this has happened before! No big deal!” Or when the autumn leaves turn bright colors should we not be amazed at the beauty just because it happens each year? Or when a piece of music touches your memories and your soul should it not bring us to tears because it is just another piece of noise? I am exaggerating of course, as I also do along with my pessimistic ways. I have left most snarkiness out of this though, which is also characteristic of me.
I am usually the one in this group accused of pessimism but this guy makes me look like Shirley Temple. I see myself in a whole new light. Join me as I tap dance down a flight of stairs now!
Lately, I’m increasingly aware that many of my daily routines have taken on added significance and meaning beyond the need to get them done. They have become rituals. Perhaps it’s the reduction of distractions during this time of sheltering in place that has allowed me to be more mindful. Or, it could be that without regular stimulation of ideas and interests I seek them from within the confines of my home. For example, rather than allowing my mind to wander while rushing through the task of raising my window shades, I now often think about, well, just raising each shade and welcoming first light into my home as I begin my day. As I slowly pull the cord of my kitchen window, I watch the shade fold into itself as it reveals the unique perspective it affords of my backyard. Then I move on to the next window that will allow additional light and a slightly different view. It sets in motion an action that often impacts how I feel about my day. This routine and others, now receive more of my intention and deliberation. They have taken on a level of significance that positively influences my initial disposition. They are new rituals. They are no longer chores to be completed, but actions that add significance to my life.
In an article written by author, writer, and coach Steven Handel, he describes routines as things we need to get done on a regular basis but that are not necessarily meaningful. Rituals tend to have a sense of purpose and their meaning is often symbolic. He further illustrates the difference in this table:
Tedious and meaningless
Symbolic and meaningful
Life as a duty
Life as a celebration
Disconnected series of events
Tells a story
Little sense of belonging
Sense of belonging
Focus only on completion of tasks
Focus on performance of tasks
As I thought about the things in my life that are chores and that are now taking more of my attention and thought, I remembered the notion of the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The tea ceremony in Japanese culture represents purity, tranquility, respect, and harmony. It is a great illustration of the singular focus given to the performance of serving a simple cup of tea. It is a grand collaboration of art, discipline, attention, and care. Philip Stanhope 4th Earl of Chesterfield said, “In truth, whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well; and nothing can be done well without attention.”
I also thought about the commitment of the Samurai in their attention to detail and purpose in everything they did. There was an unrelenting focus on mindfulness in even the most basic actions and routines.
Zanshin is a word used commonly throughout Japanese martial arts to refer to a state of relaxed alertness. Literally translated, zanshin means “the mind with no remainder.” In other words, the mind completely focused on action and fixated on the task at hand. In practice, though, zanshin has an even deeper meaning meaning. Zanshin is choosing to live your life intentionally and acting with purpose rather than mindlessly falling victim to whatever comes your way. It was as if everything in their lives was a ritual.
Now, as I spend more time in silence and thought, I’m able to better recognize the significance of preparing food, letting light into my home, and attending to things that require my attention. Of course, my mind still wanders…often. But I’d like to think that this time has afforded me a way to elevate at least some routines from tasks that must be done so I can get on with my life, to appreciating the things I do in my life because they matter.
Have you noticed any shifting of routines or rituals in your life?
Traditions, Rituals, and Routines
Hard to know where one ends and another begins! Perhaps the definitions intermingle and have very subtle differences. Perhaps it has to do with what Henry said, that rituals have an importance that routines don’t. Traditions may then define the need for rituals. For example, my family had a tradition at Christmastime of setting up the Christmas village which necessitated the ritual of laying track and checking out the engines and cars of the train and organizing the town. The routine then became sitting down in the evenings and my brother and I running the trains around the village, while the engine smoked and the whistle blew. We had other rituals associated with the Christmas tradition- like hanging stockings on the fireplace, and decorating the tree. Routinely we hung the tinsel one strand at a time or my mom would yell at us.
When I taught school for years I had a tradition of wanting the kids to know the day and date. Every morning ritually, I wrote the day and date in the upper right corner of the blackboard and the kids routinely wrote it on their daily assignments. I also had a tradition as an educator of wanting the kids to expand their vocabulary so each day I would write a new word and its definition on the board. It was a ritual that helped me as much as the class. The routine came when the kids used the word either in their writing or in discussions each day.
Right now, when I’m not sure what my purpose is anymore in the time of COVID-19, tradition and ritual have pretty much been pre-empted solely by routine. Wake up, shower, take pills, which helps me remember what day of the week it is, let out the dog, eat, wash yesterday’s dishes, eat, nap, eat, nap, eat, nap! Tradition now is out the window. Without some direction old traditions don’t necessarily apply and new traditions can’t start because they may not have the time to develop. Without the traditions rituals devoted to the traditions can’t find air. Routines are all that is left and in my case they tend to be diminishing! I may be going crazy but this makes perfect sense to me! And I didn’t have any author to quote so this unfortunately was entirely concocted by me during the routine boredom I face daily during this crisis!
I am seventy-two years old and a dishwasher in a restaurant. I am looking at the pile of skillets in the deep sinks and preparing to start the process of transformation. Today, I have driven for four hours to return to my post and I’m an hour later than expected – I like to keep ahead of the curve, but the chef has already started to prepare sauces. So it’s catch-up time.
Surveying, the scene, there are remnants of carbonara sauce, Thai chili sauce, a large pasta colander, and several pans with a series of brown sauces for schnitzel, and a garlic laden food processor. Okay: Carpe Scrubber! Wait — a drop of water bounces off my bald spot – and then another – What the… It has been raining heavily for a good part of the day; looks like a leak in the roof over the kitchen.All right – note for tomorrow, get on the roof. I reach for thefaucet and — no water. This is irony for sure: unwanted water dripping on my head, no water from plumbing. What’s the old saw: the opposite of irony is ‘wrinkly’. This is wrinkly. Life is wrinkly. The topography of our lives is full of wrinkles. That’s why we have rituals: to smooth out those crenellations.
A ritual is structured behavior in support of a magical or symbolic result. ‘Magical’ being a placeholder for all those things we don’t quite understand… like the Pacific Islander cargo cult. My ritual actually begins much earlier than reporting to the job. First, I must shower. This is less about cleaning than it is about cleansing – starting the day like a fresh page in an old book. Consecrated.
Then, as head (and only) dishwasher, I assemble the mise en place at my work station: wet and dry towels (from Morgan Linen – remember them from college?), gloves, washing tub, spray station, stainless steel scrubby, long brush, and putty knife; prep the dishwasher and lay out the drying station. Our dishwasher has sliding doors and trays that carry objects through infeed and outfeed. The pots, pans, containers, spatulas, stirring spoons, tableware, and dishes all go through the washer for the extra cleaning and sanitizing cycles, but first anything that experiences direct flame is separated: cleaning the carbon on the bottoms is a parallel process and uses different cleaning aides. When this is complete they join their comrades through the main process.
So, the main process involves soaking the pots, pressure spraying, brushing, and then scrubbing. All the detritus goes into the 1000 gallon grease trap. The restaurant ware is sanitized in the dishwasher, air-dried and returned to its station. Routine or ritual? It is necessary – and it is done mindfully. I fantasize that I am the director of a halfway house for skillet rehabilitation. I am a social worker for the stockpot family. My goal is to return each cooking implement in better condition than I received it. Some of these old boys have dents or loose handles – or are a little crowned due to direct heating over an open flame for years. I clean them up so that thirty or so skillets and a dozen assorted stockpots greet the next meal with a fresh face and new sauce. That’s what it’s all about! I say it is Ritual – with magical results!
Now to prepare for the next day’s ritual: water pump repair and preventive maintenance.
As sheltering and snacking in place is becoming routine I sometimes find myself on my knees and leaning my head on my arms resting on the windowsill like the cartoon where the guy says to his dog that he now understands why he always barks as people pass the house. It is an event! I don’t have many events about now unless getting the cookies or chips out of the cabinet classifies as an event!
But recently I have been trying to figure out what it is going to be like when the quarantine is lifted. At first I thought we’ll all race to the local establishment and drink a toast to the death of the virus, clinking glasses, shouting “salud!”, slapping friends on the back, hugging and kissing folks we’ve missed for months. But I don’t think it’s going to work that way now.
Our Governor, who has become a guiding light in leadership through this darkness, uses the term “reimagining” how it is going to play out. The thought of returning to post quarantine life as being a return to normal is probably far from actuality, hence reimagining.
So my thoughts go to how will young love be expressed? New emojis online? Pulsating red hearts and lips after each text. We probably won’t be kissing anyone soon. Kids playing on the playground won’t be playing tag cause we can’t have kids touching each other! How will detectives catch criminals cause fingerprints will be a thing of the past! Rubber or polyethylene gloves have replaced skin So DNA must be encased on the body. I worry that a generation of kids who don’t play outside much anyway will have even fewer experiences interacting with humanoids. Will we just keep to ourselves and be reduced to written communications with LOL’s and OMG’s expressing our emotions?
Life is going to be different. But hopefully with time touch will return as a venue for interaction. Human contact can once again comfort people in need. Laughter and tears will return as ways of expressing our emotions. And maybe even a renewed urgency to put the electronic technology down and reach out to those we have desperately missed. My reimagination I’m afraid is limited but I long for an earlier time when my scraped knee could be healed by my mom or dad’s hug. I hope our grandchildren will experience this again and future generations will talk about the time when people had to isolate as a dark spot in history they have only heard about! However, we can’t forget that the air over LA is breathable again, the canal waters of Venice are clear enough to see the sea life that lives in them. That’s part of the reimagining that we have to take advantage of and protect. I’ll take one from column A and several from Column B! Call me old fashioned!
Both George and Hen focused on the intimate details of person-to-person interaction in a possible “new normal”. I think their comments are cogent. The effect of the virus on physical closeness will certainly outlast the current edition of the corona. For instance, we can imagine that hand, mouth and nose coverings will morph into enduring fashion accessories. Perhaps grooming and fashion styles will gravitate toward the easily cleaned and maintained – maybe lapels and pleated layers give way to smooth lines and treated fabric.
If we look down from 5,000 feet, the macro influences of surviving a pandemic – and the fear of the next one — says the future is a less tolerant society. Individual choice vs. the ‘summum bonam’ is in constant tension. As we experienced during the New Deal and World War II, the tendency for central control and larger government seems like powerful leverage to attack economic – and perhaps social — problems… and I don’t speculate in this manner as a fan of big government.
But, after all, will we be able to tolerate not having universal healthcare in some form or another? If we cannot assure that every citizen will have effective access to health services, how can we assure the containment of future outbreaks? When the dust settles, our infection tallies will show large discrepancies by race and economic variables. Will this place more emphasis in future on large, homogenous public policy solutions? Certainly it is doubtful that piecework approaches will be encouraged, when disease crosses borders and governments.
It’s probable that we won’t return to past behaviors quite as readily as we’d like, but we will move forward. Even now, dating apps have apparently been successful in hosting virtual dating experiences. I’d guess this fad subsides, but lingers as a bit of dating rehearsal while individuals try to ‘qualify’ one another before investing in a more physical relationship… unless we can have virtual careers, babies, and parenting experiences all from the comfort of your own couch? (Sounds like the old ‘Second Life’ application experiment).
At the end of the day, I sign up with George and Hen – soothing behavior is a basic need — and that behavior is an experience of touch that is unlikely to be abandoned for long. We are smart enough and resilient enough that solutions will be invented to allow kids to be kids, friends to be friends, and loved ones to all come together.
It’s How We Respond
I’m with “Old-Fashioned” George when it comes to physical touch. If I’m suffering from anything these past two months, it’s likely from hug withdrawal. Of course, there is an old fashioned way of forgetting the hugs that I miss. It’s called a bourbon old fashion! I’ve had one or two of those “quarantinis” over the last few weeks. They helped!
I appreciate the notion George brings up of reimagining what our new future will be. At first, my thoughts go directly to what I’ve lost: not necessarily a positive or proactive endeavor. After all, transitioning from no direct social interaction to spending time with others in groups will take a very long time and will likely require a transition phase of wearing masks, no touching, and physical distancing. I can easily equate this to a negative. But if I push past the loss, and, as George reminds us of some of the gains we made, we might be able to reimagine a way of being that can benefit us and future generations. And without this global “pause,” the idea of exchanging old habits for even better ones, would have been near impossible. In his New York coronavirus briefing this morning, Governor Cuomo reminded us that it often takes a crisis to wake people up. And Dave Pelzer, a contemporary American author, said, “Something good comes out of every crisis.” So how do we revise our behaviors and spaces to make life even better? I believe each of us begins with what we can control:
The evidence of a healthier environment for all living things is enormous. I will continue to make changes to use fewer fossil fuels, create less waste, and to be more aware of my purchase power regarding products and their environmental impact.
I will be more aware of the direct contact time I have with family, friends, and colleagues. I will work harder at being more present and attentive when I am with them. I seek to remember not to take any handshake or hug lightly.
I will create a set of reminders for me to continue the relationships I’ve re-established during this time of remaining at home.
I will strive to remember that it’s never about what happens to me, but how I respond that grants me to happiness and contentment.
I’d like to end with the essence of a story I recently read written from the perspective of a senior citizen who was a child during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was responding to his grandchild who had just studied in school about this horrific time in history and how difficult and troubling it must have been for him. His response was something we can still create as we live out this moment in time. Grandpa said it was a difficult time for many indeed, but in his case he remembered it differently. He remembered more time for playing with his mom and dad. He remembered baking with his mom and fishing with his dad. He remembered having movie nights three or four times a week rather than just once. He remembered his mom coming up with new ideas for him to try and without the need to rush or to put them off until a better time. He remembered impromptu games of tag, barbeques, and peanut butter and jelly picnics when the weather turned warm. I hope many of today’s children will remember this episode similarly, when their grandchildren ask them about it.
We’ve all heard the jokes about weight gain during the shelter-in-place phase of life — COVID-19 lbs. and such.
It’s gotten me thinking about a seven year period in which I measured life in quarter pound increments. This was during high school and college, while participating in wrestling. I would have told you then that I was an expert in weight loss. Like a jockey, I weighed in several times a day – but without the saddle – and monitored before and after bathroom visits. I knew the expected weight in ounces of my waste products. Each September, I’d lose up to 20% of my mass in four to six weeks and keep it off until April.
I’d dream of the chocolate milk dispenser in Parker dining hall for seven months a year.
All of this would be executed in order to qualify for the weight class in which I would be most competitive. Actually, this was mostly a byproduct of fear: I didn’t want to face larger, stronger opponents! To maintain this weight, many of us would sojourn to the “hot box” in plastic suits. The hot box was an insulated room that could be cranked up to 120 degrees F. The objective was of course to sweat out any excess water. It wasn’t weight loss, it was desiccation. I remember taking the GRE exams in Potsdam in between wrestling matches at SUNY Potsdam and Hobart College. I donned the plastic suit and ran the aisle in the team bus enroute to lose the half-pound I was overweight – that was good for a quarter pound. The security guard escorted me to the exam room and I suppose the GRE was responsible for losing the additional quarter pound I needed.
Once, I dated a person who during a postseason April, asked how much I weighed. When I replied, she said ‘Well you look good right now, but I think you will run to fat in middle age’. Hmmm, she was right. At that time, we wrestlers would call anyone whose six-pack was undefined, a ‘bloat’. Clearly, I am a bloat.
However, I owe her a debt of gratitude. Her words have been a rallying cry for me to not let weight gain get beyond control. Unfortunately, most of the diet prescriptions I’ve tried were not lifestyle regimes, but short term efforts: Fit for Life, South Beach diet, Bullet-Proof diet, Body Fuel diet, etc. All had different premises: eat fruit, separate complex carbohydrates from other foods, avoid white foods, trick your metabolism by fasting. My Dad lost over 50 lbs using Dr. Dean Ornish’s rice diet. He had the discipline to keep his weight down – but yikes!
These days, it’s hard for me to envision weight control without exercise and eating dinner before eight o’clock. That’s it – I have to keep it simple to remember. And worse luck, my diet must include pasta, baked goods and ice cream! What about you?
In for a Penny, In for a Pound
Good time to write about this as covid19 is causing many of us to snack in place! Weight has been a struggle I have dealt with my entire life but from the opposite end of the scale. I was the scrawny kid first in line in school. Short and skinny! Really skinny! I hated going to gym in high school. Aside from the embarrassing red and white gym suits we had to wear which on me looked like a cute little red skirt ballooning out over my tooth pick sized thighs, I was the brunt of high school bully humor in the locker room. And to add insult to injury, we were given spots on the gym floor so the coach could take attendance. In Flushing High in the early 60’s, you could have 100 kids in gym class. First day of class we were lined up by size places and given our spot numbers. Across the front of the gym were the letters of the alphabet and 15 spots behind each letter! Yup, you guessed it. I was A-1 for all 3 years in high school! The only good thing about those large classes was that once attendance was taken I could slip back into the locker room until the team sports were over.
But even before that as a little kid my family tried to fatten me up. I was a finicky eater and wasn’t big on meat and veggies so my dad made a bowl of macaroni for me every night for dinner. Back then it was spaghetti or macaroni. We never had pasta. I never even heard the word. My Italian aunts would bribe me with quarters if I would eat more. Of course they would only “pick” themselves until there was nothing left in the serving bowls. So I was a skinny melink. I would have to get on the scale in front of them to get the damn quarter. So while Wal was trying to lose a quarter pounder, I was praying to gain one. Through college and for the first 2 decades of teaching I didn’t weigh as much as the average kid in my 6th grade classes. It was always an embarrassment for me.
Then the magic happened. My wife and I separated, I came out of the closet and miraculously I gained about 20 lbs. With a new sense of self pride I strutted into school finally at ease with myself and how I looked! I was proud of my girth for the first time in my life. I hadn’t anticipated the problems it would bring on like high blood pressure, and a little pot belly. But I carried that proudly too because unless you were ever skinny you don’t realize how that can be as painful as being fat. And now with snacking in place, I get panicky if my supply of cookies and jelly candies get low!
I hope Wally only dated that woman once!
Pillsbury Doughman, No More!
On my first birthday, I weighed in at 30 pounds and was obese. By grade school, I was in George’s weight class and could have been a poster child for the kid who needed weight gain supplements. Eventually, I found a relative balance between intake and calorie burn, and my weight offers little to conjure up a story. However, over the last six weeks of sheltering in place, food has taken on a significance I’d not noticed before.
My mom was the most fantastic cook. It seemed as if she was always in the kitchen preparing meals that were filling, delicious, and nutritious. We didn’t order out, and the rare visits to a restaurant were reserved for special events. For example, at the end of each school year, my mom would take us to a local Chinese restaurant to celebrate our promotion to the next grade. That being said, tasty food prepared just the way we liked it, was always available. My mother couldn’t give us much in the form of things money could buy, but she never held back on food. The time and devotion she gave to her cooking was her currency: her gift of love. The whole experience created an anticipation of what awaited us at dinner each evening. The clatter of pans and the sounds of mixing and pouring were following by the aroma of onions or sauces drifting throughout the house. It seemed like each meal that began promptly at 6:00 pm, started with an appetizer and/or soup, the main course with two or more side dishes, and finally, if we joined the “cleanup plate club” and finished everything we were served, a sweet dessert. I used to marvel at how long everything took to prepare, how everything finished cooking at just the right time, and how quickly we devoured it. And while I noticed all of this (and the cleanup afterward), I never appreciated it in the way I do now.
My sisters learned to cook from my mom, but I didn’t. And, over the last several years, after just getting by preparing the same few dishes I begrudgingly mastered, I ate reasonably well and relatively healthy but never really appreciated it. However, in the last month and a half, much of that has changed. With even more unhurried, alone time at home I made a conscious effort to look at cooking and eating with more purpose and intention. I’ve tried many new dishes each week and found the entire process of planning, preparation, cooking, and cleaning up a rewarding one. And I’ve also taken the time to taste my food, wondering what it would be like if I added more of this or substituted some of that. It is a new form of self-care that I intend to continue long after we can get back to our busier, more collaborative lives. So far, I haven’t noticed any weight gain. However, my sisters always said that if you are a fat baby, then, when you get old, you’d eventually explode into that previous pudgy version of your younger self. (Hmm, I have this awful vision of myself in six months slogging through the woods looking like the Pillsbury Doughman!)
Napoleon Hill developed the term Mastermind Alliance to identify the concept of bringing two or more people (minds) together for a singular purpose in a friendly, trusting, and harmonious environment. The outcome of this focused collaboration often yields extraordinary results that could never be reached alone or in loosely connected partnerships. This synergy has been the secret ingredient for many successful people and organizations. I believe it offers a timely solution to many of the challenges facing individuals and small businesses during this global pandemic.
I am currently a participant in such a group, gathered to help a friend and small business owner decide how to move forward when business has all but stopped. As we are all sheltered in place, we are using one of the many programs available for video-conferencing. This solution to overcoming the restriction of not being able to meet in person provides the added benefit of collaborating with people who can offer invaluable experience and wisdom but who live hundreds of miles apart. These digital gatherings are energizing, thought provoking, and highly interactive. They regularly bring people together who would not have this opportunity to share knowledge and offer support. And not only does the recipient benefit, but so do each of us. Just today, while listening to a suggestion made to the facilitator, I realized a need of my own that requires action. We also get to see and talk to people, which mean physical distancing doesn’t necessarily mean social distancing. And we always get when we give. This feeling of contribution and helping others feeds our own needs to be of service and to feel valued.
So I’m wondering aloud if this is way of coming together online in small groups might be something all of us could offer a friend or colleague who is facing a challenge brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic. There are many references to the concept you could find using Google or other search methods. Of course if you have any questions I might be able to help with, feel free to reach out in our comment section. I will be happy to respond.
Wishing you all good health and strong connections.
Henry’s idea is difficult to respond to because what ‘s not to like? The concept makes perfect sense. An individual struggling to make important decisions regarding business or future has the opportunity to consult with a group of people all focused on that one situation or problem. I love the idea. I could use some masterminds right now to help me deal with the forced isolation I am experiencing because of this awful virus. By myself, my imagination runs wild, and I come up with the worst-case scenarios and doom and gloom. A group of people focused on helping me deal with that situation would provide a great opportunity. It seems like a win/win situation. I am sure they could come up with ideas and solutions I cannot even conceive of.
I can see this being an incredible add on to therapy and constructive goal setting and achieving. I guess you have to pick your advisors/collaborators carefully, but beside picking people who aren’t focused on the problem or who have even less common sense than I do, I can’t see any downside to this idea. What an opportunity to socially undistance ourselves through technology at a time when we have too much time to contemplate, fret, and worry. The process sounds great, and seeking others’ advice through a group effort where ideas can be discussed and kicked around is a great opportunity to define your problem with razor-sharp clarity. I really find the concept perfect for people like me whose minds race during the early morning hours when my imagination gets locked on a pessimistic solution to a problem that won’t go away. That is when I have no sensible, realistic conception of what to do, whereas if I had had such a gathering, I would be able to replace my worry and concern with ideas presented by the group. But what is more significant is that I would feel responsible for seeing the solution put into action so as not to let the other participants down. That holds much more weight than doing it for myself! Imagine having a team of intelligent people all addressing your needs over time. What an opportunity to succeed!
Great idea and a great piece to discuss. I do, however, worry about Wal’s reading list as a teenager. When I was in my teens, I wasn’t reading books like Hill’s. I was reading The Hardy Boys and Ralph of the Rails, along with magazines that I had to hide from my parents, but hey, to each his own!
Hen suggests that the Mastermind Alliance can serve several goals: a) help others b) help yourself, and c) maintain positive contact with a group.
I read Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill when I was a teen. This book, published in 1937, is one of the all-time best selling business books. Hill describes 13 principles that are the foundation of a philosophy of success — the Mastermind concept is one of them.
When I read the book, the principle I focused on was ‘auto-suggestion’… still use it as a matter of fact. Hill said you don’t need an alarm clock; simply look at the clock when you lay down and say out loud what time you wish to awake. Works like a charm! Your internal clock wakes you up. That alone gives Napoleon Hill some street cred.
The Mastermind Alliance principle is an example of lateral thinking in a group. While individuals certainly can succeed on their own, collaboration can increase our favorable odds. It end-runs our tendency to define a problem within a narrow frame of reference and therefore limit the boundaries of a solution. It’s interesting to listen to Hill’s account of how Andrew Carnegie came up with a Mastermind Alliance to understand how to make and market steel – (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tuGW8ZCJUDE). Although the Mastermind Alliance concept is over 80 years old, it is still remarkably fresh.
In fact, there’s a Facebook community devoted to spinning off new products and ideas that uses the Mastermind approach: The Inventor’s Mastermind. Rules are simple:
In a Mastermind group, the agenda belongs to the group and each person’s participation is key, your peers give you feedback, help you brainstorm new possibilities and set up accountability structures that keep you focused and on track.
In order to use this concept effectively, preparation is important. Hill emphasizes that a person needs to know exactly what they want and be ready to work diligently to attain it. What does diligent mean, exactly? I think it means examining the details that surround us. Being observant. Being aware of the world around us and being ready to enter into new situations with an open mind.
But it is also about being ready to go beyond the bounds of common expectations. To stretch out laterally – creative confidence. To connect dots in different puzzles… to synthesize.
In order to do this, it helps to cultivate a diverse set of connections. You need to form an alliance with others so that you are not trapped by your own perspective. This is well illustrated in Dr. Tina Seelig’s, (What I Wish I Knew when I was 20). She describes the ‘$5 Challenge’ she assigned her students at Stanford. Each team was given $5 and asked to increase the investment within two days – and present their results to the entire class. The most successful teams never used the seed money, but rather brainstormed solutions to problems they observed around campus — solutions that could be monetized. One group offered to check bicycle tire pressure for students and simply asked for a donation. Another team noting the long lines at restaurants, secured reservations at several restaurants and sold them to folks waiting on line. They made over $600. She makes a fine point about being a “T” individual: deep in one specialty, but reaching out to other areas to seek out connections – an alliance.
The most successful person I ever met didn’t work the hardest and was not the smartest individual I ever knew, but he had a super optimistic attitude – he expected to be lucky and he was. He was open to new ideas and rewarded people for creative approaches. He connected an array of colleagues to dig up good ideas – a Mastermind Alliance. Even if he did not have expertise that was deep in any one field, he did have the motivation to stitch ideas together and get others to mine the rich resources of information. Essentially, he mirrored the approach Andrew Carnegie used. Many new projects flourished in this incubator. Was that luck? I don’t think so. All I know is that it seemed to permeate all areas of his life… he was one of those people who found more lost golf balls, made more good friends, avoided the sporadic consequences of mistakes, and lived a long, healthy life. Perhaps the fruits of a Mastermind Alliance?
This sheltering in place is getting old! But the seriousness of the situation necessitates us to do our civic duty to our community, family and friends, while at the same time protecting ourselves. My friend called last night and wanted to have a serious conversation about our current situation. Both of us are in our 70’s, both with risk factors. He is struggling with what to do if he gets sick. He wondered, do you ask your spouse or kids to come and take care of you? Best case scenario, you don’t get sick! Option 2, you get sick but you recover! Option 3- you know what happens. So he asked me what I was going to do. Was I going to have my kids come and take care of me or tell them to stay away and keep taking Tylenol. Or do you suffer alone until… ? We don’t want to infect people we love but to just deal without anyone to hold your hand or to whisper loving words seems unabashedly cold. These are really tough decisions and we are going to talk again tonight! There is no doubt that families are having this kind of discussion all over the country.
And yet the last couple of days I have heard the bells ringing. They are hopeful bells, happy bells, even jubilant because they promise that tomorrow, however long today turns out to be, will be better. I worked in the yard yesterday. It was good to clean out the flowerbeds to prepare for tomorrow. I could smell the dirt and the promise of blooms just waiting to form and pop into a rainbow of colors and fragrances. There is anticipation. I saw the signs all around me that until these last few days my eyes were blinded to. All I saw was darkness til now.
But there is no mistaking it. The birds were singing, little green sprouts are popping up in the garden beds. I heard other rakes scraping the ground in neighboring yards. Shouted to neighbors to see how they were doing. The guy next door held out his rake and I held out mine—-we laughed! I guess that’s the new handshake. Leaf bags for pick up were popping up at the curb up and down my street. My neighbor’s lawn service came today and actually mowed. I could smell the grass cuttings! Others are looking to tomorrow as well. It was uplifting!
In spite of the cloud hovering over the nation for the next couple months, I can hear the bells. The ones that toll for sadness are going to be heard but the ones that announce a new beginning will overtake them. And so if we have to look out the window to see the beautiful blossoms for awhile, I’ll press my nose against the glass like I used to when I was a kid and breathe in the fragrance and the sounds and the scenery telling me that hope is on the way! And I will continue to imagine having lunch with my friends, hugging my daughter and son, and sharing a glass of wine at the bar until this darkness lifts and I can actually not be afraid to shake a stranger’s hand again.
George, I really enjoyed sharing your anticipation of better season! What struck me was our need to have contact and mutually celebrate what the earth has to offer. Shake those rakes!
My harbinger of hope is the phoebe, the eastern flycatcher. Lately, we have been hearing its distinctive call. Once upon a time, we rented a cottage in the woods, adjacent to a stream. Our location was a breeding ground for bugs: the brook produced a grand variety of nymph-born insects. I’d take Art Flick’s Streamside Guide down to the water and observe the hatches — and so did the kingfishers and phoebes. We’d watch new insects, small to big — mayflies to Dobson flies — launching from the waterside. The phoebe became a favorite companion. Not too put off by humans, they always chose to fashion their mud and moss homes on the side of our garage, sheltered by the roof overhang. These little guys light on branches or clothes lines and dart to catch flying bugs of all sorts, using quick movement and hovering maneuvers like helicopter pilots.
Phoebes are industrious! We would watch them dodge and juke, nipping their prey and returning to the perch. All the while, flicking their tails and whistling their short ‘pee-wee, pee-wee’. (Now I know some of you are just now thinking about ‘Pee-wee Herman’, but just let that go, already)! Anyway, these fellows are among my favorite birds, along with the thrush, rufous-sided towhee, and cedar waxwing.
Most folks say it’s the redwing blackbird that is the harbinger of spring – although Linda votes for the evensong of robins and peepers — but when I hear the phoebe, I know it’s warm enough for insects… and therefore warm enough for shirtsleeves. I’m also reminded of those pleasant, peaceful days in the woods. Thanks, George!
George led the way this time with hope and anticipation of what is to come. He writes about looking forward to post COVID19. I think we all need to balance dealing with the present with the knowledge and understanding that, like all things, this is temporary, and it too shall pass. Several months from now, we will transition out of restrictive pandemic behaviors into more freedom of choice. I wonder what we will learn from all of this that might inform our future actions.
I heard a psychologist speak on one of the news programs about shifting our current thinking about what we’ve lost to accepting our shelter in place lifestyle as a challenge. A challenge we can meet with an attitude that boasts, “Game On!” I like that. From time to time, it helps to test our mettle and ramp up our self-discipline efforts. And, when we emerge into the sunlight of handshakes and hugs and the freedom to come and go as we please, the connections and liberties will be even more meaningful and appreciated.
As George finds hope and uplifting feelings in the natural signs of spring, so do I. The warmth of the sun, the smell of early blossoms, and the sounds of spring peepers bring a smile to my face during each morning walk with Duke. I also embrace the physical activities associated with preparing the gardens, clearing the detritus left by winter storms, and even the machine maintenance required for keeping the lawns, gardens, and driveway in good order.
I prefer to embrace the blending of two philosophies as I engage in meeting this challenge. I know that the past is gone and the future is not yet, but the present is the place and time for me to make my stand, in style and with a smile. I also know that it is the hope and anticipation of things not yet realized that often adds more joy than the thing itself. I choose both.
‘Shelter in place’, a term that we all will remember for a long time. The effort to maintain social distance while slowing down COVID-19 infections seemed like science fiction just six weeks ago. We ‘Three Old Guys’ skyped to discuss what we might write about in this edition. Our purpose would be not only to log our own activities during this unusual period, but to encourage others to comment on what they have been doing while sheltering. One day we’ll look back on this with a degree of amazement.
So, keep a list of what you did while sheltering and share it with us. Perhaps your list will give ideas to others who are struggling during these initial weeks of “flattening the corona curve”.
Here’s my top twelve so far:
Slowed down the pace: no physical meetings to attend has allowed more discretionary time for sure. More time for meals; likely watch more TV than we have in quite some time; and more time scouring internet news. Breakfast can now span a couple of hours of eating and conversation – when was the last time that happened? Speaking of TV, I recommend binging The Restaurant, a Swedish series with English subtitles.
Contact family daily: checking in is more of a priority. In our case, our sons/daughter and their work assignments, our grandkids now home from school. Perhaps this more for our own reassurance, but situations – particularly work situations – seem to change quickly at this stage of the outbreak. One son has been assigned to an emergency response center for part of each week.
Check on elder family and friends – or friends that are alone: plenty of folks are single or struggling with issues that were pre-COVID. We are fortunate for the telephone, internet, and contact software – much of which is being used concurrently! Most folks simply appreciate the opportunity to have a conversation, but in one case, I needed to break out of solitary and help an older friend install a new light by his furnace. We sort of kept our distance and kept grounded.
Planned alternatives to group meetings. Of course, you all would have laughed at our first attempt for an online 3oldguys meeting, but George, Hen and I had a number of disconnects setting up our group call – resulting in a lot of laughs and banter. Similarly, Mike and Gregg posted a video of a makeshift regatta from our old college days that was hilarious. Thank goodness for longtime friends!
Set aside time to analyze serious decisions: my younger son’s restaurant business is on life support – employees furloughed, take-out orders only. That’s a tough problem for a cook-to-order establishment. We have spent considerable time while sheltering determining a practical take-out menu (many restaurants are simply limiting choices or offering what they have until it is gone). Thank goodness for the support of friends and community. While we realize that closing our doors is a real possibility, we are planning as if we will survive. Toward that end, I have spent hours filling out applications for disaster loans and mortgage refinancing during our sheltering time. More meetings have been focused on changing vendors to limit overhead costs to improve services: I’m meeting with the fire suppression folks to check our equipment, the cable installers to switch service, and point of sale folks to get estimates on new credit card processor and printers. Onward!
Pursue hobbies – I love woodturning, but rarely have enough time to devote to the craft. The shelter in place sanction has given an opportunity to expand studio time. More bowls, boxes, and spindles! Boy, is it satisfying to work with wood.
Share resources – today, a friend is using my shop to prepare wood for a restoration project for a circa 1680 stone home. I set up the tools and he can operate alone, so we aren’t in the same space at the same time. He’s happy and so am I!
Keeping the faith – was able to assist in a solution to hold Sunday services at our church. Reaching out to a friend who is a ham radio operator (thanks, Bruce!), he loaned equipment/transmitter to establish a short distance FM broadcast from our church sanctuary to the parking lot. Once I turned on the amp and transmitter, individual cars in the parking lot could tune in on an FM station to participate in the service. It was neat to see people wave to each other and sing hymns in their vehicles (and speaking as a life-long “no-tone” maybe we sounded better too!)
Cleaning – oh yes, I imagine lots of homes will be easier to navigate, once we pass shelter in place! We have reorganized and winnowed unnecessary papers – I just consolidated 15 years of income tax data – always an area where I keep lots of detailed back-up. We also assembled two glass door bookcases and a writing desk and went through all of our unused tech hardware (five old computers, four useless displays, three plotters/printers, two boxes of cables, and a game cartridge in a pear tree).
Caught up on banking – lots of digital movement, lots of interaction with pneumatic tubes outside closed bank lobbies. Held conversations with financial advisors to plan next steps and produced lots of Quick Books reports – yay! Not a fan favorite.
Reading – of course! Just finished Jo Nesbo’s The Knife, John Grisham’s The Guardians, and started Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky. What hasn’t worked so well is my new subscription to Audible – I find that if I do this at bedtime, I simply fall asleep and forget where I left the story… during the day, I would feel like a sloth, so that leaves Audible while exercising only – not frequent enough to get story continuity… also not a good solution while snow shoveling.
Getting used to the new normal – which naturally will change, once we have grown accustomed. Let’s hope it will change for the better.
My Upsides To Shelter in Place
I find it predictable but still interesting that we each interpret the mandate to “Shelter in Place” differently. As we draw on past experiences, current and accumulated knowledge, and factor in our relationship with germs, fear, and individual versus community care, we act accordingly. I have friends who are still meeting in small groups, running errands daily, and traveling but with adherence to guidelines for social distancing and small groups. I also have friends who are staying at home except to buy groceries, period. And there are those of us who decide what is necessary and what is not, and fall somewhere in-between.
Since most of us are likely to spend the next several weeks, if not months, at home with minimal contact with others, we three old guys have each generated some things we have done, are doing, or are considering. It would be fantastic for you, our readers, to share some of yours.
Leaning hard toward the complete isolation end of the continuum, my list is as follows:
I am most fortunate to have the companionship of my dog Duke. We don’t argue, he makes no new demands, and he seems happy to have me around all the time!
Living on a large piece of property and being adjacent to hundreds of undeveloped land, I am free to hike trails every day. Since I love the woods and being outdoors, this part is somewhat of an extended vacation!
While I can’t go to the gym or play pickleball regularly for exercise, I enjoy cutting, splitting, and stacking firewood, preparing garden beds, and tending to small repairs around the house. Physical activity without having to interact with other people is readily available.
Recently my son and daughter-in-law sent me a gift certificate to Sun Basket, a company that allows you to choose meals that appeal to your tastes from a wide selection. They then send all the organic ingredients with instructions, directly to my front door. Over the last few years, I have been learning to cook, and this has helped me enormously. Since each order is complete with enough ingredients for two servings, I’m finding the process most rewarding and extremely helpful in reducing the number of trips necessary for grocery runs. I am now a regular subscriber!
This afternoon my granddaughter guided me via FaceTime through the installation of Netflix Watch Party. This Google Chrome extension allows groups of people to watch the same Netflix movie at precisely the same time and with a chat room on the sidebar. Tonight we will watch a film together even though we are 220 miles apart. We also decided to use FaceTime simultaneously so we can see and talk to each other while we watch the movie. Unfortunately, we each have to bring our own popcorn.
As a result of the widespread concern for friends and loved ones, I have heard from and reached out to not only my regular contacts but a much wider circle of friends and family. I find it energizing to connect and reconnect with them and serves to remind me of what a treasure they all are.
I started a diary earlier this week. It will be interesting to look back on all of this, years from now and remember it from a distance.
I’m not in a rush anymore. Time to notice more things. Have you noticed how bright Venus has been in the western sky just after sunset?
I’m excited about the possibility of a kind of Mastermind Alliance online group. Fortunately, the current state of technology allows us to continue supporting each other even if we can’t physically meet in the same location.
Lots of books to read and reread and no longer any excuses not to!
I found one small way to help out during this financial crisis. I have had the same person and her team, clean my home every two weeks for about 8 years. Suddenly she and her staff find themselves with no work or source of income. Some of us have decided to continue her regular payments throughout this period of isolation. Helping our local businesses in any way we can is critical to them and to our communities.
I’m looking forward to seeing we how we deal with cutting our own hair or coming out of this on the other side looking like hippies!
Of course it’s not all fun and games. It’s easier to list all the challenges and losses. But that list won’t serve me nearly as well as this one does. Until I can hug my friends again, here’s wishing you all good health and a gentle transition to the new world that awaits.
These Are Strange Times
These are strange times. We are all hunkering down in our own caves. It seems like a strange, lonely, solitary time. It is hard to get into a routine because a routine forces you to do the same thing over and over again, day after day, night after night…. being productive can be hard. And when everything you have to do is inside your own square footage diversity is limited. Before this crazy virus, I would meet friends for lunch, hug them, slap them on the back, laugh, whisper in each other’s faces. Can’t do that anymore. Will that ever feel natural again? But to put a positive face on the pandemic, people are making up for lost time- doing those odd jobs around the house that we have been meaning to do for years.
It started for me on the second day of staying put. I looked in the mirror and decided what better time to shave off my beard and stash? If I looked weird I could grow it back before anyone would get to see me! Can’t decide if I like it better but it takes more time to maintain so that is a plus when you are trying to make the day go by fast.
As I look around my house there are so many things to be done but even with all this time on my hands I am not all that motivated to do them. Then guilt overwhelms me and I find that if I take the harshest route to a task I am more likely to finish it. As an example, I had a sock drawer that was a so out of control I could not close it. I began taking a few socks out that prevented the drawer from closing. I felt myself giving up so I yanked the drawer out and just dumped all the socks on my bed. This guaranteed my completing the job before going to bed that night. I organized them by pairs, separated the single only/dryer mishaps and then the pairs I didn’t want anymore and disposed of them. I neatly organized the selected ones and smiled as the drawer drifted easily into place. Each night I worry about the next day’s projects until bedtime. It has become my new routine.
I have made tomato sauce to last me for the next week. Had a hard time finding macaroni (my Italian family never used the word pasta- spaghetti or macaroni!) in the grocery stores. What I did find really ticked me off. All over the parking lots of 3 local groceries were blue plastic gloves discarded. Why couldn’t the owners deposit them in the trash? With a crooked stick I found in the cart corral I picked up about 12 discarded pairs and deposited them where they belonged. I realized this could be a full time job, discarded my stick and continued my search for the elusive macaroni.
As my “staying put” continued I began to straighten out the upstairs bedrooms where my son had stayed. He had all our old photo albums and what was going to be an organizational procedure wound up being a stroll down Memory Lane. And what a great way to spend an afternoon. So many incredible memories that allowed me to escape Covid-19 for several hours. Now there are several other jobs that are needed— the books on the floor upstairs have to be organized and put away. The cabinet under my kitchen hutch explodes every time I open the door and allow all the Tupperware and corning ware covered dishes to tumble out onto the floor must be addressed. My back porch has to be cleaned and dusted so I can sit there when Spring starts to act like Spring. My garage needs addressing once warmth settles over the area and my gardens need their seasonal grooming. I just look with desire wanting to get out there and rake and clean but alas still too cold.
So, many days I sit with my book or my Sudoku and the only parts of me that gets exercised are my mind and my fingers and right now I am ok with that. Those other things will be there when the world gets healthy again and I can find legitimate reasons not to do them! I have to stop now do that I can wash my hands and wipe down my phone with a sanitary wipe.
Early in my career in education, I attended a Board of Education meeting where one of the agenda items was the elimination of all Elementary Assistant Principals. As I sat in the dark auditorium, I listened to members of the community come to the microphone to express their opinions on the motion. Many spoke in support of the positions and on behalf of those of us who were about to be terminated. While most referenced the value of the position, they also celebrated the difference we made in the lives of children and families. Several talked about the contributions they felt I made to our particular school community. When it was over and, the Board moved on to the next agenda item, someone who was sitting behind me leaned forward the said, “Isn’t it nice not to have had to die to hear such nice things said about you?”
Years later, I attended a funeral and listened as a member of the family spoke tenderly and lovingly and authentically about the deceased. Having known them both for many years, I was surprised to hear the depth of caring and love that I had never heard or seen in their daily interactions. I found myself wondering if each had indeed known how the other felt.
It’s been my experience that when people speak at a funeral, they put aside the bumps, conflicts, and the “stuff” of life that often comes between people and what is left are the heartfelt feelings of the foundation of their relationship. They remember aloud to the congregation the reason they felt connected to the departed and the values they appreciated and celebrated. And it’s also been my experience to hear some of them remark later on, that they wished they had conveyed those sentiments directly to him or her, while they were alive. Somehow, we seem to think we have plenty of time to get around to those conversations, or we make the assumption that others already know how we feel. I think, often, they don’t.
My purpose here is to pass on an idea I’ve had since those early career days when that voice behind me alerted me to the celebration of my value to others that I was able to hear first hand. What if each of us made the commitment to honor someone we know by hosting a Living Eulogy? We create a venue where we invited friends and family to speak a few words of gratitude and appreciation and to acknowledge the value this person has added to their lives. I believe that most recipients, although a bit uncomfortable, would carry those words and feelings with them for the rest of their lives. And the guests would find joy and comfort in knowing they didn’t wait until it was too late to express their feelings.
Some time ago, I shared this idea with George and a friend of his. His friend suggested I call it SIN (Say it Now), a phrase that continues the notion of pushing past the discomfort some of us have in sharing our feelings directly with friends and family. That is, we make an agreement with ourselves to seize opportunities to tell people, on the spot, what we appreciate about them. Four months ago, I lost my dear friend Ralph. Although we lived about two hours apart for most of our fifty plus years as friends, we regularly carved out time to see each other. And with each visit, we both found an opportunity to tell each other what our friendship meant to us. When he died, there was no question in my mind that he knew how I felt about him and why. There was nothing left to say other than good-bye.
A year ago last October my close friend Teresa decided to celebrate her dad, Bart. She had been thinking about it for some time but finally spoke with her siblings and set the date. Even though he was turning 90 at the end of December and was in relatively good health at the time, she, along with her brothers, invited her dad’s friends and family to a mid October gathering “just because.” There was lots of sharing of memories, embellished stories that generated lots of belly laughs, and expressions of appreciation and love for this wonderful man. As I understand it, he felt deeply moved, as did the people who came to celebrate him. Teresa shared this with me recently. “Two days after our celebration he was walking to his mailbox and saw his granddaughter and said to her, with his smiling eyes and infectious smile, ‘wasn’t that a great party?” One week later he was admitted to the hospital for a gall bladder issue and one month later he died of a heart condition.
However we choose to let people know we value them, we should do so when we think of it; there may not be another opportunity…for them or for us.
As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts and stories.
Say it, Show it!
I’ve been to a few Quaker funerals over the years which are celebrations of life rather than the sadness of goodbye’s. They always uplifted me and I’ve been able to speak at a few of my former students’ funerals. It is truly an honor to express your impressions and gratitude for being in people’s lives for however long you are given. My brother’s funeral was also a celebration of his life. Several former students of his spoke and brought the place to tears. They even sang a song from one of his musicals that he produced and directed in his many fifth grade classes. I lost it at that point!
But so much for eulogies! Life presents itself with many opportunities to share such feelings. Work related testimonials, retirements, birthday celebrations, TGIF’s at the local pub. All great opportunities to tell people how significant and important they have been to you. People are significant in all different ways. The co worker whose diligence and integrity have always impressed you- tell them right then and there! The neighbor who mowed your lawn just because-tell them. Your friends who gave up a Saturday to help you move- tell them. Your kids who did something that made you proud- tell them. Your partner who showed how much you are loved – don’t let these moments go unrecognized. And if it is appropriate and the relationship is close don’t just tell them, show them. Hugs are great incentives to continue being loving, thoughtful people.
Words have power. Recently my daughter came to me discouraged about her work and asked me how I dealt with negative feedback and rudeness. I had to think for a few minutes before I answered her. I asked her if she had gotten any positive feedback and of course she had. I asked her to weigh the positive feedback against the negative. Which would be the most valuable? I advised her never to let go of people’s compliments and gratitude and to remind herself every time she gets criticized of the good things she has been called out for. I really think she felt better. I have to do that a lot myself!
Hen always brings positive gifts to the table. He doesn’t waste time on gossip or negativity – he’s a builder. ‘Constructive’ would be a perfect word to describe Hen’s contribution in any discussion. His idea of a living eulogy builds on the foundational elements of a relationship – putting aside the bumps and conflicts and ‘stuff of life’ that comes between people. Rather, he focuses on what is structural, solid, and praiseworthy in a person’s architecture.
I love the concept. It guides folks to share their feelings publically – in a group – and directly to an individual. It recognizes the positive effect of the individual’s being-in-the-world. It is affirmative.
Yet, the association of eulogy and death makes me stumble a bit – shouldn’t, but it does. It leads me to think of it as a last rite, which likely is not the impetus of Hen’s idea. I’d need to rehearse the mechanics of the process, particularly when and how to invoke a living eulogy. Would you introduce the idea to an honoree: “Look, we’re going to hold a living eulogy for you, because you mean so much to us?” Once the event is completed, does that signal permission to slide into end of life? Is it ‘one and done’, and everything goes back to business as usual? If not, what is the logical next step?
Seems like it’s better to express these feelings continually – as Hen and Ralph did. Unfortunately, we don’t do that well enough or regularly enough, which is why Hen proposes the living eulogy. My wife and I discussed Hen’s idea. She felt that even if people felt uncomfortable with public speaking, there is benefit is simply treating this as a mental exercise – planning what you would say and acting on it at a time of your choosing.
Mark Twain famously said that ‘he could live for two months on a compliment’. We all thrive in an environment of positive feedback. I belong to a woodworking club which honors a Member of the Year at our annual dinner. We each get up to talk about the person, remember some past achievement or funny interaction, and provide a plaque and some gag gifts. The honoree feels good, but I believe that the club feels even better: telling how you feel is a greater gift to the teller, than to the receiver. As well, the honoree is around to participate in the following year’s celebration.
And sure, a living eulogy does not have to be a formal event. What’s important is the regularity. Also, why not pay it forward? After a person is honored, ask that person to select the next honoree and plan the event? Keep it going — not ‘one and done’, but allow folks to be cycled back into the mix.
Talking to yourself out loud isn’t really crazy…right? What about talking to people out loud who are no longer here? Is that crazy or therapeutic? Anyway, I am getting ahead of myself. I am the last remaining member of my generation or the one ahead of me. There were 6 significant people in my life who helped mold me, who helped make me a hypochondriac, helped make me insecure, and who led me to a confidence I didn’t experience until later in life. I know what I am good at now, I feel secure when I attempt certain things and I think those 6 people are responsible.
For a lot of years I was angry at all of them. I was angry at my dad cause I never knew if he would be sober or under the influence. So many holidays were ruined as he was an unkind drunk and usually my mom, brother and I were the targets. I hesitated bringing friends home for fear of embarrassment. My friends thought he was great cause he would always make jokes of which I was the brunt. They thought it was funny while I was dying inside. Mom worked the midnight to 8 shift at the local hospital so she slept most days. And my brother was 8 years older so he was out of those house and we had little in common til I graduated college. Then there are my three aunts, Eleanor, Edna and Dot. They were my safety cushions-unconditional love, always and anywhere. They are all gone now. The anger has been replaced by confusion and then understanding. As I experienced parenthood I realized not everything is simple, black and white. I had my daughter’s bedroom door slammed in my face more times than I care to admit to. I began to realize what a hard job it is to parent. I also realized I wasn’t the easiest kid to deal with either. My dad enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1942 and served on Iwo Jima til his discharge in ‘45. My brother, who knew him before the war said he was a different man when he came home. I’m sure they had PTSD back then, probably called it shell shock. But the war obviously had an effect on him. I couldn’t appreciate that cause I didn’t know him before, and he never talked about the war to us. My anger lasted years after his death. So what does all this have to do with talking out loud to dead people? Every night I talk to all 6 of them out loud and in the dark. The dog thinks I am talking to him! But I finally know the questions I wanted to ask all of them. I finally apologized for not appreciating the patience and guidance my mom gave to me. I told my brother how he guided me into a profession I was good at, and thanked my three aunts for their unwavering love of this skinny little kid. And as a result of these one sided conversations I have a new understanding of how and why things happened and I began seeing some incredibly loving things my dad did for me- the corsages he made for all the girls at my party in 7th grade, the fight he had with my grade school principal when they wanted to retain me in 2nd grade. My mom was a saint. She had to deal with me daily after working from midnight til 8 AM. I gained a new appreciation of my brother and an admiration for the kind of teacher he was. i finally was able to verbalize to my aunts how much I appreciated their love and benefited from it. I’ve asked all of them to give me a sign of some sort to let me know they are still watching over me and my kids. i talk to them nightly. I love and miss all of them terribly. Still haven’t heard back from any of them yet but I do believe they heard me and am open to any signs they can give!
Crazy or Therapeutic — Yes!
George raises some interesting questions for all of us. Do we also speak to people or animals or even places/inanimate objects that were once an interactive part of our lives but are no longer so?
I do. There are times when I’m alone and ask a question, put forth a gratitude, or declare a feeling to family members or friends who are no longer physically present in my life. I don’t expect a response but often feel differently after I do. It sounds therapeutic but, if I’m the only one (other than George) who does this in the world, perhaps it’s crazy. So what is crazy?
When Wal, George, and I confer we recognize that we often have varying takes on the meaning of a word. In order to establish that we’re talking about the same thing, Wal often refers us to Wikipedia. Acting on that habit I found that one section of Wikipedia compares craziness to insanity and madness and describes it as “a spectrum of individual and group behaviors that are characterized by certain abnormal mental or behavioral patterns.” It goes on to say, however, that a more informal use can refer to someone who is considered “highly unique, passionate or extreme, including in a positive sense.” Therefore, who is to say whether the behavior George describes is good or bad, helpful or not? Aren’t they just labels that are meaningful only to the labeler? (Or does that sound crazy?)
George talks about how the nighttime conversations with his six departed family members have helped him reach new levels of understanding and peace with his past. As I think about some of the “chats” I’ve had with my people, I realize that speaking aloud to an intentional person (even though they are not physically there) has a more direct effect on how I feel afterwards than just thinking it – silently – to myself. Is it the physical sound of my own voice offered up to the person/universe that makes the difference? I wonder. (I just thought, “I wonder” and typed it but then I said it out loud and it felt different, more intentional. Interesting.) Try it!
There is an article in Psychology Today by Arthur Dobrin D.S.W. entitled Conversing with the Dead. “This isn’t talking to ghosts but a continuing source of comfort.” In it he describes this for some, as a helpful, healing practice.
George closes his piece with him patiently waiting for a sign from each of the family members he spoke to. I love this part. My sisters and I would often contact each other when we were certain our mom sent a sign for one of us. Once it was a sudden gust of wind on a perfectly calm day when a ceremony was taking place and we were all there together. Other times it was a bird coming closer to us than it should when we were talking about her or a tug on my ear from out of nowhere when I was doing something that I was sure she would disapprove. I/we have no evidence that it’s her. But somehow, maybe because we want it to be true, we’re convinced it was mom.
Crazy? Therapeutic? What do you think?
What could be wrong about talking to those people we loved who have transitioned on from this life? I think this is a means of keeping a person’s memory current – it’s instrumental bereavement; it’s good grief!
The psychologists tell us that complex bereavement can go on for years. Sometimes we are left with sentiments that have not been fully expressed, so we keep the conversations going. Having nightly conversations, as George does, is a sort of a role playing experience which keeps those stories alive. It is a way of keeping a connection with the departed, while still moving on with your life. Psychologist J. W. Worden describes these connection activities as the last stage of grieving. Another psychologist, Kenneth Doka might group this activity under ‘rituals of continuity’, which establishes that the departed are still a part of your life. Personally, I like the idea (Carl Jung’s idea) that building myths and stories about the departed is a positive and healthy activity.
The ability to talk out loud to individuals who have left for parts unknown can be therapeutic. Actually speaking the thoughts makes them more intense… after all, you have invested the energy and resolve to make a statement – an observable event (although most of us do this privately — we hope!) Some have termed this ‘directed imagery’ and it is a powerful technique in the healing process
Myself, I enjoy talking to my core family – I don’t expect an answer, but it helps to work out problems and just to say “thanks” (belatedly) for the care and kindness that was exhibited by these folks. And also to apologize for not understanding then, what you have come to understand now. It sure sounds like that is the gist of what Geo and Hen do as well.
Of course, as Hen points out, “crazy” is defined by the culture – it is outlier behavior. In a general sense, speaking to the dead may be crazy if it is obsessive; if it disables a person’s ability to effectively function in the living world. However, there are shades of gray here. I know spouses who refuse to erase the voicemail messages and telephone greeting recorded by departed spouses… and others who name pets after loved ones who have left life behind. Crazy? I don’t think so, but probably not therapeutic either.
Or perhaps those desirous of keeping in touch real time may opt for the solutions offered through Guiding Echoes courses, such as Connect with Deceased Friends and Family, an online course advertised to “teach you to connect with loved ones who have passed away whenever and wherever you want”. You can ‘hang out’ or converse with those who have transitioned, according to the course’s author. Quirky, crazy? I don’t know – maybe it works. I guess each of us has a scale on which we rank these inclinations from healthy to quirky, along some continuum or another.
Well, it’s my turn to write the lead post – and I have an idea that I’d like to develop. But it is the usual struggle to figure out what to exclude to keep to about 600-800 words (could you write an 600 word essay on Art, for instance – might have to narrow that down a little?). In fact, the title of this piece is a bit of a double entendre: how to manage the words in our blog space, as well as discussing living in outer space. Okay, let’s proceed with both goals: I’m going to describe a passion and conclude with a question… after all, this blog is about sharpening different points of view and I’m interested in your thoughts – so read on!
Now you have probably heard that the United States has inaugurated a Space Force (USSF) this past December. The nucleus of the USSF is the Space Operations Command (SPOC) Yes, SPOC! Whoa…! They will be staffed by military types initially, but the plan is to create civilian career paths within the force as well. Pretty soon there will be xenobiologists, astrophysicists, social scientists, geologists, project managers and insurance salespeople joining the center. (Hey, risk insurance is huge).
Sign me up! I have been submersed in space exploration since childhood. The Moody Blues declared in their tribute to Timothy Leary that “Thinking is the best way to travel…” I simply add “space” to the premise. Of course, much of my initial exposure was a passive reception of the subject. Analog Fact and Fiction magazine has had a place in our family home before I could walk, back when it was Astounding Stories. (Note: these stories were not just ‘pretty good’ – they were Astounding!) I joined a book club at nine and read among other titles, the Gray Lensman series by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. (The lensman were galactic police who were equipped with the Arisian lens, which augmented their powers of mental control in order to protect the universe). Clearly, the Space Force could use these tools! And don’t forget the powers of the telepathic Slans created by A.E. van Vogt… in fact, some sci-fi fans have adopted the rallying cry: “Fans are Slans!”
At ten years old, I still remember the warm summer night when I started to read Ray Bradbury. It was like someone opened a door in my mind. Not only were the stories fresh, but the writing was excellent. And that’s the point: Science Fiction opened up POSSIBILITIES.
My tastes grew into the type of content that focused on living arrangements and day-to-day life in space. The Alliance-Union universe created by C.J. Cherryh described space traders plying their routes between spaceports – each ship a self-contained tribe and business staffed by generations of one family; essentially long haul space peddlers. Daily life on the ship is driven by main-day and alter-day shifts, since day and night have no meaning in space.
These “story universes” portray possibilities in human cultural change as we adapt to new environments. Larry Niven’s (and Jerry Pournelle’s) Ringworld series features a lot of the hard science that would be necessary for a stable life style in long orbit. I’m not sure if Niven invented the term ‘Belters’ – those miners and traders that made their homes in proximity to the asteroid belt in our solar system, but you may have seen the social system they formed in episodes of The Expanse. Niven described how their bodies would have changed during generations in weightless or low gravity conditions in space – growing taller, darker, and more slender – and developing their own patois and libertarian ethos: a loose affiliation of free thinking pioneers. Sure, some of you will say, ‘You haven’t mentioned Heinlein, Asimov, Philip K. Dick, trekkies, wookies, Firefly, or other favorite sci-fi themes – see, even more possibilities!
Many science fiction authors have built themes over a large body of work, perhaps nine or ten books devoted to exploring societal change charged with new environmental challenges and interspecies contact. A favorite is the “Humanx universe” created by Alan Dean Foster. In this reality, humans and the poetic thranx (large mantis type insectoids) partner to explore new worlds, while adapting to each other’s cultural and physical differences. I’ve encountered literally hundreds of different alien species! The Space Force needs this type of expertise – I’m waiting for their call.
Because life is not just about connecting dots – it’s about finding new dots! It’s about opening portals. Now don’t get me wrong, I love reading other material as well. I’ve gravitated (pardon the pun) to alternately reading three books at any one time: equal measures of non-fiction, literature, and escapist fiction like sci-fi. Non-fiction keeps me grounded; literature softens my heart, but sci-fi lets me fly! So tell me: What reading sparks your imagination?
My Life in the Woods
I can always count on Wal to fire up my thinking and to cause me to dig deeper as I respond to his thoughtful and measured queries.
As a child, I was not a reader. While I could read adequately and on grade level, I wasn’t drawn to books as much as I was to experiential activities and television (You know, that large heavy fat box with cathode tubes inside and a black and white screen on the outside that was activated by getting up and turning a knob and that, if you tilted the rabbit ears just so, enable you to view five or maybe 6 channels!)
However, I do remember being enamored with two books that also each became a TV mini series: Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. Both put me in awe of the adventures of woodsmen whose character and body were forged by rugged living in the natural environment. However, having grown up in the Bronx it was unlikely I would be running down White Plains Road wearing a coonskin cap! But when I turned eight years we moved to an acre of property in the Hudson Valley that backed up to over one hundred acres of woods. There I was convinced that emulating this folk hero would mould the man I would one day become. As I often roamed the nearby forest most afternoons and weekends, I would imagine myself as a young Crockett or Boone, moving silently through the brush, leaving no footprints or evidence that neither man nor beast could detect. I dreamed of easily eluding bad guys by escaping into the woods or perching in a tree, silently observing evil deed doers until I would stealthily swoop down to save the day! These readings, further illustrated by Fess Parker, the actor who portrayed these clever, adaptive, adventurous, multi-talented backwoodsmen, tapped into something within that would remain a constant influence in my life.
I still play in the woods and I still try to move silently as I walk daily with Duke. And, occasionally I seek to camouflage myself near a log or behind a large rock to see if I can blend seamlessly enough to disappear from Duke’s senses. What was once a childhood escape into imaginary storybook characters remains yet today, a source of comfort and connection.
Wal wondered about living in space; I dreamed of living in the woods.
Paws and Rails
Growing up in NYC I was usually out in the streets playing with all the kids from my block til the street lights came on. I was and still am a very slow reader so it took me a while to get through a book. But while Wal was lost in space and Hen was following animal tracks in the woods, I was in one of two fictional places. I read every book by a man named Albert Payson Terhune. My favorite was a book called A Dog Named Chips, but I read every one of his dog stories and I was lost in a world of saving helpless animals from horrible situations. I would fantasize about saving a poor neglected dog, whose loyalty to me would wind up saving me at some point in the future. I had quite a collection of pets growing up, cats and dogs but also birds, fish, and turtles. My premier success was a goldfish that lived in a big bowl for over 8 years. During those formative years I really believed I would grow up to be a veterinarian.
When I wasn’t rescuing fictional animals in my imagination I was riding the rails, a hobo in a boxcar traveling across the country, meeting other fictional hoboes and discovering life outside of NYC. This interest came from the only activity my brother, father and I ever did together. My dad bought each of us our own Lionel train set. My brother’s was a prewar metal set and mine was a 1954 plastic steam engine with all the colorful boxcars. Both of which I still have and still work! My dad made a platform that took up half the living room floor and came out every Christmas when we would put up our Christmas village. My imagination would run wild. That got me interested in a series of books called Ralph on the Rails written by a man named Allen Chapman. Ralph’s adventures had me traveling the rails with him. He experienced train wrecks, switch towers, riding with the engineer, riding the midnight express and many other incredible adventures. And as a friend of Ralph I got to experience it too. Perhaps it is funny how these childhood fantasies can carry over into our adult lives but in my case, I have been fortunate enough to have shared my life with all kinds of furry friends who have enriched my life and priceless memories of my brother, father and I creating this miniature and imaginary world. The Ralph books just enhanced my love of trains and allowed my imagination to fly not into outer space but across this land on two rails.
I often listened to friends talk about growing up. Usually it meant being a little older so they could stay out later, drive a car, have a girlfriend, live alone, have their own money and their own rules. Growing up represented freedoms with little thought given to the affiliated responsibilities.
When asked what I wanted to do when I grew up I would immediately remind myself to find something into which I could weave a sense of play. (And my play would often occur in the woods near our development, with or without friends, but almost always with my dog.) Play to me was the freedom that others found in more “mature” pursuits.
I always wanted to be superman or, if that position was already filled, Daredevil.
I really never had a calling. I knew what I didn’t want to do when I grew up. I didn’t want to have to wear a suit and tie to work each day and I didn’t want to do boring, routinized work.
When I reached college, I took liberal arts courses for as long as I could and then, when faced with a need to declare a major, I took a career survey offered to those of us who were undecided about a clear direction or purpose. While I scored high in social careers, especially in helping people, the unquestionable recommendation for me was to become a forest ranger! Imagine that! Even though it was indicated that I would be successful working in groups and among people, my destiny also appeared to be in a solo connection with the woods, an isolated steward of the environment. And, since my school didn’t offer that major I chose by default, elementary education. Thus began my answer to the question, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”
As my family and friends and colleagues all know, I’ve loved every part of my career in education and in my subsequent work as a leadership trainer and coach. But, today, despite my part-time coaching work with area school districts and social service organizations, I find myself living alone, playing in the woods (almost always with my dog), and caring for my twenty-two acres of forest. And while I have grown older, since I’m still doing what I always loved as a child, perhaps I’ve redefined growing up!
What did you want to do as a child when you grew up?
When I Grow Up…
I remember as a kid wondering what I would be when I grew up. Today it’s a cowboy, yesterday I wanted to be a fireman(when I was a kid occupations were gender specific- there were no firefighters or flight attendants or female actors). And tomorrow I might decide to be a doctor(one of the few professions where gender wasn’t specific, along with lawyer and teacher). Maybe professions weren’t gender assigned but occupations were. Interesting! Anyway, as my childhood moved into my teen years I really hadn’t given much thought to my future, just whether I’d make it home from school in time to watch American Bandstand. Or whether I would see the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan show for their premiere engagement in the US. Those things were important , more so than plotting out my future.
Then college came and I sort of fell into education because I had an aunt and a brother who became teachers. Not a whole lot of forethought and planning went into it. I just kind of followed suit and fortunately discovered that not only did I enjoy it but I was good at it!
So with the marching of time came new opportunities. Now what? Marriage, a family, a house- all new and exciting adventures and steadily they all were accomplished. So now what? Long years passed, slowly at first but more quickly as more years piled up. What will I be when I grow up turned into did I grow up and now what? Life got in the way, big changes occurred and now retirement was approaching. What will I be was replaced by what will I do now?
And suddenly a new career was in front of me with a whole new set of challenges and rewards. But now in my 8th decade(how the hell did that happen?) the rewards are fewer and farther between when weighed on the scale of my youth and the challenges are more physically connected- like can I get out of the chair, or will my knee give out. But weighed on a new scale smaller rewards have greater joys, like it being ok to take time to have a leisure lunch with a friend or smell the familiar and comforting fragrance when you open the door to your own house. These are real pleasures even if the smell is of your dog or old laundry- it is yours!
But I guess the question of what will I be when I grow up is still valid. There is always more growing up to do but in a much more limited time frame. Now, I’ve lost friends and family members and my immediate family consists of three of us- no more huge family gatherings that I used to love because they are all gone. It puts into question how much more growing up is left. How much more quality time is left. How much more rewards are left as opposed to challenges and health concerns. Well, we’ll know as it happens now, but the question of what will I be when I grow up is no longer something for the distant future anymore. It is here and now. Now I have to live in the here and now and take the challenges, pleasures and rewards as they come and with gratitude. And that isn’t such a bad thing. Too bad I couldn’t have learned that sooner but I was too worried about what I would be when I grew up!
When I Grow UP
How interesting it is that when you are a kid, the phrase ‘When I grow up…’ is usually followed by ‘I want to be a [insert occupational choice] ‘. Like Hen and Geo, my journey started with fantasy picks and developed through a series of realistic trade-offs. Seems like we followed a similar arc – and I’d guess that most people do. If you had asked, I would have stated that I’d be ‘grown-up’ by age 24. Little did I suspect that I’d be husband and father by 21. Lots of practical decisions had to be made. My evolution of job choices went something like this:
Tribal elder and scout: No good: I didn’t have a tribe
Aircraft designer: It’s what I thought my Dad did
Artist: It’s what I thought my Mom did
Anthropologist: Find out what the Etruscans did – but no, too much travel
Psychologist: Maybe I should help others figure out what to do
Process analyst: How do things get done, anyway?
Manager: Which things should get done?
Consultant: Help others get things done (which turns out to be a key component of #7)
In college, I studied anthropology and psychology. When I concluded that studying other cultures might make for an irregular home life, I decided to focus on helping other people make up their minds on occupational goals. Hen talked about how a vocational work-up seemed to have captured some enduring interests. My Dad had the same experience doing an occupational profile at NJIT many years ago, and it sort of predicted his career as a liaison engineer. I figured, well, maybe I could be one of those folks who created those tests. Graduate school offered an opportunity to specialize in that area. Two graduate degrees and the first chapter of a PhD dissertation completed, I painted myself into a corner: too specialized for my employer’s needs and family life too compromised by constant commuting to Manhattan. So, additional adjustments were required over the years: positions in Human Resources, Management Training, Planning, and Operations. It was fine — I enjoyed the challenge of learning new jobs. My last assignment allowed me to work with other cultures to reshape business processes and applications – didn’t meet any Etruscans, though…
Through all that and the busy-ness of family life, the main focus for me was to be task oriented, sometimes to the detriment of relationships and good social judgment. Retirement has freed-up time to consider what type of person I can still BECOME. Hopefully, I’d like to think that I’ve grown up, grown old, but am still growing out…
After commiserating with my blog mates who felt my submission was a little down, I decided to review what I wrote. What I realized is that this last week I was surrounded by some very sad news, sickness and accidents of three people very close to me. When I wrote the following, I had awakened in the middle of the night and couldn’t get my friends off my mind. Two of them suffering from disease and one from a terrible fall down a flight of cellar stairs. Perhaps my mind was focused on the negative. Lying in the dark room like that allows the demons to come to the forefront and I believe my piece, though admittedly a little down as a result, was actually a true reflection of where I was at that particular moment in the night. Those thoughts tend to soften with the light of day and the need to look toward the future. Wally reminded me that I don’t carry around that bleak of an attitude most of the time. I did try to insert some comedic relief even at that hour of the night. Thanks for your understanding. I believe we probably all have our dark moments when our defenses are down and there is no one around to bring us up.
This may be a little rambling as my thoughts on this topic ramble from one day to the next. Maybe it is my mental state or my inability to focus on any one thing at a time. I don’t claim that this is how all folks in their 70’s think or feel but perhaps some others can empathize with my plight. There is a lot on my mind. In fact my mind becomes incredibly active around 2 to 3 AM. It is dark, scary, I know the boogie man is probably under the bed waiting for me to drop my arm over the side. Funny how things I used to fear as a child come back to haunt in those glorious golden years. It is in those dark hours that the demons that have been hiding through my 30’s, 40’s and 50’s come out unleashed and unhindered to play with my mind. Those are the times my worst fears seem most reasonable without the light of day to dismiss them.
I am soon to be 74. My immediate family all passed by their 74th brthday, so naturally I have some trepidation about this upcoming birthday. I feel as if my world is shrinking. That doesn’t terrorize me or anything, it is just factual. Raised in a large Italian /Welsh family our holidays consisted of 15 to 20 kids, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents yelling and laughing, singing and arguing at dinner. That was the norm. It felt safe, comfortable, and predictable. I liked that. But now, being the last living member of my generation or above it seems lonely. Holidays with the 3 of us fall kind of short. I can’t even call my brother and ask him if he remembers the time Aunt Eleanor dumped the pasta on my dad’s lap or was it Aunt Edna? My family stories are fading and I have no one to run it by for verification. So the size of my world is shrinking.
But it is more than that. My body is unable to do things that I am sure I did just a year ago. That is unsettling cause it means my mobility or my stamina has shrunk as well. As you grow through the decades of your life your body becomes better at things. Things you were incapable of performing in your 20’s somehow become easy in the 30’s. Not true of things you did easily in your 50’s. They suddenly become monumental in your 60’s. Or at least that is how it is in this body. I used to be 5’7″ tall but all of a sudden when I visited the doctor in my 70’s I have shrunk (I must admit my shoe size increased in all honesty). Actually senior citizen maturity does have benefits, maybe because it is harder getting up out of a chair, we tend to be more reflective, more patient, less judgmental. In the past, if my kids said something upsetting I would lunge out of my chair and go on a rampage- you know the kind….I walked 9 miles to school in the snow, or we didn’t have phones to tell us how to get to places, we had to learn how to read maps. You get the idea. But now because I have to push up on the arms of the chair, make sure my legs are under me and then take a few moments longer to straighten up, the drama of “flying” out of the chair to make a point is replaced out of necessity to reflect on things before opening my mouth. So perhaps patience and reflection are more features of immobility than wisdom!
I have no grandchildren. I can see how they would certainly increase the size of your world. I don’t wish I had some, my kids just never married. If I had grandkids I would probably be up at 2 AM this morning wondering what their lives would be like. Would they have water to drink, clean air to breathe, flowers and wildlife to enjoy. Better I don’t have any! I guess I just have to get used to the world I am in now, shrunken as it is, it is all I’ve got.
I wrote this 2 years ago, just thought I would include it.
I’m already 71 years old
the “Golden Years” so I’ve been told
But gold begins to lose its shine
somewhere around 59!
Hair’s the first that goes
followed soon by achy toes.
Thumbs and wrists hurt next
and other joints that used to flex.
Indigestion and heart burn pills
needed nightly to ease those ills.
Blood pressure and cholesterol rise
despite my doctor’s endless sighs
Not to mention liver spots…
who the Hell needs old age blots?
Now the memory starts getting weak,
Check the fridge for the keys I seek
Who knows what’s next to make me “blue”
’cause inside a year, I’m 72!
Work with What You’ve Got
I respect what Geo has written – and the place from which these feelings emanate. He and I share some of those demographics (losing our parents and brother prior to age 74 – and some physical challenges). These are areas that do narrow your perspective.
However, if folks will allow me a little faith space, I agree with Paul of Tarsus who said that adversity builds character and character leads to hope – and hope does not disappoint. So I’d suggest to Geo – stir a little bit of hope into his cup of worry.
I don’t know about ‘golden years’, but I think that we are lucky to have gotten to a point in life where we can sit back and reflect a little. It’s just a respite from some of the hard things in life we’ll go back to facing soon. Life is a struggle after all – but a glorious struggle! (And if you feel it is not, well, make it so!). Work with what you’ve got.
Everything has a season for sure. You might say that life is like a garden where different plants bloom at different times. Or you might say that when one skill starts to degrade that you find another modality of which you were not aware. I’m not as strong or fast or virile as I used to be – that makes me sad. But I’m switching gears to focus on creative tasks and finding ways to extend my tennis life: my goals are just more attenuated. And sure, there are times when it seems that my loved ones and I are just on a conveyor belt headed toward end of life. Unfortunately, that’s the way it is. But I’m still glad to be where I am in the cycle. And I don’t feel alone. My faith helps me believe that there is a presence traveling with me – as near to me as my own breath. And I’m pleased with all the small miracles that occur each day, despite the headlines and negativity. It also makes me happy to say thanks for these items that go well, even when you did not expect it. So diminished I am – and more diminished will become… but I will work with what I’ve got.
It’s What We Feed Ourselves
George reminds us that all is not necessarily gold in the golden years. And, there are times that try our patience, wisdom, and sense of being grounded despite our seven decades of life experience. For even those of us who can live rather comfortably in retirement, the steady decline in our physical and mental functioning can be overwhelming. Our circle of friends and family grows smaller at an increasing rate and our sense of being valuable and important to those we love slowly transforms into a feeling of being a liability. Ugh! What’s so golden about that?
But here comes Wal to the rescue! He gives us hope. He suggests that we grab the bull by the horns and do what we can with what we still have to make the best of it. He inspires me to find ways to be of value, to think smarter in pickle ball games to make up for my slower reflexes, and to find fun in whatever I can. He reminds me that I can’t change those things outside of my sphere of influence but I can have a positive impact on those things I can influence. And, as Wal taps into the realm of faith to assist him, I’m also reminded of the Serenity Prayer – written by American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference”
This topic also reinforces my belief in the notion that we can convince ourselves of most anything, often by spending time thinking about it and surrounding ourselves with people who reinforce what we think. This works well if we’re happy and in a place of fulfillment. If we’re not, I suggest need to spend more time thinking differently and more time with people who are happy and content. (A notion I gathered from the Law of Attraction?) And Henry Ford supports the idea of intention this way:
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t –you’re right.” In addition, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about the Golden Years as it pertains to not only the leisure years after retirement but also a kind of beginning of the end of life. While this is likely another blog topic, I’m wondering if any of you have any conversations about the final years with family or friends.
Hen featured The Four Agreements in his last post – one of which is to attain impeccability of one’s word. This chapter really resonated with me. However, I may rename this post to Be “Impeccabl” with Your Word, because it is a huge expectation. Not sure I can get all the way to Impeccable — honestly, I’ll be happy to just get close.
Being true to one’s word is a pervasive theme in ethics and philosophy. The focus is not just on veracity, but also taking care with what one says, avoiding gossip and snarky comments, etc. Word is bond. No trash talk. Loose lips sink ships.
In Greek philosophy and theology, “word” (logos) is an elemental concept: “the divine reason implicit in the cosmos, ordering it and giving it form and meaning”, according to the Britannica. ‘Word’ describes the essence of a thing. To know the essence of a thing and express its name is powerful. In some cultures there are ‘true’ names that are never revealed to others just for this reason.So impeccability is important. It drives home the tidiness of thinking and the economy of speaking that is the product of careful consideration. It presupposes an internal discipline and a firm foundation of guiding principles. It requires clear vision. It’s the sort of condition that one does not expect to be born with – rather it is the hard won product of survival, lessons learned, and dexterity of mind.
So, impeccability of word also implies impeccability of actions and choices.
In this connection, I learned a new word: Eudaemonism. Apparently, Aristotle defined the state of eudaemonia as ‘living and doing well’ and felt that this condition was associated with achieving virtue or excellence, requiring virtuous activity. In the Greek sense, virtue is a bit broader than the moral context, but rather focuses on achieving perfection in one’s pursuits: impeccability. Aristotle set a high bar!
I like the definition in Wikipedia:
“Eudaimonia [sic] as a self-discovery, perceived development of one’s best potentials, a sense of purpose and meaning in life, intense involvement in activities, investment of significant effort, and enjoyment of activities as personally expressive, deep relationships”
To me, this sounds like a worthy goal and the work of a lifetime. When I think about all the words I wish were never said, my stock is going down: perhaps I can only hope to attain “Impecc” of Word after all.
The Power of Your Words
Thank you Wal for continuing this conversation. Of all the issues, bumps, and causes for sleepless nights it’s often words said or unsaid that are at the root cause. Ruiz gives us a comprehensive look at what is involved in being impeccable and, I agree, achieving a portion of impeccability is all I can hope for. However, I believe that this is what the author intended. By making an agreement with ourselves to maintain a level of awareness about how we use our word, is the goal. Setting an expectation of mastering it to perfection is to set us up for yet another disappointment.
I have often thought about the concept Ruiz brings forth about gossip. As I understand it, not only is it inappropriate to talk negatively about others with those who would listen, but to talk about others for any reason, without their presence is still gossip. So, I find that although I choose to follow his intention about using my word only for positive intention, I have excused myself from the label of gossip, when I speak positively of someone who is not present. And therein, lies my challenge. That is, too often we modify definitions of words to suit our needs or present behaviors: an excuse to avoid the hard work of changing old habits. While I don’t feel this excuse I’ve granted myself is an example of this, I am conscious of how easy it is to make my own rules. Just a thought among many thoughts…
While the heart is arguably the most powerful part of the human body, a friend of mine would argue that it is the mouth. He contends that what comes out of our mouths can do enormous good or extreme damage to not only ourselves but to countless others. I dare say he was right.
I am being impeccable when I say how much I am appreciating each of you, George and Wal, for creating and sustaining this journey.
The Appeal of the Snark
Wal, as I was reading this a couple of thoughts came to mind and a couple of reactions came to heart. The first thing of course was what an admirable concept this is and how we should all strive to achieve it. Then my heart sank– no “snarky” comments? Damn– I didn’t even exist in teenage society ‘til my snarkiness matured. That was how I got noticed, laughed at and with by the rest of adolescent society. It was the only way I could fit in, impress and have a personality. To this day, snarky comments comfort me like a warm blanket as a bastion of protection, a wall paper to protect me, and make me prettier than I feel.
The impeccability of my word comes when I make a promise. If I say I’ll meet you at 2, I’ll be there at 1:45, totally willing to wait ‘til 2. I don’t think I have ever missed an appointment and was ever late. But then what about the little white lies we tell when we know they aren’t true. “You don’t look a day over 50,” if you could erase those crow’s feet around your eyes and grow a head of hair again. Is that impeccability? It makes the other person feel good, which is admirable but in reality you look like Hell. Would that be impeccable to say that to him? It wouldn’t seem very nice! Here’s someone I can finally quote…..Thumper’s Mom said, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all!” Maybe even here I am being snarky, but impeccability of words requires the good with the bad……and to what end? But I digress! By the way, you and Hen looked like young stallions today!
Many years ago I was part of a group called, The Caring Community. Founded by a dear friend and colleague who was a facilitator and trainer in the area of human relations, the group was designed to bring diverse people together to spend time in community. (He defined community as a place where people felt valued, accepted, and connected.) This time in community was accomplished by way of our focus on personal growth and by regular participation in community service. Throughout our time together each of us contributed unique skill sets, experiences, and resources. One of these resources was a book suggested by a participant who found it to be of great value.
The Four Agreements, by Don Miquel Ruiz offers a powerful code of conduct to recognize and free us from blindly following self-limiting beliefs and practices. Each agreement is more of a direction than a goal. Followed conscientiously, they help diminish drama, reduce stress, and offer a personal context from which to make good decisions. In other words, it helps us to better hear others and ourselves outside of our habitual practices.
I chose to write about this book as a means of offering a way to mitigate the divisive, angry, and polarizing language, we hear daily: the sounds of ideas, attitudes, and emotions we feed ourselves and that both justify what we believe to already be true and that cause us to dig in to protect our perceptions. And while none of this is new in the history of mankind, it is more rampant and extreme than I have seen or felt in my lifetime. And what I’m not hearing are alternatives to address these differences with civility, compassion, and understanding.
(There are many other models and authors which offer ideas for how to listen to self and to others. I chose this one because it works best for me.)
To that end I offer the following taken from The Four Agreements:
Be Impeccable With Your Word
Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. Avoid using the word to speak against yourself or to gossip about others. Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.
Don’t Take Anything Personally
Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.
Don’t Make Assumptions
Find the courage to ask questions and to express what you really want. Communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama. With just this one agreement, you can completely transform your life.
Always Do Your Best
Your best is going to change from moment to moment; it will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick. Under any circumstance, simply do your best, and you will avoid self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret.
If we applied these agreements to our thinking and our practice, perhaps we might then hold the same conversations over the same issues with less anger and judgement and with the purpose of finding common ground rather than trying to convince others to abandon their perspective and see it our way.
I’d be interested to hear your viewpoints, any thoughts on The Four Agreements, or any books you may have read that you found to be a powerful influence in your life.
How Do You Heal a Country?
How do you heal a country? How do you protect your own ideals while accepting those of others who are diametrically opposed to your way of thinking and how do you avoid contributing to the overwhelming lack of civil discourse that can often erupt through conflicting expressions of what is right and wrong, factual or fiction? That seems to be where our country is stuck right now.
We have to heal and in order to do that we have to find a path to help us heal. Henry lays out a plan based on the integrity of our word and the desire to work things out. Mr Kraftowitz , my 7th grade English teacher, used to say that the mark of an intelligent person is not that he has a lot to say but that he listens! Something I often struggle with. I often find myself forming my next point In my head rather than listening to what the other person is saying. As a result I haven’t learned anything. I know I do this. I assume many others do as well, and instead of hearing we are talking passed each other resulting in nothing being achieved.
Are the civil wounds too great to heal? Are there things we actually can agree on- facts that both sides can agree are valid and necessary to take into account? Maybe once we can agree to that perhaps we can begin a true meeting of the minds. Currently, this seems to be particular tricky. We cling to the facts as we see them and can’t understand why everyone doesn’t see them the same.
I hate to admit that I tend to be a half empty glass kind of person. My personal experience was that if I didn’t expect much I wouldn’t be disappointed. And for a long time in my youth that served me well.
I guess that’s why I’m not sure Henry’s approach would work. One has to assume for it to work, both/all parties have to want to mend the gap, agree to be impeccable with their words and are both in search of common ground. My half empty glass wonders if those factors can become aligned. I sincerely hope it is possible because something has to happen for us to begin healing. Holding on to personal emotions, beliefs, and ideas in stubborn refusal to let go for fear of who knows what will only enlarge the wound and make civil discourse divide us more.
We Did Not Start the Fire
Before the introduction of the term, “Fake News”, I rode up in an elevator with my social psychology professor, who said: “There are no such things as facts”. He was making the point that all data are interpreted through the lens of the viewer. While there may not be ‘facts’, there’s no shortage of information. According to the Pew Research Institute in 2018, 68% of Americans suffer from news fatigue. Social media has exponentially added to this burst of ‘facts’.
In this time of tweeting, retweeting, and forwarding posts of like-minded opinions, I wonder whether anyone is interested in real discourse — lots of pots, lots of stirring. Hen has made a great point about active listening – and make no mistake, it requires discipline It seems rather that people are seeking confirmation of their own opinions. We’re becoming prisoners of our own ‘metadata’ defined by any one of a number of groups to which we identify.
Geo says that the passion invested in various opinions can prevent an understanding of another’s point of view. In order for rational discourse to occur, each of us needs to submerge our ‘need to persuade’ from the ‘need to repeat back’ someone else’s position so that they can feel understood. It is important to really listen rather than formulating a response while the other person is talking. Understanding does not equal agreement, but it may lead to new ideas and constructive action. The Four Agreements is a very insightful book as Hen describes. I’d also recommend David Brooks’ The Second Mountain, in particular, his work with diverse groups to formulate community actions.
Conflict management is messy. As Billy Joel sang: “We didn’t start the fire, it’s been always burning since the world’s been turning”. We ought to be sure that we are not the ones stoking the fire.
I wasn’t sure what I was going to write about this time. Nothing seemed to grab me. I have been in a kind of low place as I have a recurring pain in my neck that no one seems to be able to help alleviate. The doctor, the massage therapist and the physical therapist seem to keep trying things that don’t touch the pain. So with that on my mind and with the holidays approaching I have been at a loss. Not being able to do much physically due to the pain, I have been sitting with heat pads and ice packs and have had a lot of time to be inside my head. There are places I would rather be! I noticed that my emotions have been very tender of late. I hear a song and I start to tear up. I read an article in the newspaper about a kitten that followed a man walking his dog back to his house and the man took the kitten in and I lost it. A pattern was developing and I realized this has been happening more and more often in the last few months.
Everything seems to “touch” me more than it used to. I watch a movie and I better have tissues nearby because I know somewhere in the movie something is going to bring me to tears. I have always been a sensitive person and easy to express my feelings but this is something beyond that sensitivity. Maybe I am in a nostalgic period of my life where all these things take me back to positive memories from my childhood or from different events. I was thinking back today when I was an innkeeper and reminiscing about the good times and fun I had in that position and sure enough I began to cry. And it is a funny cry- I feel my face distort, the tears come and then disappear almost as quickly as they came.
Perhaps the approach of the holidays have brought me to this tender point. My daughter and I are going to a local restaurant for Thanksgiving. My son moved away recently and can’t make it back for the holiday. I was fine with it all until I began to reminisce about holidays in the past. They were filled with relatives, vast amounts of Italian food, noise, arguments, laughter- things I often dreaded at the time. But now I miss them terribly and sadness diminishes the memory. I love spending time with my daughter but it just isn’t the same anymore. I think she feels the same way although when they were kids they used to hate opening their Christmas gifts and then having to rush off to get to NYC in time for dinner with the family.
I also think the time change and the change in the weather have affected my outlook as well. The days have been gray and daylight is short and I can’t seem to muster up enthusiasm for much of anything. I know some people are affected by the lessening of daylight but that had never bothered me before. I suddenly understand why holidays can be very lonely times for people. Coming from a family that would have 14 or so people for Christmas dinner every year to just the 2 or 3 of us has been very difficult to accept. It is amplified by the holidays, I just wish I had a way to move passed it. Now with Christmas music everywhere it becomes difficult to escape. I am trapped in a world of happy holiday music and good cheer all around and I can’t appreciate it.
But in reality, the difficult realization is that I and my two kids are all that is left of my family and that leaves me with a very empty, and sometimes scared feeling in my heart. I guess I just have to accept the fact that my emotions are askew, and that I can be brought to tears in an instant, both wonderful things and sad things bring them on. Along with old age maybe more than just the body gets arthritis. Maybe I have arthritis of the emotions. I will survive, I will adjust and accept and conquer. But I probably will be brought to tears anytime I see something tender, hear or see something beautiful- yes, beauty does it to me as well! The last time I was in Italy in my grandfather’s village I walked into the little hotel and they were making sauce. The smell of that sauce brought me right back to my dad’s kitchen and, you guessed it, I began to cry!
A Rising Tide
They say a rising tide lifts all boats. It’s the same with emotion, which sort of wells up around the holidays and makes itself known in ways that George describes. No doubt most of us experience that bittersweet feeling of enjoying the present, while missing the past. Sometimes we are surprised by the strength of that feeling. The holiday season has so many strong associations that it is hard to simply remove yourself from cherished memories.
I confess to feeling blue around this time of year, missing my brother, mother, and father… and realizing that my kids are developing their own traditions independent from my wife and I. We are coming to grips with the fact that our time is passing and we are shifting into a less central role than we have played previously. In a way, this is welcome, because the ‘downshifting’ needs less energy. However, I don’t want the important people in my life — now gone — to be forgotten in the process of building those new traditions.
I’m moved by advice provided by a couple of smart individuals: Carl Jung and Erik Erikson. Jung talked about the importance of making myths and Erikson pointed to age-related challenges that must be addressed to remain psychologically healthy.
Jung has this mystic quality that is incorporated into his scheme of psychoanalytic thought. What I take from his writings is that it is important to stay in continuance with our past by reinforcing stories – or myths – that keep our history alive. My job is to retell – and maybe embellish – tales about my forebears to maintain the currency of those lost loved ones. Don’t we all do this? Friends get together and relive ‘war stories’ and old memories. We’re making myths – in a good way! I try to do that with my sons and grandsons. It honors those who have passed and gives me a role as a ‘creative historian’. Hopefully these myths provide significant life lessons as well as honoring people and times past. Erikson laid out a theory of developmental challenges as we grow. The generativity challenge has to do with a decision we make either to a) share our experiences and mentor others as we age or b) draw inward and focus on ourselves and our problems. Of course, we occasionally have a foot in both camps, but the latter choice tends to build a closed system over time. I’d rather acknowledge what I miss, take the best of it and reach out for new opportunities. Joni Mitchell sang “…something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day”. Synthesize and celebrate, my friends!
Deep Waters — Surface Emotions
I love George’s newly coined medical disease – arthritis of the emotions! Yup! I too, contracted the same condition over the last few years. However, my affliction is not necessarily triggered by only the holidays but seems to flare up on any given day, week, or season. Sensitivity to joy, sadness, love, or loss, evokes a deep connection to a feeling that often results in tears. Usually induced by a movie, I find my emotions, which have migrated to the surface over the years, release more readily and more frequently than before. And, interestingly, they are more prevalent around stories of extreme joy or love, or transformation than those of sadness or loss. I don’t know why.
The holidays for me have changed as both Wal and George have described. My mother, who was the focal point for our gatherings, is no longer with us and my siblings and children have their own families and friends and traditions. As a result, getting together for the holidays or birthdays is far less frequent. And, as a single man, sometimes I spend a holiday or birthday alone—except for Duke of course. At first I felt sorry for myself and drifted into places of sadness and questions of where I went wrong. But over time, I’ve recognized that spending time alone, holiday or not, does not represent who I am or how my life turned out. It’s simply a quiet time to rest, or read, or walk, or think, or watch one of those tear-producing movies. Someone once said to me that it was better to be alone with yourself, than feeling alone with a partner. I understand that difference and can now appreciate (most of the time) when I spend one of those days by myself without seeking to change it. Being alone doesn’t have to mean I’m lonely. However, when I do get to spend time with family and/or friends for a holiday, I truly enjoy the story telling that Wal referred to in his piece. When my sisters and I would spend time together, my mother seemed to be with us as we told story after story of experiences and events that made us laugh so hard that tears came to our eyes.
What animates us? We live; we experience awareness; we have consciousness
of self. Where does the energy come from that acts as our driving force?
According to physicist Jeremy England, it’s the entropy, stupid!
Simply unpacked, his theory maintains that atoms subjected
to energy (say electromagnetic force) will tend to organize so that they will
more efficiently dissipate that energy. This is entropy. Like the ‘arrow of time’
which only proceeds in one direction (according to current physics), entropy
only leads to energy dispersion. It is the reason why my coffee will get colder
– and not hotter – while it sits on the table as I write this piece. The coffee
is dissipating energy to match the temperature in the room: entropy.
Over long periods of time, clusters of atoms develop
structures – some complex — for dissipating energy, e.g., photosynthesis.
England makes a case that complex structures gradually evolve to absorb and distribute
increasing amounts of energy. Under certain conditions, life can develop. England
says “You start with a random clump of
atoms, and if you shine light on it for long enough, it should not be so
surprising that you get a plant.”
there are two reasons: a) increasing self-assembly allows clusters of atoms to
absorb and rationalize greater amounts of field energy and b) self-replication
is an efficient option for handling copious amounts of energy.
In sum, the resonance
of energy in a field leads atoms to congregate in ways that allow more
efficient systems for binding and disseminating energy. This process conforms
to the law of physics in which an even distribution of energy is the final
state. It is much like obtaining equilibrium in a solution – for instance, like
stirring cream in your coffee. Rocks do it, trees do it, even the birds and the
bees do it. Complex clusters can do it better – and they will over time replicate
to form more clusters in order to handle all the field energy.
Wow! I applaud Dr. England. I also applaud all those who search after the ‘Big Why’. However, I’d hate to think we are just a special case of the second law of thermodynamics. What is missing is any sense of intentionality – at what point does our purpose extend beyond energy dissipation?
Up, Up and a Way Out
Recently a friend asked me what I do to keep my brain
sharp. She has scrabble and crossword
puzzles and I have Sudoku and Wally!
For me, it is likely that we are, in fact, evolved from
randomly interacting atoms in chance encounters with other “stuff” under
varying conditions that occurred in some primordial ooze. I also believe that
all living and non-living things are in community with each other and don’t
just survive independently, but in concert with all things of this world: interdependence
if you will. How we/they know what to do
in order to fit into this whole-earth relationship, I don’t know.
Wally ends his piece with a question regarding the absence
of intentionality and the notion that there must be more than physicist England
suggests. Another friend of mine refers
to the idea of deliberate intervention as something he calls Source Energy; His
name for what some call God, others call Nature, divine intervention, etc.
Clearly there is no universal agreement as to what the
source of our energy is. Some of us are
crystal clear about what is behind our existence and some of us have ideas with
many captivating questions. Perhaps the
more important issue for all of us is to accept that the human world has always
held differing beliefs to the questions of who we are and where we came from
and to proceed with the notion of being the best versions of who we are for our
universal community and ourselves.
What I do know is that there is some intangible thing that
exists beyond our individual and collective consciousness. And I know this because often, while walking in
nature, I am struck with a overwhelming feeling of joy and gratitude and my
usual reaction to shout out, “Thank You!”
And, since it’s usually only Duke and I during these moments, to whom am
I offering thanks?
This is a tough one for me. Not sure about all the scientific stuff but I know MY energy is definitely influenced by life circumstance and emotional state of mind. I know that when I feel purposeful and productive my energy intensifies and I become industrious and excited about getting things done. My body seems to rise to the occasion and supplies the necessary energy needed to attack the tasks I have to address. My mind becomes sharp too and focused. An object in motion tends to stay in motion! It’s a great feeling. I have a purpose and a path.
When I first retired from teaching I had a difficult time reinventing myself and as a result my body was slow to pick up the new life required of me. Depression slows the process down as well, and saps the energy from my body making me want to go inward into my head and feel sorry for myself. When I run into emotional roadblocks, which unfortunately still occur at my age, it slows me down. My approach to life’s daily activities seems to lag and my desire to “do” diminishes. Inertia sets in. I want to climb into bed and pull the covers over my head. It becomes hard to break that cycle until I eventually have had enough of myself like that. I then throw the covers off to try to find the next motivating thought to get me back on track- not always that easy and as the years pass and the body continues to suffer aging, that motivation gets harder to activate and the energy can become less and less. The answer for me seems to be to keep the mind sharp to identify when my energy is being sapped and to use my mind to give a spiritual pep talk to my body to get back in the fight.
“What are you going to do with that?” said my son, barely
containing his disdain. He’s looking at a recent acquisition: a set of
multi-colored cordial glasses set on a gaudy glass tray. Yikes – even reading
this description causes me to wonder about that as well.
I’m surveying the top of the breakfront at our camp in the
Adirondacks. It contains: the previously referenced set of cordial glasses, a
segmented wood peppermill made by a friend, deer antler salt and pepper
shakers, a large maple bowl that a buddy and I collaborated to make, a lamp, a
glass paperweight, a cherry and purple heart toothpick holder, a crystal clock
gifted by my brother and sister-in-law, ceramic pinecone salt and pepper
shakers, a small turned Applewood box made by a friend, an aluminum candy dish,
and a wire figure constructed by my adult son last night.
Maybe he is right – in this era of minimalism and Marie
Kondo, perhaps I don’t deserve horizontal space. Yet this plane serves as a
memory platform for me. Each item has an association – and is a reminder of an
important person. The cordial glasses were exactly the same type that my
parents used for special occasions. My brother Rich and I used to love to gaze
at the different colors and pick our favorites. The cordial glasses are really
markers of an earlier life. They bring a sense of family now gone and recapture
that sense of wonder that kids have when they see something ‘magic’ for the
While many of these relics are personal markers, it doesn’t
stop there – I love artifacts, objects worn smooth by human hands. The patina
of use is what attracts me. The idea that the object captures a little bit of
the essence of the prior owners inspires reverence. I used to collect old
woodworking tools, but how many can you have? The tactile attraction is
important; proper attention is required for each. Shutting them away in boxes
is simply gluttony. The joy is in both seeing and handling these artifacts. They
I also collect woodturnings that my friends or I have
completed. Each with a different style and different story: Ronnie, now in
assisted living, Big Joe battling cancer, the memory of Phil who passed away –
but also Ralph improving his craft, Matt’s lovely vessels, and Steve’s delicate
work. These works are from the hands of people I like and respect.
I refresh their pieces with a drop of oil and wax mixture at
frequent intervals. In this manner they will last longer and can be passed down
to someone else when it’s my turn to do so. I’ve heard that the Japanese also
practice this routine. Future owners may not have the same cherished memories I
hold of the makers, but I’d like to think that some of their essence still abides
to be shared with the next person in line.
I have a Collect Call for…
In college, after a
weekend away, upon returning to the dorm, I had to call home to let my folks
know I made it safely. I would get the operator and place a collect call to
myself. My mom would answer and the operator would tell her she had a
collect call for me. Mom would say that I wasn’t in. They then knew
I was back safely. Probably everybody back in the 60’s did this. What
does this have to do with Magpies? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING! But I am a
collector like Wally, too.
Collections don’t spring
out of nowhere. There is usually a reason behind the madness of
collecting. Someone near and dear to you started the collection, someone
near and dear collected some weird stuff and you wanted to honor their
interests, or something caught your eye and you decided to buy
something. Then for birthdays or Christmas forever after, people who
didn’t know what to get you would remember you collected salt and pepper
shakers and buy you a pair of piggies with little holes in their heads- 2 holes
for pepper and 3 for salt! And so a collection has begun.
I have a few collections
that I admit to. Some others that I don’t. I love large wooden or
metal folk art toys- homemade trains, trucks, planes. The kind a
grandfather would make for his grandkids. They are all over my living
room. And I am always on the lookout for more. Then there is my
plastic Santa collection. Santa’s from the 50’s and 60’s, some from
Occupied Japan. I no longer go out in search of them but there is one piece if
I should ever find I would grab at any price! They of course are
stored safely away ‘til a week or two after Thanksgiving when they come out for
air for about a month only to be packed away again for the remaining months ‘til
next year. But my prize collections are close to my heart. I have
been a model railroader since I was a kid. My dad bought my brother a
1938, prewar, Lionel train when he was a little kid and I got mine many years
later, a 1954 Lionel train, no longer made of metal. It is the only thing
my dad, brother and I ever did together. My dad made a platform for our
living room that took up almost half the room. It would take the better part of
a week to set up our Christmas layout. Every December my brother and I
would head off to F.W. Woolworth’s to see what new Lionel cars were available
and to see what new Plasticville structures came out that year. Those
trains and then, years later, my HO and N gauge trains are all packed safely
away and stored in my basement. They haven’t been set up in over 20
years! But, DON’T TOUCH MY TRAINS! And finally, for my
college graduation, my brother bought me an original water color painting by a
Long Island painter named Alan Ullmer. From that day on, anytime I saw an
original painting that I liked, I bought it. I would go to art shows and
check out the paintings. If I saw one I was interested in I would squint at it,
like I do with the Christmas lights, and If I could imagine myself in the
painting, I would buy it!
Now that is not to say that
I don’t collect new things. Sometimes something catches my eye and I have
to have it. You know, that useless piece of junk that you can’t live
without! You have a problem with that?
In Defense of ‘Less is More’
“Where’s all your stuff?” a friend once exclaimed when he
visited my home for the first time. I
have plenty of “stuff” mind you. Some is
tucked away in boxes in the basement – my children’s school records, birthday
cards, artwork, and a stuffed animal or two.
Nearby are outdated cameras, boxes of Kodachrome slides, old pictures in
older frames; the list goes on. And I do have a few decorations on my walls,
books that mostly fit on my shelves, and a knick-knack and picture or two here and there. But I don’t have stuff that fills my counters
or floor space or the horizontal space that Wal describes. This friend, perhaps like Wal, also loves his
stuff and he and his wife abundantly fill their home spaces with those things they
I do know that my children are less interested in those
things of their youth and likely will have little use for my “stuff” when I’m
gone. Both of them, each in their own
family setting, seem to cycle out stuff to make room for the new. I wonder how that kind of balance may change
for them and each of us as we age.
Wally’s piece speaks to me about acquiring and holding on to
what we value, what matters. And things
that represent connections to cherished memories are often valued.
I grew up with little, now have much, and hope to leave my
children with little worry to wonder about what to do with all my stuff.
Wally referenced Marie Kondo who asks us to part with anything that didn’t spark joy when we
touched it. Margareta Magnusson, is the
author of a book that speaks to the art of Swedish Death Cleaning. The idea is for middle- to older-aged people to rid their homes of things they/we
don’t need. This not only is a huge
favor for those we leave behind, who must decide what to do with our things, but often allows our lives to run more smoothly
with less stuff. It also affords
us a trip down memory lane as we go through these belongings, adding value
along the way.
I’ll be looking at my stuff from now
on, with purpose and more intention.
I’ll begin to let go of many things I no longer need or use. And along the way, as an item raises a fond
memory, I’ll be sure to share that with the appropriate person, if I can.
I wonder if, in one year, I can wander
about my own house and exclaim, “Where’s all my stuff?”
“Awareness requires a rupture with the world we
take for granted; then old categories of experience are called into question
and revised.” Shoshana Zuboff
I love the first part of this quote. It reminds me that I have everything I need:
and more. And I’m not just talking about
my home and its contents or my bank account, or the freedoms I enjoy as an American. I’m also referring to my most basic
abilities: to see every time I open my eyes, to hear, every time I pay attention,
to walk when and where I choose. Daily,
I take for granted all of these abilities and more because I presently can do
them or have access to technology that enables me to exercise these behaviors
with little to no effort. And in the
process of doing these things with little cause for reflection or appreciation,
I take them for granted. I’m more likely
to allow myself to “suffer” the slightest imposition or hindrance of such
actions than to recognize how blessed I am to have these capabilities.
When we experience a significant loss or
decrease to one of our physical or mental faculties, we become aware of how
inconvenient or difficult life becomes.
For the moment, maybe even the next few measured moments of time, not
only are we more mindful of what we had but we find new appreciation for what
we still can do or, if we’re fortunate enough to recover what we lost, a
re-appreciation for what we can do again.
But in time, it fades back into the habituation of being “taken for
granted.” Some say, that’s just
life. It’s human nature to do so. There’s not much we can do about it. But every once in a while, we meet someone
who has remained changed by the experience.
Changed in a way that they become regularly aware of such simple and basic
abilities and who seems more often to be in a joyful and content state of
I want to be that someone. I want to continue to be mindfully
appreciative of everything I am still able to do. I’ve built it into my daily walking meditation
to be aware of what I’m doing and to say aloud, “Thank You!” often, and to no
one in particular. Thank you for the shadows I can see on my daily walk in the
woods, for the sounds of my footsteps snapping a twig, for the feel of the wind
on my face and the smell of the damp leaves after a rain. Today I remembered to tell Duke what a great
day it was for us as we mucked though the mud, soaked by the wind-driven rain
on a 33 degree morning. Of course, Duke
already knew that; dogs seem to do that naturally.
As Joni Mitchell says in her song:
“Don’t it always seem to go … That you don’t know what you’ve got …Till it’s gone”
Make time to appreciate what you can do and what you do have.
Each time you can’t seem to catch a break, recognize that there are often more times that you do and you just don’t recognize it. When you do, say it aloud.
A Peek Behind the Curtain
quote makes sense, because there is awareness and AWARENESS. AWARENESS is ‘Aha’! Normal sensory anticipation of
the world’s flow operates on one level, but Shosona Zuboff is talking about epiphanies.
Such glimpses are typically sudden, surprising, and compelling. David Brooks
calls these “annunciation moments” — and they are powerful enough to change
lets you take a peek at the underlying structure of an experience. It changes
your yardstick for measuring the world and your own perception. Henry is
talking about increasing the likelihood of celebrating epiphanies by practicing
mindfulness – washing the filters that color perception. It’s said that the
human brain can process eleven million bits of information per second, but the
conscious mind is aware of only forty. The goal of being mindful is not just to
increase the number of bits you consciously process, but to apply better
quality standards to your focus. I am in total agreement with Henry — the
first step is to say ‘thank you’ out loud for each ‘small miracle’ in your
I’m rereading a book called Centering, which likens a person’s creative consciousness to the art of pottery. The author talks about centering the clay on the potter’s wheel, pressing down and inward, then drawing upward to lift the walls of the vessel. Most importantly, she focuses on the shape of the inner space within the vessel – but, she also writes about the artist’s use of destruction in the creative process. Her advice is to occasionally damage a clay-shape that is looking good and reassess how you would re-build. This ‘rupture’ of the material forces the artist to jump the groove of constantly repeating the same design. In the same manner, we sometimes have to rupture – or break with – our typical path in order to see where we have been and where we are headed in a new light.
Assume, Alas to Dream
Interesting- I can’t relate much to the quote but the concept is very real. Maybe it is the time of year. I shop for my kids, I stop for the groups collecting change in the road and try to generously contribute to the particular cause. I feel fortunate that I have the monetary ability to donate above what I need to get by. Last week my daughter and I were decorating the Christmas tree and ran out to get something to eat. On the way home she wanted to stop at Starbucks and get a coffee- well not just a coffee, some kind of latte with multiple creams and other items I have no understanding of. She knows all the people who work there cause she tips big. When we got to the window to pay, the girl said we didn’t owe anything cause the car before us paid for her coffee. Wow- I was kind of overwhelmed and gave her a big tip and paid for the coffee for the guy behind us. I took it for granted that I would pay for our order and became emotional at the simple gesture of a total stranger. It made me feel good and I wanted to make someone else feel that way.
I wake up each morning and assume I’ll be able to get around, find something in the fridge to eat, and go on with my day like I planned. I take the day for granted. In the past, I took my relationships for granted and did nothing to insure their well-being. Since I am in a new relationship now I do not take it for granted and daily work at making it better than yesterday and make sure I acknowledge it and listen to the cues I am receiving from him. That is not quite as easy as taking it for granted but it also pays a premium.
The dog kisses my face in the morning when he is ready to wake up. He protects me, keeps me company, watches me in a way humans never do, but I have started trying to do that. Being attentive to others’ needs, anticipating others’ concerns and trying to address those things instead of assuming everything is a-ok. We all know that to assume makes an ass out of u and me! I take for granted that the requirements of life will be there- there will be food to eat and water to drink, air to breathe and curiosity to satisfy…until the day when the body can no longer maintain its mobility and the mind no longer has clarity. Things I never had to contemplate before! Aging has the benefit of reflecting — something we never do in youth but something necessary if we don’t want to take things for granted.
years mount up I find myself becoming more and more like my parents. They
would wax poetic about what it was like to be growing up in the teens and
twenties of the last century. My brother and I would roll our eyes and
prepare ourselves for what was to come. How the kids of
“today”(which was 60 or so years ago) have no respect and don’t
accept responsibility, yada yada yada. I now find myself with those words
on my lips and must bite my tongue because the torch has been passed to a new
generation of nostalgic old men!
Looking at an old album
of black and white photos of my family back in the 50’s and 60’s stirs great
memories in my mind but it doesn’t stimulate feelings for me other than
remembering the people and the event. Nothing brings those memories
to life the way music does. I don’t need the pictures when a particular
song comes on the radio. The music makes me feel, hear and see the people
and brings me back in time to significant places in my life. And for me
the music was always associated with significant memories and special places or
events. One of my earliest family memories was of everyone sitting around
the living room on some holiday with my dad playing the ukulele and my uncle,
on the guitar and everybody singing, “I’m Looking Over a Four Leaf
Clover.” Dinner would be over and my Aunt Eleanor would be dancing
around the living room with the remnants of her last Manhattan sloshing
around in her glass after a few too many, designed to make her unable to wash
the dishes. Everybody was singing and as I write about this I can
actually hear the voices, the clapping and laughing and the teasing of Aunt
Eleanor about how she always managed to get tipsy as soon as the dishes had to
be done. This went on every year and every holiday for the first 2
decades of my life.
In junior high school,
we would spend summers in my mom’s home town, Mahanoy City, PA. My
cousin, Linda and I learned to do the double lindy together watching American
Bandstand and The Steel Peer and then practicing the dance at the Teen Canteen
every Saturday night. The song we learned to dance to was Twinkle Twinkle
Little Star. To this day when I hear it on 50’s on 5 on Sirius radio, I
can’t help but be back in Mahanoy City in my uncle’s living room practicing the
In my senior year in
high school, my friends Anne and Norman and I would get in Norman’s little Nash
Metropolitan every Friday night. We’d drive on the Van Wyck Expressway to
LaGuardia Airport. You used to be able to go on the observation deck,
meet your friends and watch the planes take off and land. We whizzed
along the highway with the top down and the radio blasting, listening to Cousin
Brucie. It seemed he played “If I Fell” every Friday night. To
this day when I hear it, I stop whatever I am doing, sing along and remember
Anne’s clear voice, Norman’s tuneless voice and mine, trying to harmonize as we
shared this carefree moment. I felt free and I feel that way whenever I
hear it. Anne and I were dance partners too, and loved to dance together at the
high school sock hops. We couldn’t wear our shoes on the gym floor so to
dance we had to take our shoes off. I was popular with the girls in high
school, ‘cause I could dance so I always had a dance partner, but Anne and I
were special partners. I am still in touch with Anne though she lives
half way across the country. We still want to meet once more
before…….to share a few lindies together again. I am sure we could
pick up right where our feet left off. She and I even invented a new
dance we called the penguin to “Be My Baby.” When I hear either
of those songs it brings me close to tears and a feeling of warmth and longing
for youth fills my mind. I loved her parents so it even allows me a
moment to remember them fondly, even though her dad always called me Stupid
Bastard. I haven’t thought about that in years! And I was never
sure why he called me that but it was said with affection so it was important
Though musically inept myself, it was so important throughout my life. I could run up to my room, put my hi-fi on and get lost just thinking. I carried my transistor radio around everywhere to the chagrin of my parents, my generation’s version of the i-phone. I guess it isn’t surprising music is so important in our lives- it is everywhere- elevators, the doctor’s office, the barbers, in fact I can hardly think of a place where there isn’t music. Music was always playing in my inn, all day, every day, even when no one was there. One of my fondest memories from the inn was one weekend an elderly, excuse me, mature, couple from Great Britain came and registered. They were all excited about being in Vermont. Unfortunately the weather was not cooperating and for the three days they stayed with us, it rained. The last night they returned from dinner and were sitting out in their car for a long time. I always checked the parking lot so I could greet our guests to see how their dinners went. I was in the dining room when they came in the door and she came over to me and explained to me that 50 years ago that night her husband asked her to marry him. They were at a night club in London and her husband asked the band leader to play her favorite song, “Moonlight in Vermont.” They came to Vermont 50 years later to celebrate and to see the Vermont moon in person, but the weather did not cooperate UNTIL they pulled into our parking lot after dinner. As they sat in their car, the clouds separated. The moon came shining through. So they did get to see moonlight in Vermont after all. She returned to her husband in the living room and I knew I had several versions of the song in my collection. I picked the one by Billy Butterfield and his Orchestra sung by Margaret Whiting. No sooner did 2 notes play than she came running into the dining room in tears saying that was the exact version that was played that night. I told her that dancing was permitted in the living room, started the song again and disappeared. The next morning at breakfast she and her husband told us that this was the most special holiday they had ever had. What a special feeling that gave me to think I had been able to provide them with such a memory, but it was more about the music! I get teary eyed a lot more than I ever used to. Nostalgia is something hard to avoid. Each generation has its own memories and its own music. The two are tightly intertwined, but the tears they provoke in me aren’t of sadness, but are tears of relived memories, renewed friendships, and recycled emotions. I can’t imagine living without them or without my music!
Getting in Tune
that’s a beautiful story about finding the Moonlight in Vermont tune! Your
words underline the shared enjoyment of music and how it acts as a transit to past
whether musical preferences change for a person as they age — or perhaps
become more eclectic? Sure, I tend to gravitate to music of my youth. And I
like some soft jazz, bosa nova, and reggae – background music. However, lately,
I find a pull to more classically composed scores, be it methodical Mozart or
played such music all through our childhood – he favored the romantics. I still
love some of those pieces and think of him whenever they are performed (ah, Clare
de Lune!). And of course, a tip of the hat to Walt Disney Studios for bringing
classical music to animation. There’s more, though: the deeper, longer rhythms and
lied motifs of these works call out to me – differently than a popular song
that gathers you in with a catchy refrain and jaunty jingle (though I enjoy
those as well).
I don’t pretend to know much about music, despite the best efforts of our college’s listening lab. However, in tennis jargon, if someone hits a ball that strikes your racquet with greater force than you would expect, it’s called a ‘heavy’ ball. Symphonic music seems like that to me – it has momentum, it builds; it carries the force of a full orchestra. Its weight is required to ping a chord buried deep within that may not be associated with memory, but simply a fundamental aspect of our nature
Now, some music has become decidedly less evocative – plaintive lamentations (“I’ve got tears in my ears as I lay on my back in my bed as I cry over you’) or pieces simply devoted to anger or calls to action. I don’t tend to seek that reinforcement of social consciousness these days. On the other hand, I am amazed to hear myself whistling hymns from time-to-time. What’s happening here? I’m curious how you would score your life in musical terms? My oldest grandson is resuscitating Pink Floyd, so maybe the Dark Side of the Moon would be his theme. I’d probably go for a tablespoon of Take Five with a dollop of Scheherazade. You?
Marching to a Different Beat
As I think about the role of music in George’s heartfelt
story and I ponder the influence of music in my life, a curious notion is
evolving that suggests I have a fragmented and disjointed relationship with music. Like George and Wally, it seems to me that
most people regularly seek out music to bring them into a particular mood or
frame of mind. I, however, despite
coming from a family of talented musicians, don’t relate in the same way; at
least not in any predictable or consistent manner.
My mother was an extraordinary, pianist; her brother was a
natural on the violin and her father played the bass in the orchestra of the
Waldorf Astoria for a living. And, while
I dabbled with piano, violin, and viola in my early school years, I found it to
be a foreign language I just couldn’t decode.
When music became an important part of the high school
social scene, I again found myself struggling to understand it, figuratively
and literally. And while I like certain
popular tunes, and was caught up in the feeling of freedom and lightness during
a college concert or from swelling voices extending a song on the jukebox at a
local bar, it was short-lived and fleeting.
Even today, I can go days without playing any music in the
house. When I do activate my Sonos
speakers, I enjoy the oldies, classical pieces, and meditative
arrangements. I feel them. They move me.
But I don’t look for them. I
don’t miss them when it’s quiet. They
are, for me, just one of many nice options to lighten my day.
And, while I also don’t consciously seek it out, I enjoy
immensely the music of nature. As I walk
through acres of wooded trails with my rescue mutt Duke every day, I am calmed
and moved by her sounds, the wind through leaves or as it whistles around
barren trunks, bird songs, the hollow reverberation of the woodpeckers as they
seek their food beyond the layers of tree bark, the many sounds of the stream
as it flows, trickles, or rushes at different levels after a rain. As I write this piece on my porch with Duke
by my side, the rain is falling steadily and plays a tune as it echoes off the
metal roof of my nearby woodshed. I love
the changes in volume as the rain falls more heavily for a while and then
subsides. It calms and soothes me. It’s my kind of music. I’m not sure why I don’t think to seek it out
but I do enjoy it when I find myself in its presence.