Alive, Alive! Reflections on a Long and Beautifully Observed Life

The support of friends has been vital to my blogging journey.  Recently, my friend Michael sent me a poem by Stanley Kunitz.  The poem is called The Layers, and Kunitz wrote it during his late 70’s.  It speaks with the wisdom of years and a beautifully observed life.   At the end of these notes, I have copied The Layers  in its entirety.

When I admire a work of art or philosophy, I often begin a conversation with it, partly to understand it better and partly to understand myself better.  Since I so enjoy these internal conversations, I thought you might, too.  So I’ve written them down for you to listen in—and to join into the conversation with your own responses.

The Layers, by Stanley Kunitz    https://www.amazon.com/Collected-Poems-Stanley-Kunitz/dp/0393322947

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,

These opening lines are so resonant for me that they feel like my own, except that they are so much more beautifully crafted than anything I write.

I’m a reflective person and, like Kunitz, virtually “see” myself as both an insider and an outsider as I travel through life.

My life has been so intertwined with others—friends and family and the many, many lives of clients, mentees, and students who have enlivened my days—that it’s sometimes hard to distinguish whose life I’m thinking about.  Their stories and mine intermingle.  That’s especially true when I tell stories aloud.  Standing outside, I can see that I sometimes include images and words that may have first belonged to others.  I can’t entirely tell. That makes my journey not so individual, not just mine but some kind of amalgam.  It makes my individual story, somehow, more universal.

and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

My life now and the way I view it is different than it was in the past.  I see events, both contemporary and historic, differently.  I see myself differently.  This is both a liberating and a frightening way to see the world.  But it is also frightening.  I want there to be a me that has also been constant.  Without that constancy or core, what Kunitz calls “a principle of being,” I could hardly claim a self.  Like Kunitz, “I struggle not to stray” too far from that core.

Kunitz struggles with dualities as I do: the changing and the constant or eternal self; the present and past self; a steady journey, as if towards a predetermined destination, and an indeterminate journey, marked by chance and discovery.

Even as Kunitz touches on the most intimate subjects, the poetic voice that we encounter in this poem lacks specificity.  Who is the speaker?  We don’t know who he is, or even if it is a ‘he’ talking to us.  This also lends a universality to the poem.  The voice is casual, like that of a friend but it also comes to us from on high or beyond our lives.  Again, I identify.  When I have insights about human nature, part of me knows they are just my own but, as with Kunitz, they feel distinct and universal at the same time.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.

This is a beautiful evocation of a future whose time is narrowing.  All of us who have passed the 60 or 70 year mark feel this.

And the “dwindling” of milestones?  I understand that it helps to gather the lessons of the past in order to move ahead more knowledgeably, more confidently.  But it also seems true that many of the great events of our past—the real and psychic places we camped—lose some of their potency with the distance.  They are fires still but dimmer than before because they have lost their fuel, thus are not as likely to animate our present.

Even our most personal past has been picked over by others, as if our identity could be taken over by our children, our students, our friends.  When we are gone, it is the stories they tell about us that will be what is left of us.  To the extent that others have absorbed our stories, they will have, metaphorically speaking, absorbed us.  They will be traveling through our lives, picking and choosing what they need and want complete their own identities.

Why “heavy wings?”  I can only think that the absorption into others weighs heavily on Kunitz.  I imagine how we play in our children’s lives, in the stories they tell about us—mostly in terms of how we have influenced them.  It is their lives that are important, and that’s as it should be.  Our stories may be, will be, meaningful to them, dynamic to them, but not as dynamic as the stories are to us.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!

I love this line.  It has a double meaning.  I have brought others into my life, creating a tribe within me.  I include all the others.  I have no self that is not influenced by them.  They are an integral part of my very being. They are me.  At the same time, they are outside of me.

People who have been important to me are scattered all over.  No one else could or would care to see the unity of the ‘tribe,’ since it only exists in relation to me.  This is true for all of us.  We have a network, a tribe, of others, most of whom have no relation to, maybe even no knowledge of, the others.  Yet I only walk the earth in relation to them.  They are my tribe.  What an image!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.

I retain the members of my tribe but I have also lost them.

I cannot know myself, for example, without knowing my father and his relation to me and his relation to my mother, brother, sister, uncles, aunts, and to his work.  But he is also gone, his loss in 1968 the single greatest trauma of my life.  There have been many losses.  At times, they gather and dance around me, then flee like leaves blown randomly, stinging my face.  Both keeping them and losing them is terribly painful, even now.

There’s a paradox, though: the losses also represent a feast.  The people we have lost represent the greatest riches of our lives.  The course and meaning of our lives are nothing without them.  I am reconciled to the losses by embracing them.

Other civilizations find better ways to keep the dead close, and those who still join in traditional mourning rituals, like Judaism’s eleven months of daily prayer for the dead, know how to hold their dear ones close, even as they let them go.  But, by and large, modern American society lacks ritual and ancestor worship.  Most of us must find our own way to mourn and treasure our past.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

Without denying the importance of my tribe and those who are gone, I move forward with spirit, exultation even, and with great anticipation of each new experience.  I even keep adding to my tribe.  There are new friends, new companions.  I know that life’s fires are mostly behind me.  I know that for every person and experience I get attached to, there will be pain in leaving them—or in being left—but, still, I look forward to all the new experiences that I will encounter.  It is possible that, because I know how many fewer they will be, I will find them even more precious that those of the past.

For me, these lines represent the major turning point in the poem.  Not only do we face forward but we do so with excitement and pleasure.  This is one of the great discoveries of old age: the surprises at every turn.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.

Here is the poem’s title so I know that these lines are important.  Kunitz alerts us by naming a voice from above, a nimbus-clouded voice.  It instructs us to focus powerfully on what is most essential—maybe referring back to “the principle of being” at the beginning of the poem.  Be true to ourselves and to our values.  Live where there is greatest nurturance.  Live where we are most alive. We may consist of many selves but there probably is some sense of self that is deeper, more enduring, and more alive than all the others.

With time dwindling it becomes ever more important to spend our energies on what is most important, most essential to our being.  We need to forget the litter of failures and false leads and superficial satisfactions—and focus, as intensely as we can, on the deepest, arterial flow of our lives. Our life blood.
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

This is easy to identify with.  Even as I communicate with Kunitz, I know that I lack his art, and I know that I lack the ability to articulate the most profound lessons of life—even those I sense, even those I can almost describe.

What could he mean by “already written’ though?  I have long loved the notion of imminence, a present, partially known sense of what is about to happen, what I am about to become.  It is as though I can feel the future, which is already growing very strong within me.  And yet, it is also mysterious.  I can’t know the future fully.  That is the magic of life if you look closely.  You are always yourself yet always changing, always new—transformed.  In that way, life is always a creative act if we take care to see it.

I’m not done with my changes, either.

 
The Layers, Stanley Kunitz

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look
before I can gather strength
to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling
toward the horizon
and the slow fires trailing
from the abandoned camp-sites,
over which scavenger angels
wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe
out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
“Live in the layers,
not on the litter.”
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mature Adaptation: It’s Not What It’s Cracked Up To Be

Franny and I just returned from a trip to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where we walked and walked in the Yosemite Valley, gazing in awe at the granite monoliths, El Capitan, Cathedral Mountain, and the Half Dome, soaring 3,000 feet above.  Sometimes we dared a little more, climbing 1,200 feet to the source of the Vernal Falls, where water rushes with terrifying beauty to the Valley floor.  Then we moved on to the Eastern Sierra, where trail heads begin at 10,000 feet, permitting us to hike into the back country, above the tree line and into basins filled with lakes and fields of flowers and rimmed by snow covered peaks.

For more than thirty years, until 2007 or so, I had relished grueling, week-long backpacking trips with my friend, Carter, and my brother-in-law, Steven.  This is where I had been most peaceful.  The mountains, huge and uncaring, dwarfed me.  I felt insignificant, a speck in a world too large to comprehend.  At first, this was frightening and I wanted to flee.  But then I grew absorbed in the vast silence.  I became nothing.  And in that moment of alpine magic, I would emerge on the other side, somehow part of it all and at peace.

I know that one of the keys to this feeling of peace is the exhaustion that is achieved by hiking, generally with fifty pounds on my back, with brief moments of rest, from seven in the morning until three in the afternoon.  The effort quiets my body and I am happy to be still.  It is in that stillness that my heart opens to whatever transcendent inclinations dwell in my soul.

Now, at seventy-five, my expectations are more modest.  Leading up to the trip, I had wondered about that left knee which I have been planning to replace.  I had been convinced that my conditioning, honed on flat walks and the slight ups and downs of Lexington streets, would not prepare me for anything rigorous.  I had feared that I might lose the beauty of the mountains to dull and repetitive reflections on aches and aging.  I’d pay more attention to the pain of the day pack on my shoulders and the panting of my lungs than the Ponderosa pines and the reflection of the mountains painted in pastels on the lakes.

But I was wrong.  Even if I can’t’ be as absorbed as I was before, I can walk with pleasure and enjoy the beauty that is all around me. Much to my surprise and delight, I felt healthy; and I began to contemplate greater challenges, trusting that my body would hold up to the exhaustion that opens my heart.  At least I could take that chance.

As I opened myself to this possibility, I wondered whether, in the name of mature adaptation to the “realities” of aging, I had been giving up too soon.  Had I let my ideas about age dominate me, misreading aches and pains as signposts to premature resignation?  Could I have been hiking for the last ten years?  Playing tennis, even as my knees and back yelp?  Couldn’t I have let them yelp and moved on?  At a lesser pace to be sure but without stopping?  Did I retire too soon last year when I could have simply worked half or quarter time?  Could I dip deeply into a new craft like photography or painting?

Mature adaptation sometimes represents an excuse for yielding to many of the doubts and fears that have been there all along.  During my younger hiking days, for instance, I was also afraid of injury.  During the nights, awake in my tent, I was often frightened—bears or snakes or unknown creatures might invade—and counted the hours to morning’s light.  During the last decades of my working life, I was afraid that I had not accomplished enough, that I’d end my work life feeling like a failure, and that it would be easier to simply stop working in order to make the doubts go away.

I looked forward to retirement, when I could make a final assessment of work, accept it and put aside my doubts.  I could grade myself and let it be.  I could stop asking myself whether I was somebody or nobody, a good or bad person, a resource or drain on society.  Mature adaptation has partly meant “parking” my doubts.  It has also meant yielding to some of the darker forces that have been there all along.  I think we do that in old age—maybe because we are naturally more anxious and more “realistic,” but maybe, too, because we are following a cultural prescription that has led us astray.

The problem with parking my doubts is that it also requires me to park the daring and adventure that have provided the spice of my life.  Even when we venture forth into new activities during our later years, activities like writing, painting, photography, meditation, and deep study, we tend to do so in the spirit of hobbies and without the passion, the sense of importance, that we might have brought to new ventures earlier in life.

Don’t get me wrong.  There is virtue in mature adaptation to aging.  It has permitted me to focus on what I can do—reading and writing and good relations with family and friends—instead of what I can’t.  It has, in fact, allowed me to be less judgmental about myself.

And I’m not advocating defiance, alone, as an alternative to adaptation.  It’s alright to “rage against the dying of the light,” but not as a steady diet, not if it distracts you from the joys and the distinctive pleasures of old age—like wisdom and relaxation.  However romantic, a steady diet of defiance can be a bore.  Resistance, alone, blocks the sun.

I do want to resist the easy forms of resignation that the cultural narrative of old age has prescribed; but I don’t want to become consumed by resistance to that narrative.  I don’t want to be silly, either, like wearing clothing meant for young people or seeking bars and restaurants that overwhelm me with their noise.  I’m not interested in technical climbing on high cliffs or training for the Ironman Marathon competition.

So what’s the best compromise between stretching yourself and maturely resigning to your limitations.  You’ll never know if you don’t keep trying to move beyond your fears, beyond the lowest level of effort and daring.  I like the idea of extending myself before pulling back, and then drawing conclusions.

 

 

 

Resolving Competing Desires Within Ourselves

During the early summer, I decided to begin a conversation group to explore the meaning of aging.  Lots of people responded to my announcement and, before I knew it, two groups of ten had signed up to meet for ten sessions, one consisting of individuals, the other of couples.  My aim as facilitator was in good measure selfish.  I wanted to learn how people were thinking about the concerns that have absorbed me for the last several years.  This Wednesday, we had our first meetings.

Almost everyone was in their seventies, with a few outliers in their late fifties and early eighties.  They entered my living room eagerly, with few signs of the jitters that generally accompany the beginning of groups where people are asked to share private and often unresolved feelings.  The quality of respectful and deep listening was extraordinary, frequently balanced by moments of humor that helped to maintain a protective early distance from some of the deeper feelings.  We got right down to business.

The discussions ranged broadly between people’s hopes and anxieties, between practical and idealistic goals, between observations and resolutions.  I was struck, in particular, by each person’s wish—or need—to resolve certain core and competing desires.  It seems to me that the way that we explore and resolve these competitions will shape the way we live the rest of our lives.  Here are three of those pairs.

Vulnerability versus the strength to explore.  Virtually every group member commented on his or her increasing vulnerability, mostly due to physical decline and, at the same time, the desire not to be dominated by it.  At a certain age, almost everyone has something: arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, knees, hips, and shoulders to be replaced; memory loss.  There are endless bad jokes that we share about spending so much time at doctors’ offices that we had to retire in order to attend them.  Almost as bad as the illnesses, themselves, is the creeping sense of fragility.  “I shouldn’t do this or that,” for example, “because I might injure myself.”  At the same time, there is a fierce desire that group participants expressed to try new activities, to travel, to build, to paint, to push themselves—to explore new ground.

Where, we ask, is the best balance between realistic self appraisal and the adventure that has become possible with the free time that retirement affords?  How can we accept the limitations that are real without yielding prematurely to resignation (and sometimes despair) at the losses exacted by our vulnerability?

Being alone and loving the silence versus the desire for activity and company.  As one participant put it, “I’m a doer, always on the go.  All my life I’ve been busy, busy, busy. Now that I have time, I sometimes savor the quiet that I find in doing nothing; I am comforted by the solitude I had always feared.”  And yet, when sitting quietly, she gets antsy pretty quickly, aware of things she “needs to do”—or inventing things that would save her from the loneliness or “indulgence” of sitting alone.

As the years of retirement pass, she and others find themselves getting better at sitting still and sitting alone, more able to tolerate the internal demons that had long hurried them into activity even when none was required.

But the desire for company never fades very far.  Two kinds of company especially came to the fore.  First, there was the company of strangers, people to join you in new experience.  Buddies.  People virtually glowed when talking about this kind of companionship.  Second—and this was especially true in the couple group—people talked about the profound comfort of old companions.  “We’ve taken this journey together for a long time,” they said.  “It would be so much harder at this stage to go it alone, so much deeper to do together.”

The desire to stretch versus the desire to rest and be peaceful.  One member talked about the ambitious plans he had built for his retirement, plans to write and produce a play that he’d been dreaming about for decades.  Yet when retirement came, he found himself reading deeply and exercising with a pleasing discipline.  Nothing creative, as he had imagined.  Yet he’s “never been happier” in his life.  Bucket lists for travel and creative activities are common to retirees.  Some ask us to stretch ourselves, to do things we had only dreamed of and never found the time for.  Stretching takes energy and daring, though, and many retirees are tired or tired of having to produce and to be judged by what they produce.

Forsaking those dreams can feel like a betrayal of self.  Or, in the case of our participant, it can feel like a tremendous relief, just to be oneself, just to rest, to step outside of judgmental arenas, even when they are positive, and pursue, instead, the pleasures that he had put off.  He anticipated that his “sloth” would bring a sense of failure, a painful disappointment in himself but, instead, he found a rhythm of living that he hopes to sustain for years to come.

This is not an all or nothing competition, though.  Each of us need to find a way to stretch enough to feel more fully alive and to move far enough from the fray far to be more at peace with ourselves.  The only way to find the balance between the two is to experiment.

I suppose that the idea of experimentation is not the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about old age but, in fact, it is one of the experiences that most defines this period.  As one of my blog readers put it, “I am coming to thinking of ‘aging’ having much in common as going with of adolescence—a sense of knowing that one is crossing a bridge or maybe better yet a high wire….sometimes exciting, sometimes challenging and sometimes downright scary….. And above all – eye-opening!”

This list of competing desires is hardly exhaustive but provides an enlightening sample of themes in need of resolution during our later years.   It has always seemed helpful frame life’s hurdles in a way that encourages resolutions.  I look forward to learning about ways that you have managed or resolved them.