Cultivating My Garden

I have been reading Stanley Kunitz’s book, The Wild Braid, which talks of his lifelong love of gardening.  He built it out of a wild place, plant by plant,  learning with time which would prosper, which suffer, testing to see whether the sea kelp and sea breeze would nourish the earth, anticipating each spring the joys of beginning anew.

Every sentence of the memoir and each line of poetry speaks to the concreteness of the garden, its soil and plants and snakes, the sunlight shining through the spruce tree, awakening his heart each morning.  The garden is no metaphor.  His relationship with it bears a multitude of meanings but the garden is mostly itself.  It is a gritty garden.  The cultivation is a sweaty love affair.

As I read, I wonder:  Where is my garden?  What have I built and tended with such a continuous devotion to detail?  What has required me to pay attention to the seasons or the soil?  Have I learned to live in this material world, as Kunitz has, or have I glided through, too attentive to my own feelings and thoughts to really take notice?

For a decade or so during the 1970’s and 1980’s, I was a builder.  First I bought a 30 acre parcel of land on a fast flowing stream in Southern New Hampshire, then cut trees with an ancient and very heavy chain saw to make way for my .8 mile driveway.  With my friend John’s help, I cleared the land and built a house, using lumber from a nearby, one-man mill and stained glass windows taken from junk yards, which we brought in on a jerry-rigged pickup truck.  We lived in tents and cooked outside.  It took me two summers and every weekend in between.  I loved every minute of it.

Then, feeling alive and excited by the concreteness of the house—so different from the therapeutic relationships I had been cultivating during psychotherapy sessions and the ideas I wrote about—I set to work on the Victorian home that Franny and I bought in Newton, Massachusetts.  I renovated the third floor, banging down every wall and creating a single, large space, with a high, arched ceiling of cedar planks and roof windows to bring the light to my desk.  Then came the kitchen and the shed and an inclination to let go of my professional life in order to build more.

Though I might have made a go of it in the construction trade,  I am a practical person, with at least a little bit of a conservative streak and I had a family to feed.  Instead of gardens or houses, I built organizations to fit, in some very small way, my wish to bring greater justice to our society.  There was a post-graduate training institute for aspiring family therapists, a clinic to treat illness in a family and community context, and the Institute for Nonprofit Practice to train active and emerging nonprofit leaders.  There’s a similarity to houses and gardens.  You have an idea, develop a plan, then lay a foundation.  The organizations are never exactly as planned.  They are buffeted by social and financial, not wintry winds, but they, too, need o sway enough to stay alive and to hold fast enough to fulfill their purpose.  The organizations have provided me a great deal of satisfaction, more in the building than the tending, I suppose.  I imagine that I live a little through them in the way Kunitz lives through his plantings.

I’ve not so much concerned myself with the bricks and mortar of those organizations, but rather with the people inside them.  My most sustained cultivation has involved young people.  My children, of course.  They focused my mind and heart like no others.  But in addition, all of my adult life has been spent teaching and mentoring young therapists, then young leaders.  I formed one training institute after another.  Even in retirement I mentor, with great pleasure, numbers of young people and get to observe their growth. At the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, one of my students has taken over to become gardener-in-chief.  I love watching this new generation build and build in a spirit and with a discipline that makes me proud.

I am older now and retired but the builder’s urge is still strong.  There remains the need to add a new row of plantings to my garden.  I dream of writing stories and poems.  Painting, too.  Wouldn’t it be grand to publish stories and brief poems to go with my essays?  I am almost tearful at the thought of these seeds.  Probably, I won’t know how.  When faced with making them public, I might grow shy, but that’s alright.  I like the idea of being shy and timid as I move into my late seventies.

The more I think of it, though, the more I know that I already have a garden to cultivate.  It’s the garden of conscious aging.  I am garden and gardener.   I tend it every day and turn over the soil each season.  Each morning when I awaken, I ask myself “How’s it going?”  When I write in my journal, I ask: What is it that I’m doing and experiencing differently than when I was young—and what is very much the same.  I’ve written about the way that time has both sped up and slowed down, how much more spacious my mind feels when it searches for solutions to problems, and how much more limited my body is.  I’ve written about the perspective I’ve gained and how it has influenced friendships and marriage.  Eccentricity has become a newly welcome friends.  The regularity of the themes don’t seem so different to me than the wind-blown rows of a Provincetown garden.

Like the rows of sage and poppies and the tall grass that grows around the edges of seaside gardens, my themes are tossed by the wind and warmed by the sun.  With time, they maintain most of their shape, yet change, as well.   Like Kunitz’s need to cut down one of his treasured Spruce trees in order to let in more light and to give more room to the other plants, I cut out activities, let go some relationships, relinquish some ideas and hopes in order to shed the most possible light in my garden.

Each year I have learned how to tend my garden a little differently, a little better.  I have learned to feed it less and to let it have more of its own sway.  Not so much that I can’t see the rows.  There’s beauty to order.  Not so much that I can’t see the edges.  My garden can’t spread everywhere.  It needs shape, even limits.  But there are times when my thoughts and desires resists my controls, and my garden extends well beyond its normal boundaries.

Kunitz talks about the art of trimming bonsai trees and compares it to the discipline of pruning his Juniper tree, much as he would a poem.  He loves, especially, to trim off the excess.  But he also says:  “The danger is that you cut away the heart of a poem, and are left with only the most ordered and contained element…You must be careful not to deprive the poem of its wild origins.”  (p. 57)

Each morning when I write in my journal or when I walk in the woods, my discipline falls away, just a bit, and I find myself a little lost.  Sometimes I feel at one with the trees and the sky.  If I’m thinking of my family and friends, there are moments when I lose a sense of separateness, and I belong to them.  In old age, the love I have with Franny seems so much less impeded by the weeds of doubt, the need for boundaries, and the yelps of individuality.  And when I step back to view the whole, I am pleased with my garden.

 

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Hiding in Plain Sight: Leaders in Our Midst

There are certain people who touch the lives of others, some lightly, some deeply, seemingly without effort or without concern for their own standing.  To me, they more closely resemble the flight of bees fertilizing one flower after another than the deliberations of those in search of influence.  Some are my friends.  Others are strangers who have fascinated me throughout my life.

James Agee wrote a wonderful book called Let us Now Praise Famous Men.  Instead of the famous men that the title suggests, the book is about Alabama share croppers during the Great Depression, whose humanity he captured in the most concrete yet profound way.  He said of his book that it was an “inquiry into certain normal predicaments of human divinity.”  I have something like that in mind.  I want to write about the seemingly ordinary people who serve their communities in extraordinary ways and with humility, dignity, and passion.

In the near future, I’m going to begin a series of interviews with vibrant older people who have sustained their community engagement and influence well into their old age.  I am using the word ‘community’ broadly to include actual neighborhoods but also other groupings, like the GLBTQ, religious groups, people with a hearing loss, artists, and even professional groups.

The purpose of the project is to understand and celebrate leaders, some hardly known, others with some renown, who are so vital to their communities.  By leader, I mean a person, most of all, who gets things done, usually as a catalyst, sometimes as an inspiration, occasionally as a manager, but always to the benefit of the many, a person who others look up to or admire, a person who matters to the community.

People like the Kelly’s (a pseudonym, because I haven’t yet asked their permission to use their real names), of whom my friend, Bill Walczak, a great community organizer himself, writes:  They are “an amazing couple in Codman Square, beacons of hope in hopeless times, who have been the bedrock of that community, and the couple who, through goodness and example, kept their neighborhood from blowing up in the 70s and 80s when racial change occurred in the neighborhood.  They invited new black families and couples to pizza dinners at their house to introduce them to their new neighbors, integrating newcomers of all sorts into the fabric of that community when busing was tearing it apart. Kevin started the Codman Square Health Center with me.  Kevin and May are people who continue to make a huge difference in their 80s, and maintain their optimism and hope, despite their own son getting murdered about 20 years ago.  Lots of people tell me that they “want to be Kevin and May” when they grow up/get older.”

People like Lauren Hatch, who I first met about twenty years ago when she was leading an organization that housed, educated, and found jobs for homeless women in one of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, Dorchester, Massachusetts.  Today, Lauren is no longer heading up an organization but works tirelessly in the same arena, now happy to assist all the official leaders in the community by mentoring and connecting them.

I have put out the word to friends and colleagues to identify these industrious souls and to introduce them to me.  Already my interview schedule is burgeoning.  But I want to know about as many of these leaders as I can.  So I’m asking you, my readers, to introduce me to them, to tell me their stories—or your stories.   And, if there’s someone you particularly want me to meet, introduce us.

I will be describing what I learn in my blog and, if I can find the stamina, in a book that features the sustaining power of these aging ‘local’ leaders.

In the meantime, here are some of the qualities that I have discovered so far and that I find so intriguing.  Maybe the most remarkable quality that these elders bring to their work is a rare combination of freshness and perspective.  You’d expect the perspective.  They’ve been fighting the good fight for ages, seen ups and downs, strategies that succeed and fail, people who join and those who reject their missions.  But the sustained enthusiasm and the pleasure in the work for its own sake that they bring to their missions after all these years is so admirable to me.

Like Camus’ Sisyphus, they have learned to act well and act decisively in a world that seems absurd.  They have lived through economic depressions and natural disasters.  They face opposition that makes no sense to them.  They might may say that we need more jobs, better health care, and better schools for people and think “No one could disagree.”  How could they?  But people do—under  the banner of lower taxes or fear of strangers in their land—that’s code for people of color.  The community leaders might answer that “It will help your children, too.”  For whatever reason, the opposition can’t factor that in, and you could tear your hair out.  Even so, the community leaders that I have met move on, with less confusion and less anger than when they were younger.  They’ve seen this before.  They know how to take the high road.

Of course, the elder leaders have their setbacks, feel discouraged and blue.  But the ones who keep on going into old age seem to have a resilience and a capacity for affirmation that is rare.  ”This, too, shall pass,” they say.  They have learned to work through the darkness and into the light.

The role that they play most often and best is that of mentoring the young and idealistic leaders who cross their paths.  I think of people like Hubie Jones, who, in his day, built and led innumerable nonprofits but, somewhere in his seventies, called an end to formal leadership.  In its place, he set up shop in a little office in City Year, whose leaders he has supported for decades, and “receives” visitors in search of his wisdom and in the hope that he will “lay on the hands,” will give legitimacy to your efforts through association with him.  I know because I was one of those visitors, even though I was already sixty when we began to talk.

I’ve noticed in myself and others a withdrawal from formal leadership roles, which seem to have lost their appeal.  I am grateful, for example, to have Yolanda Coentro lead the organization I founded (Institute for Nonprofit Practice) and grateful, too, that Mark Rosen serves as Board Chair.  In place of those formal leadership roles, many older leaders have discovered their places in a less defined but very fulfilling set of roles: mentoring and encouraging and connecting younger people.  Isn’t that how it should be?

No doubt, there are other qualities of elder leadership that I will learn about during the upcoming interviews; but this should give you an idea about what makes them special and why we should celebrate their efforts.

 

Letter to My Granddaughter

Dear Molly,

A couple of weeks ago, you wrote to tell me that you’re taking a history seminar on the 1960’s, that transformational decade.  You needed to do some interviews, you said.  “How about you, Grandpa?”  Naturally I loved the idea, loved that you asked, loved getting to know you better in an adult-to-adult way.  But as a relic, a remainder from antediluvian times?  A living historical archive?

Truth be told, Molly, I wasn’t outraged at all.  I have come to relish the view of myself as a man in the midst of a long, long journey, mostly with my eyes open.  As I’ve traveled, I’ve sometimes felt at home, a loving American patriot, and sometimes like a stranger in my own world.  And here’s a key point: My sense of belonging depended not so much on my own stage of personal development as on my assessment of American culture at any given point in time.

Let me give you a broad sense of my journey.  I have vague memories of people rejoicing on the streets of New York during Victory Europe (VE) Day, 1945.  I was three and the imagery from that day feels like a series of snapshots.  But by 1948, when my family moved from the Bronx to Long Island, pioneers of the urban exodus, the memories are more continuous, more like a motion picture.  As I look back  I can almost see headlines about the Korean war and the anguish of the adults who witnessed it.  I remember the McCarthy-fueled Red Scare of the early 1950’s and the first marches on Washington for the civil rights of Black people.  That was in 1956 and I traveled with a bus filled almost exclusively with African American teenagers, listening during the long rides to their songs.  And finally joining in.

I was already a grown man during the long, torturous days of the Vietnam War, then, much later, the trumped up accusations of weapons of mass destruction to justify the attack on Iraq.

And I’m just getting started.  My parents bought the first television on our block. That was 1949.  I remember when the Russians put Sputnik into space in 1957, creating an outcry of fear and anger throughout America; then being put into small, advanced math and science classes created to help us catch up to the evil Soviet empire.  We young people would have to hurry up.  Then there were the first space ships circling the earth, the first computers, which would have made typing my doctoral dissertation so much easier.  Soon there was email that my political and professional activities required, even though I fought it every step of the way.  By then, technology was moving too fast for me and I had become a stranger in my own land.

It wasn’t just the constant change and innovation that formed my generation—what they now call pre-boomers—but the way that we were steeped in the values and experiences of the 1930’s, truths that we took in from our parents like direct transfusions of blood.  The Great Depression that began in 1929 wasn’t history to us.  The financial anxiety and general prudence that it created defined our own life styles.  The Holocaust may have been stopped by 1945 but, as a Jew, the feelings it generated were still raw, the fears still live.  As the children of the generation that was formed by those events, we, much like our parents, were steeped in its wariness and prohibitions.

But the generation born before or during World War II were also children of the American dream.  Paradoxical as it may seem, I think we were more optimistic than any generation since.  We were defined by a belief that, if we worked hard, very hard, we could achieve any goals we set for ourselves—or any goals that our parents, who had lost so much during the Depression had set for us.  That belief was both personal and political.  We believed in progress, that, for each generation, life would get better and better—especially for poor people, Black people, and Brown people—because we would make it so.  That’s how the idea of progress ruled our hearts and minds.

Many of us lived for decades in that happy belief.  We knew that there would be set backs—like the damage of the Vietnam War and periodic economic recessions—and we knew that some benefited from progress more than others—but we saw those set backs and injustices as obstacles that we would eventually overcome.

Our profound optimism began to erode during the last couple of decades, during the presidencies of Reagan and the Bushes and culminating with Donald Trump.  It seemed that our economic largesse was increasingly devoured by the wealthy, that the idea of heroic wars in defense of freedom had fallen to cynical, imperialistic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Panama and Yemen—to defend our material interests.  Political discourse was balkanized, racism was revitalized, and the only people who pursued what looked like an idealistic agenda were the “hard right” and the evangelical Christians, who were not so happy sharing it with people who didn’t look like them.  Our Presidents and their “bases” were willing to let our infrastructure, our climate and our commitment to basic democratic values rot.

By 2015, I found myself writing in my journal that I was “tormented by what is happening in America,” the country whose core promise of liberty, equality, and justice so closely mirrored my own, the country I had loved so deeply for 70 years.  I wondered if the damage was beyond repair. I was tempted to retreat into myself and my personal development.

But, I have to tell you, Molly, that I don’t think my despair is worthy of you and your generation.  In the midst of the current rubble there are so many seeds of hope, so many young people living into their dreams, which are the same American dreams that motivated my generation.  Instead of retreating, I formed an organization to train idealistic and very diverse young people in organizational and community leadership.  That turned out to feel redemptive to me and, I hope, to them.

Do you know that, even in retirement, I still mentor many of those young people, who make me believe that our society may be circling back to its better self.  My students work on behalf of foster children, abused children, and children who have been denied the opportunities that good educations afford.  Students work for affordable housing, immigrant rights and disability rights, and environmental protection.  They work with limited financial rewards towards goals of equality and the right of all Americans to social, economic, and political opportunity.

I have come to believe that they have the power to “bend the arc” of our tormented country back in the direction of justice.  They make me experience my own life, not as having lived under the false god of progress but as part of a cadre of people who retain their optimism and fire in the face of great odds.

I know that your heart lives in this same place and my hope, dear Molly, is that you will join us.

Love,

Grandpa

When We Summon Our Dear Ones

With glistening eyes, Lily told us this story: A friend’s mother, still lucid but dying, summoned her dear ones to share her last days with her and with one another.  I know neither daughter nor mother but found myself close to tears, choked up and unable to speak.  The same was true for others who listened to Lily tell her story.  There is something about the word ‘summoned,’ something about being summoned that is immensely evocative.

I picture an elderly woman with clear and commanding eyes and a strong, almost stern, expression on her face.  She’s resting in a large bed, covered very neatly with sheets and blankets.  She tells us that her time has come, that life has been filled with struggles and joy, with beauty and terror—just like this exact moment.  And she accepts this moment.  She accepts the finality.  She wants us to accept it too because, in its acceptance is the secret to a good life.

Of course, I have extrapolated this scene, constructing it in my own image and according to my own desires.  It’s an effort to explain to myself—and to you—what made Jenny’s story so powerful.

But my response may, in large part, be the simple awe that the word to “summon” evokes.  The dictionary tells us that it means to “authoritatively or urgently call on (someone) to be present.”  To me, it has a biblical and mythic feel to it.  Moses summons the Israelites when he descends from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.  Jesus summons his disciples at key moments.  In Islam, the “Da’wah” of Mohammed literally means issuing a summons or making an invitation.  In every case, a summons brings you into the presence of someone or some thing that is sacred and that speaks directly to the core of your being.

When God calls Moses, Moses answers: “I am here.”  He’s not talking about mere physical presence; not even normal attentiveness.  Moses signals that he is entirely present, with all of his senses.  Every fiber of his being is prepared to receive the word of God.  Here, then, is one of the keys to understanding a summons.  It isn’t just the august quality of the summoner.  It is, equally, the quality of our response.  Our response creates or fortifies a relationship, like no other in its intensity.  The connection is profound.

In all of the Western and Middle Eastern traditions, the connection is first initiated by a prophet, then built into a covenant between the prophet and his followers.  In its simplest sense, a covenant is an agreement among people.  But it isn’t the same as a contract, a quid pro quo among people that says “I’ll do this if you do that,” and can be severed at each person’s will.  It is stronger because it involves a third party — shared principles, or revered witnesses, and, in some cases, God.  Leader and followers are bonded together to serve, not only themselves but a higher purpose.

And it involves what Jews, the “people of the covenant,” call chesed, or loving kindness, which means that all transactions among the covenanted people must be infused with this spirit.

Among the most distinctive qualities of the covenantal relationship is that it is freely chosen.  Yes, there is compliance.  Lily’s friend complies with her mother’s powerful summons.   There is even submission.  We submit to the will of the summoner.  So, too, will the people of Israel, Jesus’ disciples, and Mohammed’s followers. This speaks to a powerful human urge, not often articulated in contemporary society, to submit to someone or something that is more knowing and more powerful.  There is relief.  Ah, we don’t have to struggle.  We don’t have to find our own way, at least not alone.  And there is an almost luxuriant pleasure in the surrender.

Yet, the compliance takes on its special meaning because it is chosen.  We are not required to surrender.  We can take another path.  But we don’t.  We choose to submit to the will of another.  And the act of choosing is exhilarating.  We want to leap and yell and laugh with the freedom of the moment.

For some of us, joining these two ideas, freedom and submission, seems confusing.  But living this paradox is at the heart of most religious practice.

So far, I’ve been talking about the person who responds to the call, but what about the person who summons others.  It may be the image of Lily’s friend’s mother summoned her flock that first drew me into this subject, but what does she feel and what might I feel in those final moments?

There she was, in her last moments, not even a religious person, not a person who believed in the afterlife.  In the spirit of dust-to-dust, she is about to disappear.  And, at that moment, she chooses to summon family and friends.  She is powerful enough to do so.  She believes in herself enough to do so.  Imagine: even as she departs, there is efficacy and dignity and the freedom to choose her way to die.

When my day comes, I want to be like this woman.  I want to be lucid and I want to love and be loved by family and friends right up to the end.  But there’s more.  I want to believe that I can summon them to my bedside, not to offer last words of wisdom, but to be with them: to laugh and cry together and to hold one another.  For me, that is a breathtaking image, as vivid and poignant as any afterlife could offer.