Ritual and routine hold me like a good mother

I imagine that I’ve pushed the limits of your patience with my apocalyptic warnings about the state of our nation and my “honest” talk about the trials of getting old.  For a change, I’d like to talk about my good fortune at having arrived at an advanced age feeling good.

It’s 6 AM and the sun has already risen.  I hear the fountain outside our bedroom window, spraying water from the little pond right outside, and — I know this even though I can’t see it from my bed — spreading the coating of light green algae to the pond’s far edges.  A few robins are chirping.  A squirrel is chirping, too, as he speeds up the oak tree’s trunk.  I feel so damned good this morning. =

Already, the day reminds me of an ee cummings poem that I loved as a young man, a poem, coincidentally, that my sister-in-law, Marcia, recites to herself each morning, wanting a reminder of what the day might be.  I’d like to quote it in full.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)”

There are too many days when I’m not as attuned those “leaping greenly spirits” as I’d like to be, but even before and after I explode with exasperation at what I read in the newspapers, I am still aware of the great privilege I have in being alive at 76, with my ears and eyes still working, my body ready to go, and my spirit alert to possibilities.

I might focus my gratitude on the love that persists in my marriage and family, but today I want to focus on simpler things: the routines and regularities of life in retirement that bring pleasure to even the worst of days and allow me to pay attention to nature’s bounty.

Each day, as I awaken, Franny is next to me.  I can see the sky, cloudy or sunny, it doesn’t matter.  I ease out of bed, walk about 20 feet to the bathroom and go through my ablutions.  I like the rhythm and the sound of the electric tooth brush and the taste of the water washing down the two pills that I take.  Dressing, especially in summer, is easy: underwear, t-shirt, and shorts.  Everything feels clean.  I’m ready.

Next I make coffee for Franny and me, and we sit in our easy chairs with the newspaper.  The news isn’t so great but there we are, together, as the light shines through the roof windows and the window door and gentles our moods.  Almost every morning, we look at each other, nod, and feel our good luck.

After the newspaper, we separate. Franny either stays in the living room or goes to the second floor to do some work, or what, she says, passes for work these days.  I go to my study to write in my journal, first in that free, undirected, ambling way that I’ve practices for almost 50 years.  If I’m not calm to begin, the writing calms me.  If I’m calm, it deepens the feeling.

Next I write something “serious.”  I work on an essay for my blog or chapter for the memoir that I’m writing.  Sometimes this goes easily and well.  Sometimes it’s a slog.  Then I push and either break through or give up, hoping — maybe assuming — it will be better tomorrow.  I can get aggravated when I feel the writing has gone badly but I am comforted by the fact that I am there.  I have been sitting in my desk chair, in front of my computer, thinking and typing away.  Every day.  It’s the everydayness that soothes the aggravation.

When I’ve had enough of the writing, I read a few articles from The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books, which make me feel just a little smarter, just a little bit more in touch with the New York intellectuals I’ve long identified with.  It’s like touching base with my community.

Now I’m getting a little restless, though.  I feel it in my body.  When I get up from the desk, my knees and back are stiff.  I’m thirsty.  I need to move.  So I do.  Franny and I may take off on a walk.  These days, I may hit a tennis ball against a backboard for about 25 minutes, and then walk for about 40, knowing that I need to put in at least an hour of exercise to reassure myself of my health — and to feel good.  I have always needed exercise to get those endorphins going in order to calm my body and soul.

Upon returning home, there’s a shower, and very few things feel as good as that hot—or cold—spray running down my body, taking away the sweat and the effort, until I am fully relaxed.  Even the drying follows a ritual.  First my hair, rubbing and rubbing with a towel, probably until the brain is active again, then my back and chest, then the legs and the feet.  The towel always returned to the hook for drying.  The return to my very light clothing.  I’m ready for the next act.

In the late afternoon, I read, generally nonfiction — a biography or a history book — leaving fiction for the evening, when I no longer require myself to keep learning.  The reading might make me sleepy and, now in my dotage, have begun for the first time in my life to take naps.  They are sweet.

Franny and I come together for dinner.  Then we might have friends to visit.  We might read, talk on the phone, or watch TV — we love mystery series, news, and documentaries.  I love sports.  If there’s a big basketball, baseball, football, or tennis game on, we split up, then come back to each other for conversation and sleep.

Not every day is like this.  Sometimes, I do some work—coaching young executives, for example.  A little strategic planning consult with a nonprofit.  A meeting for a board of directors.  On Mondays, I spend time with Franny and Lucy, our 17 month old granddaughter.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we spend a few afternoon hours with our 5 and 8 year old grandsons.  At times we travel and then there is no routine.  Franny has her own activities, of course.  And frequently we meet friends, separately or together, for walks, coffee, or drinks—or to dream up future projects.  There’s always something new.

But it ritual and routine, by surrounding and supporting all the other activities, that relaxes me enough to appreciate what is new and different.  It’s the surrender to the routine, not having to be in charge all the time, that keeps me calm.  It’s the routine, holding me like a good mother, steadily but not to tightly, that invites me to notice the leaping greenly spirit of life.

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A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.

Everyone I speak to wants to do something to counteract the toxic impact of the Trump presidency and the right wing Republican effort to deprive our government of its ability to serve the great majority of American people.

Almost everyone I meet feels powerless in the face of this challenge.  What can I do? The problem is too big for me.  It’s too far away.  And, of course, it is far away from citizens of Massachusetts, New York, and California, where our Democratic votes hardly seem to count.  Even those of us who are determined to head off to Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other places to help in the Congressional races fear that our efforts could be in vain.

I’ve been held captive by this way of thinking for too much of my life. It was introduced to me at the age of seven.  My family, driving in our first car, a brand new Studebaker, was passing through the Bowery in lower Manhattan.  When we stopped for a red light, homeless men wiped our windshield.   “What is going on?” I asked my parents.  My dad said, “They have been pushed out of their jobs and have no place to live but the streets.”  I upset, angry, tearful.  “That’s not right.  I feel terrible.” Then my mother turned in her seat, looked me in the eye and said, “Feelings don’t count. Do something!”  The helplessness I felt at that moment has inhibited my political participation ever since.

But I think I misunderstood my mother’s lesson.  Both of my parents eschewed charity, believing that it just took the edge off of poverty.  Fundamental change, like higher minimum wages, universal health insurance, and protecting the rights of working people to organize, would be required to make a substantial and lasting difference.  They didn’t mean that helping individuals was unimportant, but that’s how I understood their lesson.  Since I couldn’t see my way to influencing such major change, I didn’t trust the power of small differences.

It may also be that my experience of the immediate post-World War II world – exuberant and  full of opportunity – reinforced my belief in the possibility, even the likelihood, of large scale change.  During the decades following the war, working people prospered with the help of union organizing and entered the middle class.  Civil rights for Black people, GLBT people, and women expanded steadily, sometimes dramatically.  Health care grew accessible to the majority.  Cures for infectious diseases appeared regularly.  The world was getting better.  Progress was simply a matter of effort.

But just as reforms progressed at scale and speed, so regression could follow with equal force.  I have watched with dismay the long withdrawal of progressive reforms during the presidencies of Nixon, Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Bush, and Trump.  Now it no longer seems possible to think of continual upward motion , of unalloyed progress.

These gigantic national mood swings, far beyond my control, deepened my sense of being an insignificantly small player in an immense universe.  I hated the feeling and, for many years, have sought solace in introspection, reflection, and meditation.  The effort has helped but only in partial way.  My parents would not have had much patience for the substitution of self-healing for social healing.  As it turns out, I have come to agree with them.

Over the years, even as I wrote soulfully in my journal, tried some psychotherapy, practiced psychotherapy, taught others to practice therapy, meditated, and took long journeys into the wilderness in search of inner peace, my parents words retained their strength.  I would complain to Franny that I’m not doing enough.  She would remind me that I was helping scores of patients and, through my students, scores more.  My efforts felt paltry.  Later, my work with nonprofits, an attempt to leverage my skills to reach greater numbers, felt the same way.  I was always counting, and the numbers were always too low.  Was it worth it to help a few if the social and economic systems that led to suffering remained the same?

Lately, I have begun to think it is.  I have come to believe my focus on numbers, the idea that only large scale change makes a difference, has had an oddly dehumanizing effect on me.  It blinds me to the real people with whom I live.  As one sage put it, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

I am not suggesting we jettison idealism and soaring goals.  To be truly human, we must aspire to the heights.  But, simultaneously, and even as we try to overthrow the Trump/Republican hegemony, we also need to establish modest and realizable goals for our nation and ourselves.

Two recent experiences helped to move me in this direction.  The first came from reading the novel Zoo Station, by David Downing. The protagonist, John Russell, is a British journalist living in Berlin in 1938.  The dehumanizing Nazi rule—especially its violence toward Jews—is increasingly absolute and horrifyingly cruel. He hates it but lays low because defiance might lead to his expulsion or worse, and so the loss of his German son and the woman he wants to marry.  When he imagines defying the odds, he tells himself that he can’t do enough anyway. It might be worth the risk if he could help 50 or 100 Jews, but short of that, well, what’s the point?  I have long identified with this kind of reasoning, knowing how it defeats action. But in spite of his calculation, Russell grows attached to a Jewish family and, eventually, decides that saving one family is enough to justify taking risks.  Numbers are abstract, he decides.  Courage is personal.  Action is personal.  By acting, Downing suggests—win or lose—Russell becomes more fully human.

Last week we attended an immigration-related vigil that my daughter-in-law Rachael, who works for the Newton schools, helped to organize. The husband and father of a Newton family originally from Guatemala, Rigoberto, is now being threatened with deportation—this, after 21 years of living and working here, raising two sons, and being active in their school communities.  His wife, Imelda, also active in the community, has cancer.  His 18 year old has plans to attend college in September, the first in their extended families. The cruelty of this impending family rupture is breathtaking—the result of dehumanizing federal policy that treats people as “illegal”—a stunning concept when you think of it.

How can we change that policy?  How can we stand firm against the Trump immigration steamroller?  It is easy to get disheartened by the challenge.  Not Rachael, and not people like her.  Her main focus is on this one family.  Each family, by itself, is worth the effort.  But you would miss the point if you thought of Rachael as driven “only” by compassion.  The vigil was also a political act meant to galvanize and activate others.  The vigil won’t directly change the world, as I imagined my mother wanted me to do, and were she still alive, would unabashedly instruct her granddaughter-in-law to attempt.  But it makes a statement: Here we stand; we care. I find that position admirable — and for perhaps the first time in my life, enough. These small, seemingly understated actions do change the world, our immediate world, enough to make a difference.  Indeed, as the Talmud notes, “to save one life is to save a whole world.”

As I have grown older, I have been watching them – these local and targeted actions — as carefully as I can.  They are helping to break me out of a prison of self-recrimination that my mother built for me by demanding too much too soon.

As it turns out, I have also been persuaded by my mother’s warning about feelings. They might form the bedrock of protest.  First you have to feel, as Russell and Rachael felt, that injustice to others is injustice to you.  Their oppression becomes yours. That empathic bond makes inaction virtually impossible.  And action, however “small,” to protect the vulnerable, becomes essential.  In the end, it circles back, providing true grist for the self-acceptance so many of us pursue

 

America: A Progressive Elegy

During my recent trip to Berlin, I was struck by how seriously the Germans have taken their own descent into hell during the Nazi period.  Their Holocaust Memorial, with its maze of huge, gray granite blocks is a deeply moving testament to a tragedy they take responsibility for.  It is set right near the Brandenburg  Gate, the symbolic center of the city.  It is unavoidable. The brass “stumble stones” scattered throughout the city, mark thousands of homes where “murdered” Jews had lived and, with each name chiseled into the brass, personalize and publicize Nazi atrocities.  German law outlaws hate speech and Nazism, in any form.

Where, I wondered, is the American equivalent?  A memorial marking the centuries in which we embraced slavery and, subsequently, institutionalized racism?  How do we mark our own soul searching? Where is a memorial to the Native American tribes that we virtually destroyed in our imperialistic quest for more and more territory—what we called our Manifest Destiny?

I’ve had a lifelong romance with America, with its democratic ideals and its welcome to the oppressed peoples of the world.  Even when we faltered, I thought, we were on the way to redemption.  Slavery was followed by emancipation.  When the poor could not find jobs and earn decent wages, we empowered their unions and created programs that set them to work.  When our nativist and isolationist bent threatened to dominate, leaders like FDR found ways to turn our attention outwards to help win the war against Nazi Germany.  In other words, our failures were exceptions, soon to be remedied.

Recently, I’ve seen how naive I’ve been, looking through the lens of one who has prospered in this land, and giving too little weight to the experience of those who haven’t.  The emergence of the Republican Tea Party joined to the corrosive greed and bigotry of the Trump presidency, may have pushed me over the edge.  I now see current trends as deeply rooted in the American tradition. What I had seen as exceptions now seem as foundational as the American ideals I have cherished.

I am not alone in my reconsideration.  For decades now, historians have been unearthing uncomfortable truths and rewriting our narrative.  The differences are far too many and complex to list here but let me name just four areas of contention.  First, slavery was integral to the formation of our “perfect union.” During the Constitutional Convention, Northern states were ‘forced’ to accept slavery as the price of Southern participation.  When I was young, my history books insisted that Reconstruction failed because those terrible carpet baggers tried to impose their greedy capitalist way on the suffering South.  But we did not learn about the KKK terrorists who threatened Blacks and Whites who wanted to actually institutionalize emancipation.  How about now? There are over 2,300,000 Americans in prisons today, a large percentage of them men of color.  Racism has marked our culture from beginning to end.

Here’s a second area where the narrative has changed.  We were told that America was a land of immigrants, a melting pot.  But we were not supposed to form a stew with many ingredients; instead we were supposed to melt and melt until we all became the same: White Anglo Saxon Protestants.  As the signs noted, “No Irish need apply,” at least until they learned to be Americans.  No Southern Europeans, either. Their skin was too dark and they were said to smell of garlic.  We prefer blond, blue-eyed, clean-smelling folks from Northern Europe, the same people Trump prefers today.  And certainly this country has wanted to limit the number of Jews.  During the early years of the Nazi reign, we turned Jews away, turned back boatloads when their only alternative was almost certain death in concentration camps.  The people of the heartland—think of how we use that word—have always wanted their wall.

The third myth concerns our view of the Us as the land of opportunity, the land of unlimited social mobility.  After all, isn’t that why those “huddled masses” have clamored towards our shores.  Maybe this was once so but statistical studies tell us that now “there is considerably more mobility in most other developed economies…This cornerstone of US identity — that if you put in hard work, a better future awaited — long separated the US from other countries in the American imagination. But in practice, that idea is increasingly evading the country’s young people.”   In fact, the richest 1% of Americans owns almost half of our wealth, and they are holding on to it.

The fourth myth, sometimes called “American exceptionalism,” proclaims the United States as a democratic model that nations throughout the world should emulate.  Yet the increasing concentration of American wealth, fed by tax policies and hidden, thanks to the recent Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, has led to a concentration of political power.  We have become a plutocracy, where a few wealthy men exercise inordinate power over government policy.  In this plutocracy, the meaning of one man, one vote, is losing its meaning.  And indeed, this is not as new as you might think.  Our Founding Fathers never intended a majoritarian democracy.  They trusted landowners and White men and built political structures like the Electoral College to guard against the “tyranny of the majority.”  They empowered the real Americans—rural and White—by giving them the Senate.  How else do we justify Wyoming, population 573,000, having the same vote as California, population 39,000,000?

I could go on to explain how our country was built to share power only so much but, in the little space I have left, I want to offer a few thoughts about what we can and should do about it.  I have three recommendations.

First, we need to do some soul searching and acknowledge the inherent problems of our democracy, such that the Freedom Caucus, the Alt Right, and Trump, are not exceptions.  They are as American as Progressives are.  In other words, we must remove our veil and begin our reforms from an honest, realistic perspective.  We need to cleanse our mind and spirit in order to build a more just and equal American future.

Second, like Germany, we need to fashion and initiative a process of peace, reconciliation, and reparation.  Once we have searched our own souls, we need to talk honestly, directly with the people we have injured or their descendants and find out how they would build a better world.  I find it humiliating that the Germans could look inside, admit their guilt, and try to build a society where anti-Semitism cannot rise again, while America has undergone no such process for slavery.  As so many great and eloquent African Americans have already insisted, we need to own up to the racism in all of us.  We need to ban hate speech in all of its forms.  And like Germany, which has paid reparations to Israel, we should seriously consider reparation to the descendants of slaves—enough to give them real economic momentum in our society.  To heal our society, we can’t afford not to.

Third, we must rebuild, not tear down, the institutions and laws that guarantee all people have equal access to the educational, economic, and cultural wealth of our nation.  This might start by dismantling barriers, such as:  1) the Electoral College; 2) the practice of gerrymandering; 3) the restrictions on voting.  And it might proceed by reintroducing a much fuller guarantee of voting rights, fair progressive taxation, guaranteed by a government that is actually by, for, and of the people.

Call these suggestions idealistic, pie in the sky, aspirational.  But it looks to me like Trump and his Republican enablers are willing to sacrifice democratic ‘niceties’ in the service of ideological ends, and to avenge their base’s humiliation at the hands of the “elites.”. And it looks to me that they may win if we don’t directly and strongly engage this battle now.