From Discipline to Freedom

I’m a freedom loving guy.  I like free time.  I prefer ambling to planning on vacations.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I like to think freely and outside the box.  I’d rather begin an organization of my own than fit into anyone else’s.  I am lost when I try to read the directions for a new gadget.  I am uncomfortable with strict guidelines – in truth, with rules of any kind.

There’s no inherent virtue in this way of being.   In fact, it’s often problematic for me.  It gets me into lots of trouble, multiplies the time and effort it takes to get things done, and often leaves me confused.  It slows my adaptation to certain kinds of innovations, my techno-dinosaur status a testament to that. And it’s often problematic for others.

But my love for discipline and order may be greater still.  I love, I need, a disciplined life.  So much so that I am miserable when I stray too far.  Whenever I do, I vow to return as soon as I can.

Just to be concrete, let me describe a disciplined day.  I wake in the morning, make a cup of coffee, and sit briefly with the newspaper.  Then I write in my journal, trying to square up my inner and outer lives, understanding what I’m thinking and feeling so that I act as consciously as I can through the day.  That’s a discipline all by itself. Then I meditate—not for long, maybe 20 – 30 minutes.  You know that the regularity and ‘proper’  practice of meditation requires discipline.

Then I write.  These days I’m writing essays for my blog.  In days past, I would be working on a professional article or a book.  Having “earned it” through all this disciplined activity, I then exercise for an hour or an hour and a half.  By now it’s early afternoon and I begin to read.  At this time of day, it’s usually a nonfiction book, sometimes in keeping with my writing project but often just something that interests me. I like to learn, always have, and I feel better about life if I’m actively engaged in learning. Focusing, trying to understand, keeping up…these require discipline.

Then the rest of the day—it could now be 3:00 or 4:00—is  open.  I rest, talk with Franny or friends or both.  I read a novel.  I nap, a new and delightful habit. It all feels good, in much the way that I feel deeply relaxed and free after vigorous exercise.  And when I awaken in the morning, assured that this is how I’ll spend my day, I greet the morning with uncomplicated calm and pleasure.  Which, I’ll admit, is part of my goal in life.

There’s more to value in a discipline than a well-scheduled day, of course.  Like maintaining clear, sturdy, kind attitudes and positions with children, grandchildren, family, friends, colleagues—and strangers.  But for this essay, let me try to explain why day-to-day discipline, in itself, has become my holy grail.

At the least, sustaining a disciplined approach to life gives me a sense of self-control.  It makes me feel like I am the prime mover.  When immersed in my various disciplines, I feel like I have chosen my activities.  Nothing is just happening to me.  Of equal importance, discipline, which requires a great deal of concentration on what I’m doing, deflects lots of the internal chatter and emotional winds, the currents of discontent and self-criticism, that readily push me about when I am lax.  Ultimately, random or unscheduled days aren’t as calming as trustworthy regimens.

Discipline brings a rhythm into my life.  You do this and then that and then this again.  Movement from activity to activity becomes almost unconscious.  Rhythm has a way of taking over, making every motion feel almost effortless.  Think of running or dancing.  When I am in rhythm my body moves and my mind flows—without thinking.  I’m not fighting myself.  So it is when I move from my journal to meditation, from meditation to writing to … well you get the picture.  I’m dancing.

Here’s the irony about discipline, though.  Just as self-discipline provides a sense of control, it simultaneously releases me from my need for control.  The safety of control helps me let go.  In the midst of journal writing, for instance, my mind wanders.  My imagination frees up.  My thoughts go to ordinary, as well as surprising, even sometimes forbidden, places.  Letting go within the confined spaces of a discipline brings out a sense of spaciousness, a safe place to be out of control; and being out of control in that safe way reassures me that I am in control.  Are you following?

There’s also a problem that comes with the need for discipline: it never completely succeeds.  I have it and I lose it.  When I’ve been disciplined for a long while, the loss sometimes feels like a relief—I can play, I can relax; I can be naughty—but it’s also a little bit like falling off the wagon.  That first drink may not lure me away for long but a number of drinks will.  Then I’m disappointed with myself.  I berate myself.  Then I exhort myself: “Get back into the rhythm, Barry.”  Sometimes I succeed readily and quickly; sometimes the return takes time, even a long time.  At such times, I grow irritable, impulsive, sometimes unhappy.

These rhythms of discipline and laxity, order and chaos, are inevitable for seekers of calm places like me.  And I need ways to cope with the downside, the periods when I flounder. I’ve come to believe that the measure of my success and failure isn’t in the fall from grace as much as it is in two closely related activities: my ability to tolerate the chaotic times, and the persistence of my efforts to return.

I could devote an entire essay to my efforts to tolerate — the times when I lose a sense of order and purpose, when I feel unable to move forward towards whatever goals I have been seeking or towards an ability to live comfortably without goals.  Over time, my tolerance seems to have grown with my ability to trust that ‘this too shall pass.’  And I don’t use the word “trust” lightly.  It is, as the scholars would call it, an evidence-based conclusion that I have drawn.  I’ve done my research, you see.

While writing in my journal for 50 years, and while meditating, it has been hard to miss: the disappointing times pass.  I am less anxious when the chaos arrives.  Its strength dissipates when I don’t fight it as hard as once I did.   And my ability to return to a disciplined life grows stronger.

I am like a fish out of water when my life in unstructured for too long.  I don’t breathe as well.  So persistence for me isn’t so much a choice as a necessity—but no longer an onerous necessity nor even a way to return.  Persistence, itself, has grown into one of my most important disciplines.

 

 

 

 

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If it Looks Like a Duck: Appeasement in America

Franny and I are sipping our morning coffee, reading the Sunday NY Times, pleased as always with our little ritual.  About a half hour into it, however, I come upon Lynne Olson’s review of Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War, by Tim Bouverie. Olson notes the “uncomfortable parallels” between this moment in U.S. history and the tumultuous 1930’s in Europe, calling the book “valuable as an exploration of the often catastrophic consequences of failing to stand up to threats to freedom…” As has become all too frequent these days, the news disrupts the morning’s calm.

With Prime Minister Chamberlain in the lead, Britain tried to avoid war at all costs.  He resisted activities that would tax her “Depression-afflicted economy” or expand her military, so necessary in protecting her increasingly vulnerable empire.  So Chamberlain, a former businessman, convinced himself that if he dealt with Hitler in a “practical and businesslike” way, “he could convince the Fuhrer of the efficacy of peace and bring him to heel.”  We know how that worked out.

Though the analogy is surely a stretch and the danger not so great, I believe that we may find ourselves in a similar predicament if we fail to bring Donald Trump to heel–and soon.  Key American leaders in the Republican Party enable his anti-democratic campaign.  Many in the Democratic Party promote patience and decorum, acting as though there’s plenty of time to halt the progress of autocracy.  I think we need to act with a greater sense of urgency.  In that sense, those who “slow-walk” the opposition to our president, may, in the light of history, turn out to have been appeasers.

Let’s begin with the signs, and the increasing pace, of Trump’s assault on American democracy.   We have:

  • The assault on the free press
  • The weakening of Congress (or the House of Representatives), by bypassing the Senate’s ability to screen Cabinet Secretaries—they are now almost all “Acting Secretaries,” subject only to Trump’s direction; running roughshod over the House’s oversight capability by blocking and ignoring subpoenas; utilizing “executive privilege” and “executive orders” whenever Congress disagrees.
  • Hijacking of the Department of Justice, bending it to meet the personal needs of the President, thus building a protective shield for the president: through massive numbers of judicial appointments; by destroying, with Barr’s help, the independence of the Department of Justice; through the use of suits to delay and destroy efforts to convict the President.
  • Neutralizing the FBI and the CIA, by bypassing them and impugning their motives and patriotism, just as Hitler did, by criticizing and bypassing his intelligence agencies, and, more sinisterly, by “investigating” them when they threaten Trump’s rule.
  • The threat to extend his term past the date that it is officially completed;
  • Casting his lot, internationally, with other autocrats;
  • Bullying members of his own party with threats, mockery, and accusations;
  • Fueling racial divisions and animosity among white Americans, and assaults on refugees and immigrants, eerily reminiscent of Nazi propaganda.

This centralization of executive power does not seem to bother enough American citizens. Increasingly, the pollsters and the pundits tell us that Trump’s chances of election—with the help of the anti-democratic process represented by the Electoral College—continue to rise.

The enablement of Trump’s growing power is clearly visible.  Mitch McConnell has been the leader, not allowing discussion of legislation or criticism of the President to even reach the Senate floor.  William Barr, the new Attorney General, has joined McConnell with a passion, distorting the Mueller Report, and serving as Trump’s defense lawyer to thwart efforts to curtail executive power.

Of course, McConnell and Barr have had plenty of support, extending far beyond the Freedom Caucus and the Evangelical right, who will support Trump even when he violates their most sacred tenets.  Think of the 2016 presidential candidates, like Rubio, Cruz, and, above all, Lindsey Graham, who Trump demeaned mercilessly.  At first they saw the evil he could do and condemned him.  Now they are like lap dogs, supporting any agenda he has, even when it waffles back and forth.  Think of all the Republicans who were supposedly shocked and dismayed by Trump’s behavior towards women yet now keep their mild criticism “anonymous,” publicly supporting him down the line.

The case for appeasement is a little harder to make but I believe it is coming into focus.  Let’s start with Robert Mueller, who is neither a politician nor a Democrat, but, a man  with great stores of public and political capital.  I’m writing this essay the day before he is to testify before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees.  So much has ridden on his reputation for prosecutorial acumen, courage, and integrity.  Every legal pundit who appears on TV bows low to him.  A man of unchallengeable integrity.  A marine.  A man who will speak truth to power.  The operational words here are “unquestioned” and “unchallengeable.”  Those attitudes have insulated him from the criticism I think he deserves.

Given what we know of his somewhat puritanical attitudes, it’s hard to imagine that Mueller doesn’t deplore Trump’s crass and lawless behavior.  The pundits have that right.  But Mueller’s inability to move beyond the narrowest interpretation of rules is, in my mind, both cowardly and selfish.  He is operating “by-the-book” at the expense of his country’s welfare.  He holds himself to standards that the more powerful Trump does not, and that discrepancy does not seem to influence Mueller’s decisions.  He fails to see or, at least, to act on moral principles that transcend narrow legal interpretation or the letter of the law.  In that sense he is no patriot.  His limited view has turned him into a coward.  And, almost as importantly, the CNN and MSNBC legal commentators who have failed to call him out, seem to me cowardly (or at least blind) as well.  Together, they are the appeasers.

I regret to say that I have begun to see Nancy Pelosi as an appeaser. Unlike Neville Chamberlain, who shared some of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Pelosi shares none of Trump’s deplorable values.  And I have long admired her political acumen – her ability to martial Democratic votes for progressive causes.  But I have begun to wonder if, as the top Democrat in the nation—not just in the House—if she is up to today’s challenge.

Her basic strategy of holding the fort until we can vote Trump out in 2020 has a logic to it, and the majority of Americans may agree with her.  Along with a majority of Democratic lawmakers, she believes that she doesn’t have the votes for impeachment—and that a defeat of the Impeachment process would unleash a backlash against the Democratic Partly. Maybe that’s true.  But as we know from the way that Republicans turned on Nixon once the impeachment process began, judging the future by the present may prove a fear-based and overly conservative way to think.  Maybe Pelosi needs to take a risk.

Here’s what I most fear:  That Nancy Pelosi and, to a lesser extent, Chuck Schumer, may be underestimating the momentum and therefore, underestimating the danger of Trump’s grab for power.  As Chamberlain hoped that he could wait Hitler out, I fear that Pelosi believes that she can wait Trump out.  In other words, Pelosi may be yielding to fear and failing to take the bolder course.  I see this position as appeasement – certainly not in intent, but, perhaps, in effect.

I don’t include the House Committee Chairs—Adam Schiff, Gerald Nadler, Elijah Cummings, and Richard Neal—in my analysis.  You can feel their pain about being held in check.  It’s clear they would move to impeachment if given the freedom to do so.

Finally, I’d ask: Where is our Churchill? Where is the person who is willing to risk it all to overthrow a tyrant before it is too late?

 

 

An Old Man With Too Much Time on His Hands

Scientists tell us that exercise is so good for us that it can reverse the.  U course of aging.  In my heart I don’t believe them, but I persist in the exercise anyway.  I’m a little like the kid who wouldn’t say anything bad about God, just in case God really exists, and is listening.  So regarding exercise, periodically  I feel like I’ve fallen behind in my efforts and decide on some Herculean effort to make up for past sins.  Not the wisest course, I’m told.

Last Sunday morning was one of those times.  Franny was away.  I had no plans.  I had some thinking to do.  The whole day yawned in front of me like an empty vessel, and a long walk, maybe a very long walk, seemed the perfect antidote to my lapsed practice.

’m going to walk the Boston Sports Club, about 5 miles away, work out on the weight machines, then walk back.  I’ve long had a romance with the idea of covering distances on my own steam.  Being on the trail, especially in the high mountains of California and Colorado.  By the time I’ve walked a mile or two, I’m absorbed in the scenery.  I stop thinking and I lose myself.  A delicious time for me.

The walk along Lexington and Winter Street is not quite as pristine as the High Sierras but 10 to 12 miles and a workout at the midpoint offers its own, funky excitement. And I am using the word “excitement” literally.  I don’t know why.

The walk begins well.  My muscles feel good.  The arthritis in my knees and ankle feel manageable.  There’s a jauntiness to my stride.  At least that’s the inner experience.

I love the cool air, even when a light rain begins.  I promise myself to be mature.  If the rain intensifies, I’ll duck into a store and call an Uber — the St. Bernard of the Lexington wilds.  At the moment, though, I am calm.  A man of No Mind, as the Buddhists say.

After a few miles, though, thoughts intrude:

“What kind of nutty thing are you doing, Barry?  You’re 77.  Are you trying to reassure yourself?  Why?  Aren’t you more mature than that?  Is this one of those crazy, old man dares that leads to trouble?”

Then another part of me responds:

“Don’t be silly.  I’m not climbing Everest, for God’s sake.  I love the freedom of walking.  And OK, I do want to check myself out, see how well this old machine is working. Will it hold up?  Do I still have my stamina?”

The walk is becoming a doctor’s appointment, and I’m the doctor.

I’d like to say that the argument ended there but it went on for a mile or more.  In fact, I do reassure myself:

“You’ll be fine.  You might not be able to play basketball anymore, but you can walk.  You’re strong enough.  You’ll probably walk this way into your 80’s…

“Yeah but You’re going to be sore and, by the sixth mile or so, you’ll be pushing, pushing.  It’ll stop being fun.  You’ll start worrying about injuring yourself.  This whole gambit will end up a disappointment.”

By now, I’ve heard enough of this grumbling.  I remind the damned pessimist in me that science is on my side.  I had just read a research article about how exercise slows cognitive and physical decline and relieves stress.

“Sure, sure, but if you push hard enough, you’ll cripple yourself.  You’ll live longer but it won’t be such a pleasure.”

I’d like to dismiss the whole argument but, as I walk, it fades in and out of consciousness.  For the most part, I walk on, feeling good even during the steep climb to the gym.  There, after some weight training, I decide not to call an Uber. The rain has stopped.  The training has given my legs time to rest.  Why not to walk home?  There’s only about 5 miles to go.  By the end, it will have been a grind but a virtuous grind, the kind that makes you feel great when you’re done.

After about a mile, the refreshed feeling is gone.  The steps are slower, more effortful.  There’s very little rhythm.  I begin to wonder if my old friend, will power, is there for me.

I could still call an Uber but I don’t.

During the last several years, I’ve not wanted to push myself too hard.

“What for?” I say.  “I’ll never be in great shape again.  I’m never going to write my novel.  I’m not going to build another organization.”

“Relax, man! Enjoy the easy life,” I say out loud.

“Bullshit,” I reply.

But I have always gotten something from pushing myself.  A sense of satisfaction.  A sense of moving beyond my ordinary self.  I keep walking.

I’m content with the grind for another 15 minutes — until I begin to wonder if I might have a heart attack or a stroke out here on the street.  All alone on the street. People my age do, after all.   Franny would be mad at me if she knew what I was doing.  She’d say I’m being irresponsible.  “Why do old men keep challenging themselves in this way? Besides, don’t you understand…other people care for you.  You are being  selfish.”

Of course, I’ve got an answer to that critique:

“I’m not in the desert or above tree line in the mountains.  I’m walking in the suburbs.  Don’t be a sissy!”

And so it went until I was home, cooling for a bit and listening to Duke Ellington play Mood Indigo.  Then a shower to end all showers and an easy chair with a book. There’s no interior dialogue that I can hear now.  I am exhausted.  And I am pleased with my day.

 

 

 

A Glimpse of Humility; A Glimpse of Divinity

I am trying to take a family picture with Franny’s iPad.  They wait expectantly on the sofa as I press one button after another.  Nothing works.  I see my son, Gabe, squelch a suggestion.  He is being kind.  Kinder than my grandsons, Eli, 9, and Jack, 6, who are eager to take over and show me how.  Soon Franny gives up on me and takes the picture herself.  But this defeats the purpose.  We want a picture with Franny in it.  She’s so often the photographer and rarely included in the pictures.  My daughter-in-law, Rachael, hops up and gets it done.  I try to cover my humiliation with a joke about old dogs and everyone laughs but the humiliation remains.

Of my many flaws, a lack of humility stands tallest.  It’s the rare person who I don’t think could benefit from my insight, the rare conversation that I couldn’t enhance with my analysis.  No one would mistake me for a mendicant monk demonstrably grateful for a cup of broth.  I may be helpless with technology and  comfortable in the role of supplicant to those who are more adroit, but this is the kind of exception that proves the rule.

I was raised in the belief that virtually any problem will yield to intelligent, concerted effort. This “can do” attitude has proven a great asset in my life.  It has made me braver and more adventurous.  But it has also turned my will into a domineering, godlike, force.  When stumped or mystified I don’t look to the heavens or even to friends.  I just try harder.

I know that the confidence born of my “can do” attitude has endured beyond its shelf life; and it is faltering.  Age is a great teacher.  I find myself, more and more often, in humbling situations.  Some are comical: I’ve lost about 3 inches in height, for example, and people seem so tall, so imposing to me now.  Some are sobering: There are so many things I once could do and cannot do now.

In retirement, I live on the sidelines.  From that perspective, I can’t avoid seeing how talented other people are.  I see, for instance, that Yolanda, my successor at the Institute for Nonprofit Practice, isn’t an updated version of me; she’s a wholly different person who is more capable of leading a national expansion of the INP than I ever could be.  I find myself amazed by brilliant, young writers like Ta Nehisi Coates. Where once I might have aspired to be their equal, now know that I won’t be.  I’ll need to think in far more modest terms.  Living a long life does that.  It points to your limits and makes you take notice.

The experience can be brutal and dispiriting but it can be exhilarating too.  This is a discovery for me, maybe the most important discovery in this phase of my life.

My view of humility is changing.  There are regressions, to be sure, but most of the time I no longer see it as giving in or giving up.  It doesn’t seem like something forced on me, imposed by those who are stronger or smarter or more successful.  Humility is in the process of separating itself from the humiliation that often accompanied my failures.  Sometimes it is the occasion not of shame but of quiet and relaxation. I don’t have to press and perform.  I’m off the hook.

Humility hasn’t come naturally to me, neither by psychological inclination nor through religious practice. Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist notions of humility, however seductive, played no part in my childhood and youth.  Over the years, their lessons seemed appealing, but I kept them at a distance.  That distance is closing now.

Maybe the best news about my budding humility is how much I have to learn.  I love to learn.  I love to have goals.  And I hope that I have plenty time to pursue them.

Of late, I’ve had rare and tantalizing glimpses of this new adventure—moments of humility that open instead of closing me.  And I’d like to share where I see these glimpses taking me.

At those rare times when I begin an activity with a genuine curiosity, when I don’t know what to do or how to think, when I don’t try to impose my ideas and my will on situations, I see them as though for the first time.  I am surprised, amazed, fascinated.  Humility makes experience fresher, more immediate.

I am now sure that humility makes it possible to connect more genuinely to others.  I recall so many times that I have argued with people—Franny, for instance—insisting that she sees the truth of my insights.  The insistence only pushes her away.  Usually, my argument is a projection of myself— “you’d see it this way if you were me.”  Eventually, I recognize my failure, my ineffectuality, my powerlessness.  Then, at last, I give up.  At moments like these, there is a vacuum, an open space. I look at Franny and ask: “what is it she is saying? …  What is she trying to teach me?”  It’s only then that we touch one another.  This is happening more these days.

I have been as arrogant about myself as I have been about others, proud and insistent on my self knowledge, amassed and curated over decades of introspection and observation. But lately I’ve grown skeptical of my proud “knowledge,” as it often consists of frozen insights, good for one period of life but not forever.  This realization—it’s not just skepticism—is a little frightening.  It tells me that the ground of my being may not be as solid as I had thought.  But there’s also freedom in making room for the new.

I have even found an unexpected inspiration during this time of transition.  Years ago, my friend, Bruce Powell, talked with me—in whispered tones, it seemed—about a Kabbalistic notion called “trim tzum.”  According to the 16th century Jewish sage, Isaac Luria, when God created the universe, He understood that human beings would be suffocated by a fully determined world.  So he receded, just a bit, making room for human beings to exercise their own free will and develop their own searching intelligence.

When I created my world—my understanding of myself and others—through will and intellect, I didn’t know how important it was to make room for the ideas, energies and, maybe, the love of others.  I lacked the requisite humility. I now see that the humbling of old age may serve as the key to opening myself to all of them.  And I know, though I don’t know how, that if I do, I will find a touch of the divinity I have always questioned, and, as it turns out, may have always been seeking.

 

Dignity, Courage, and Decline

In my 70’s, the experience of decline partly defines my every day.  Each morning I look to the window for a sunny day.  I think of all the interesting things I might do.  And I conduct a bodily inventory.  How’s that knee feeling?  Did the Prilosec ward off heartburn during the night?  How’s my hearing?  How energetic do I feel?  I laugh a little as I go through my list.  But there’s more sadness and weariness than laughter in this downward journey.

For years now, I’ve tried to offset the sadness with irony and a focus on my extraordinarily good fortune, but the inventory acts as a constant companion to these attempts.  The social critic, Malcolm Crowley beautifully captured the feeling.  “I feel old,” he says,

  • when it becomes an achievement to do thoughtfully, step by step, what he once did instinctively;
  • When his bones ache;
  • When there are more and more little bottles in the medicine cabinet, with instructions for taking four times a day;
  • When he can’t stand on one leg and has trouble pulling on his pants;
  • When he hesitates on the landing before walking down a flight of stairs;
  • When he spends more time looking for things misplaced than he spends using them after he (or more often his wife) has found them;
  • When he forgets names, even of people he saw last month;
  • When everything takes longer to do—bathing, shaving, getting dressed or undressed—but time passes quickly, as if he were gathering speed while coasting downhill.

Now if my daily inventory grades out on the positive side, I feel optimistic, ready for the day.  If not, I prepare to fight through the day, to make it as good as possible.  Laying around, for instance, would be a step too far, the first in a downward slide that I don’t like to even imagine.  I’ll exercise even if I’d rather not.  Read or make some calls when a nap seems like a good idea. And I take pleasure in fighting through the wish to give in to the negative.

There’s a purpose to this checklist: to determine a baseline of possibilities. The challenge is to conduct it as honestly as possible, leaving aside both wishes and fears.

Of course, honesty isn’t entirely objective.  All of us screen reality through cultural filters. In stoic cultures, for instance, we ignore signs of decay.  In self-indulgent cultures like ours, we give freer reign to complaining about our fate.  If culture glorifies “successful aging,” we’d best ignore the negative, or shame on us.  So, change our diet.  Exercise.  Cultivate optimism.

Sometimes it’s hard to read the signs.  Some years ago, for instance, I felt a constant weariness and turned to the most obvious explanation: I had passed my 70th birthday. I must be getting old.  “Get used to it,” I told myself.  But as it turned out, I had iron deficiency anemia, which was treatable.  After a few weeks of iron infusions, I felt like my old self.  So there’s some learning involved in translating the results of these inventories.

In the May, 2019, issue of the New Yorker, Mark Singer published an interview with David Milch, an acclaimed screenwriter and producer (NYPD Blue, Deadwood, and other heady and popular TV series).  Milch suffers from Alzheimer’s. and is now in the middle stages of this dreadful disease.  He’s become increasingly anxious and depressed.  Sometimes he gets lost and has to call his wife to rescue him.  Normally, a brash and decisive man, Singer tells us, Milch now seems tentative, almost frail, at 75.

Yet he continues to write every day with a commitment that belies—maybe defies—the terrifying decline in his mental capacity.  As I read the interview, I felt that Milch’s attitude spoke authentically and deeply to my own concerns about decline, so I thought to share my own musings on this topic with you.

The interview begins by exploring what having Alzheimer’s has meant to Milch, He notes, “(T)here’s an experience you have as every day goes on of what you’re no longer capable of and…it’s an accumulation of indignities.  At a more fundamental level, it’s an accretion of irrevocable truths: this is gone, and that’s gone.”  

The image of one thing after another drifting away is so damned powerful.  I imagine myself grasping after these floating objects, reaching and reaching, trying not only to hold them and bring them back but somehow also reintegrating them within my body or my mind.  But I can’t.  Much as I know that they are gone, I can’t readily reconcile myself to their absence.  I’ll pretend they’re still here.  I’ll pretend for a long while, until I really believe that they are gone.

What drifts away—or what is severed by disease and accident—isn’t like a replaceable machine part.  Each part, each memory, each tendon and organ, has been a member of an intricately organized whole.  It is the whole that constitutes our essential being; and the decline of the parts threatens the whole, threatens our sense of ourselves.  The drifting parts whittle away our selves.

The “accumulated indignities” that Milch talks about, shame us—shame me.  Unlike mere embarrassments, shame is a primitive, painful feeling that harks to early childhood: to being physically exposed, caught naked, being criticized harshly in front of others.  My cheeks burn.  I want to hide.  And many older people do run.  They “hide,”  or better…find refuge,  in elder communities, comforted by the shared decline of most of those around them.  I won’t yet abide this solution.  I still feel vital and strong.  But I’ve begun to understand its appeal.

To ward off the shame of decline, Milch says that “…we all make deals,…, in terms of how we think about the process of our aging.  It’s a series of givings aways, a making of peace with givings away…It’s kind of a relentless series of adjustments to what you can do….”   There is an “accumulated deletions of ability.  And you adjust… whether you want to or not.

At this point in the interview, Singer asks:  “…whether, despite what Alzheimer’s was stealing from him, it had given anything in return.  Yes, Milch responds, there is.  “There’s a continuous sense of urgency…There’s an acute sense of time’s passage. Things are important.  You don’t want to be inconsequential in your perspective on things.  I feel that with an increasing acuteness—that everything counts.”

What Milch asks for in the time he has left is “for the grace and dignity of a lucid cogitation.  I’m asking of my faculties such as they are, in whatever diminution they are, to meet you fairly.”  What I think he means is the ability to live life without artifice and evasion. Practicing a radical honesty, Milch believes, bestows a “grace and dignity” to life.

He has “disabused” himself “of any thought of a normal future” but allows himself “a provisional optimism about the possibilities of what time I will be allowed.  And I’m determined to experience what life will allow me… And I permit myself a belief that there is possible for me a genuine happiness and fulfillment in my family and the work I do.”

Alongside Milch, I also feel the gravitational pull of decline.  I ache with it and I know that there’s no avoiding it.  There are a thousand books now being published that practice one form of denial or another. And indeed, I have written my share of blogs that join the poets in trying to transform the fear and trembling of aging into some form of wisdom and excitement.  But I am coming to believe that there may be a greater dignity—and liberation—in simply acknowledging the ache and the place it has in my life.  It is another way to be unapologetically myself.

 

 

Is It Florida Time?

Franny and I just returned from five days in Florida.  We had wanted some relief from the New England winter and a break from routine.   Admittedly, the idea of a vacation defies credulity since I’m retired and on permanent vacation.  But we like new places and time to explore.

As it turned out, the Florida temperatures—high 90’s every day—were oppressive and less conducive to outdoor play than 50’s in New England.  Still swam and walked in the relative cool of morning. We read for hours and explored the “new south” in an air conditioned car.  Since childhood, Florida has ranked high on my list of places not to go—too crass, too humid—but we wanted to give it a chance to redeem itself, which it did.  Sarasota, Venice, and other coastal cities were filled with art museums, quirky town centers, and beautiful beaches with diverse and intermixing ethnicities.

We chose Sarasota primarily to explore Pelican Cove, an idyllic community of about 1200 elder refugees from the intellectual and artistic centers of the north.  Residents had created their own “university,” with classes taught by renowned experts and recent enthusiasts.  There are self-organized groups for yoga, gardening, folk music and jazz—you name it.  The housing is comfortable, unpretentious, and gloriously set on the Sarasota bay, with sunrises and sunsets welcoming and wishing farewell to every day.

Friends of friends, who had just purchased a PC home, showed us around.  Michael, the founder of TV’s Nova programming, and Lynn, a psychologist, spent a couple of hours singing PC’s glories, as if they were paid—and brilliant—sales people eager to line their pockets with gold.  But no.  They were Pelican Cove lovers and we paid close attention.

For a couple of years now, I have been writing about what I think of as the next-to-last period of life.  That period, sometimes brief, sometimes long, begins with the realization, deep in our bones, that our time on earth is limited, and ends with dementia, disability, or death.  Generally, our culture paints this period in shades of gray, impressed mostly by diminished capabilities and grumpy moods.  I’m impressed by its intensity and vibrancy.  David Milch, creator of NYPD, puts it this way: “There’s an acute sense of time’s passing.  Things are important.  You don’t want to be inconsequential in your perspective on things…everything counts.”

Pelican Cove looked to me like an active experiment in making the most of this extraordinary period.  It seems to be built for people in their 70’s, who are still physically capable and seeking to suck the marrow of the time remaining.  A morning walk, a little yoga by 10:00, some reading or a seminar in the early afternoon, a nap at 3:00, sunsets and twilight, ideal for contemplation and meditation.  A place and a time for relaxation, maybe even a hint of wisdom in the offing.

And yet, except for maybe a month or two in the winter, the Pelican Cove life seems a little premature for Franny, who isn’t yet 70, and for me, too.  We aren’t ready to cut or limit our ties to our children, grandchildren, friends, and even old colleagues.  We’ve both retired but remain more or less connected to our professional communities and, with them, our ability to contribute to fields whose goals we still feel committed to: Franny to children, through early childhood education and policy; me to equity and diversity through the education of nonprofit leaders.

Neither of us earn a living any more but neither have we made complete transitions into what is generally considered retirement.  There’s too much energy and opportunity remaining.  Sure, the kind of work we have done throughout our life can never be completed, but maybe I’m waiting for a sign that says you’ve done what you can.  Be gone?  Nope. Not yet.  The connections I feel when working are too deep and satisfying to give up entirely in order to relax or to pursue “interests”—all the time.

I know how simplistic that declaration sounds.  And I know that it’s important to avoid black and white distinctions: working and retired; professional and volunteer; active and relaxed; letting go and holding on.  There are all kinds of mixed, often complex balances that can be struck.  Even while living in a community like Pelican Cove.

But for me there’s something about Pelican Cove that feels like withdrawal, like a radical break from ways that I have been engaged during my entire life.  Having family and friends and colleagues 1500 miles away, feels like divorcing myself for the natural life cycle.  My imagery about this phase of the cycle includes close, visceral ties to the people I know and love.  They have been so much a part of my life that, in a way, they are me.  Or the relationships we have formed is a essential to who I am.  Distancing myself from them feels like distancing from myself—a kind of alienation.

Pelican Cove seems like an admission that I’m not yet willing to make any more than I might choose a monastery to pursue my spiritual development with greater intensity. For now, it says that I will stop being a citizen of the larger world, that I will stop striving, and begin to focus almost exclusively on amusing myself.

My objections don’t hold for everyone, of course.  Franny tells me, for instance, that she has always held service to community as a sacred act.  Particularly service that isn’t directly reciprocated, isn’t even well known.  And she yearns for a time when she can devote herself to it.  She might not be any more ready for Pelican Cove than I am but she can see the pathway there.  I admire, maybe even envy her for that.

But it isn’t exactly me.  Too much of me still faces outward, towards the greater world, even though I do precious little to help it.  And I have too many internalized injunctions against a life of leisure and a life focused entertaining myself.  I do wonder whether the injunctions have begun to wane, whether I need to work harder to diminish their hold on me, in order to be free to fully enter the leisurely stage of life promised and promoted by American culture.

The near perfection of Pelican Cove amplifies these questions.  It makes me uneasy, as though I should make decisions, as though I should move on with my life and not cling to what some people might call the past.  What is clear, though, is that Franny and I are not going to make a decision now.  It is premature.  And I, for one, remain mostly comfortable and enlivened by the uncertainty.   In that way, Pelican Cove has been exquisitely clarifying for me.

 

Don’t Tell Me About Old Age

Franny and I belong to a study group, whose members were already pushing old age when we joined 19 years ago.  One day I asked them to participate in a little bit of research.  “Sure,” they said, because they generally like me.  Until I announced the subject: What’s it like to be old.  “Old?  Who’s old?”  I thought they were kidding.  With the exception of Franny, our ages range from 76 to 87.  We had already lost a member to cancer.  Others have suffered heart attacks, strokes—you name it.  Still, when I pressed, they looked at me like I had belched, loudly and involuntarily in public.

Mine was more than a breach of etiquette.  It was as though I had challenged their identity, or maybe their lives.  “I’m old,” I declared, trying to break through their resistance with my own candor.  They didn’t bite.  To accept their age meant accepting society’s stereotypes of aging, including the likelihood of being dismissed and disdained, a self-portrait they must not internalize.

The fight isn’t only against the way we are pigeon holed; it’s also a cry for independence, for control of our lives.  In spite of the way that old folks are portrayed in the movies, we are not children, bumbling idiots, or simply shells of our former selves.  We know ourselves pretty well; and we don’t want to be told who we are or what to do.

Their opposition to what they imagined would be the premise of my research, then, was necessarily fierce and sustained.

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Every culture has its unofficial, generally unstated ideas about everything, including  marriage, parenting, well being, morality, and old age.  Collectively, these ideas can be called a cultural narrative.  They come to us through word of mouth, through TV, film, and other social media.  The stories and images are ubiquitous.  Growing up in a given culture, we hardly know that we are taking them in; and, after a while, it is hard to distinguish them from what we think of as our own feelings and thoughts.

The struggle to make that distinction, the struggle to know ourselves as distinctive individuals, to determine our own character, is one of life’s great dramas.

The drama plays out with particular intensity during old age because old people have lost many of the defining activities and social arrangements—family and work, especially—that once served as barriers between themselves and the influence of cultural imagery.

The contemporary narrative of old age is familiar to most of us.  It differs from the narratives of other eras and other cultures, where the accumulated experience of old people is venerated.  Instead, it emphasizes a loss of vigor, competence, and productivity, and the absence of knowledge that’s appropriate to and valued by society now.  American culture generally glorifies youth and fears—sometimes, despises—old age.  Just look at comic or tragicomic portraits of old people in TV, film, and popular fiction.  At best, we forgive our old people their incompetence or chuckle affectionately at their bumbling ways.  At worst, we distance ourselves from their neediness and dependence.  And we are offended when they take the places of better qualified youth and drain the resources of the already beleaguered younger generations.

Even more painful, I think, is the narrative of continual, remorseless decline and diminishment.  Accordingly, bodies grow weaker and demand more attention.  Minds grow slower and command less respect.  Instead of continued leadership in families and communities, old people become invisible.

We may fight the inevitable with exercise, diet, and cosmetic surgery but, in the end, there’s nothing much we can do about it.  We might slow or modify the downward journey but that’s all.  For the most part, we accept its inexorable logic.  Perhaps not consciously but subconsciously, we internalize the fundamental message of the narrative.  Margaret Morganroth Gullett puts it beautifully: “We are aged by culture.”

What this means is that we filter our actual, distinctive experience through the cultural imagery.  We live as though the narratives are more real than any genuine feelings that don’t quite fit the narratives.  It’s hard to escape their omnivorous desire to tell us who we really are. So we discard large parts of ourselves.

This does not mean that we fall before putting up a fight.  During the last few decades, the Baby Boomers, anticipating their own decline and accustomed to having their way, have championed an alternative narrative.  They call it “Successful Aging.”

John Wallis Rowe and Robert Kahn, whose book popularized the “successful aging” movement,  tell us that healthy aging involves three main factors: (1) being free of disability or disease; (2) having high cognitive and physical abilities, and (3) interacting with others in meaningful ways.  This calls upon us to eat good food, to exercise regularly, and to cultivate a friendship circle or close community ties around churches, synagogues or more secular venues.  Follow this prescription and you will live a (relatively) happy and fulfilling life.

But after reading enough “successful aging” stories, they began to feel a little strained.  The stories look as much like admonitions as reports. The promises seem more aspirational than actual.

Divergence from “successful aging” is too often a cause for shame.  There must be something wrong with you if you succumb to illness, lethargy, or fear.  There must be something you have done or, worse still, something inherent in your character.  If you were a good person, a strong person, a purposeful person, you would be headed towards your goals.  You might fail sometimes but eventually, with effort and the will to succeed, you would get there.  When you don’t, it calls everything about you—your history, your character, sometimes your family or your education—into question.

Cultural narratives, both negative and positive, however, are just that.  They are like theories.  And, as the great anthropologist, Gregory Bateson, once said about theory, “The map is not the territory.” It is not the whole, complex, confusing, and often messy truth about our lives.  It misses the telling details by which we know ourselves.  We make a terrible mistake when we reduce ourselves to a map or a narrative.

It makes no sense to yield entirely to either the anticipation of  “healthy aging,” as though we could pursue the fountain of youth, or to the idea of remorseless decline.  Nor to bounce back and forth between the two: “I’m decrepit.  No, I’m not.  I can be as strong and healthy as ever.  Well, that’s a lie.  I don’t want to deceive myself.  But maybe if I felt better about myself, I could ‘succeed’ as an old person.”

In my view, it is far better to embrace the whole: the vitality and the decline, the freedom from obligations and the loss of place—and the terrible knowledge of mortality. And all those experiences in between.  We are all of these things.  And more.  We never fit entirely within stereotypes.  We know this truth when we take seriously the discrepancies between experience and narrative, when we don’t try to adjust ourselves to a “reality” described by others.

Each of us has our own experience.  It’s a matter of knowing ourselves and trusting our own perceptions.  Only then can we separate ourselves from the cultural narratives of old age.

I know this to be true.  I am aging.  I don’t know how fast or completely.  But I am. And I am alive with energy and thought.  I am mortal, and with each friend whose death I mourn, mortality grows more prominent in my thoughts.  I have just so many days and months and years to live.  That’s a fact.

But when I live my days fully I don’t think very much about decline and death.  I lose myself in the complexity and spaciousness of my life, which isn’t just a passage to death or to health.  It is more like a field of flowers, steams, and rock formations, busy with people and ideas.  Unlike a narrative or a pre-determined journey, the field is alive with possibilities.  When I am present in those fields, my life takes on a timeless quality.