A Skeptic Attends a Meditation Retreat

Almost everyone is seated on meditation mats, maybe propped up by pillows, but I’m sitting on a chair, which the Insight Meditation Center (IMC) has graciously provided for older folks who can’t sit in the lotus position, legs twisted like pretzels, for more than 15 seconds at a time.  My eyes are closed and have been for… well, I don’t know how long.  This period of sitting meditation is scheduled for 45 minutes and I can’t tell if we’re closer to the middle or the end.

I have promised myself not to cheat, to look at my watch, though my eyes are itching to.  I know this is not the best of preoccupations.  I need to discipline my mind.  With effort, I return to breathing softly, slowly.  For a moment, that’s all there is.  I feel calm.  There’s no place I want to go.  I am where I am.  That lasts for—again, it’s hard to tell—maybe a few minutes but maybe only 15 seconds.

Now I want the session to end so that I can comprehend and celebrate this moment.  I have loved the peacefulness.  This is what I want to achieve—oops, that’s the wrong word, the opposite of just being.  Still I want to celebrate.  How much longer will the sitting be?  Now the gong rings.  At last.  But I don’t feel like moving or opening my eyes.  I am back to loving the quiet. These are fleeting moments that I want to last.

For much of the meditation periods, I am lost in time; and being lost is good.  My hope for the weekend retreat is that it will cast me out of my regular thought stream, which has grown a little stale, a little self-protective, and free my creative juices.  At 76, I still feel too tied to the need for productivity and, as a result, to matter in every social setting.  Maybe the sustained meditation emphasis on just being present will nudge me towards a greater acceptance of myself, just as I am—or the discovery of a new way to experience myself.

But the aura of acceptance is not where the retreat begins.  Rather, we receive instructions about all the things we shouldn’t do.  Like talk or make contact with others, even by nodding or smiling (which is said to invade their space), or read or use any electronic devices.  Those we must hand in to the office.  At the introductory lecture, we are presented with the “five hindrances,” that will interfere with our progress as meditators and people.  They are: sensual desire or greed; ill will or aversion; sloth and torpor; restlessness  anxiety or worry; and doubt.

Who can argue with the last four, and it’s easy to see that sensual desire has no place at the retreat.  But I feel that the long list of prohibitions has created a somewhat dour atmosphere.  When someone has done me a kindness, as many people do, by letting me into line or opening doors, I’d like to give a nod, a little smile of recognition, but no.  That might demand a response from them, breaking the “cone of silence” that is said to be critical to our ability to focus intently inward.

So in spite of my reservations, I see the point, and I promise myself to follow the rules.  This isn’t easy for me.  I dislike rules.  I like to be mischievous, even Rebellious.  But my goal is to throw myself into the unknown and if that means accepting authority for a period of time, then I’ll do it.

As a matter of fact, the idea of surrender has long been near the top my list of important enterprises.  I like to be in control of myself and I probably spend way too much energy making sure of it.  Instead of navigating through the many potential threats to my freedom, I could accept what others want from me, how others see me, what rules require of me.  Letting go might be liberating, might release a great deal of normally wasted energy.  Surrendering to others might let the small child in me peak into the warmth and comfort of other people’s acceptance and love.

Each retreat participant is assigned a “yogi” task.  Mine is to clean the toilets.  This seems brilliant to me, almost mystical in its perspicacity.  Along with surrender, the theme I’ve chosen to work on this weekend is humility, a quality that comes as naturally to me as surrender.  Here, in one stroke, the retreat staff has provided fertile grounds for my spiritual aspirations.

The retreat is structured very simply.  We rise early and then do sitting meditation, then breakfast, yogi work, sitting, walking meditation, sitting, walking, lunch, sitting… you get the idea.  On Friday, we’re at it from 7:30pm – 9:30pm.  On Saturday, from 6am – 9:15pm.  On Sunday morning, the gong rings at 5:15 and we meditate in various forms from 6:00am to 11:30am, with a lecture fitted in.

The key to Vipassana meditation—that’s the name for the IMC practice—is to follow your breath or any other focus that keeps your mind from wandering.  They call these foci “anchors,” and you are free to choose your own.  For years, I following my breath has served as my anchor

The goal is to empty your mind, which is virtually impossible.  As you sit and follow your breath, thoughts leap to mind, serious ones mixing freely with laundry lists of things you should be doing or should have done.  Desires, dreams, and hopes arise.  Anxieties and fears arise, too.  The discipline consists of noticing the mental processes and letting them go by returning to your breath.  You don’t fight the thoughts.  You let them float by like a river.  Relative inattention robs them of their hold on you.   Your mind empties itself of its reactive and neurotic tendencies and distortions.  With time, with consistent meditation over years, you grow freer and freer from their ability to dominate your life.

An empty mind is a free mind, or so we are told, and it enables you to experience the world as it is.  An empty mind is also said to be a more peaceful place to dwell, which is my goal.

Each time I meditate during the retreat seems unique.  Sometimes I become quiet quickly, and I feel a kind of contentment.  Sometimes, I shuffle and wriggle, unable to get comfortable and much of the meditation seems like a struggle to quiet myself.  Some sitting periods are filled with internal chatter; some are almost free of it.  At times, I can’t wait for the period to end and at others I am disappointed that the sitting is ending because I am so pleased with the peaceful moment.  It is rare that, even for a moment, I feel a free and empty mind.  But I am grateful for those moments.

During the last hours of Sunday morning, I can’t wait for the lecture to stop and then can hardly abide the final sitting meditation.  I want to go home.  I want to speak with my friend, David, on the drive home.  As we drive, our conversation is good but it doesn’t touch deeply on our experience at the retreat, as though we are withholding that for another time or, in some odd way, partly retaining our cone of silence.  I’m glad to see Franny and to describe the retreat but, again, I feel like I’ve withheld its essence—not out of meanness or fear but because the experience is still only within me.

The next day, I binge on political news and TV sports, just as the retreat instructors have warned us against.  The surrender is over.  I worry that the retreat has had no impact on me whatsoever.

But I do feel quieter inside. I seemed to have tasted its sweetness and long for the peacefulness of meditation in my chair.  And I have been continuing the practice, which feels like a refuge.  The practice is hardly at the center of my life but it is a little closer, which surprises the skeptic in me.

 

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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.

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

 

Reining in a Father’s Pride

Pride is strange.  The good side is obvious. With our children, for instance, our heart swells with love, admiration, belonging.  The bad side concerns ownership and a lack of humility. Who are we proud of?  Sometimes it’s ourselves, even when we say it’s about others.

A few months ago, my daughter, Jessie, invited me to join her on a trip to Florence and Rome, where she’d be giving some talks at international conferences on infant mental health, her specialty.  I have been a fan of my daughter for as long as she’s been alive and was being granted a place of honor during her march towards professional prominence.  Who wouldn’t be proud? …proud of her; proud that she trusts and enjoys me enough to share this part of her life.

What I liked best, though, was the opportunity to see her in her element.  Like other parents, I know Jessie, one to one.  I know her as a family member,—as a daughter, of course, and, through observation, as a mother and wife.  I would even say I know her as a friend.  I haven’t really known her as a professional, except at a distance, through reports and stories.  Yet she does spend 50 hours a week (I’m exaggerating downwardly here) at her work and it occupies a huge share of her mind, as well as her sense of self and fulfillment.  So there has been a missing piece.

There were 1,700 participants at the Ergife Palace Hotel in Rome, just about every one of them eagerly networking with colleagues and potential colleagues, catching up with old friends, whirling around in a wild and perpetual motion.  At the same time, I was invisible.  Of the hundred or so people to whom Jessie introduced me—“This is my Dad”—not a single person asked: “What do you do?”  Or, granting them the excuse that I looked old: “What did you do?”

But the invisibility provided me with an advantage: I could observe as an outsider; I could learn about my daughter without interjecting my own interests and, ordinarily strong—some might say, intrusive—personality.  As a result, I got a pretty good look at how Jessie spoke to audiences, how she worked a room, how she collaborated with colleagues, how she listened and learned.  Everyone seemed to like and respect her.

An easy admission: Before the trip, I was already a very proud father.  Jess had clearly grown into a highly competent, confident pro, working hard in the service of traumatized children, standing for values we shared.  So even if I struggled towards some kind of scientific objectivity in viewing Jess, I was bound to at least a little proud of her after sitting in on her world.

Sitting in the observer’s seat also gave me time to observe myself and to wonder:  What does it mean that I’m proud of my daughter?  Returning to where this essay began, there’s the good side of pride: Your heart swells.  The feeling is partly physical.  You feel enlarged.  Whatever you are observing has enhanced you, too.  And, of course, there’s something generous in being enhanced by the achievements of another.

But pride has connotations that cut the other way.  There is something narcissistic about it.  Sometimes we are proud of another because they make us feel good about ourselves.  Their achievements are partly our own.  We think that we have made our children into the people they are today.  In other words, we are, at least in part, proud of ourselves.  Not a terrible thing but maybe a little less generous than we might like.

There is something controlling about pride too.  The implication is that, at least partially, we own the success, the beauty, or the sweet personality of the people who make us proud.  If then, something in them changes, we might find ourselves embarrassed and even rejecting.  “That’s not us,” we might think.  “What made them stray?” In order to retain our pride, the other person might have to keep acting in a way that we approve.

And as many cultural and religious traditions tells us, pride touches on arrogance.  A proud person might well have an exaggerated sense of her own capabilities or act as though she were better than others.  In which case, the very act of pride is dangerous.  Thus the saying:  “Pride goeth before the fall.”  Why?  Because it reflects a self-centered attitude.

This said, I think that pride, in the best sense, is a good thing.  This kind of pride is beautifully portrayed in an article Michael Chabon wrote for GQ in 2016.  He had watched his son, Abe, grow into a teenager consumed by fashion, which confused and, in part, put his father off.  As a bar-mitzvah present, Chabon brought Abe to Men’s Fashion Week in Paris.  Instantly, Abe was in his element, gravitating to designers he idolized and attracting mature designers by his own stylish dress.  Chabon, the father, was soon bored with the shows but held on for his son.

As he prepared to leave, Abe resisted.  At first, Chabon, who would like to get home, was taken aback.  It’s not the fashions, themselves, that have provided such joy, Abe told him.  It’s the sense of being with people who ‘get’ him.  He loved being with the designers, who made him feel at home, totally engaged, affirmed.  The environment helped Abe to see himself clearly,  and, by the end of the week, Chabon saw his son clearly as well..simply and deeply. At a certain level, he’d just met Abe; and he was very proud of his son.

Chabon’s article helped me see Jessie more distinctly.  For a whole week, I watch her closely.  Sometimes I had the normal array of feelings: that I love her; that my early and regular endorsement—and occasional push—had supported her confidence and drive.

But the stronger feeling I had was how different she is from me.  How distinct, how separate.  To state the obvious, she is a researcher, who loves data and policy and changing the ways that programs interact with and support children and families.  She sometimes even deals in…RCT’s…randomized controlled trials, for those in the know.  During conference sessions, Jess was rapt when people discussed statistical measures and techniques, while my eyes glazed over, from lack of interest and total ignorance.  She thrives in building an international network of like-minded colleagues.  I’m more of a local guy.  I generally feel lost in conferences and reach my fill of people in small and large doses pretty quickly.  She’s at home with social media.  I’m a dinosaur who wished Facebook and Snapchat had never come to be.  Her laugh is hearty, mine restrained.  She’s funny; no one has ever accused me of being a comedian.  I like broad, sweeping ideas, common to philosophers and historians in the 19th century.  Jessie is more practical and deeply knowledgeable about her field, which is plenty broad itself..

One particular exchange was telling.  I mentioned that I had participated in a similar professional revolution, shifting clinical emphasis from children to whole families.  “I respect, even admire, what you and your colleagues did, Dad,” said Jessie, “but there might have been more flash than science.  No one in your day proved that their approach was effective.”  What can I say?  The truth is that I would have been impatient with the need for proof through what I would have considered boring research activities.

She wasn’t being harsh or confrontational.  Just stating her case and, for some reason, I didn’t take offense.  As the days passed and our differences were highlighted, my love and respect for this very distinct person began to supersede my feelings of pride.

As pride slipped away, a maturing sense of intimacy moved in.  I know this is a curious statement, so let me try to explain.  When you step aside, take yourself out of the equation, you begin to see that even this very close person is neither you nor not you—but her own self.  The conference experience was like being admitted to secret society, speaking an unfamiliar language. I observed her through her own eyes and through the many, varied eyes of colleagues.  I could see the 47-year old, mature, working woman. I could see the full mix of confidence and uncertainty, assertiveness and reticence.  The quirks, the intelligence, and the pure energy she gives off shone brightly.

Even as I write that sentence, I’m tempted to say (proudly) “And she’s my daughter.”  And I’d be incapable of distancing myself completely from that feeling.  But she’s not just my daughter, which is what permits me to know her and love her as she is.

Our Adult Children: Celebrating the Arc of Their Lives

When my daughter was still a little girl, we would move through long periods of calm,  punctuated by cycles of comfort and struggle.  It’s hard to say what set off the struggles.  Some might say that Jessie was disobedient or that she disappointed me—by not trying hard in school, for instance, or refusing to do her chores.  Then I’d criticize and she’d push back.  Others might begin the sequence with “unnecessary” demands I’d make.  No matter where the tiffs began, the cycles of misbehavior and correction, rejection and recrimination followed with dull and disheartening regularity.

At a certain point, I realized that something else was at work.  Jessie didn’t seem to be growing up “exactly” as I wanted her to.  Eventually, I understood that I was interpreting her actions in terms of being-as-I-prescribed—being me—or not being me.  This is a very common form of parental narcissism that blots out the obvious: Often, she was just being herself.

When that realization dawned, I saw my daughter very differently, as a separate person, with a personality and trajectory of her own.  Not that she was in charge of everything.  I retained rules for her and I protected her, but I also grew curious: Who is this child of mine?  This whole little person?  Once my curiosity and respect were aroused, I grew less controlling, Jessie felt the freedom, and whatever fight we were having at the moment dissolved.  Distance yielded once again to closeness and love—and a protection, not of who I wanted her to be but of who she was.

Psychologists might say that we both matured through a form of differentiation.  For many years, I thought it was I who managed the process but I have come to think that Jessie and I did that together.  Her stubborn refusal to be another me—I don’t think she yet knew who a distinctive her would be—was as crucial as my realization and backing off.

My journey with my son brought that point home.  In adolescence, he wrenched himself free, touted his independence, insisted that he both knew what he was doing and, most tellingly, maintained that he was well.  He wanted to be the person who judged him well or ill.  We all know that 15-year-old boys don’t know everything—their brains aren’t fully formed, for god’s sake—and can’t be completely in charge of their lives.  We set limits, maintained rules even when they became mutually understood fictions, hoping that they would somehow guide him in the present and eventually be internalized.  But in a deep sense, Gabe may have been right.  He would set the direction of his life, figure out what was important and how he wanted to be.

He has been utterly persistent in this belief.  Franny and I eventually yielded to it.  And, since I surely love and respect the outcome—he’s 39 now and, like Jessie, now 47, a person whom I love and respect—I have to believe that his ability to define himself has been a good thing.

I consider the recognition of my children as distinct and independent people as one of the most important achievements of my life.

But there is a second theme that runs through our relationship that is equally important and, at this point in my life, maybe more so.  I have wanted to see the arc of their lives, who they are and who they are becoming over a long period of time. The differentiation continues through the years and I want to witness how my children keep evolving.

My father died at 50 when I was 26.  We never really knew one another as adults, man to man.  I was very much a work in progress and, while we were extremely close during my childhood and well into adolescence, we grew more distant after that.  I suppose I’m not just talking about knowing one another in the sense of having a close relationship, though.  I’m talking about being known, about feeling that an important person has born witness to my life, knows me as separate person—and affirms me.

To an extent, we internalize this feeling of being known.  Most of us can say, “My father would have liked that, disapproved of this, laughed, if he were around, at that episode.”  This sense of presence through the years is critical for our well being.  My father gave this to me and, I hope, I have given it to my children.

But bearing witness to the lives of our children over a long period of time, as they move well into adulthood and parenthood, and through professional achievements of their own—that is something else, something more concrete, an experience for parents and children almost as important as all that internalized parenting that we provide.

My mother knew me as an adult, as I knew her.  She died at 87, when I was 64.  We talked regularly, shared at deep levels, laughed together, vented about political triumphs and disappointments, even shared some friends.  This was one of the great pleasures in my life.  Even the uncomfortable times:  when she married again—without  my “approval.” And when she attended a lecture I gave in Washington, DC, and she embarrassed me by proclaiming, amidst a number of people who had admired my talk, “I didn’t know you were funny.”

My mother witnessed the person I had become, not just my early promise and her own hopes.  Often she resisted my successes because they somehow suggested that I had inherited more from her than she could acknowledge in herself.  “Don’t get a fat head, Barry,” she would say.  “You’re not that good.”  By which she mostly meant that she wasn’t that good.  We joked about this and I like to think that witnessing my life raised her own self-assessment at least a little. Most of all, we reached a point where we knew one another and, to the end of her life, could still discover things about one another.  Our relationship was never entirely dulled by the ritual knowing that many relationships fall into.  I believe that we continued to surprise one another.

Being known by her, being appreciated by her, have been invaluable to my sense of solidity in the world.  But I’m a father and it’s my father’s inability to bear witness on my adult life that I’ve missed.  And it’s my capacity to bear witness to my children’s life that means so much to me.  To have what he could not have, to give this to myself and to my children.  This is what I mean by seeing the arc of their lives.

I’m pretty sure my adult children know my love and respect—even though they no longer depend on it in concrete ways.  They live their own, very full lives.  Day to day, I am a footnote to their children, work, and even friends.  Certainly the current version of me is a footnote, not nearly as strong as the historical version that lives within them.  Nor, of course, do they figure as much into my day to day life.  Often enough but not nearly as often as when they were children, they move me in that primitive, powerful way that our children touch the deepest corners of our hearts.

We are close, my children and I.  We talk and laugh and share many values.  This, along with my marriage, is life’s greatest gift to me.  And my continuing ability to observe—and participate in—the arc of their lives continues to nourish me.

I’ve seen them, known them, for a long time, watched them move through stages in their own lives—childhood, youth, early adulthood, marriage, parenthood, professional development, owning their own homes, having and sustaining friendships.  With each new stage, their story seems more and more distinctive.  I’ve seen them struggle and I’ve seen them solve problems.  Just like I did.  Just like Franny and I did and do.  In other words, I see them as I see myself and my friends.  As whole people with complex lives of their own.

I watch them now with appreciation and curiosity, wondering what’s next. I watch their children, too, with so many years ahead of them.  The span of years, hundreds of years, from my grandparents through to my grandchildren, amazes me. It is almost too many to contemplate. But I do and I will.

He’s 80, She’s 70: Notes on Aging as Couples

I find myself saddened and a little frightened by the struggles of older couples where the woman is considerably younger and the man begins to age badly.  The age difference, for decades, no problem at all, emerges powerfully when he has a stroke, a heart attack, cancer—or a series of assaults on his health; and she finds herself cast more and more in the role of caretaker, having to put aside her own needs and desires and the optimistic life trajectory that she had imagined.  As he struggles with physical and mental diminishment and she with the narrowing of life, it can be hard to hold fast to the love and friendship they had shared.

Franny and I, eight years apart, watch this drama with trepidation.  We have friends who are in their late seventies and eighties.  We are in our sixties and seventies.  It’s hard not to imagine their struggles as our fate.  Franny tells me that she has begun sharing a kind of anticipatory anxiety with friends.  She’s way ahead of me.  I’ve just begun to let in the possibilities.  The crisis may be a ways off but the fears are now present.

What do we see in our older friends?  In the worst case, there’s the physical labor of bathing her husband, helping him stand and walk, the same work that challenges the strength and stamina of young nurses.  There’s the effort to organize helpers and dealing with finances which, having often rested with the men, seem intimidating.  There’s shlepping almost every day to doctor’s appointments and hospitals—and the lengthy stays at the hospitals when things go badly.  These are times of fear and boredom and growing resentment.  “This is how I’ll spend my old age?,” the women intone, either out loud or in private to their female friends.  “Would you do this for me?” one female friend said to her husband.  “No, I don’t think so,” she answered for him.  She is not unique; her pessimism is shared by many others.

The emotional exhaustion may even supersede the physical while the caretakers try to hold hope and generosity in the forefront.  Even as the women work in their selfless ways, they fall prey to self criticism when generosity and even love fails, even for a moment.  Finally, there’s the desire for all of this to be done, even when she knows the meaning of being done: the horror of wishing a loved one would hurry his dying.  Which brings on more self-criticism and drowns out the possibility of grief.

For the men who are ill or failing, there’s the pain and disability, itself, but the psychological trauma is almost as upsetting.  First among the trauma is probably the dependence and the indignities that follow disability: how people talk down to you and around you; the inability to do simple tasks like buttoning the collar of your shirt; the incontinence. Even as the men ask for help, they hate it.

With time, passivity can set in.  At first, yielding to their neediness can be a relief to the men. But it also feels damning, as though they are relinquishing their souls.  Self loathing and panic may follow. In that mood, they may become moody, quarrelsome, hard to please.  They withdraw, become isolated, possibly despairing.   Death looms just over the horizon.

Observing this bleak scene scares the hell out of both younger women and men. There is a sense of foreboding.  For women in their sixties or early seventies, looking at their future is like gazing through the reverse side of a telescope and seeing the diminishment of their lives.  For the men in their mid to late seventies, averting their gaze is easier than facing a potentially harsh future. As many of my friends say, “Who’s old?”

Many of these anticipations seem to be hidden from one another or contained in discussions of finances, wills, and formalities that at least seem to have answers.  But lately the ability of these discussions to deflect a clear-eyed view of the future has waned.  I know that Franny has been thinking ruefully about the future.  And she tells me that she’s had conversations with numbers of friend who also have older husbands.  To my surprise, the air is abuzz with the talk; and I hate it.

Still, the women need to speak.  They need this gathering of information and commiseration.  They need the companionship now and the promise of later support.  Men do, too, but we are slow to act. =

Though these conversations speak mainly to the future, and though they are good preparation, they can also be dangerous by coloring the way that men and women see one another.  Here I want to be careful.  People generally look for first causes: the problems begin with male decline; no, they begin with female reactivity.  Rather, I want to portray an interactive process in which it doesn’t matter where you begin.  In that spirit, here’s what may constitute an early stage in a typical, downward spiral.

  • Let’s say that he has become more forgetful and doesn’t take care of practical matters like paying bills or turning off the oven as crisply or reliably as he once did.
  • This makes her nervous, raising questions of safety and security. She says so.
  • His pride is hurt.  He own fears have been articulated.  He gets defensive.
  • She feels unheard, grows more nervous and criticizes.
  • He explodes or distances himself or both.

Even when men are still mostly healthy, women have grown alert to decline—or, possibly, hyper-alert to decline.  In their desire to be equal parts helpful and self-protective, the women may overreact.  They may see decline where it isn’t.  They may treat their men as if the decline is already upon them.  Feeling respect slipping away, men try to make the women’s concerns illegitimate, neurotic.  He grows reactive. This is a fight that divides the couple and they have to call on all their resources to bridge the gaps.

Now here’s how the difficulties may play out in their later stages:

  • The more he declines, the more she worries
  • The more the she worries and articulates her concerns, the more he worries that his wife is right—and begins to hide.  When emotional distance has been the norm, this may exacerbates an old struggle about their lack of intimacy.
  • When he hides and grow fearful, himself, she believes she is being asked to maintain a lie, as though things are as they had been.  In this awkward, irritating, imprisoning, and fearful position, she, nonetheless, still also feels guilty.  “Why can’t I be more loving and accepting,” they ask.  When they can’t, do so all or even most of the time…
  • He feels demeaned, as though his status in the marriage—and in life, generally—has plunged.  That saps his confidence, which, in turn, depletes his actual competence.  In that state his ability to support and love his wife shrinks.
  • Her fears are confirmed. She grows alternately compassionate and resentful, often as inconsistent as her man.
  • His fears are also confirmed…
  • And so it goes.

And so the downward spiral goes, taking on a life of its own and becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.

I’d like to think that many of us can step outside of this ghoulish prophesy.  I’d like to believe that awareness of its destructive potential will steer us in more collaborative and loving directions.  Why can’t we—men and women together–keep in mind all of the times and all the years when we have solved problems together, when we have moved through dark and dispiriting events and back into each other’s arms?  Throughout long marriages, we have lost and restored our friendships more than once.  Why can’t we discipline ourselves to keep respect and love in the forefront?

Maybe we can.  I believe we can.  That’s my purpose: to bring the threat to light, hoping it provides fuel to our ability to overcome it.  You’ll have to tell me if it has helped you.

 

 

Celebrating Work

Several days ago I visited a 90 year old friend who is suffering from cancer and a stroke.  As I entered his room, he was sitting in a wheel chair, a frozen and, to my mind, horrified look on his face.  After saying hi and kissing him, I asked:

“You’re not reading are you?”

“No.”

“What are you doing?”

“Thinking.”

“About what?”

“Chapter 15.”  It was the chapter he had been working on before the stroke.

I thought the exchange captured the essence of Daniel’s life.  As social and charismatic as he has been, his primary focus is always on his work.  It has occupied and nurtured him, bringing him equal measures of challenge, comfort, passion, and just plain engagement. He is an unapologetic working man, dedicated to his craft and, no matter how others judge him, content with his lot.

I have another friend, named Rebecca, who is consistently animated by working.  A few years ago she left her secure university position and simply continued her research and writing—minus the committees and the departmental squabbles.  When she isn’t absorbed in her writing, Rebecca gardens, which she does with much the same seriousness and total engagement that she brings to her research.  Gardening is work for her, and that’s a very good thing.  Rebecca tells me that she’s always been this way and sees no reason her focus on work should ever end.

I think that work has gotten a bad rap in our culture.  When we picture very hard workers, we imagine “workaholics,” people who are addicted, people who can’t help what they do, people who avoid family and friends.  They are said to be limited, stunted. Their husbands and wives often feel abandoned and comfort themselves by making fun of their “obsessed” spouses.  Listeners sympathize.  They understand how much the “workaholic” is missing in life.

Long ago, Sigmund Freud insisted that love and work were the cornerstones of the good life.  Without one or both, we would be alienated from our basic needs and drives.  Work, itself, isn’t a problem.  It’s when we work long hours in ways that fail to engage us.  Karl Marx called this “alienated labor,”  that is work that without meaning, which distances us from our true selves.  Many of us, for instance, work long hours without relish because we fear being fired or worry about failure and humiliation.

At this point, you might want to make a class distinction.  To be sure, many millions of people work under terrible conditions, seeking only the means of food and shelter; and  they would avoid this kind of work if they could.  It would be arrogant and misguided to speak for them.  But move just a rung or two up the economic ladder and there’s a difference.  Farmers traditionally hold fast to their work, with all of its vast variety.  We all know plumbers, carpenters, and mechanics who find their work sustaining.  The appliance repairman, who came to fix our stove a couple of weeks ago agreed:  “I was just on vacation for a week, sitting around.  I couldn’t wait to get back to work.  I love fixing things.”  Today, my barber, unbidden, went on and on about how much she loves her work.  “How about your colleagues,”  I asked.  “Most of them do, too, she responded.  “It’s just a great way to spend our time.”

I think that work has gotten a particularly bad rap for retired people.  The objection to work follows two lines of reasoning.  First, those who continue working demonstrate the workaholic gene—or germ.  They are addicts who can’t make a ‘healthy’ shift.  Second, retirees who continue to work are actually resisting rest, relaxation, and freedom because their identity is so completely wrapped up in their professional roles.

Yet all the people that I know who are of retirement age and still working, either in old jobs or new engagements, seem particularly pleased with their lives.

Lately, I’ve been reading a memoir by the poet, Donald Hall, age 89, and still working with energy and pleasure.  The book is called Life Work.  In part, the book is an homage to the farmer’s life lived by his grandparents.  He is at pains to show us how his life as a poet is not so different.

Years ago, Hall quit a tenured and well paid professorship at the University of Michigan to move to his ancestral home in rural New Hampshire.  He had liked teaching well enough but it took him from his greater love, writing.  The transition represented risks.  How would he support himself?  How would he respond to the isolation of small town life?  But the promise was greater than the risk: to spend hour after hour totally absorbed in his writing.  Absorption, energy, and enthusiasm are his measures of the good life.  Each morning, as he awakens, for instance, he can’t wait to get lost in his writing.  He will be hardly aware of the passing hours.  That is the sign of success.

Hall works in a state of he calls “absorbedness,” which is a close cousin to Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “flow.”  Flow is achieved when you are totally focused on a task, usually a task that requires you to extend yourself beyond your regular capacity.  The activity demands your full attention.  There are no distractions, no thoughts of what else you might do, what you might have done, what you should be doing.  Your mind is quiet.

Hall summarizes this state of mind in describing his wife, Jane Kenyon, a fellow poet.  “Her garden,” he tells us, “is work because it is a devotion undertaken with passion and conviction; because it absorbs her; because it is a task or unrelenting quest which cannot be satisfied.”

I have friends whose engagement with work echoes and amplifies Hall’s commitment.  One friend, a highly successful doctor and hospital administrator, retired early, partly because of the anxiety of so much responsibility, partly because of the constant static in his mind.  At first, Stephen simply relaxed, read, ran, saw friends—and distanced himself from responsibility.  Within a few years, though, he began to organize his reading, then to write and publish it in increasing profusion.

By my lights, he is back to work–without the anxiety that had plagued him for years.  Why?  I think it’s because the new work has been so freely chosen that he is not distracted by thoughts of failure, particularly thoughts of failing others.  Stephen seems to have found a late life calling.  A calling is a sense that the work almost chooses you; and when you are free to accept, even embrace the call, your mind is quiet.

I have another friend, Manny, who for more than 40 years, helped to build and manage a school for highly troubled children. It was good work that, for six or seven hours each day, fully occupied his attention.  In retirement, he has been able to extend the disciplines—Tai Chi, Meditation, prayer, exercise—that have been his passion for 50 years.  Now he pursues them for many hours each day, unencumbered by the boundaries of family and occupational life.  You might say that he has continued to work.  But this might be even more fulfilling.  Unlike the work he had done with the school, he is not pulled and tugged in many directions.  He is like the Zen Roshi:  When he eats an apple, his disciple tells us, he is only eating an apple.

My friend, Gary, was a businessman, who had his successes and failures, but labored in for decades but without fulfillment.  He was rarely able to bring the best of himself to the job.  He was often aggravated and anxious, and rarely at peace.  Retirement brought relief.  For a while Gary luxuriated in the freedom from work.  But with time, freedom from is being replaced with freedom to pursue his true love, music.  It is there that he can immerse himself and lose himself, or, in Hall’s terms, where he achieves a state of “absorbedness.”  Yes, Gary is retired, but he’s also working again, and that feels sweet this time around.

I know that my homage to work fails the subtlety test. I’m such an advocate.  But I really do think that work has gotten a bad name, especially for retired people, who are supposed to take advantage of the freedom they have earned.  They have, indeed, earned the right to relax, to putter—and, if they have the resources, to work as much or as little as they choose.  They are also free to work and work hard, which I am convinced is good for the soul.

Committed and absorbing work feels good, period, and when conducted in the service of a good cause, it feels even better.  Work is best when it is freely chosen and highly challenging, and even better when it feels like a calling.  When optimally engaging, work displaces the internal chatter and judgment about how much better a person you should or could be.  It quiets the mind.  Productivity and a quiet mind.  That works for me.