Values: Finding Your Way Between Constancy and Change

I’ve held a set of core values constant throughout my life – for example, the importance of social justice and the need to do more than talk about it.  There is nothing ephemeral about these values.  They are at the central to my being. They are how I know myself and how others know me.  They connect me to my parents and probably to their parents; to my wife and my children; and to my friends and colleagues; they are evident in my past, and present, and hopefully my future as well.

At the same time, the world and I keep changing, and often these changes challenge the viability and applicability of my core values. There are times when the idea that “all are created equal”—and will be given equal opportunity to thrive—seems alive, reflecting positive, forward-moving cultural and political transformations that we have made. There are other times when these ideals seem like distant, almost childlike, dreams.  These different perspectives don’t rest only on the “evidence” of  social change at any given moment.  They are also responsive to my own moods and my perception of how well I am able stay the course of my cherished values, what adaptations I need and can make.

Ultimately, there is a tension between constancy and change.  How much can we change without losing integrity, an enduring sense of who we are in the world, and how much can we stay who we have been without becoming rigid.

Oddly, constancy and change are essential allies to one another.  All species, the human one, too, must adapt to environmental change in order to maintain their stable identity.  Trees adapt to soil and wind changes.  Frogs, wolves, and insects change in response to their contexts.  In biological parlance, morphostasis (change) serves homeoststasis (stability). We change in order to attempt to remain essentially the same. So it is with people and their social context.

During the last month, I have begun a series of interviews with elders (at least 70 years +) who have sustained their efforts over many years on behalf of what we can roughly call social justice.  They still serve as leaders in their communities.  I’d like to begin sharing some observations about how they have managed to keep the faith.

There are many strategies that people build in order to navigate between their values and their lived experience – in the language above, between the demands to stay constant and to change.  Let’s consider these three:  Some resist change and build a stable world that supports the constancy of their values.  Others deepen their inner convictions in order to neutralize changes in the world that might contradict those convictions.  A third group acknowledges and credits the changes “out there,” and develops new strategies to meet a changing world.  All three approaches serve the stability of the values.

Stability in time and space. Some of the elders have created what looks like a timeless universe.  I met a Boston couple, for instance, who began their muscular community activism half a century ago, and continue to this day at the center of a strong  civic association.  They have retained many of the same friends, associates—and maybe even the same adversaries.  For example, those who would “gentrify” their neighborhoods by bringing ungainly buildings and outside businesses into residential areas and forcing out the more vulnerable older members.  The couple live in the same house and others know where to find them.  When I ask if they have had to change over the years, they say, simply, “No.” They like who they are and they still fit in their milieu.  From my perspective, I see admirable a wonderful power and efficacy in their stable ways.

Deepening inner conviction to fight outer change.  When the world is more than usually challenging to our values, when it seems that social justice will be subverted at every turn, as it is under the current Republican reign, it is easy to doubt, to wonder if we can hold onto those values.  One strategy for doing so is to insulate our convictions.  We do that in two ways: first, by not measuring their successful application day by day; second, by deepening them so that they can remain almost untouched by current affairs.

In the past, the goals of social justice seemed good, important, but now they take on an emotional urgency and depth that is closer to religious experience.  With this kind of transformation, our relationship to the values changes from ‘doing good’ to a ‘calling,’ a way to live and work that defines us at the well of our being.  A extreme illustration of that kind of change might be John Brown, an abolitionist, who became so convinced that social and political change would not happen through normal processes that he became what, today, we would call a terrorist.

Generally, though, faced with great odds to realizing social justice, we adopt a more faith-based feeling and attitude.  We will continue to act for social justice even if we fail for the moment.  We will act because we “must.”  We are internally comforted by what feels like a certainty that may once have depended on practical accomplishments but now looks and feels more like hope, and faith.

For the religious-minded, God has chosen their path and they are servants of God’s plan.  Prayer and the company of other congregants help them see the plan clearly and return to it when they have strayed.  Secular believers often see social necessities and practical plans with greater force and clarity.  “This is where we must go.  These are the programs we must build.”  Some see that pathway with a passion that might look to outsiders very much like religious belief.

Recently, I spoke with a highly successful and practical business woman.  In retirement, her commitment to human — and especially women’s — rights has only grown stronger.  She calls herself an optimist.  As nonprofit leader and mentor, her job is to pass along her optimism, her belief in social justice, as though from her DNA to the next generation’s DNA.  The image is visceral, almost literal with her.  If you look closely, her internalized feel for the march of history is not so different than a divine plan.  I had long identified with this kind of vision.

Adapting strategies to remain internally stable.  As I have aged, my own commitment to social justice has required more effort; it no longer is carried along without tending, as though by a deep terrestrial stream.  During my early years, that sense of easily hewing to my values was accompanied by a belief that their realization was mostly a matter of destiny, with a little help from committed citizens.  This narrative has been shared by millions of others, beginning with the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century:  The human condition would improve by regulating the otherwise unruly conditions of a laissez-faire economy and greedy capitalists, and by implementing safeguards to protect the health and well-being of common people.  We needed only to devise ways to promote the “greatest good for the greatest number.”

Those beliefs presumed that human beings are essentially good.  Free from social and psychological duress, we would almost invariably act generously towards our fellow human beings.  But that undergirding assumption of mine has been eroded. I have become more skeptical about human nature.  During the last decade or two, I have come to believe, with the Founding Fathers, that human beings are not so benign.  They have good and generous impulses, but they are also greedy and tribal, often pitting their own group against others.  “America First” is only one expression of this inclination.

I see now that people are anxious and defensive about their safety and property; and, when they even imagine others will attack, they attack first.  Where once I lived in the world of Rousseau I have become a disciple of Thomas Hobbes.  Where I believed that the freer the populace, the more generous and peaceful it would become, I now believe in the need for restraints on this rougher human animal that I’ve come to know.  I believe in structure, checks and balances, careful organization—a Constitutional form of government—to guard against our baser impulses and provide room for our better angels to emerge.

In other words, the prime value of justice, learned at my parents’ dinner table, has persisted.  I recognize myself in it.  But, with my darkening world view, I no longer believe in the manifest destiny of social justice.  There is no plan that I see.  There is only our own, unending efforts on behalf of our ideals that will make a difference.  I see that new strategies and structures are essential to putting my values into effect.                          ———————————————————

These are some early forays into making meaning from my interviews and personal musings.  My hope is that they provide a framework that helps you see a little more clearly how you have adapted to current events, and that you will share those efforts with me.  

 

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Relationships as Covenants

Professor Jameson said very clearly that his church, evangelical and puritanical, was at the center of his family.  You could only understand them by understanding their faith in Jesus and their deep commitment to Christian doctrine.  His wife nodded.  His teenage daughters nodded.  Even his 15 year old son seemed to agree.

The occasion was an interview that I was conducting for a television pilot.  We wanted to explore—and celebrate, I thought—the great variety of American families.  As I began to explore Professor Jameson’s opening, there was a knock on the one way window that separated us from the camera man and the producer.  The producer was already bored.  The pilot needed something juicy in order to win over his audience.  He wanted to know how the parents dealt with the girls so-far-unexpressed dating desires.  I did too, I said.  Let’s see how a deeply Christian family deals with it.  He wanted to watch them negotiate or argue, which I already knew wouldn’t happen in public, if ever.

Over the next hour, the producer interrupted several times and I never got as deeply as I wanted into the specific covenant that bonded the family together.  That was about twenty-five years ago but I remember it perfectly because it spoke to an idea that has become thematic to me: marriages, families, organizations, and communities who are united by a belief in something beyond themselves, are more securely bonded than those who come together simply on the basis of mutual or negotiated agreement.

The origin of the covenantal idea is biblical.  For example, when Abimelech and Isaac decided to settle their land dispute, they made a binding agreement, a covenant, to live in peace.  When Moses brought the Ten Commandments to the Jewish people, their relationship to the Commandments was said to be covenantal, which I think means that the relationship with God sealed and strengthened the relationship between Moses, the secular leader, and his community.  Thus the Jews were said to be people of the covenant.

The best way to describe covenantal relationships may be by comparing them to what might be called transactional relationships.  In the law, these are written agreements or promises between two or more parties, generally “under seal” and concerning some performance or action.  Transactional contracts are quid pro quo arrangements.  I agree to do this if you do that.  If one of us fails, the other is no longer obligated to fulfill his part of the contract.  There is no assumed relationship, no necessary loyalty, and it can end when either chooses.

Free agency in sports is a good example of how this works.  The dramatic change in employer-employee relations, once a lifetime affair, ensured by loyalty to an almost family-style relationship, and now a matter of financial calculation, also illustrates the transactional style.

There can, of course, be common ground between the two types of agreements.  If, for example, both parties believe that the law, itself, is sacred, if the agreement is thought to be not only formal but also solemn and binding, then the agreement might be considered covenantal.  But in most cases this is not so.

The covenantal relationship is more like a three legged stool.  Two people or groups come to an agreement but another force is present.  It could be God.  It could be a shared sense of mission, a shared set of values—something larger, more important than the two people and the particular agreement.  If this is so, any breach in the agreement is a transgression, not just against the other party but also against God or sacred values.  In that case, you don’t violate the terms of the agreement very readily; nor do you leave the relationship with ease.

There is, however, a complicating factor in covenantal relationships: the assumption of free will.  As in a transactional agreement, a covenantal relationship must be elected.  You have to make a decision and, once made, you have to be all in.

The combination of a binding yet freely elected relationship has a paradoxical quality.  If you opt in why can’t you opt out?  How do you sustain the experience of permanence when you have free will?  I believe that solving this paradox is at the heart of virtually all spiritual and religious experience.  At the risk of extending myself way beyond my own understanding, let me propose a few keys to such a solution.

The first is a willing suspension of disbelief.  You simply insist, internally and externally, that the compact is forever—or, as they say, until death do us part.  During the marriage ceremony, for example, we are aware, cognitively, that divorce is a possibility, but we will ourselves to deny it.  The marriage is forever—and we believe it.

This brings me to the second key to sealing a covenantal relationship: ritual.  Over and again, rituals like anniversary celebrations and yearly religious celebrations of Easter,  Passover, and Ramadan consolidate our connection to past, present, and future.  They remind us emotionally, more than cognitively, that the covenant is eternal and sacred.

The third key is to hold both sides of the apparent contradiction—freedom of choice and permanence—together, in one hand, one breath, hold them so close that they touch and inform one another and no longer seem in conflict.

There is one last quality of covenantal relationships that I want to name.  In Hebrew, it is called hessed, which means loving kindness.  This speaks to the day by day quality of relationships, when discipline and spontaneity combine to bring generosity to one another.  By contrast, the binding power of relationships that lack hessed feels obligatory, tolerable, necessary, reasonable.  But not enhancing.  The very nature of obligatory relationships is that they are often bothersome and, in fact, unreasonable.  When that is so, the parties resist.  The thought of leaving can seem practical and relieving.  Leaving becomes easier.  Short of leaving, checking out, living within the relationship but without strong feelings becomes the norm.

When you combine the sacred quality of a covenantal relationship with free will and loving kindness, relationships become strong and life giving.  This is an idea—an image and a feeling—that has come to me late in life.  I could not be more grateful.

Cultivating My Garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hiding in Plain Sight: Leaders in Our Midst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Letter to My Granddaughter

Dear Molly,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Grandpa

When We Summon Our Dear Ones

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m not done with my changes, either.

 
The Layers, Stanley Kunitz

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