Finding Good Work: Letter to My Grandchildren

Dear Molly and Jake,

I’ve been thinking about the two of you these days, as you, Molly, plan for life after graduating college in May, and as you, Jake, move through your freshman year.  In some ways you are already adults, setting off on futures that will span decades and decades past my own. So what advice might I offer you that might be of immediate use, and also stand the test of time?

I’d like to begin with work.  You can’t know this yet or fully grasp its meaning but, as adults, you will probably spend more time at work than in any other activity in your life.  So I am writing to urge you to seek out good work.  By that I mean both work that you find satisfying and work that benefits others.  It’s the kind of work your parents have chosen, as did Grandma and I—and I wish it for you as well.  I’ll try to define that in a moment.

First things first:  The psychologist, Abraham Maslow, noted that humans operate within a hierarchy of needs, beginning with food and shelter.  Only after addressing these “basics” can we seriously consider other impulses and desires – toward altruism or for self-fulfillment, for example.  So, of course, that pertains to you too. You’ll need to attend to life’s practical side, to earn a living and to help establish a secure and nurturing home for your family.  But each of you is fortunate to possess an abundance of talents that have been supported by good schools, interested parents, and broadening experiences; I’m confident that you will have the bandwidth, the opportunity and capacity, to move past these basic life requirements.

Your next step might be to winnow down the universe of possibilities.  Let’s begin with the kinds of work I hope you not choose.  I hope you don’t pursue jobs that primarily  promise of wealth or fame, two of our culture’s most powerful and pernicious lures.  You probably have the talent to go that route but it will leave you feeling empty.  You will never fulfill or prove yourself through money or even fame.  They won’t nourish you, nor will they help you think well of yourselves or generously of others.  And after a point, the more you have, the more you’ll convince yourself you need.  Like an addict needing yet another drink.

And success for it’s own sake, moving up and up in the work you do, will likely feel like another empty A for a course that you don’t really care about.

Now what?   Explore, explore, explore.  From my distant perch, high school has become a dull, lockstep, bloodless training ground for college and beyond.  You both negotiated it well on its own terms, but those aren’t the terms I would set for you.  Instead, I’d love you to cast a broad net – intentionally putting yourselves into new and challenging situations.  You both have those inclinations – for example, Molly, with your independent travels abroad, and Jake with your love of humor and your eclectic first-year fall semester course selections.

Sol Gittleman, the former Provost of Tufts University, wanting to embolden students, used to say that the college should prepare students for jobs that haven’t been invented yet.  He asked them to push past the established boundaries of things.  Explore. I wish that for you.  And exploration also means that you should feel free to change jobs or professional paths if, after thoughtful consideration, you decide that the one you are in doesn’t work or if you discover a promising opportunity.

What else?  This may seem obvious, but first and foremost, choose work that really interests you.  Good work captures and holds your attention.  It isn’t boring.  For that to be so, it has to be challenging.  This may seem counter-intuitive but our minds drift when work is too easy.  Soon enough, we imagine ourselves doing other things, then wishing we were doing something else.  But work that calls on your ability to solve problems, work that stretches you, sometimes beyond what you think is your capacity, work that concentrates your mind—that’s good work.

With effort and luck, you will find deeply absorbing work.  In that case, there will be stretches of time when you are riveted.  The outside world will fade into the background.  Time will slow or quicken.  When you stop, it will seem as though you are awakening from a dream.  This kind of experience doesn’t happen all the time but enough so that you will look forward to beginning most mornings.

And here’s the strange, paradoxical, thing about this kind of work.  It both requires tremendous energy and it relaxes you.  When you are intensely engaged, most of your mental static goes missing.  You’re not asking, “is this the right thing to do?” “Can I do it?” “Am I good enough?”  Your self-doubt is parked elsewhere.  You’re in motion, in rhythm, acting.

It may sound like this kind of experience only happens for special people doing special work, like great artists and musicians.  But that’s not true.  It has more to do with finding the right fit between you and your work.  When you’re exploring, ask yourself what you find captivating.  I have felt this way while focused on practicing psychotherapy, doing carpentry, writing, building a management team.  When the fit Is right, I know that I’m doing good work.

Of course, fit also depends on style.  You’ll want to identify the best working conditions for you.  I, for one, need both solitude and community—sequentially.  One won’t do without the others.  I need time to develop my ideas and people to test them with.  I need people to stimulate my thinking and solitude to work out the implications of the thinking.  Others work best in groups or even crowds — never alone.  They get lost in crowds the way I lose myself when alone with my writing.  Some need lots of physical action.  Others need conversation.  It’s almost as important to match your personality to the style as to the subject of work.

Maybe the most important thing about work is that it lines up with who you are at a very basic level. As a child, for instance, my mother insisted that sympathy for those in need was not enough.  I would have to act on their behalf.  These qualities have always guided me.  When I stray, they wave me back into the fold.  When I work within the guidelines, I am at ease.   That’s what I want for you.

When I ask friends what they will miss most in retirement, they often say that it’s the community of people they work with.  People they have come to know and trust—and who trust them.  The ease of being together, the shared histories, the ability to get things done.  The sense of being known.  There are surely some individuals who don’t need a work community but almost everyone I know who has loved her work wonders if the community hadn’t grown as important as the work itself.  Maybe this is similar to what you have experienced in school or at camp.

And then?   This next step is difficult to imagine, to make concrete, for anyone who hasn’t managed a household budget, or been responsible for their own finances.  So you might tuck it away, and consider it later, but here goes:  Once you think you know what might interest you and satisfy you in the longer term, then inventory your needs and desires, thinking modestly on the material side of the ledger.  What material aspirations or possessions, or aspirations, can you feel good about foregoing so you can work—and play—at what you love to do?

If you can find your way to living with a modest material spirit, not enslaved by other people’s ideas of what you need, you will feel free.  Grandma and I have always lived according to this principle.  In our view, we have lived luxuriously, but have done so  spending far less than we earned, living in homes that don’t strain our resources, taking vacations that renew and enlighten without breaking the bank.  As a result, we have always felt rich and relaxed about our material well-being.

What’s more, it seems to me that when you stick to satisfying work, when you work hard and with integrity, you are generally rewarded by earning enough — even when you pay very little attention to your salary.

Now I want to get back to the beginning: Work is good, really good, when it benefits others.  Most of us say that being kind or generous or helpful to others is at the core of our values, and some of us have the privilege of focusing our work to realize these values. You can do good work as a doctor, a therapist, a social worker, a nonprofit leader, a political activist, a craftsperson, a writer, a storekeeper, and in so many other ways. I wish that for you.  Others express these same values within their families and communities, and through philanthropy and volunteer efforts for good causes.  However you do it, I hope you have the opportunity to spend many hours every week in this pursuit.  It will make for a fulfilling life, and I will be proud of you.






Speaking Through Letters

Blogs are so different than books.  When you write a book, it may be several years between conception and reception.  The response to a blog ranges from hours to days, and I am grateful for the greater immediacy in the feedback.  There is even a community, however attenuated, that emerges.  I love that, too.  Even so, writing can be a lonely business.

When I write essays, it often feels like I am reaching into a large, open space that is almost devoid of human life.  And I find myself wishing there were someone real, someone specific, to receive and respond to my words.  When Franny or my friend, David, is around, I sometimes ask: “May I read this to you?”  I love reading to people, adults as well as children.

But, of course, most of the time there is no one around when I write and even if they were, I’d ask them to leave because I need the quiet and the privacy to marshal my thoughts.  To give room for images and feelings to turn themselves into words and thoughts, and to have those thoughts creep into consciousness.

There is one form of writing that brings together the intimacy of reading aloud and the privacy of a journal: letter writing.  It has been a long time since I’ve written letters — ever since email emerged — but I remember it.  I remember writing a letter to someone important, then sending it off, knowing that it would take two or three days to be received and, even if my friend or lover wrote back immediately, there would be another three days to bring their thoughts back to me.  That meant six days of anticipation and suspense, especially if I had confided something very personal.  Whole scenarios would play out in my mind.  The extended time heightened everything.

There is nothing like this intensity in the exchange of emails or texts — or, for that matter, in the essays I send out through my blog.  So I have been searching for a way back to those letters or at least, to the intimate experience they brought.  In my experimentation, I have discovered that writing letters, even to imaginary people, brings me closer.  And, if I have a real person I’m writing to — a grandchild or a close friend, for example — I’m almost there.

There are big topics I want to write about, like what it takes to be a man in our current society, how to live a moral life, and how to face old age, but I have grown tired of talking into the void that essays call forth.  So I have begun to experiment with “letters” that speak through my relationships with my children, grandchildren, brother, sister, and friends, and let me speak in a more personal voice.  Often it’s not solely or even precisely the persons I name in the letter—my brother, my son.  Rather the feeling of speaking to them allows me to speak to similar others—parents, children, siblings … you get the point.  I hope it works for you, too.

As you’ll soon see, the first letter, speaks to, and through, my wishes for my grandsons.  I want them to grow into good men.




Dear all,

There are two notes I need to add to my last message:

1. If you want to attend the MVP fundraiser, please let me know at


2. A friend of mine in Los Angeles tells me that a Bill O’Reilly rant somehow got attached to my message–probably only those that went through Facebook.  Please ignore the rant.  It is one of the many disgusting ways that people are using social media to spread false information



Self-renewal in Autumn

Autumn, with its crisp air and leaves of many colors, is my favorite season, but it’s also a time when I begin to pull into myself in anticipation of winter.  Still, I know that Spring will follow.  The cycles are trustworthy and I find the inexorable changes enlivening.

The seasons of our lives are not as trustworthy.  Sometimes we grow stagnant.  We are unable to move on with our lives, unable to find the tang of new experience.  We can’t move on because we are afraid of something, often unnamable, and cling to lives that we would never actually choose. We are in need of renewal.

Renewal is defined as “replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.”  For a few years after my father died in 1978, that was me.  I couldn’t let go of my grief or the life of the scholar that I had planned in his image.  Nor could I envision a future that excited me.

Yet, even as I felt entrapped in the past, events broke me out.  The birth and life of my new daughter, born in 1970, for instance.  The growth of my new psychotherapy career.  And meeting Franny, who would become my partner, then my wife, almost 42 years ago.

Like the seasons, lives are always changing, often out of our awareness.  There is the internal river of change that we call development.  We move from infancy to childhood, from early and middle adulthood to old age. There are external provocations, too.  Some are chosen, like marriage and new jobs, some come unbidden, like illness and loss.

In every case, we must adapt, if we are lucky or particularly conscious, we transform our behavior and our sense of who we are to fit the new circumstances.  If we fail to adapt, we stagnate; and then our relationship to our internal self and to the world we live in grows false, ineffectual.  Parts of us wither and die.  Vitality requires renewal, over and again.

In order to be renewed, we need to let go of some of who we have been—in particular, how we have understand ourselves-in-the-world.  This is ancient wisdom that needs to be learned each time we feel blocked.  One version of it goes like this:  “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”  (1 Corinthians 13:11).  Lao Tzu puts it even more succinctly:  “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

Self renewal is different for each of us.  It depends on who we are, who we think we are, what we fear and want to avoid, and who we aspire to be.  No matter what, though, renewal requires caring, doing something that touches our hearts and engages our minds, something outside of ourselves.  John Gardner puts it this way:   “Everyone, either in his career or as a part-time activity, should be doing something about which he cares deeply. And if he is to escape the prison of the self, it must be something not essentially egocentric in nature.” This last point needs emphasis: we need to “escape the prison of self.”

Generally self renewal requires an integration of past and present, inside and outside.  You must bring forward what has mattered to you over the years and reapply your concerns and passions to the world you live in now.  Taking care of grandchildren, for instance, can do that.  The activity brings back your experience of parenting, yet it is different.  You are easier, have more perspective.  You have an easier time seeing your grandchildren as independent people, not extensions of yourself.  If, as a young person, you fought for civil rights, rejoining the fight in later life, adding years of experience to sustained values, provides a comparable way to transform past values through current experience.

As an older person, it is tempting to say: “This is who I am; I’ve done my job,” then essentially withdraw from an active engagement in the life around you.  This hasn’t worked well for most of the people I know.  They may withdraw at first but soon enough they yearn for something meaningful to do.  Just the other day, a friend told me that he was tortured by how small his life had become, how small he had become, how much he wanted to reengage in the larger world.

This has been my path.  I retired at 74, thinking that disengaging from the world of responsibilities and productivity would lead to the kind of internal peacefulness that I had long dreamed of.  Meditation, exercise, travel, dinner with friends, and long walks with Franny filled part of the void left by my work.  But I still felt restless, a little empty, a little stagnant, yearning for someplace to go, something exciting to do.  I was in need of renewal.

During this three year period, there have been a number of experiences that have touched me deeply: taking care of my three young grandchildren; helping out with the organization I founded, the Institute for Nonprofit Practice; and, with time granted by retirement, deepening the intimacy of my marriage.

Maybe the best way to illustrate the renewal of my spirit would be to describe how I feel when I mentor and coach young people. I’d been in that role with young leaders and therapists for decades, but thought that with retirement, I should hang it up, and give it over to others.  But I couldn’t’.  The current iteration began with a conversation I had with Franny.  There I was, recently retired, tears rolling down my cheeks, describing a sad realization: I think I know more—now—than ever before.  Must I have all this hard won wisdom simply dissipate?  Fall to waste?  No it doesn’t.  Must I be a “has been? “ No I don’t.

When coaching, I pass on those years of accumulated knowledge.  I never feel so wise as when young people come to me, asking for my advice and guidance.  And when my mentees take and act on my wisdom,, and then succeed, a wave of satisfaction washes over me.   I consider this a great and empowering gift that my mentees have given to me.

My job is to bring out their potential but, as I do, they bring out mine.  They offer me a theater where I can participate in current and future communities.  Mentoring isn’t as hierarchical as you might think.  We work out problems and build visions together.  As a mentor, I offer perspective of age to balance the passion of youth.  I calm anxieties. I teach concrete things.

Mentoring provides an almost sacred space to share vulnerabilities.  We share our uncertainties, our struggles, our failures, our humiliations.  We admit to losing confidence in our skills, faith in our mission.  As I listen to theirs, I tell stories about my own failures and the redemption I feel when, tempted to give up, I carried on.  This, in turn, reminds my mentees of times when they, too, have triumphed in the face of adversity.  We discover or rediscover what has made us who we are.

Virtually every friend I have has chosen one form of mentoring or another during the autumn of their lives.  Some in formal coaching relationships.  Others with younger friends in churches and synagogues.  Some in political campaigns.  Some still in their workplace.  Still others with children.  In almost every case, we discover a renewed sense of ourselves.  Parker Palmer has a lovely way of saying this:  “Mentoring is a way forward with dignity.  For me, it has become a little piece of paradise, the closest I come to an afterlife.”  Amen to that.



Many of you tell me that you send my essays to your friends and your parents, among others.  A father in Taiwan.  A mother in Alaska.  A friend next door.  It’s extraordinarily satisfying to imagine my essays stimulating thoughts within you and conversations with others.  It’s why I write.

So I have a request: please pass the blog to one other person.  If each of you pass on word of the blog and the information about how to access it ( then press the Follow button on the right side), I would be very grateful.




I’m writing a book.  It’s about the search for vibrancy in old age. That won’t surprise those who read my blog.  But another book at my age?  What for?  Why can’t I just enjoy what I’m doing now: family and friends, reading, exercise, meditation, travel?  Isn’t that enough?  Franny’s response to the question is simple:  old leopards keep their spots. I write because I always have.  And I like projects, big, messy ones that absorb me.  And I have always needed to be helpful.  So here’s the first chapter of my new book.  I could use your feedback.


I am 76 years old, which means that I probably have about 10 years of good living left.  Maybe 15; maybe 5.  It’s impossible to tell.  But there’s no question that I’m in the midst of a period, however brief or extended, that is partly defined by a vivid recognition of my mortality.  It’s not all bad, though.  “Death is the mother of beauty,” according to Wallace Stevens; and I believe him.  What an extraordinary moment in a lifetime this is.

Beyond this moment, I’ll likely be pre-occupied by pain and anxiety—and by resentment because I’ll have to depend so much on others.  I don’t look forward to that time of life but, short of a quick and decisive heart attack or a lethal strike by pancreatic cancer, that’s almost surely my lot.  I’m no different than anyone else.

The harbingers are already clamoring for my attention.  I have arthritis in most of my joints, so it’s hard to hold heavy things in my hands.  I can’t take long walks without the help of Aleve or some other chemical aid.  I take statins to guarantee that my cholesterol doesn’t get out of hand — not because I absolutely need them, my good doctor tells me, but because they prevent problems and, studies attest, so far, show no serious side effects.  While no one would ever describe me as an obedient person, in this instance, I’m a compliant patient.

Just this year, I went over the acceptable glucose line and, my doctor tells me, I can now officially call myself diabetic.  I’ve been terrified of this kind of announcement for a few years now. Of course, it’s not so dangerous, he reassures me.  “If it were me,” he quips, “I’d be shaking.”  He’s 55 or so.  But diabetic symptoms take about 10 to 20 years to really set in.  So I shouldn’t worry.  “Why,” I ask.  “Because I’ll likely be dead in 10 to 20 years?”  He half blushes and half chuckles:  “Yup.”  I honestly didn’t know how to feel.  Reassured because trouble is a ways off?  Frightened because it wasn’t so far away?  Amused?  Annoyed that he was telling a joke at my expense?  But my immediate feelings didn’t matter.  What did matter was the dose of reality that I had to take in.

And, as the song goes, “that ain’t all.”  I’ve had torn rotator cuffs on both shoulders, a torn meniscus in my left knee, and a hiatal hernia—all requiring surgery.  As did my prostate cancer in 2001.  You could certainly say that modern medicine has stitched me together even when Mother Nature tore me apart.  As one doctor put it, he’ll soon own as much of my body as I do.  I’m sure I could list more of my troubles but let’s leave it there for now.

Except it seems important to say that I never expected a long life. My father fell to pancreatic cancer at 50.  I was so identified with him that, like a child magically convinced that his own fearful thinking could cause a plane crash with his parents aboard, I, a 26 year old man, was convinced that I would also die at 50.

I was so convinced that I prepared Franny and my closest friends for my imminent demise.  Even now they tease me about that tense period in my late 40’s.  After passing over that threshold, though, I slowly came to believe that I would go on living, and we all sighed with relief, as though a real threat had been averted.  Since then, I have been consistently grateful for my prolonged life, treating it like icing on the cake.  These 26 years have certainly been far more than I expected, brimming with fulfilling, often joyful experience.

So don’t get me wrong.  Even though I’ve just taken you through a litany of pain, for the most part it doesn’t reflect how I feel about life now.  Most of every day, I experience myself as a pretty healthy man.  I feel this way deep in my bones.  I eat well and exercise almost every day — and, as you all know, you have to feel reasonably healthy to exercise regularly.  Just last year, Franny and I flew off to Yosemite and climbed — well, that’s an exaggeration — we walked for hours and hours in those green and granite mountains.  I was in heaven.


However challenging, this is an intense and intensely meaningful moment in life: the time between our understanding, deep in your bones, that life has end and that the end may be near — and the end, itself, either in death or a descent into dementia.  The moment may be brief or lengthy.  It may begin in your 60’s or 70’s but might begin earlier or later .  The timeline is indefinite; but the time is dramatic because it is lived in the shadow of death.

Our culture paints these years in shades of gray.  It is most aware of the diminishment and the humiliation of old age.  The poet Yeats describes it aptly:

What shall I do with this absurdity—

O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,

Decrepit age that has been tied to me

As to a dog’s tail?

I differ.  Most of the time, I think the nearness of death makes each day more vivid, more engaging.  And Penelope Lively agrees:  “And if it sounds — to anyone — a pretty pallid sort of place, I can refute that.  It is not.  Certain desires and drives have gone.  But what remains is response.  I am as alive to the world as I have ever been — alive to everything I see and hear and feel.” P 47.  (Ammonites and Leaping Fish)

The experience of impermanence lends a poignancy, a melancholy that departs from the primary colors of youth and bathes our lives, instead, in deeper hues.   Here’s how a friend of mine, Pat Brandes, put it:

“I distinctly remember when I was in my mid-20s and my children were around 4 and 2 years old.  They were as fresh and lovely as the morning dew. I felt the desire to freeze the frame and hold onto it.  I also knew that I couldn’t.  Instead I said to myself ‘be with this as deeply as you can because this precious time will never come again.’  There have been many times since then when the same thing has happened but I notice that I am having many more of them now that I am older.   When I was younger it had to be something extraordinary or amazing that made me super aware and able to stretch out my presence.  Now just ordinary events bring on the inner voice saying, “This is it!”   I am increasingly aware of the poignancy of impermanence.”

I hadn’t expected it but old age has surprised me with how fresh things feel.  Far from the cultural narrative — continual, inevitable decline or frantic efforts to reverse the decline and the fall from youthful grace — my experience is better characterized by discovery, uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery.

For older people, freedom and discovery come almost unbidden when many of the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities take flight.  There is the freshness of each, unscheduled day.  I can ask: What shall I do?  What do I want to do?  At last, the weather plays a role as it hasn’t since childhood.  If it’s sunny, I’ll take that walk.  If rainy, I may read more, or call a friend.  Or a friend might call me, and I can usually say: “Sure.  What time do you want to meet?”  Spontaneity is my friend again.

There seems to be more uncertainty in old age.  It’s not just your schedule that’s flexible.  You can’t count on your health as much.  Friends, too.  They get ill, become infirm, die, move away.  I mean this not so much in a sad or depressing way but as a fact of life, one that changes almost as much and as rapidly as during any time since early childhood.  It can make you anxious and unsure of yourself.  There’s a temptation to draw inward and to limit yourself in an effort to ward off bad consequences.  But, in the purest sense, this is also an invitation to turn up your capacity to adapt. This, in turn, can awaken you to a life painted in brighter colors.

For a long time, I had imagined that old age meant playing out a relatively prescribed script.  The sad part of the script — of course not the whole of it — included physical decline, nostalgia for my lost youth and vitality, and a narrowing of my social circle.  Now that I’m 76, I see that I was wrong in so many ways.  Like others, for instance, my ideas and images about old age have continued to shift.  As a young man, 60 seemed old.  By the time I was 45, it was 70.  At 60, it was 75.  Now, at 76, I feel so much more alive than I imagined I would. The ground of expectations keeps shifting and the shifting keeps me on my toes.

One of the most surprising experiences of old age is the way that history keeps changing.  Here I mean your personal history, our life story.  By this point it has been extraordinarily well-rehearsed.  You’ve told it countless times to new acquaintances, among others; and you’ve mused about it inwardly for decades.  Now I find the narrative shifting, once again.

Here’s an example.  For the first few decades of my life, my father appeared to me like a rock, but now, he comes into focus as a troubled man.  My mother, who felt more like a peer, a friend, now seems like an inspiration.  I’d like to tell you that, with the perspective of years, I see them more clearly, but it may be truer to say I see them differently.  I see them now in light of my current life.  They are younger people, more vulnerable, and more complex too. I see their lives more in terms of the choices and drives and challenges they faced, and less in relation to me, their child.  Truth be told, this makes for a more interesting story.

As my image of them changes, so does my self-imagery.  For example, I was said to be my father’s child.  Supposedly, I looked and acted like him.  I was his heir, meant to carry on his dreams.  With each passing decade, though, I discover how much I have taken on my mother’s restless energy, her defiance, her wish to explore new territory.  One day last month, I looked into the mirror and saw, not a reflection of my aging father, but a dead ringer of my mother and her side of the family.  I keep “discovering” things about my childhood, my family, my neighborhood — not because they have actually changed, but because I keep seeing them anew.

You can say that these aren’t such major discoveries, but to me they are, because they shake everything up.  If I’m really more like my mother — or even equally like her — then that “realization” changes how I view the rest of my family.  It changes how I feel about gender, about my purpose in life, my destiny.  I put the word realization into quotes because I can’t be sure if my new insight is, strictly speaking, true, or if it’s just another view of the same phenomenon.  But it feels new.  And when you jostle your sense of reality, it stimulates a scramble to reorganize everything.  That’s what has happened to me.  I am scrambling.

Historian that I am, I have begun to reimagine the flow of events and relationships in my life.  Since I’m pretty comfortable with myself at this point, the project is more a source of fascination than anxiety.  I have begun to give up on the idea of a coherent narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Like others, I have a great desire to pin down the definitive story of my life.  But there is nothing of the sort.  Rather, it is a story that has been invented and reinvented many times throughout my life.

There is freedom in this realization.  A long time ago, Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan taught me about this.  The more others think they know about your past, he said, the more they think they can predict your behavior in the present and future.  These predictions become expectations that limit your possibilities.

When we slip off the straight jacket of cultural narratives and family expectations, of social prescriptions and proscriptions, even for a while, we enter a world of radical possibilities.  In that world, we can experience the sunshine on our faces and the scent of the forest, the smiles of friendship and the embrace of lovers as if for the first time.  That is the possibility born of multiple freedoms in old age.


This is a transition of the first order, requiring or just yielding to the “chaos of a new freedom,” the realization that you are entering a new stage of life.  A time of terror and opportunity, a vivid time, a time that requires the best of our senses and our capacity to solve problems, to see clearly and accept what you see, a time to mourn, and a time to affirm.  This is the most extraordinary moment of our lives.

I’ve not chosen this phrase—a chaos of a new freedom—randomly.  It’s the title of my doctoral dissertation, whose first draft I completed in 1967.  I had been exploring a generation of philosophers and poets who had thrown off the received truths of the past—monotheism, tradition, and the like—and found themselves both thrilled at the freedom that rebellion yielded but also confused and frightened.  Back then, I sensed what my characters—William Carlos Williams, Walter Lippmann, and William James, among others—I sensed what they felt, but only a bit.  But I’ve continued to ruminate on the experience of freedom and now, in old age, I think I finally understand.

I want to shine a bright light on this next-to-last period.  In Mary Catherine Bateson’s terms, I want to compose or re-compose this period for my elderly sisters and brothers.  What that means, among other things, is letting in the new, no matter how terrifying, and letting the energy of terror animate our lives.  It means acknowledging the chaos.  And to balance both, it means finding and honoring the threads of continuity, the themes and values and, where possible, the people who have meant the most to us over our long lives.

The existential realities of human existence take on unique importance in old age.  The physical decline of the body, the increased awareness of limitations, major life transitions, and the continual experience of losses all require the aging individual to confront with greater frequency the transitory nature of life.  Insufficiently dealing with these issues by denial, suppression, or the inability to accept them, frequently causes suffering in the forms of depression, anxiety, illness, and suicide.

As it turns out, old age is such a strange, almost mysterious time. A time of loss and pain, humiliations, anguish, and uncertainty..  But peeking out from within that dark cauldron are discovery, creativity and imagination – a childhood borne not of innocence but of experience.  That’s what this book is about.


What you’ve just read is the Prologue to a book that I’m writing.  Throughout it, I’ll be giving equal emphasis to ruminations and stories, the combination that people tell me they like best in my blog.

The book will cover a lot of ground.  I’ll be looking at the transition into retirement and what you need to clear out and let go in order to be fully alive to the opportunities in old age.  I’ll be talking about couple relationships, relationships with adult children and grandchildren, and friendships.  Regrets and roads not taken will be among the themes.  I will come back to the melancholy, the sweet poignancy, and the vibrancy of the final years.  And, towards the end, I’ll be ruminating about death and dying.  Throughout, I’ll be in search of ways to cope well and even to affirm the hard times, while savoring the good.


Throughout the book, which is currently in search of a title, I’ll be trying to keep both the pain and the opportunities of old age in plain view.  At the least, old age is humbling.  It demands a certain honesty.  At our best, we let go of ideas about how life should or could be—or might have been.  It simply is as it is.  With that realization, we free ourselves to engage our lives with greater immediacy, and that is the key to being as alive as we can possibly be.  I would be grateful to learn that these chapters urge you onto that path.