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.”
 

 

 

 

 

 

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Is Friendship Enough

(In this essay, I mention my sister and her depression.  She has written very candidly about her condition on Facebook, wanting to bring depression out from behind the veil of secrecy and shame.  She has read my essay and has encouraged me to publish it with her name in tact).

 

When her husband died ten years ago, my sister suffered a terrible depression.  Since then, she has tried almost every therapeutic approach—to no avail.  I just spent three days with her at the Mayo Clinic, where she is undergoing Electro Convulsive Treatment—Shock Therapy—as a kind of last resort—and that, at last, seems promising.

When she’s not depressed, and even when she is, Jackie is an extraordinary person.  She created, owns, and manages the major art gallery in Alaska, gives hundreds of thousands of dollars of its pretty modest proceeds to charity, plays a significant role in the civic life of Anchorage, and has many good and devoted friends.

During hours and hours of conversation, as we sat in Mayo’s Med-Psych unit, I asked Jackie why her friendships had not been able to nourish her, to provide enough affection and companionship to finally let the loss of her husband fade into the distance.  “They don’t fill the void,” she said.  “And Mark did?,” I asked.  “He adored me,” she responded, as though that clarified matters to me.  “It’s not the same.”

Friendship is enough for some.  Our mother, for instance, also had many close friends.  She always wanted to have a man but, late in life, she settled for friendship.  It’s like having what the British psychiatrist, Winnicott, famously called a “good enough” mother.  The sufficiency of friends also seems beautifully lived by Ronni Bennett, the wonderful author of the blog, Time Goes By.  Just three weeks ago, she had surgery for a raging pancreatic cancer.  While she regrets the absence of family (link), Ronni seems almost entirely able to depend on friends.

Why isn’t friendship enough for some, or most, of us?  Why is friendship so undervalued?  We live in a society that has greatly diminished the hold of extended families and larger clans.  Sociologists continually worry about the growing social isolation that comes as a result.  Why doesn’t friendship save us from that fate?  In fact, the opposite may be true.  Friendship may even be in decline in American society.

Most of us would agree that friendship is immensely satisfying.  It provides companionship, warmth, and reassurance without the restrictive bonds of families.  We choose our friends because they charm or intrigue or touch us.  We choose them to match our needs.  Friendship is even healthy. People with more and better social relationships, including family and friends, live longer and healthier lives.  The opposite is also true: social isolation is as much a health risk as smoking.

And yet, all of our surveys show that friends lag far behind romantic partners, children, parents in our hierarchy of relationships.  Take a look at your local bookstore and you’ll find the shelves bursting with advice about couples and families but almost nothing about friendship.  Go to a professional conference and you’ll find very few panels or seminars on friendship.

Friendship seems to have a clear developmental trajectory.  It is strong in adolescence and youth, often close to romance in its intensity.  With marriage, children, and work, it tails offs considerably, reassuring in its presence and possibility but too rare in daily experience.  Retirement and old age bring renewed energy, time, and interest in friendship.  What’s more, our friends are also available.  And not just those you have kept up with but also friends from all stages of life, some of whom you had lost touch with for decades. With retirement, it feels wonderful when a friend asks when you’re free and you can say “Any day next week works for me.”  What a relief that I have friends.  What a joy.  What a key to late life, or so it seems to me.

Joyous as it is, however, it does not have the weight of family, certainly not the importance of husbands, wives, and children.  Given the availability and renewed pleasure, I thought it worthwhile to speculate about the limited value we accord to friendship, even when it serves as our daily bread.

First, and most obviously, the cultural imagery that we grow up with lends much more weight to family.  “Blood is thicker than….. “ … you name it.  We are trained to be deeply loyal to family and only modestly so to friends.  This isn’t just internalized imagery.  It is enforced day after day by people around us.  How could you not visit your mother in the assisted living facility, loan money to your brother, and, most of all, take care of your children.

Family is bound by ritual in ways that friendship isn’t.  Weddings, christenings, bar mitzvahs.  Birthday and Christmas parties, Passover seders and Easter hunts.  Year after year, they signal a bond.  Friends may create ritualistic events—annual Fourth of July parties and the like, but, like everything else, those ‘rituals’ primarily populated by friends feel voluntary, less weighty.  That may be why we love them but they’re not as important.

Second, there is something paradoxical about friendship.  It is freely chosen but it is also freely departed.  It’s as though the freedom reduces its emotional hold on us.  Similarly, the informality of friendship—“Just call when you want to get together”—is a balm and somehow minimizes its weight.

Talk about paradoxical.  I keep using words like “weight” and “bound by,” indicateing a strong valence, and using it in a mostly positive way.  But I wonder if the comparative “lightness” and unbounded quality of friendship robs it of its importance.

In families, the issue of control is ever present.  Parents and children struggle over control throughout their relationships.  Couples regularly struggle for control.  These struggles begin at marriage and birth—finding names; determining rituals; deciding whether to buy a house—and last beyond death—what should our will should say; how shall we should be buried and by whom.

Friendship is virtually defined by its lack of control, its informality.  Strange that this may be why we value it less?  Control issues enter friendship, as they do any relationships, but are managed much more simply, much more lightly.  “Where should we meet for coffee?  I guess we met near my place last time.  I’ll come to you.”  At the hint of struggle, a friend might back off for a while, then ease back.  It works so well.

Third, I think we “invest” less of ourselves in our friendships, less of our self confidence and identity.  They don’t define us the way family does.  Again, we come to the idea that the freedom of friendship somehow lessens its value.

Finally, there’s the question of stress.  We bond with far greater intensity with people with whom we’ve shared intense, often stressful experience.  Families are like army units who, when facing enemy fire, depend absolutely on one another.  The connection becomes profound.  Families become like Spielberg’s and Hank’s “Band of Brothers,” whose characters touched us so deeply.  The usually peaceful culture of friendship, however relaxing and reassuring, doesn’t seem to measure up.

Ultimately, I am raising this question because I would like to find a way to bring the nourishment of friendship more deeply into my heart, into our hearts.  Friends matter to me.  Day by day, they give my life much of its color and flavor.  Every time, I look forward to coffee at 11:00 and drinks at 5:00. I am particularly candid with some and they are with me.  We know each other.  We learn and hold the stories of each other’s lives.

I don’t know if friends would be enough if I lost my wife and dread even the possibility of finding out.  What about you?