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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Loving Yourself by Loving Others First

One day, a long time ago, when my friend John and I were building a house in New Hampshire, he walked into the room where I was reading.  I looked up and there he was in all his glory: work boots, blue work shirt, rolled up sleeves and big forearms, high forehead with hair on the verge of receding.  A look of perpetual determination etched into his face.  When he saw me, John smiled and I smiled back. I liked John and took a simple pleasure in the relationship, , working hour after hour, side by side, cutting those posts and beams.

I was struck by how I liked John in a simple, unqualified way, and wondered why I couldn’t like myself in just that way.  Why couldn’t I be a really good friend to myself?  And do that consistently. At that time, this seemed like an insight of the first order.  If we could like or love ourselves in the relatively uncomplicated way we like our friends,  if we could rid ourselves of some good measure of self criticism, our lives would be so much more relaxing and satisfying.  Me, being me, I immediately tried to turn the many positive feelings I had for others inward and onto myself.  The goal was to take the focus off what was wrong with me, to minimize the critical voice within, and to love myself.

I teased out qualities I liked in others that I might apply to myself.  I was curious, adventurous, fun, trustworthy, honest, authentic.  At least I thought so.  But turning those qualities inward was like trying to apply paper to ice.  They didn’t stick.  Or they didn’t penetrate.  The effort was neither believable nor soothing.  I was who I was, the same complicated, sometimes difficult guy I had always been.

That failure got me thinking, though.  Had there been ways that I’d actively improved my feelings about myself?  Sure.  The most striking effort took place when I was in the eleventh grade.  For a few years, I had had a difficult time socially.  I wasn’t shunned but I wasn’t so well liked, either.  As I pondered my dilemma, it occurred to me that people would like me better if I liked them. Not such a profound idea, I’ll grant you.  I mentioned it to my mother who thought it ridiculous. “You can’t change yourself or others,” she declared definitively.  But I had an idea.

The first thing I needed to do was to figure out what was most likeable about each potential friend—and not just superficially.  What qualities, I wondered, would they like noticed in themselves.  What part of their character might even have been unnoticed or unappreciated by other teenagers,  yet be important to them?.  Like being a kind person, a determined person, a soulful person.  My attention had to touch something deep and, maybe, partly hidden.  And it had to matter that a person like me noticed.  I was intense and determined.  The fit was as important as the character traits.  Only then might the relationship grow closer.

This approach worked in a way that trying to love myself failed.  I did grow closer to the guys on the football and basketball teams, who liked being seen as tough and kind, to the girls who liked talk with boys, not just other girls, about feelings, and to the nerds, who thought no one saw them. When our relationships revolved around these exchanges, they grew stronger.  And this is the approach that has guided my relationships ever since.

The most sustained period guided by my eleventh grade insight was the thirty odd years that I served as a therapist to individuals, couples, and families.  To create what we used to call a “therapeutic relationship,” I didn’t take the generally prescribed course of neutrality.  Instead, I aimed for loving relationships.  I knew that I needed to find a way to love even the most difficult patient if I were to be admitted to their inner sanctums, if I were to be permitted the privilege of making suggestions to them.  In a nutshell, my theory of change, went like this: connect with the best in people, then bring it out more and more into the open—and guide people on how to let those loving, enabling, strong qualities touch all the rest of who they were.

It may be clear how this approach helped my patients, but how did it help me and my desire to like myself better?  The answer is simple: It put me in touch with the best in myself.  Day after day, being a therapist required me to be deeply caring and consistently helpful.  Love and competency were linked each minute of my working day.  I would be focused on others, not on myself. Focusing on others with a desire to help placed me squarely within my values, squarely within my best professional capabilities, and squarely in relationship with people.

Let me put it another, topsy-turvy way.  I had positioned myself to succeed in my lifelong effort to make good friends with myself.  All I had to do was to work diligently at my craft.  I made friends with myself by being a good friend to others.  In that position, I felt calm much of the time. It was an almost meditative calm. I sometimes pictured myself as a Buddhist teacher.  It was also the type of calm that comes from highly concentrated attention to goals that stretched my ability.  My patients were not easily changed.  They wanted to feel better but rarely wanted to change.  To help them feel better in sustained ways, they needed to change.  And I could try, each day, to help. To do that I had to focus on them, not on me.

I am not suggesting that everyone become a therapist.  God forbid.  A world full of helpers would be beyond boring.  I am suggesting two things: first, that we can all position ourselves to love and help others in ways that also help us forget ourselves, that help us stop being self conscious and self-critical.  I have always been this way with friends. John is no exception.  My children and grandchildren also draw my positive attention.  Students, mentees and colleagues have generally elicited the same.

Here’s my second point: We live too much in a “me first,” narcissistic culture.  The basic idea is that you need to love yourself, take care of yourself, pamper yourself.  That’s as far as many cultural prescriptions go.  Some go further: If you love yourself well enough, you will be more capable of loving others.  Maybe.  But, in this narcissistic culture, I’m not sure you’ll be so inclined to love others or to put them first.  I believe that this is an unsuccessful and somewhat immoral strategy.

What’s more, the emphasis on self love, doesn’t prepare you very well for loving others. When your learning agenda focuses on self love, you only build up experience with one person.  When you learn to understand and love many others, you build up a diverse world of experience, because, like my eleventh grade friends, each requires specific insight and specific action strategies.  You build up a much greater range of loving capacity.

In short, I want to turn our culture’s approach to self love on its head.  Don’t focus on yourself.  Don’t pamper yourself.  That won’t do the trick.  The most effective approach leads through loving others.