Friday, September 16, 2016

The Goodness of Things

I was just 24 and it was the morning of my wedding day and now here I am, awakening to the first day of fifty-seven! How the numbers move so quickly across the clock of our lives! But on this new day, I find myself grateful once again for the grace of this tired and generous world. I am older now than my hero Lincoln ever was. I am older than most humans who have ever lived. I am far older than the many thousands who will die today of childhood cancers, starvation, plague or war. The only thing I am younger than is the age that I will be on my death day. I have not lived too long but I have lived long enough. A week ago, I asked a sharp and vibrant, physically healthy 91 year-old neighbor how long she’d like to live and she said 100. That would be “plenty of time to do it all.” 100 is fine with me too, though even the grandkids would certainly bore of me by then. (And likely my wife wouldn’t let such an old man near her anyway.) I will take what the fates give and maybe bargain for a little more –or less- as my state of mind or body demand. But I don’t need a longer life; mine has been full and empty, and ridiculously amazing. I have lived long enough to understand that it is life that teaches us about death and not the other way around.

Life is not a waiting space for something else, it is the something else! (Imagine waiting for death to take you somewhere only to find you’ve been dead all along.) I realize that I will one day end up in a bucket, charnel (I flatter myself) or gas house (I was in a morgue this summer and saw such buckets up close, all of which were entirely unglamorous). What list should I take with me to such a place or bucket? Stay active and keep moving? I can run, walk, shuffle along but inertia will eventually find me (the word even sounds sinister: inert, the very definition of dead). My task is to resist this finality as long as possible by joining the movement of the living. Perhaps I should dance more, boogie more, get moving more with my young, strong sons outside on bikes and boards and flying machines as we chase down the summer’s sun, the winter’s deep freeze or the browning of every autumn in a pursuit of that fabled eternal spring.

Those ahead in the line tell me that the brain gets tired and lazy, too. I always wanted to learn Spanish well enough to let native speakers here in the US know how deeply I admire the sacrifices they’ve made to be here. It’s also the language of my place of origin, coming as I do from a region soaked in Latino breezes. I am grateful for this and long to return to that womb of who I once was. The humor that my innocent and inappropriate semantic stumbling might birth would be to the delight of many. My soul needs such humility lest I think myself as finally too good for this grand ball of twirling fire and ice.

I am in the Generativity age-space that Erikson wrote about, the arch downward that Jung spoke of. It is now that I long to give back, yet my spirit is restless and burdened by my inability to present such an effect. I did not hoard the strength and spoils of my youth but gave these things away, sometimes to the undeserving, but always with good intent. I am saddened, though, that I didn’t save more of past material riches so that now I could have more to give away. You say, “Well, you have your wits about you and a measure of integrity and at least you have yourself to give, right?” Yes, and …no. To me, any real gift-giving involves the giving in some measure of ones sincere attention to another along with something tangible. I know it's skewed, but somewhere along the way I got the idea that giving is authentic only when it also includes the discarding of something you can touch with your fingers -something of value to the giver, however small- released from one tight grasp into the open palm of another. The gift of time to share is all many of us possess but imagine how incomplete, how small, people like me feel, gifting the one without the other when all we want to do is bless the hands of another with hope, as well as their heart.

I could say more about my own inability to be the generous man I want to be, but I am chastened by what I saw once upon a time while in service as a chaplain at our big city hospital. I sat with patients who could no longer walk, or see, or speak, and I stood silent before some who would not live long and others who would die in my presence. I walked into one room to meet a quadriplegic who had lived half his life in bed. I was speechless but he reassured me with a practiced sincerity in his voice, “I know, there are no words.” (He was comforting me because he’d seen that same look on the faces of visitors many times over many years, and he’d learned how to respond to such awkward, inarticulate gasps of bewilderment.) Before our visit ended he left me with another pearl bought at so great a price: “There was a before the accident” he said.”…and then there was an after the accident. I had no problems before the accident.” I asked him if he’d ever thought about ending his life. He said yes, but he didn’t ever seriously think about it long because, he said, “My mom’s heart was already broken due to my accident and I couldn’t leave her without hope.” Imagine that, in his suffering, what he wanted most was to see that his mother had what she needed. What I witnessed over and over as hospital chaplain was nothing less than the unadorned, “grace of this world.”*

I was assembled over five decades ago with all my necessary parts intact and with the many advantages that privileged me as a white male, 21st century citizen of the United States, born with everything to lose. I get that and I don't want to take anything for granted or excuse or abuse what I have been given. "To whom much has been given..." is a mandate that I continue to take very seriously. Of course, like anyone, I want to live well, be comfortable and stay around long enough to see my (as yet unconceived!) grandchildren laugh and also comfort them when they cry. And I want to impress my own children more with further acts of kindness, courage and curiosity in order to leave them with a legacy writ large in memories both written and lived. So, truly, on this my birth-anniversary, I really can’t complain about anything -though that never stopped me before!

Here’s a little poem I wrote recently which is my way of saying thank you to any and all who have graced my enlarging life up to and including the present moment. There is always 'plenty of time to do it all,' or at least to do what good you find in your hand to do. Problems? Dissatisfactions? Pain? Yes, all of the above, or as the late comedienne Gilda Radner used to say, "It's always something."** But we need not wander and grieve by ourselves. It is together that we can make a good way better in this line dance of life and death. Besides, in this long, loopy dream across the sky, why dance alone?

The Goodness of Things

What I know deep down
in this hollowed out, hallow place:
that death is just a hole in the ground,
a scattering of ashes,
a wailing in a windstorm.

But Life is a raucous thing,
a fox by the tail rumble,
fought in the quiet and the loud,
by the subtle and the shrewd,
the racy and the holy!

In the flight of the firefly,
in the last tasting of dirt,
in a chorus of mono-moans,
in birth kisses and death missives,
I see the goodness of things.
It seems like just yesterday that I woke up -and got married!

*This phrase is from the Wendell Berry poem, The Peace of Wild Things.

**It's Always Something by Gilda Radner.

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