More Lessons from a Small Child

I’ve noticed that the concept of a toy is a very broad one – and one that can tell us a few things if we are alert. Little Zoe (3) has always chosen her toys based on her imagination. Yes, the cardboard box is often more enthralling than what’s in it, and that’s always been true for her. But better yet is the way she doesn’t buy into the idea of what is “special”. The antique teddy bear from my mother is not more important to her than any other toy. In fact she’s just as likely to hug and cherish a rolled up sock or the plastic number 7, and she will sometimes insist on taking to bed with her such things as a toothbrush – having developed a lively imaginary rapport with it during the course of the day. The toys she returns to get hugged, dropped, thrown, and need frequently to be dusted off, washed and repaired. They get trodden on, forgotten, remembered, and generally have a hard life. Like parents, they have to undergo all kinds of indignities, but their job is to simply to endure; our task is to recognize that all of it, every bit, is part of the messy business of love. We’re not here to look pretty, like dolls, nor to sit safe on a higher shelf. We’re here to be in the rough and tumble, get messy, and know that this is love.

Brexit

I really wish I didn't have to comment on this, but there seems to be no way we can disregard it now. Britain has voted and will leave the EU; the multinational financial institutions that have lodged in London for the past 40 odd years will also flee (probably to Germany) to wherever the center of the EU will be now. This much seems pretty certain. England may lose Scotland and Ireland, too, as they are already talking about seceding. The UK, the third largest economy in the EU, will now face the possibility of fragmentation and falling into recession. The US will also suffer a mini recession, most likely. These are dire predictions, and yet I think it's wise to look ahead and see what is likely to change, and then meet the changes with determination and intelligence. And remember -- the anger that caused irate British voters to sign their own suicide note is the same feeling that fuels Trump supporters. They're tired and upset and will smash anything they can without thinking too much about the consequences. Like the drunk who tells the boss at the office party exactly what he thinks, the pleasure of the moment may have dire results.

Endings

I have a confession to make - every so often I have not made it to watch my students walk across the stage at Commencement. You may feel that is unbearably callous of me, so I'd better explain. Sometimes, at the end of a semester, I'm exhausted; and on occasions I've fallen ill with some sort of flu-like ailment, right after I'm clear of grading. Now, I cannot be sure that this is an actual ailment. It could be psycho-somatic. All I know is that this year I had all the symptoms of flu, plus a deep, deep sadness at having to say goodbye to students I've grown to know, admire, and love over the previous four years. After thirty years of teaching I'd expected to be immune. I suspect the real truth is that every class, every student, opens my heart just a little more to the poignancy of knowing that I probably won't see most of these people again - nor should I. They need to go and make their own lives. So while I am happy for them, I'm also very aware that I'm losing some wonderful people....

What do we see?

My friend Lena is visiting a whole lot of art museums in Europe – she’s an artist and she takes it seriously – and she seems annoyed by the hordes of people who don’t appear to have a clue what they’re looking at. You can’t blame her. I recall one night watching Hamlet at the RSC in Stratford and two whole rows of oriental tourists (Japanese, perhaps?) stood up in the middle of act five and went to get their bus. The actors managed to fill the stage time until they were all safely gone. Michael Pennington then resumed one of the most poignant speeches of the entire play and soon got us back in the flow. The speech? It was the famous “the readiness is all” meditation, so a little unintended irony seemed to be going on. And yet --- would I have been able to make much sense of a Japanese Noh drama if the positions had been reversed? Would I have known when to applaud at the end of a Javan gong concert? I doubt it. I rest secure in only one thing; art - real art - has a way of moving some part of us, even if we have no idea what stands before us, and even if we’re half asleep. Art touches us before we know we’ve been touched.

Getting Away

I needed a break so I took a couple of days to be in the country. I listened to the nightingales; heard the sigh of wind in the trees. I watched a calf being born; I saw the wind ripple the young wheat in gusts that reminded me of the shivers that go along a horse’s coat on a cold day; I made friends with a barn cat called Schlaffy while the rain gurgled down the gutters; I stopped reading and checking the internet. After a while the sun came out and butterflies danced around each other above the honeysuckle. Make no mistake, we live on a magnificent planet. Let’s look after it.

The Knock-On Effect

I'm pretty sure it's not just me. I've observed a level of distress and exhaustion in people over the past few weeks that is rather interesting. Actually, it's worrying, because these kinds of emotions have a way of spilling over in everything. For people to be happy and productive they need to feel that the world is relatively safe, relatively equitable most of the time, and that progress is possible. When enough of these basics are eroded we get depression and gloom. Despair by any other name. The 1% ripping everyone off, global warming, refugees, shootings, the destruction of the middle classes -- all these will bring us down even on a good day. But we struggle on anyhow. But now we have Trump. In almost all the reporting that has swamped us regarding this individual very little has been said about the cumulative effect on the national psyche of those who have to witness this unfolding disaster. Isn't it time we considered this? I wonder if anti-depressants are having a banner year? If therapists are booked up solid? If people are giving up? What do you see?

This week…

...has been a bit challenging.  I've had a low grade version of flu, which has sapped all my energy. I'm feeling shabby and may not make it to see my students graduate. I also managed, the previous week, to trip over a bicycle I was fettling and I twisted my hand badly. Usually when I have a cold I can still potter and do things, but this time I can't. So when I'm in a space of healing, when I can't do all the things I normally do, who am I? It's not an idle question. Joseph Campbell was famously asked "Who are you between two thoughts?" and he found that to be a very revealing inquiry. Who are we when we're not being our habitual selves? For Campbell thinking was what he did most of the time. I've discovered that I miss my old busy self. My Salvadoran friends call me the Bumble Bee because I'm always doing things. Now I can't. This slight sadness is offset by something gentler: I can just be, observe, be gently happy, and not try to do anything. I have no one I need to impress, not even myself. Nothing urgent needs to be done. And in this place the world becomes unimaginably beautiful.

Words to a client…

What I understand is that you love your parents and you also feel you hate them -- and so I have to tell you that actually the hate doesn't matter. It's just your way of saying that your path is different. The task is to keep on loving people and not expect them to change, improve, or be anything except really annoying. Occasionally they’ll surprise you by being heartbreakingly sweet and then you’ll see how much they need love. Accept that as part of the contradictory parcel of life. Love them, and allow them their craziness. Because that's exactly what you’d want from them for yourself. As for worrying about the past, we just have to look back at all those mistakes and laugh, because we simply didn't know any other way to be at that time. Can you look back and see that? If you can then laughter is the only reasonable response. Once we accept that, life becomes so much easier.

Memoir

Working with memoir and memories - those slippery things we call memories, at least - has led me to some recognitions. Looking at those I work with I can say that, of course, people write memoir in an effort to make sense of things, but there is more. The events that haunt us, that lead us to write about them, all tend to have a type of incompleteness to them. We ask ourselves if things could have been different, and if so, how? And why were they as they were, anyway? We write, to some extent, to try and achieve finality - perhaps to achieve some sort of wisdom about what happened. We write to try and complete what is incomplete, for only then can we let it go. Understanding may not ever arrive in its totality, but completion - the sense that we've said all we can - does arrive. We write to complete what is incomplete. We write to gain freedom.

Silver Linings

The Big Red One let me down yesterday. Actually, to be more accurate, the battery in it decided that it just didn’t want to be a battery anymore. I stopped and – nothing. No steep hills to try a bump start, either, so I ended up pushing her home. It was quite a distance. I sweated and grunted and pushed along sidewalks that were uneven and cramped (how do people in wheelchairs manage??). I arrived home exhausted. A new battery solved the problem. But better yet is this: I’ve had some aches in my arm and back recently. Nothing dreadful, but I put it all down to age. After my prolonged workout yesterday all the aches are gone. Everything, but everything has a silver lining. Never forget that. .Honda