“APRIL IS THE CRUELLEST MONTH”

“APRIL IS THE CRUELLEST MONTH, …”

With apologies to T. S. Eliot whom I never really understood, sadly, as an English major in college.  It appears that many students of his work had various understandings of what he was trying to tell us, or simply comment on his life.  I shamelessly admit to taking these five words completely out of context.  However, April of Year Two Thousand and Twenty is shaping up to be remembered as extraordinarily cruel to the human race, in general.  And, I make the assumption that old “T.S.” would not mind my boldness.

The internet makes available dozens, if not hundreds, of predictions, calculations, warnings, threats announcing the number of human beings who will die this April as a result of the stealthy assault of this thing known as COVID-19  or the Coronavirus, or “the virus.”   There is nowhere to hide, even if you are in Oregon, one of the palest-colored states on the lurid red- to-pink-to-yellow map of the U.S.  “If I can make it until May, perhaps the curve will ‘flatten.’ ”   But, say the deep voices, this Thing will be with us, basically, forever, and until we develop a proven vaccine….nowhere to hide, particularly if you are OVER 60, whether or not you are immunocompromised.  I know that place.

The enormity of this challenge — yes, the personal and financial and social disasters we twenty-first century humans are facing — cannot yet be expressed.  Perhaps by future poets, but not now.  The book titles on my nightstand, “The Places That Scare You,” “Aging with Wisdom,” “Mortality,” are a statement of the palpable uncertainty in which we swim.  The poet Rumi is here too, with his ageless, “The Guest House.”  

As T.S. goes on, we may see the “breeding [of] Lilacs out of the dead land…” 

Who knows?

3/31/2020

lm

WE THOUGHT WE HAD MORE TIME

WE THOUGHT WE HAD MORE TIME

It has been eight months since I last posted on this blog.  I find myself again addressing the issues of loss and redemption, interwoven with  experiences of acceptance and surrender-with-grace.

This post is in the nature of a letter to a friend, a posthumous letter to Pam.

Yes.  We thought we had more time.  How many times has that “thought” been wiped out by the villainous assault of a reckless driver, or unforgiving cancer cells?  When that villainous assault occurs, without notice, how do the witnesses deal with it?  Perhaps not as gracefully as the one assaulted.  But we try … to offer companionship, and a ready ear, hoping that compassion will be our clearest message.

Looking back from the vantage point of two months since your passing, dear Pam, I can only hope that I lived up to the preciousness with which I valued our friendship.  This period of time has allowed me to reflect on the 90 days of your illness and the grace and dignity with which you conducted yourself, in the face of an irreducible challenge.

Recently, by the magic of Google, there appeared on my iPhone “memories” of 2015 and photos of our trip to New York City.  We did SO much in one week, including the unforgettable “Hamilton” — for face-value tickets — in its second month on Broadway!  You were happy to explore with me my old “Kubly” neighborhood in Washington Heights, where the Spanish-speaking guys we met in front of 21 Chittenden Avenue took a photo of us.  How sweet it was to walk with you down the street where indelible memories of my childhood experience were created.  

Four years and a month later, I find myself back in New York City visiting my daughter.  I look for you here, especially at the Theatre, and at the posh Carlyle Room where Amy and I listen to cool jazz.  I’m sleeping on my daughter’s couch, while I know you and I would be staying at that comfortable mid-town private club as we did in 2015.  But, those are incidentals.  I look for you next to me and instead I am standing next to a deep hole, where you ought to be.   How can a person so full of life be SO NOT THERE?  

“Where are you, Pam?”  I see you and feel your presence in an unexplainable way.  Unexplainable?  Maybe not.  We enjoyed a level of compatibility, particularly when traveling, that may have been rare.  It was natural to feel you near in this place where my connections run deep.      

Just last spring you and I were talking about another visit to Manhattan.  We thought we had the time….  That would have been after we took a drive around the Olympic Peninsula, spending the night perhaps along the Coast.  We thought we had LOTS of time….

There is that deep hole, but there is also an overwhelming reality of gratitude for the ten years of our friendship which occurred through a simple coincidence of residence and which thrived as we discovered our mutual interests.  Perhaps it was the maturity of meeting each other in our seventh and eighth decades of life.  From this perspective, it is easier to see what is REAL, what will last.

That it lasted ten years is partly the measure of the gift.  The richness of those ten years is the substance.   A gift has no guarantees.  It can only be treasured.   When all is said and done, we had all the time we needed.  

lm

11/25/2019

“I’M HERE TO HELP”

“I’M HERE TO HELP”

“I’m here to help,” happens to be part of a memorable quote from Ronald Regan blather.  “I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” he warned us, were the nine scariest words in the English language.  The lasting impact of Regan-isms, of which this is a worn-out example, plagues our political discourse to this day.

This is not a political essay.  The last four words, which I have chosen for a title, are the subject of my meditation.  They are actually very precious words to the ears of one who has experienced major, albeit elective, surgery.    Very precious and very challenging.  Help is a two-way street.

The other side is appreciation, a natural response, usually.  But, before, beneath and alongside appreciation is Acceptance.  Acceptance, it seems to me, flows from admission of need, acknowledgement of vulnerability.

To admit that we are vulnerable flies in the face of our first-world pride in our capability, our can-do American frontiersmanship, the power of being Number One.  

Having very recently had major surgery, I can say with certainty that vulnerability is thrust upon one, particularly when in a hospital bed, under sedation, and in pain.  The real exercise is the acceptance, the surrender, to having absolutely no control over what happens next.  Moreover, the surrender, with grace, to the ministrations, to the decisions, to the choices made by another person is the test.

I submit that it is only upon reflection that one knows whether she has 
“passed” that test.  It is only internally that one knows.  It is not measured by outward expressions of gratitude, which really do not speak to the attitude of the help-ee.  Am I at peace with knowing that I have needed and have received care  — not by a paid professional — but from one who has freely given it to me?   Putting aside all my ego projections, I acknowledge that I have been told, “You are worthy.”  The most difficult message of all.  To hear it said, “You are worthy,” is a refrain negated by decades of Catholic upbringing.  This is peeling the onion of difficulty in accepting help down to very core:  “Worthy.”  Am I really?

Where were the moments of worthiness in my life?  I realize that I am looking at worthiness as something not earned, something that is existentially present, or it is not.  It is not that I was worthy of receiving a college degree, or worthy of being hired by an employer.  Those were earned by my labor and my credentials.   The occasion of my surgery and preparation for it has been the occasion for reflection on many years in search of worthiness. 

Five years ago a friend gave me a set of CD’s recorded by a physician as a meditation with which to prepare for surgery.  The meditation begins with a suggestion to visualize a location, a physical space, that creates a sense of peace and healing by means of sights, sounds, even smells, a space real or imagined.  I decided to replay the CD’s again a few weeks before my second round of knee surgery.  Typically, I resist guided meditations, preferring just to listen to the gentle tone of voice and ignore the verbal instructions.  Curiously, this time I found myself going to a place, a place that is firmly engraved in my memory.

The setting was 1943 on the upper West Side of Manhattan where a shy seven-year-old child was a guest in the apartment of her aunt and uncle.  She would remain there for eight months while her mother reorganized her life after a divorce.  More significantly for the child, this was a year of recovery from a year’s residence as a first grader in a boarding school run by Catholic nuns.   The two years defy comparison.  Now she was the center of attention of a “smitten” childless middle-aged couple who doted on her and delighted in opening up a magical world.  

As I re-created the space in my meditation, picturing every corner of the apartment, drinking in the view from the living room windows, the Hudson River, the Palisades and the George Washington Bridge, hearing the voices of those who cared for me, smelling dinner being prepared, I saw what they were doing.  They were CARING for me, keeping me SAFE, letting me know that I was WORTHY. 

I am not suggesting that it has taken me 76 years to appreciate the significance of those eight months. They have always held a place in my heart as a “seminal” moment.  Now, at the other end of life, reflecting on what it is to be cared for, to be kept safe, to be “worthy,” I can go back to 1943 and know what it means, just as I cherish the care and love that have been shown to me in the last three weeks, and know again that I am Worthy.

lm

3/14/2019

DOPPELGANGER

DOPPELGANGER

I am not fond of this word.  It is clunky, hard to spell, does not flow trippingly over the tongue, is not in my every-day vocabulary.  However, it popped into my mind when casually skimming the obituaries the other day.  

The decedent’s photo was, as is the practice today, of a woman (named Elaine) taken in her early twenties.  I tagged it immediately, as how my own obit might look some day:  a photo from the 1950’s, probably from a college yearbook, short wavy hair, shy demure expression. 

I explored the details.  She was born the same year as I, graduated university 1957, the same year as I, married and became a homemaker and a devoted mother and volunteer completely involved in her children’s lives, etc.   But here’s where it gets weird.  Without even a paragraph change, the story continues that Elaine married [second husband] “the love of her life” in 1977, and returned to college and earned a professional degree!  Together with [second husband] they had a wonderful life, full of hobbies, clubs, traveling, “Christmas and animals.”  

Not surprising that somewhere on the planet there was another woman who would also have earned a college degree in the late 1950’s, soon moved on to marriage (the college time having been spent checking out appropriate mates), identified as a mother and homemaker.  Without explanation, the story now finds her happily married a second time and proceeding to earn a professional degree and have a new and wonderful life.

The memorable dates in Elaine’s life eerily coincide with mine:  graduation in 1957, marriage and children, graduate degree and second marriage in 1977, new and wonderful life.  Those are the headlines.  The untold story is in there somewhere.

If we had unlimited space on the obit page, just how much would we choose to share?

~~~~~~~~~

In the long pause since my last posting on this blog, we have observed holidays, rung in a new year, noted the second anniversary of the most expensive and the “most well attended presidential inauguration in history.”  And carried on. 

Being reminded of what I am paying to keep this blog on the net, I feel the urge to take up some space.  How better to fill space than to mark the entry into my 84th year of life on the planet — which I have done this week.  (Sadly, the aforementioned Elaine did not make it to that milestone.)

Speaking of  “filling up space,” birthdays at this point in life are appropriately opportunities to express gratitude.  I have a simple Morning Prayer card which captures the expression succinctly:  with gratitude for all that has brought me to this moment.   

I practice believing that every morning.  It is of no use now to tally the positives and minuses of my years.  They are all my story, all the many parts of me.  My acknowledgments of gratitude will never be complete, will never reach all the known and unknown donors, all the actors who have informed my being, all the “slings and arrows” that have transformed my life.  It must be enough at this milepost to offer gratitude to the Universe, to the ALL that has brought me to this moment.

lm

2/12/19

LIVING THE QUESTIONS

LIVING THE QUESTIONS

I borrowed this title from a source who wanted to acknowledge that questions can instruct more than answers.

In a world where we are constantly encouraged to believe that WE have the answers and those OTHERS are hopelessly ignorant or, worse yet, just “evil,” I am exploring questions. 

Preamble:  there is an election in six days that looms as the Last Hope for the survival of our democratic way of life.  There are “just a few” cable TV channels that keep reminding us.  Behind the hysteria of obscene sums of money pouring into TV spots, the accusations of voter suppression and the spectacle of campaign promises made “from whole cloth,” the control of Congress is at stake.  Yes, there’s that!

So, I will pose some questions.  If you are looking for solutions to preserving “our democratic way of life,” better leave now!  

WHAT IF my internal interrogation went something like this:

Have I become a bigot against anyone and everyone who lives in a “red” state?  Is that what happens when I watch the cable channel that most agrees with me?  What would happen if I dared to look at that “other” channel? 

Do I studiously avoid any opportunity to talk to a person on the “other” side?  Do I ever wonder what her/his needs might be?

Can I see that the “other” is speaking out of her/his own pain or oppression (perceived or real)?

Do I question whether my rage — and I am outraged, often — is Righteous or Self-righteous?  Have I considered the difference?  Is my rage fuel for action, or just fuel?  Rage, being only fuel, will result in burn-out, won’t it?

What IS this democracy that I pretend to value so highly?  Is it a trophy that we feel is slipping from our hands?  Or is it a work in progress?  If it calls us toward our Better Angels, as wise persons have said, what about those Lesser Angels?  Is democracy really the eternal TENSION between these forces?  Can I live with the awareness of that tension?

Can I accept that the Founding Fathers (who have been elevated to a saintly status) had a vision, but lived in an 18th century white-man’s reality? How would it be to accept that we can aspire to that vision, knowing it may never be more than a work-in-progress?

Living as we do in an every-day discussion of “alternative facts” and “alternative truths” —by the way, where is Rudi Giuliani, these days?— do we even care anymore what IS truth?  What if “truth” is like living the questions?  An ongoing impassioned conversation about what is most precious to us, where there is no “winner”?

After all, in the total scheme of things, can’t I just tolerate a few mean Tweets?

Final thought, when questions no longer have meaning,  APOCALYPSE is the Greek word for —  REVELATION!   It ain’t over yet.

lm

10/31/18

MEMORY

MEMORY

A recent reunion with distant relatives presented an occasion to spend several hours exploring childhood scrapbooks, grainy out-of-focus photos in black and white or faded Kodacolor, (there WAS life before iPhoto!), yellowed newspaper clippings, family histories typed on a manual Underwood with multiple carbon copies.  I thought of my first box camera, the later addition of a flash attachment (!), the ritual of carefully installing the roll of film, the anticipation of picking up the prints at the drugstore counter.  And the un-photographed years before that box camera was affordable — alas, lost to memory!

What is it that compels us to want to see what those grandparents and great grandparents looked like, what my father looked like at age 5, or my mother when she was just a teenager?  Or why is it so exciting to discover what I was wearing at my senior prom and who WAS that date?

I recently read (my own memory will not reveal the source) that, “Memory is a present phenomenon, by which we hold and redeem all the moments of our life into a present self.”  The philosopher Kierkegaard is quoted:  We are “everything we have ever done, plus freedom.”   So it is, that memory is not some mere recollection of past events, it is a present reality.  We are, to a very great extent, the memories which live through us.  Memory is foundational to our identity.

An example of this:  I can remember in great detail being a guest at lunch in a very beautiful home in the Hamptons on Long Island when I was about 12 years old, and being served an anchovy — and being totally distressed, until I was excused from having to consume it.  Yet, I have to consult my calendars, both paper and digital, in order to be able to recite what I did the day before yesterday. 

What about that lunch in the Hamptons was “foundational” to my identity?  I was a shy, self-conscious adolescent, accompanying my aunt and uncle to the home of wealthy friends, being served lunch by a uniformed maid, all of which was enough to create awkwardness.  No surprise that I have a photographic memory of the table and the plate holding a small molded serving of egg salad garnished with anchovy fillets.  My quizzical look was treated graciously and with humor.   No one tried to embarrass me.  Yet, all of this was worlds away from my modest Missouri roots, of which I was painfully aware.

Memory is foundational:  “I am in a place where I do not belong.”   I had been in New York City two or three times as a guest of Aunt and Uncle.  I knew I belonged to them, and I was perfectly comfortable in their middle class apartment.  Certainly, my experiences when I visited them were foundational.  There was life outside Missouri, where I could imagine a whole new way of living.  But the awareness of “not belonging” makes an indelible imprint on one’s spirit.  It is a “teachable moment.”  You will recognize it again and again as long as you live.

Back to Kierkegaard:  [I am] everything I have ever done, plus freedom.  The question becomes, can I grow into a person who has the freedom  to be other than the memories of what I have done?  How much growth is required before we KNOW we are where we belong?  Not from the vantage point of a 12-year-old, but from years of life experience in making choices. Or, how long before we have the wisdom and the discipline to take our leave of a place or a relationship?

lm

7/15/18

THE CITY BENEATH US

THE CITY BENEATH US

I have been a New York City tourist on probably twenty different occasions, beginning as a child in 1943.  I’ve covered every “tourist attraction,” and a few that are not commonly known.  But what this intense metropolis has to offer to the visitor could fill a lifetime.  

Last week I decided to go native and spend time in the great New York Public Library doing research!  Not only is it FREE, the librarians are friendly and helpful, the restrooms are clean, and it was 10 minute walk from my hotel.  What better place to satisfy my longstanding curiosity about the origins of the New York subway system.

Perhaps my interest is prompted by mass transportation challenges in my hometown, including the construction of a single two-mile tunnel which has taken four years to complete and cost gazillions of dollars the responsibility for which will be the subject of litigation into the 2030’s.

As you watch the bumper cars competing for space on the surface streets of Manhattan, it might occur to you to ask, “Where would this city be without the subway system?”  Who had the vision and leadership to take on the gargantuan task?  Someone in the New York City Public Library System ought to be able to help answer that question.  Indeed!

I was shown a list of reference books on the Library version of Google, instructed to fill out the application for a NYC Library card, request the ones that looked appropriate and come back the next day when the books would arrive from their warehouse in another location.

Returning on Saturday morning, my books were waiting, one being so unique that I was instructed to sit at a special table while using it, to let the pages lie flat, and to use a pencil to take my notes.    

The City Beneath Us: Building the New York Subway was a project of the New York Transit Museum with author Vivian Heller.  It was published in 2004, the one-hundredth anniversary year of the opening of the Interborough Rapid Transit, the IRT.  It provided a clear history of the beginnings of this enormous undertaking and dozens of pages of photos.

Not surprisingly, the concept of underground transportation was an idea which was around for thirty years before a contract was signed.  One Alfred Ely Beach envisioned a pneumatic (air-driven) train and actually built (illegally) a prototype in 1870.  City politics were having none of it, and Beach’s subterranean effort was sealed, and pretty much forgotten.  The next couple of decades saw a proliferation of elevated trains, which eventually proved inadequate for the City’s growing population, exacerbated by the influx of immigrants toward the end of the 19th century.  

At last, in November 1899, the State legislature authorized the City to proceed.  In January 1900,  a construction contract was signed with John D. McDonald, but there was NO financial backing!  To the rescue came August Belmont — yes, he owned race horses — who provided capital, security and supervision!  Belmont hired a 35-year-old chief engineer William Barclay Parsons and a vice president from St. Louis, E.P.Bryan.  “Every detail of every contract…was absolutely under Mr. Belmont’s control,” his secretary recalled, “and it was 100 percent honest.”

October 27, 1904:  the first line from City Hall to 103rd Street was opened with instant success!  August Belmont stayed involved and profited from the endeavor for the next 14 years.  He was scrupulously honest, with the keen eye of a businessman.  The subway was overcrowded from the start, by 1908 carrying 800,000 riders a day!  Belmont once wrote that rush hour without crowding would mean “financial failure.”  Never mind that the crowding meant poking and prodding by policemen, sexual molestation, pick pocketing, fainting, fights and daily exposure to transmission of disease, even TB.  This was an enterprise that was only meant to be sustainable if utilized to full capacity, or overload.  The present-day Manhattan commuter might well understand.  At least TB is gone (mostly).  

The City Beneath Us provided dozens of pages of black and white photographs of the construction phases of the subway.  The beginning method of construction was “cut and cover.”  In layman’s terms, dig up the street, dig a deep trench, lay track, cover it and restore the street.  This of course meant disturbing water and sewer lines, and created much chaos.  “A ragged army of heroic, unruly men,” almost 8,000 of them, came from all over the world to do this work.  When cut and cover would not work, there had to be blasting through “Manhattan schist,” extremely tough rock flecked with mica chips.  Archaeological discoveries were made: mastodon bones, the hull of an old Dutch ship.  Tunneling through solid rock turned subway building into a mining operation.  Instead of digging a trench, workers bored dynamite holes; the foremen and the engineers set the dynamite, and the excavators cleared away the spoils.

By 1913 the IRT became the Dual Subway System jointly owned by the City of New York, the IRT and the BRT (Brooklyn Rapid Transit).  Expansion continued through the varied mayoral administrations, the Great Depression, with an infusion of cash from the WPA, and an indispensable role during WWII when the subway became, both in people’s imagination and in reality, part of the national struggle for survival.  From 1940 to 1945, the subway became part of the war effort in countless ways.  With steel and rubber going to the military, the auto industry ground to a halt, and drivers crowded the trains — to the point that overcrowding was unbearable.  Mayor LaGuardia saw this as “proof of our life and vitality.”  

V-Day August, 1945:  the celebrations started in the subways.  Passengers danced in the aisles and broke into drunken song.  All night long the trains indulged the delirious crowds.  “It was like the whole city belonged to us!”

That kind of euphoria is no doubt unique in the whole history of the system. The people of New York have a love-hate relationship with these trains and tunnels, in my opinion as a visitor.  It seems like a tale of constant struggle for sufficient funding, of inadequate repairs, slow expansion, degraded performance, and fluctuating instance of crime.  

Yet, for New York City to function, the “City Beneath” is as indispensable as the human circulatory system is to one of its riders.  A subway ride was one of the first “thrills” I experienced as a 7-year-old visitor, when the fare was still a nickel.  The nickel fare survived until 1948 — when it doubled!  Last week I paid $2.75 to get through the turnstile.

As a “seasoned” tourist, I understand that when you need to get somewhere FAST, the subway is the only choice.  In New York City it’s ALL about getting somewhere FAST.

lm, 5/29/18