A little over six years ago, my wife, Lynda and I moved from San Diego to Durham, NC because she had been offered a wonderful new position at Duke. It was a real honor for her and, of course, I was thrilled. I had left my job in the corporate world and was now running a small consulting firm with my business partner based in the UK.
Three years ago, I decided to retire to write. I have produced three books that I enjoyed writing and reasonably happy with. Then, a little over a year ago Lynda was offered a new position as a senior executive at Washington University Medical School. It was a great honor once again for both of us and off we went to St. Louis, Missouri. Within a few weeks, Covid 19 became ubiquitous and alarmingly quickly everything we hoped to enjoy was closed down. My wife worked out of the home and I relinquished the office I had chosen up on the third floor and settled into a small desk in the den.
The things I had done in North Carolina, I gave up- Tai Chi, Yoga, a small group of friends, the gym, my Thursdays at UNC’s Hospice Home where I volunteered as Chaplain and Counselor, and a wonderful music class.
In St. Louis, we bought a big 150 year old house because I was infatuated with it’s charm, or rather its grandeur, and relatively modest cost. I was not especially mindful of the demands that go with owning one of these historic, all-consuming behemoths. A new roof, a new heating and air conditioning system, basement water, mold, painting, drapes, to mention just a few of the projects that needed attention. These houses demand an all-out commitment! Still, we are getting there, largely because of having lots of time. The Covid Virus has given me lots of time. My wife remains busy on Zoom calls for hours on end. I clean the house. Most days I am poised, vacuum at the ready, behind our German Shepard who drops tufts of fur like a flower girl scatters petals before a bride.
Honestly, I have had moments of melancholy where I feel captive; cooped up except for store runs and the occasional lunch with my wife on the patio of a few restaurants we like. The temperature for the past fourteen days has been below freezing, sometimes with windchills below -20 degrees F. So… no outdoor lunches. I have felt annoyed, resentful and without inspiration for a writing project and spend too much time struggling with thousand piece jigsaw puzzles, and domestic chores. Surely I was meant for more meaningful projects than these.
But, the sun broke through yesterday, and people are beginning to get their vaccines and things perhaps are looking up. Yet, try as I did; this morning I just could not free myself from this bleak mood. I have not gotten my vaccine like so many others. Yet it seems that most of the people I know have, at least, had their first shot. Where the hell is my vaccine?!
I know…I know. “Stop your whining!”
I have struggled to put a cork in the whining. But I have come to suspect that this is about something quite different from whining. I reconnected with a very dear and good friend recently after a long period of having lost touch. We knew each other since we started our respective careers and are both now retired. In our Zoom call, we sipped our wine and he casually remarked that since his retirement he had begun to feel less and less consequential. What a curious way to capture the essence of this feeling, I thought. Here we were. He the former School Superintendent for a large California District and me a former Senior Vice President for a large government services company after serving twenty years as a parish priest! I wondered… “Inconsequential?! Me?!” But, the truth is he nailed it.
I discussed this with my wife this morning on our daily walk. What emerged in the back and forth of our dialogue was that the consequential things both my friend and I did were largely related to the position and title we held at any given moment in time. Our words, our actions, and our decisions were as consequential as the position we held, the title we possessed, the people we moved with. It is often said there is a freedom, of sorts, to be enjoyed when we shed the trappings of position and titles. We become somehow more real. The jury is still out for me. But surely any consequence we possess related to relationships without the posturing, hierarchal titles, and power positions reflects a different kind of value. Power, position, titles are heady but as a friend of mine commented: “We do begin to believe our own press releases.”
There is a kind of peeling away of the layers and layers of who we thought, wished, and pretended we were as we grow older and shed the seduction of titles, positions, and place we possessed in our different communities of influence. But this peeling away requires a willingness to participate in becoming a new person or, more accurately the person we really are.
Tolstoy left home when he was 82 and sick with pneumonia renouncing his aristocratic lifestyle and leaving his wife of 48 years. The Hindus teach the fourth and final stage of a man’s (woman’s?) life, called Sannyasa, should be devoted to renunciation and seeking enlightenment (Moksha). The gift that may or may not be offered by aging depends upon your willingness to allow its emergence. It is a reality captured in virtually all religions, all cultures. It is unnerving before it is liberating to know that “dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return”.
The ancient Greek philosophers wrote about the attributes assigned to a being which are precisely that…’attributes’ that do not describe the being itself. Many have argued that this Self… this being itself is what participates in what we call God; the light that dwells within us.
This is no passive exercise. We will live uneasy without a willingness to align ourselves with the natural, developmentally appropriate stages that our lives are subject to. What could be more important than to be congruent with one’s own evolution and to let this be a witness to those around us.
I know and am reassured by the joy this brings me some days, while on others I seem only to be aware of the impotence I feel as time rolls on. For now, I think I will choose to believe that this true authenticity is not something achieved once and for all. No, at least at this point in my development, I will accept that it comes and goes.
Two quick anecdotes I am reminded of. A man comes to the Chief Rabbi and says, “Rabbi, please tell me the meaning of life. The Rabbi responds, “Life is an apple tree.”
“Thank you Rabbi,” the man responds and then goes out looking for confirmation of this new truth.
In time he returns and says to the Rabbi, “Life is not an apple tree!”
The Rabbi, looks back at the man and shrugs his shoulders indifferently. “So it’s not an apple tree.”
The other story comes from the movie “Little Big Man” when Old Lodge Skins comments to Little Big Man that “today is a good day to die”. He does his death dance and lies down to die. When a raindrop strikes him on the head, he asks, “Am I in heaven?” Little Big Man answers, “No Grandfather”. “Well, Old Lodge Skins grumbles, “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.”
Sometimes we are empowered by the knowledge that we are becoming more authentic, sometimes we feel low because we miss the benefits of title and position. Sometimes it works-sometimes it doesn’t.
So, it’s not an apple tree!