LIBERTY and NATURE Embracing for Life

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SOME THOUGHTS ON EMBRACING FOR LIFE

by Paul M. Lewis

Emma Lazarus wrote, as seen on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless and tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” This is—or was—the sacred promise of America, and if that doesn’t sound like today’s refugees and immigrants, the poor and dispossessed of the earth, it’s hard to imagine what else it could describe. What does the notion of liberty actually mean, other than freedom of choice, the ability to do as one wishes, unfettered by physical or social constraint, so long as others are not harmed and, in doing so, one does not unduly trample on the rights of others?

But why, in the picture, do we see Lady Liberty embracing Mother Nature? The two come together because none of us, neither human beings nor any of the other creatures of the earth, can live our normal lives beyond the boundaries of the physical world, or beyond an emotional and social context. What this suggests is that our vaunted freedom to choose is best used in opting for the right and the good, not only for ourselves, but for the life of the planet as a whole. It’s incumbent on each of us to recognize the natural world in all of its diversity. As Yeats put it a century ago: “…the young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees, the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh, or fowl…whatever is begotten, born, or dies.” This is the world of nature, seen, experienced, and lived in by all of us.

The two figures are depicted as holding each other and kissing. Just as with human lovers, each needs and chooses the other in an ultimate exercise of freedom. But that choice can only be made in the absence of coercion and of political or social authoritarianism. If Lady Liberty and Mother Nature hold each other today, it is the duty of each of us to do all we can to ensure that continued ability to embrace and kiss. In so doing, Liberty and Nature engender love and creativity, as well as a hope for a better future for us and for the planet. If the politics of the day work against this, only our will and our eternal vigilance can counteract it.

 

SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

from the artist – Kevin L. Miller

Lady Liberty is one of the primary symbols for the United States of America. Mother Nature, of course, represents all of Nature and the Earth itself. When a friend and former colleague suggested that I might consider drawing Lady Liberty and Mother Nature as friends, I thought “What a good idea!” But when I began to develop a composition on the screen of my mind their “friendship” became much more – a deeply committed intimate relationship of love and mutual support. And this seems entirely appropriate, since the U.S. and the Earth need each other in order to survive. America cannot thrive if the Earth becomes unable to sustain life. And the Earth will cease to be able to do so, if the U.S. and all of humanity does not quickly learn how to nurture, honor, and respect our planet. Lady Liberty and Mother Nature are embracing for life. Their intimate embrace is a fundamental necessity, whether we and the world’s nations and leaders acknowledge it or not. If we want to avoid the looming Sixth Mass Extinction and leave a planet where our children and grandchildren can thrive, then we will support and celebrate Lady Liberty and Mother Nature embracing for life.

 

WHAT WE WANT FOR THE HOLIDAYS

By Paul M. Lewis

I have always felt that the holidays tend to amplify and magnify both what is good and what is bad in life. The good things seem that much nicer: spending time with family and friends, eating wonderful food, or just enjoying the warmth of a season when people, sometimes at least, really do try to treat each other a little better. And the bad things are that much more hurtful: the continued wars in the world, the violence and killing, all the horrors that people perpetrate on each other, from casual caustic remarks to curses to racial or ethnic slurs. All this when what we’re most longing for is some basic human respect, and maybe even a little bit of kindness.

I have, for a long time now, particularly had mixed feelings about the month of November. That’s because both of my parents died during this month, and now my partner’s father and his sister have, as well. In addition, his mother and brother passed away, one in late October just this year, and the other in mid-December a few years ago. Even so, we make the best effort we can to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with an open heart and mind.

What exactly is it about the holidays that makes us all the more long for those feelings of warmth and closeness or, to put it more simply, the desire to be loved? Because isn’t it a truism that, always and forever, what everyone wants is to be loved? Even the gruffest among us, those who do not make a habit of freely giving their own love to others, nonetheless somehow want love in return. We may do our utmost sometimes to make that wish sound more adult, more mature, more grown up. We call it things like acceptance, or a kind of welcoming or even, minimally, a tolerance of who and what we are. But dig down deep enough, and we see that what’s really meant is simply that we want to be loved.

The other day, my partner and I were going into our local grocery store to do the weekly shopping, and there, next to the door, sat a beggar. There is no other word to use, no other term to soften, mollify or sugarcoat it. He was dressed in the filthiest of rags, his hair was unwashed, and he had a long beard that hung down in tatters. I looked at him and smiled, if for no other reason than that most people were quickly turning away. It was clear that he was about to ask for money (another reason why people were probably avoiding his gaze), even though he had not quite gotten around to it with me yet. So, I walked over to him.

It’s a strange experience to encounter a total stranger who, in a sense, stands naked before you. I don’t mean he was without clothing, of course. His nakedness was psychic, psychological, if you prefer. He sat there with no pretense whatsoever, no attempt to hide who and what he was. Through his unkempt hair and his rumpled and disheveled appearance, he looked up at me and smiled, and he said to me in, I swear to you, the sweetest and most loving way: “I’m an alcoholic.” That’s it, no other words, just a simple declaration of how he thought of himself. Now, I am no stranger to alcoholics. My father was one, as was my brother, and several of my uncles. In a way, I guess, it’s kind of a family trait. My partner’s mother was also, albeit one who was able to achieve a wonderful twenty-eight years of sobriety, and we have other close friends who are recovering alcoholics. I answered him and said, “Yes, I know you are,” and I gave him a dollar. Then, mostly for my own comfort, not his—I do get that—I added, “I hope you spend it on food, not on booze.” We both knew what he would probably do, but by now there was a sense whereby that no longer mattered as much. What felt more important to me was that we’d had at least a moment’s worth of honest human interaction. In that instant, he became no longer just another bum by the market door, not just a piece of human flotsam, washed up on so-called civilized shores to be seen for an instant and avoided by upright and respectable citizens. Instead, he had showed himself in the fullness of his humanity, to be sure, with glaring flaws that were uncomfortable to look at, but still, a magnificent child of the Universe.

Walt Whitman has something interesting to say about how the good people of the polis ought to act toward those who do not follow paths accepted and acceptable to society. In the prelude to his great work, “Leaves Of Grass,” he exhorts us with these words: “Give alms to every one that asks, (and) stand up for the stupid and crazy.”

What does any of this have to do with the holiday season? I wondered about that, mulling over both the unbearable sadnesses I’ve come to associate with the time of year, as well as the multiplicity of its astonishing, sometimes even its staggering sense of happiness, joy and fulfillment. Then, I recalled that the man by the door of the market that day was also singing. As my partner and I walked up to the building, we could hear him intoning some kind of a song, maybe—or so, at least, it was my wish—from a happier time in his life, from a youth perhaps when he had greater hope and, who knows, a plan for his life, someone to love and for whom he longed, whom he wanted more than anything always to be with.

Isn’t that what each of us wants? Doesn’t that get us back to the desire, the need, the awful (awe-filled) longing to be loved, not for our position in life, or what we can give, but just for who we are? Just for being children of the Divine Spirit, who deserve all the love and consideration, and yes, respect, that each of us can muster to give to the other? Here was a man with a song on his lips, who was smiling at people, at passersby who ignored and probably even feared him. What kind of a man can sing his song, all the while being snubbed and disregarded by everyone around him?

If he was crazy, as Whitman says, so what? Maybe it’s a craziness we all should long for: the ability to sing a song, while the world ignores and passes us by. Which one of us has not been hurt, terribly damaged, by the lack of love we see all around us, whether in the form of an angry, selfish, or distracted parent, or spouse, or brother, or sister, or friend—someone whom we think, or hope, should know better—or merely from some passerby, a stranger we rub shoulders with for an instant and who’s gone in the flash of a moment?

Whitman goes on to say, in that same prelude: “Here is what you shall do, love the earth and sun and all the animals.” More good advice and, I think, a good way to end one year and begin another. Because even the earth and the sun and the animals want to be loved. Because that’s part of what it means to be in the physical world. Because it’s what makes us human, and also divine. And what greater joy can any of us have than to be a part of all that?

It could be we’re prone to thinking about such things at the holidays because, for whatever reason, we hope for love more now than at other times of the year. If that’s so, then this longing—and especially this giving—is maybe what they call the holiday spirit, whether we celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah, or Kwanza, or the magnificence of the Winter Solstice. It’s a time when we light candles, so as to epitomize life and hope in the darkness. It’s a time when we should all sing a song, wherever we may be and whatever is in our hearts, as we sit in the warmth of our comfortable homes, or alone, in the cold, by the doorway of the corner market.

SUMMER AND ALL

By Paul M. Lewis

Summer is both a time of year and a state of mind. I suppose the same could be said about every season, but somehow summer seems to loom larger, brighter, more luminous. It surprised me when I first heard that Midsummer was—and still is—celebrated on June 24th . In traditionally Christian countries, this is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, sometimes called St. John’s Day. I was surprised because on or about June 21st is, scientifically speaking, the day of the Summer Solstice, its official beginning. I suppose the explanation is that, in most countries of the northern hemisphere, heading toward the end of the month of June feels like we’ve been at it for a while, as if we’ve more or less reached the middle.

When I was a boy, living in the all-Catholic-all-the-time enclave of an old industrial town of upstate New York, June was a glorious month. The first leafing out of the trees and the spring flowers were long gone. That was the job mostly of late April and early May, the Month of Mary, when we crowned the statue of the Blessed Mother with lilacs and lilies of the valley. By June, everything that grew and blossomed was at its height, and yet the leaves were still new and clean, of an ebullient verdure that made you think the world could not be a better place to live in. At last, school was finally out, and even the nuns appeared to be in a happier mood. They waved us good-bye at the classroom door, and we ran out into the wild world, free at last to explore what and when and wherever our hearts led us. It never occurred to us then that they too may have been hugely relieved to be rid of us, although from my seventy-one year old perspective today I am sure that was true. What nuns did in the summertime I never found out, but perhaps just being away from screaming children was vacation enough.

Even my parents were in a better mood. Summer was a time when we were free of the terrible burden that came with heating the house during the freezing months of winter, bills we could never somehow afford. In summer, money seemed a little less tight. And although my mother still worked—always a great sorrow to me, because I wanted her at home with us—she seemed to walk with a lighter step. As much as she could not buy the lovely clothes she probably wanted, nonetheless she always had an excellent sense of style. She liked looking good, and I always thought her especially beautiful in the flowery, light-colored dresses of summer. On the other hand, my father never dressed in anything but the same work pants and white tee shirts, sitting at home of an evening at the kitchen table after work, drinking glass after glass of Ballantine Ale. Even on his annual, single week of vacation, this is what he did, as going away on a vacation was never even dreamed of in my house. Such a thing was reserved for the houses of the rich, or so we believed. My older brother would play baseball with his buddies, while my younger sister drew hopscotch designs on the sidewalks, skipping and singing rhymes, and I and my friends would ride our bikes to the nether reaches of the city, where we were forbidden to go. Or we would build forts in a local vacant lot, filled with sumac and other trees that needed no tending to and that thrived in poor soil, but which represented jungles and forests, exotic realms of the imagination existing far, far away from where we lived our everyday lives.

Midsummer, in this sense, was a hopeful time of new beginnings. The world had miraculously come round fresh once again after the long gray winter, filled with freezing nights and snowy days, or the half-forgotten ice that turned into the dirty slush of late March and early April. We rejoiced in the heady scent of the roses, carnations and the bachelor buttons that filled people’s gardens. At night, the family would sit on the back porch, listening to the silence (no one watched television in the summer in those years, or no one we knew; that was a diversion saved only for the cold months); and we children seemed entertained enough by chasing after fireflies and enclosing them in glass jars (cruelly so, as I now think). Later, we would lie in bed, sweating in the humid air, hoping for a breeze to come through the window, or for the blessings of thunder and lightning and a great downpour of rain to cool things off. Yet, in spite of the heat and discomfort, we rejoiced in remembering the next morning was not a school day; nor did we have to face the dreaded, unmerciful Sisters of Mercy.

But by the middle of August, something had begun to change. Although we could never pinpoint exactly when that happened, suddenly we realized that the leaves were starting to look dusty, a little bedraggled, as if they had given their best and were beginning to feel the effort. The warm nights had begun to cloy and take their toll, and secretly we longed for the cooler temperatures of the coming autumn. The 15th of August was for us, in those years, that day of days, when we knew the idle moments of summer were coming to an end. Midsummer was long gone, that beginning of endless excess, at least if the very definition of excess could be doing nothing at all. The Feast of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary had arrived, seemingly as a warning. And as if to underline and reinforce the warning, this was a Holy Day of Obligation in the Catholic Church. That meant it was a day when we were required to attend mass, on pain of mortal sin. Of course, the nuns, too, were there (where had they gone all summer?), and once again we glimpsed, for the first time since the beginning of our halcyon days of freedom, those harsh representatives of discipline, control, authority, strictness, and the punishing regimen of school, class schedules and homework. In other words, what we saw before us was, in essence, the loss of freedom, descending into what Walt Whitman called “the life that exhibits itself,”—against which he railed in Leaves of Grass.

Why does all this come back to me, now that I am gray of hair and long retired from a life of work? I no longer need to care about the assignments Sister Clotilda gave us that I feared I did not know how to complete. Sister Jacinta no longer towers over me, ruler in hand, nor does Sister Barbara quote her favorite phrase to me: “the empty barrel makes the most noise.” My parents, too, are long gone, coming up on fifty years for my father, and forty-five for my mother. My brother, too, is dead, and my sister has her own physical problems. It has been decades, lifetimes it seems, since I felt I obliged to attend mass.

But summer itself still marches on, unconcerned. Here in Southern California, mid-August feels like the real Midsummer. It’s ninety degrees outside, and even September—or on into October—looms large and heat filled. And yet, I remember those far off days of childhood as if they were last week, when we ran and played and biked and explored a world of endless surprises and magical mystery.

Nowadays, I roam elsewhere, traveling the world, as I have done in the past and hope to continue doing. Yet, there is also another kind of travel that I have learned, an interior kind, one that roams the great universe. To quote Whitman again, from the “Calamus” section of his great poem:

 

“In paths untrodden,

In the growth by margins of pond waters…

Here, by myself, away from the clank of the world,

Tallying and talk’d to here by tongues aromatic,

No longer abash’d—for in this secluded spot I can

respond as I would not dare elsewhere,

Strong upon me the life that does not exhibit itself,

yet contains all the rest.”

“Yet contains all the rest.” This is the secret of the Leaves of Grass, after all, that the leaves are, themselves, all there is. Another way to say it is the whole universe is contained in every atom, in every subatomic particle. As it is in every summer, and each autumn and winter, every radiant, verdant spring. In the eternity of the moment, it is always Midsummer, or any other time of our choosing. One moment expands to fill all time, and every day is a Holy Day—though one, thankfully, with no obligation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

GRIEVING AND GROWING POTATOES

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by Kevin L Miller

Dad died six weeks ago. I had been with him and Mom three days every week until his last, and then it was every day. Somehow I still managed to plant my garden in April and May, because I had already prepared the 16 big raised beds with amended soil last summer. But as the needs of my 88 and 91-year-old mother and father increased, there was no time for the garden. And when Dad died, it was time to plan and execute a huge memorial service over a period of a month. He was an ordained minister, educator, dean, vice president, and university and seminary president in our little subculture, The Church of the Brethren. He was well known and highly respected. More importantly, he was a saint – a deeply good, humble, generous man – and everyone loved him. Over many decades, thousands looked to him as their mentor, role model, and friend. So did I, especially during these final years, when he was so accessible and open. I am doing my best to help my poor mother cope with her bewilderment and grief. Three weeks from today would have been their 69th wedding anniversary. They knew each other for over 70 years and were devoted to one another. Dad utterly worshipped my mom, and she was born to be adored. It was and is my privilege and honor to serve them as they come to the end of their lives on earth.

Sadly, some things just aren’t getting done. The wild berries on our 12 acres in the woods were not picked this year — at least, not by us — and the weeds took over my garden. I ventured into that jungle just a week ago to see if anything could be salvaged. There may yet be hope of some yield of okra, heirloom tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins. Maybe a turnip or two. And I still have lettuce. But so many other crops failed due to neglect, bugs and weeds, and the garden is generally in tatters.

I myself have been feeling at loose ends lately. Now that Dad is gone and the big memorial service and luncheon are over, what’s next? The answer is obvious: I promised Dad during the final moments of his life that I would take very good care of Mother, just before she arrived at his bedside to stroke his cheek and tell him how much she loved him, as he took his last two breaths and left us. He waited for her… and he is waiting now. Mother is relatively functional, but needs lots of help anyway, because her memory is disappearing quickly, and she has serious medical conditions, tons of medications, and weekly doctors’ appointments to be managed. We play Scrabble and Boggle when we can, and she almost always beats me resoundingly. She was a school teacher and an editor of children’s text books. The creeping dementia has not yet taken hold in her language centers, but she cannot remember her best friends’ names or her two stays in the hospital last summer, or who came to visit yesterday. I serve as her memory now.

But sometimes I wonder what comes after this intense period of getting to know both of my parents so much better than ever before. It continues to be a profoundly valuable education. I had already discovered that when one spends time with high souls who are approaching death, the veil between the two world becomes thinner and eventually almost transparent. Sometimes the curtain is drawn back and allowed to flutter in the cosmic breeze for just an instant. Then, occasionally, it is possible to catch a glimpse of Heaven. There were holy moments like that with my father, and I’m sure there will be with my mother as well. But I ask myself, after all of that is over, what will I do with the rest of my life? Then I’m embarrassed by the question, because all is well. I’ve had a productive career. I am happy and content. The world may be collapsing around us, but nothing is amiss for me. Surely, it’s not so much about WHAT one does with one’s life as HOW one does it. Still, there is a feeling of potential… some impending destiny or assignment or adventure just around the corner. I’m having visions of paintings again. Maybe that’s it.

The first time I visited my overgrown garden, I noticed that my once lush 4 x 10 ft potato bed was completely devoid of greens where there had been a thick cover of them just weeks before. I assumed insects or animals must have destroyed all the potatoes. Then it rained hard a few times, and I spied some round tops of potatoes sticking up through the bare soil. So this morning I went into the garden with my three potato spades and began excavating. Two and a half hours later I had a very respectable box of potatoes ranging from smaller than a penny to baking size. Whereas I had recently assumed the potato patch was a total loss, I was fascinated to discover that a lot of the potatoes were growing much deeper than I had thought. I settled into the dirt and really began enjoying my search for hidden treasure. I noticed that some of the best and biggest potatoes were pressed up against the walls of the raised bed, as if they wanted to challenge the boundaries of the potato universe to expand their own individual identities. I couldn’t help thinking what a fine metaphor this potato bed was for life and the development of consciousness in general. I had thought that nothing was happening in the potato patch while I attended to more pressing duties, privileges and honors — taking care of my beloved parents. But it turns out that potatoes of many different sizes and types were growing there secretly, unseen beneath the surface, all along.

So, I’ve decided not to worry about what comes next. I’m happy in the present moment, doing what I am doing now, and isn’t that what matters? While I was sitting in the dirt digging out those potatoes in the sun, I was convinced that no other activity could possibly be more satisfying or fulfilling than finding potatoes in the ground. I could have done that for the rest of my life. And perhaps I will. But maybe… just possibly… some of those more mysterious potatoes growing deep under the surface and pressed up against the walls of their world… some of those unruly potatoes might contain surprises. In fact, if the past is any kind of template, they almost certainly will. But if not, I’ll be happy just digging in the dirt. After all, I realized after two and a half hours of hard labor had yielded $15 worth of produce, that it was not the potatoes I needed… It was that invaluable time in the dirt.

 

 

SOLITUDE AND COMMUNITY: CAN WE HONOR BOTH?

By Paul M. Lewis

Nicholas Dames’ article entitled “The New Fiction” in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic magazine explores the modern novel by contrasting it with an older version of fiction, one exemplified first by Cervantes in Don Quixote. That earlier view, amplified all the more by the great nineteenth and twentieth century masters, saw fiction as essentially a way of identifying with the other. Its goal was to provide a space whereby we could step into the lives of someone so different, so removed that the reader would otherwise never have encountered such a person in life. Who could imagine, for example, that they could have come to know anyone as strange as Quasimodo, or even Jean Valjean (to conflate two of Victor Hugo’s most famous works), or Don Quixote, to bring us back once again to Cervantes? Or how could most of us have traveled with the deviant Humbert Humbert other than in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita? Yet meet them we do, and in so doing, we come to understand at some deeper level what it is like to be them.

In the postmodern novel, however, this empathic “expansion of the moral imagination,” as Dames puts it, is not the goal. Instead, contemporary novelists, who eschew older forms of writing, concentrate not so much on our ability to pass outside the boundaries of our own skin, as on the need to understand and anchor the concept of the self. In a world where we are incessantly interconnected electronically, they seem to be asking, how are we to know who we really are? There isn’t so much a need to understand and feel with another, as there is to delve into and inhabit our own ego identity, which we are in danger of losing, or have already lost. A term that has come into use for this type of writing is “autofiction.” Dames defines it as “denoting a genre that refuses to distinguish between fiction and truth, imagination and reality, by merging the forms of autobiography and the novel.” The goal—if that is not too atavistic a term to use in this context—seems to be to reveal, even to revel in, one’s isolation, one’s aloneness, in our inability to know, or be known by, another. Each of us exists in our own solitude, and that solitary state is essentially unbridgeable, except—and here is the irony—by the very revelation of the singularity of our individuality. Otherwise, if that were not possible, then why write at all? The writer’s separateness can, in some way, teach the rest of us how “to soothe our isolation,” though we incongruously still need the hermitic distinctiveness of our solitary selves in order to understand, and even to appreciate, the individuality of our own humanity.

All this may come across as overly highbrow, as some sort of precious or recherché affectation, almost a kind of faux exploration of life in the twenty-first century. For the most part, those of us who still read at all tend to do so for the traditional reason, that is, in the hope of getting to know the other. Even Pres. Obama noted this, as was reported in the same Atlantic magazine article. Harkening back to that older view of the meaning of fiction, he said that what he had learned from novels was “the notion that it’s possible to connect with some [one] else even though they’re very different from you.” He went on to say he lamented the demise of fiction reading in our culture and said he believed that this pointed to a concomitant loss of empathy in the country and the world.

Still, can it be said unequivocally that all this business about the meaning of literature might just be highfaluting claptrap, a thing dreamed up by critics so as to show off a fancy vocabulary or, more nefariously, by publishers in order to sell books? I think not. The basic notions of identity, of isolation, and of empathy really are important to each of us, whether we think about them in conscious ways, or not. Of course, no one necessarily has to read a novel, of whatever genre or era, in order to feel for another, or to realize their own essential aloneness. These existential states of being come of their own accord in the process of living, in the misery of a bereft childhood, or the toxic stew of an inherited chemical imbalance; or they invite themselves into our psyches by the blunt-force trauma that everyday life can sometimes bring with it. In other words, living can be its own kind of suffering. As Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great nineteenth century poet, put it, “This in drudgery, day-labouring-out life’s age.”

A question that each of us ultimately faces in life, whether it be head-on or more obliquely, is how do we overcome what is our essential aloneness? How do we reach out beyond our “bone house,” to quote Hopkins again, that is, beyond the awful—and awe-filled—barrier that is the end of our own skin, and in some way connect with another? Love, of course, is the simple answer. But how successful are any of us at that? How many times do we stumble, fall and go crashing to the ground in our hasty, or confining, or clinging attempts to reach out lovingly? And if love demands a certain kind of selflessness, an overcoming of the all too self-centered ego, how often are we able to achieve that?

Literature, in all of its varieties, can teach us something about these fundamental questions and help the reader, or the watcher/listener if we are talking about drama, attempt the frightening leap across that impassible barrier, out into the abyss, in the hope of grabbing hold of some other frightened leaper. In this sense, the conflict between traditional and post-modern writing may only be an apparent one. In the case of the former, the traditional role of literature, the identity of the leaper is assumed (that is, it’s ourselves), and the reader then can empathize with the character “out there.” In terms of the latter, the post-modern vision, the assumption that we don’t know who we are may simply be the next logical step in the evolution of that outreach. Literary self-exposure is another way of looking into the mirror and saying to ourselves: yes, that’s me and not another; this is my hyper-personal expression of the utter uniqueness that is my individuality. It’s what makes each of us human, or at least what contributes to our understanding, our belief, that we are all different in ways that cannot ever fully be explained or communicated. If love is to be the answer as to how to span the unbridgeable gap, it must assume two (at least two) individuals; otherwise, there is no abyss to be bridged at all. Both love and literature demand separateness. Postmodern writing merely emphasizes the “I,” while traditional literature highlights the “he, she, or they” in the equation.

The answer to the question of whether or not we can honor both solitude and community is that one needs the other. The relentless modern attempt to reach out electronically, to text and to tweet, or to have FaceTime, may be emblematic of overwrought and overworked lives. Even so, it is after all a kind of reaching out. It’s true that we don’t have to read postmodern novels to understand we are alone; nor do we have to plow through Cervantes, or Hugo, or Tolstoy, or Faulkner to put ourselves in someone else’s skin. But it can’t hurt. That’s another way of saying that literature benefits us, that it reflects and explains the parts of ourselves that all too often escape us, as we go about the quotidian business of living. It reveals a deeper level of our being that slips and slides among the shadows and hides from the harsh, revelatory light of day. It grabs at the core of who we are, even when we don’t know—at least consciously—who that is, and flings the pieces of that identity, fragmentary as they may be, across the unbreachable chasm that stands between us.

We may be utterly alone in that no one will ever be fully capable of plumbing the profundity of our inner most being. Maybe we can’t do that even for ourselves. But we live with the hope, even the promise, of connecting with another and, in the end, that may be enough. This is what excellent writing can do, and why storytelling, in whatever form, which is what fiction is about after all, will always be with us.

ELDERCARE – Can’t We Do Better?

by Kevin L Miller

Recently the well-respected “full service” retirement community where my parents are living into very old age, asked me to participate in their “customer satisfaction survey,” which turned out to be a perfunctory and shallow questionnaire about surface appearances rather than the real life experiences of the residents. Our family has found it absolutely essential to provide a family member advocate and caregiver on campus for eight hours per day, at least three or four days per week. Even with our involvement, major medications are missed, essential dietary guidelines are violated, and doctors’ orders are violated or overlooked. But those problems are minor in comparison to the heartbreak our parents are experiencing due to being separated after 68 years of marriage. So, I wrote a letter to the retirement community in order to give them real customer feedback and ask them, “Can’t we do better?”

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Why am I writing to you?

Yesterday one of your research associates called to interview me for your Customer Satisfaction Survey. As the son of two prominent residents, and friend to many others in that community, I have been very involved in advocating for my parents’ care and quality of life over the last several years. This experience has challenged me to think deeply about the issues you are facing in serving my parents’ needs, and some challenges you and the entire eldercare system, along with associated medical and living services, will have to grapple with in the future to offer eldercare to the next generation target markets, which may have very different circumstances and needs. I indicated to your interviewer that I would be happy to offer a much longer, in-depth interview by phone or in person about these expanded observations and implications. She invited me to write you a letter. So here it is:

1. Life-long lovers & companions separated after 68 years of marriage… How can this be right?

Seven months ago in August our family gathered in my parents’ large independent living apartment at the retirement community to celebrate their 68th wedding anniversary. Even then, we knew that a week later Dad would have to move into the skilled nursing facility (which the residents call “the hospital”) because he has advanced Parkinson’s Disease. The combination of Mom’s presence, family help, and in-home unskilled aides was no longer sufficient to safely and effectively care for him. So, on Aug 31, 2015, after 68 years of marriage, our parents were separated.

Before that day Mom had never lived alone for even one day in her life. Dad lives for her, and since his move into skilled nursing he has not stopped asking to return home to be by her side. Despite serious health issues of her own and great difficulty walking, Mother spends every morning and afternoon with Dad. I am there full time, three days per week. Other family members and large numbers of friends visit frequently. But our parents are heart-broken. Dad feels that he has fallen into a “trap from which there is no escape,” and our entire family is engaged in a constant racking of our collective brains to try to find a better solution. So far we have failed.

Could your retirement facility lead the way to innovate new models of eldercare that would allow couples to remain together even when they each develop very different kinds of care needs?

Confession and apologies

Here I must confess and apologize for the fact that I have precious few answers or solutions to offer regarding these very difficult challenges. But I think my family and I do have some sense of the kinds of questions that are important to ask at this juncture in the history of American eldercare, and more to the point, at this stage in your institutional mission. These are questions about what people need and where it hurts. They are questions that point to an evolving society and economy with rapidly changing requirements. How will you and other eldercare institutions survive the tsunami of change that is coming? The question above about separating life-long lovers is one piece of the puzzle. Here are some other questions:

2. How can you maintain the highest possible quality of life and sense of autonomy for residents after they become physically invalid, lose their short-term memory, and/or succumb to dementia?

Dad lives in the present moment with no memory of the recent past, but he has a strong mind in many other ways. He frequently asks where he is and does not understand why he cannot be with Mother. If he had the ability to retain a basic understanding of his current situation, it would be so helpful, but he can’t.

Yesterday I finished reading aloud to Dad and Mother his entire 242-page autobiography about the part of his life that he DOES remember — his excitingly active life and brilliant career as a minister, college professor, dean and vice president in four colleges, and eventually president of a Los Angeles university and finally president of Bethany Theological Seminary. It’s a riveting book. Everyone’s life is a riveting book! Dad is lucky. He has family with him for four hours every day and many other visitors come as well. I notice that the others on his ward seem to receive very few visitors. Some sit in their wheelchairs in the hallway, eyes glued to the locked entrance, hoping to see a familiar face, or figure out a way to escape. Many are abandoned and alone. Dad is dissatisfied with his current situation, but many of his neighbors are hopeless and bitter. Again, Dad is one of the lucky ones.

How can eldercare institutions raise the quality of life for all residents, including the less fortunate abandoned ones?

3. How can your excellent staff be empowered to enrich the lives of the residents?

All the residents in Dad’s “hospital” ward live in a beautifully appointed warehouse where they are tended by very kind, well-meaning, efficient and even loving staff members who do not have enough help to give each individual the attention s/he deserves. Some of these staff members are really stellar: The head nurse is a saint — always smiling and generous, no matter how much chaos descends upon her. Several certified nursing assistants are like that too. And one big guy is truly wonderful with our Dad who says of this gentle giant, “We pall around a lot. I like him.” One day when  he came to Dad’s room to walk him to supper, he asked Dad if he was ready to eat. Dad replied, “Yes, but I’d rather sit and talk with you.” Of course, that’s not possible. The gentle giant is constantly in demand with way too much to do. And this is only one of his two full-time jobs, which suggests that he may not be paid well enough for the heroic services he renders.

It is worth noting here that, while the full-time staff is simply excellent, there are not enough of them to fulfill the service demands of such a large institution, which is often forced to hire outside contractors — both skilled nurses and unskilled aides — who do not know the residents or their needs. I have talked to some of these substitute contractors, and they report that they do not receive any orientation or instruction but are thrown directly into assignments without preparation of any kind.

Could your institution expand its wonderful full-time staff? Could some kind of orientation / instruction be offered to outside contractors if they have to be called in to fill gaps? I’m sure the contractors are well-meaning and hard-working, but nobody can do any job without some form of preparation.

4. How can communication & information exchange become seamless in the eldercare system?

When we had to move Dad from their independent living apartment to the skilled nursing facility, my brother and I sat down with your very responsive administrators to discuss Dad’s special needs — key among them, a “soft mechanical diet” of pureed foods and thickened liquids to prevent aspiration which is one of the chief causes of death among advanced Parkinson’s patients. They agreed, but the news somehow did not get to the skilled nursing staff. We had another meeting a week later to underscore the fact that the soft diet and thickened liquids are imperative. Even six weeks later, when an outside contractor nurse was on duty and tried to give Dad regular thin liquids, I discovered that the requirement for thickened liquids was not on his chart. She checked! It wasn’t there. We added it.

During the same period when Dad was moved to skilled nursing, Mother was rushed from the retirement community to the city hospital four times in six weeks, and twice hospitalized. If I or another family member had not been there to brief the emergency and hospital teams on the specifics of her condition, they would have been working blind with little information about her recent medical history, episodes, and general condition. She also has short term memory problems now, and besides, when she was taken to the hospital, she was not in any condition to answer any questions at all.

After her last hospitalization, Mom was released to the short-term skilled nursing facility on your campus, where she stayed for nine days. I found out near the end of that period that somehow, her Coumadin medication specifications had not followed her to the hospital and then to short-term skilled nursing, and they had stopped administering this very important heart condition medication!

Is there a way to be a lot more comprehensive about detailed communications and information exchange among the various wings of the eldercare and healthcare systems?

What other forms of communication and information exchange could be added to the current regime to enhance the quality of life for all residents and their loved ones and caregivers?

5. How will eldercare institutions appeal to rapidly changing future target markets?

I know that there are lots of conversations going on about this question throughout the eldercare world, because the administrations of these institutions see a tsunami of change coming: Boomers have not been able to save for retirement as successfully as their parents did, and often have very different hopes, needs, and expectations about the whole nature of retirement than did the Greatest Generation. Indeed, we Boomers tend not to think of ourselves as “retiring” but as transitioning to a new lifestyle in which we will have the opportunity to fulfill new missions and realize some of the dreams we were not able to pursue during our professional years. We tend not to envision ourselves in a standard retirement community, because that model looks limiting and narrow to us. Many of us want something that seems more like the “real world” and less like what I have called “The Disneyland of Death.”

We wish our American society might wake up and understand how much experience, expertise and, yes, wisdom, we have acquired over a lifetime of hard work, and value what we have to contribute. In short, many of us want to be more fully integrated into society instead of being cordoned off in beautiful warehouse facilities for the elderly. We know that we have a lot to offer and we intend to do so. As I think about my own very diverse group of friends, I believe they would ask questions like these:

  • Where is the diversity in retirement communities? Why are there no Black, Asian, Hispanic, or Gay, residents? Why don’t the campus demographics look more like the rest of America?
  • If I lived there, where would I make my huge sculptures and paintings?
  • How would I be able to build rooms onto my dwelling? I can’t live without building things!
  • Where would I rebuild my race cars and work on my motorcycles?
  • How could I start my new cottage industry and sell my products?
  • Where would my rock band practice for many hours every week?
  • How could I keep all of my animals and plants?
  • How could I have a garden and put up a pantry of canned and preserved foods?
  • The doors to the independent living apartments are locked at 8:00 pm! How am I going to have a night life and bring guests home if I can’t get in after 8:00 pm? I’m NOT a child!
  • What if I want to host a seminar or symposium or a big family reunion or a political rally or a church event and have lots of guests for a whole week?
  • Can my spouse and I stay together even after our medical needs diverge?
  • Will my same-sex spouse and I be accepted in this retirement community?
  • I haven’t saved enough money for retirement. Do you have any options for me?
  • How can I retain control and autonomy over my own life all the way to the end and be allowed to die the way I want to die? I insist on the most fulfilling death possible for me.
  • Can I stay at home with access to increased healthcare and other services?
  • I don’t want to live in an “old folks home,” but I know I’m going to need some kind of help. What are my options? Aren’t there any other models of eldercare that I can consider?

Potential Next Steps and an Offer

As previously advertised, this letter contains lots of questions and not many answers. However, aren’t some of the solutions implied in the questions? I think they are. And if you pose these kinds of questions to a diverse group of stakeholders – your own administrators, staff, independent contractors, suppliers, residents, their families, prospective customers, and outside experts – in a multi-day ideation session, you will begin to hear some innovative concepts for new and exciting approaches to eldercare.

This is clearly beyond the scope of your current survey, but if you are interested in taking a next step toward exploring new forms and approaches to your products and services for the future, my brother and I have been offering those kinds of ideation programs to Fortune 500 companies and other institutions for well over 25 years, and we would be glad to be of service. Some of our team would stay out of content to facilitate the innovation session, and others would sit with the participants and offer ideas to add to the mix. Of course, your decision-makers would make the final selection of a set of ideas to develop for further consideration.

Finally, if your administration would like to discuss any of these questions, ideas and proposals further, please feel free to respond to this letter or give me a call. I wish you all the best in your survey. I am confident that current residents will respond very positively. The themes explored in this letter are primarily focused on how to appeal to future target markets.

Sincerely, — Kevin

Post Script: Two staff members acknowledged receiving my letter, but no further discussion of the letter was pursued. I continue to wonder, “Can’t we do better?”

IS THE PRICE WORTH IT?

By Paul M. Lewis

What is the real value of something? How much does it cost? These are the questions Arthur Miller is asking in his play, The Price, now in revival at the Mark Taper Forum in downtown Los Angeles. The question is meant to be asked on every level: the monetary, the emotional, and what might be called the karmic.

Here, in brief, is a synopsis, for anyone unfamiliar with this mid-career work of Miller’s, albeit not one of his more famous. Two brothers come together in the attic of their long-dead father’s apartment building, itself slated for demolition. The space is filled with old furniture, some of which may or may not still be valuable. Estranged for many years, the brothers, along with the wife of one of them, must come to terms with a used furniture buyer, who is setting a price on the things, the physical objects that are in a sense all that is left of the family. Naturally, Miller being Miller, we soon come to know the heartache that is the relationship of the brothers with each other, and which typified their relationship with their father, a once wealthy businessman, who lost everything in the Great Depression. The younger son, Victor, had remained to take care of the old man, while his brother, Walter, went off to pursue his education, and ultimately to become a successful physician. The stay-at-home brother, instead of pursing his own schooling, gave it all up and became a policeman, those perennial guardians of law and order. And during the course of the play, we come to realize how great was the price of Victor’s devotion to his father. His wife, too, pays a price for her loyalty, as much as she resents it and wishes they had more to show for their lives. But Walter, the prodigal son, now wealthy and divorced, refuses to feel guilty for doing what he wanted. Yet, he too ultimately has his own debts to pay off. Meanwhile, Mr. Solomon, the old furniture dealer, bargains and haggles about how much all this family stuff is actually worth. “When it comes to used furniture,” he tells them, “you can’t be sentimental.”

Victor, who sacrificed all to keep his father alive during the Depression, clings to the notion that what he did was done out of fealty and love. They literally ate garbage in order to survive, and in the process he gave up his dreams of becoming a scientist. Feelings of resentment, of bitterness, of misplaced loyalties, are rife between the two brothers, and the once elegant, now out-of-fashion furniture, stacked to the ceiling in the dusty garret, and the other odds and ends of family life stuffed into armoires and chests of drawers, come to symbolize envy and jealousy, old hurts both conscious and unconscious, and the lost opportunities of life.

At a more fundamental level, Miller may also be suggesting that the ultimate question we have to deal with relates more to how we construct our lives. What responsibility does each of us have for the choices we make? Perhaps the hardest question of all to answer is, who is to blame, if our lives do not work in accordance with our dreams? Can we hold our parents accountable? And if so, why not they theirs, and their parents before them? How far back do we go? Though this is not to deny the fact that some have it easier than others. Those who come from warm and well-functioning families (unless the very idea of such thing is its own myth), those with roots in wealth, or whose parents have connections, those able to get an ivy league education have the advantage, do they not?

It’s axiomatic that not everyone starts out equal, either in terms of wealth, or health, or family experience, or even in regard to the security and stability of the country they were born in. Think, for example, of the children these days living in Ukraine, or Syria, or Iraq, to name only a few of the more obvious places. Background—where we come from—counts, there is no doubt. And yet, in spite of this, the existential question still remains for each of us: can we construct our own lives, or are we pawns, prisoners essentially, of our circumstances?

The play may be hinting at a corollary of the above, as well, another question of equal import: how do we go about creating our lives, and what is the price for doing so? Economists believe there is a cost-benefit ratio involved with any choice we make. And every individual must decide for him or herself if the price paid is worth the value of the thing desired. This works with buying a new car, as much as it does with getting an education, entering into a relationship, or deciding on a treatment for an illness. There is always a plus and a minus, a give and a take in any bargain we make.

This question of what it costs us to create our lives, in terms of time, of energy, of focus, of determination, of sheer willpower is, in one sense, western and very modernist in its conceptualization. It is all about the individual. It raises him or her to the top of the pyramid, putting that person at the pinnacle of importance. In societies where the group reigns supreme, where what is best is the good of the collective, the answers are in some sense simpler. You do what the family decides you ought to, following a traditional pattern, or at very least pursuing a career that brings wealth and prestige to the familial group. Personal and private predilections remain secondary.

But there are fewer and fewer such group cultures left in the modern world. Even in traditional places such as China or Japan, or other areas of Asia, children are more and more choosing their own future, irrespective of what mom and dad feel is best either for them or for the family. Western individualism has spread either like a virus, or like a cleansing wind, depending on your perspective. And it should be noted that Arthur Miller wrote The Price in 1968, itself a year of great tumult, when a new generation was rebelling against the strictures of the old.

Think for a moment what else happened that fateful year: the Vietnam War was raging, along with the anti-war movement; we witnessed the assassinations of both Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy; the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia; street riots paralyzed France for a full month (I was there and participated in them); the police moved against demonstrators at the Democratic National Convention; thirty-two African nations boycotted the Summer Olympics in protest against apartheid South Africa’s participation in the games; draft cards were burned by the thousands; Nixon was elected president by a mere .07% of the popular vote; and Apollo 8 began the first US mission to orbit the moon.

There was a price to pay for all this. Because there always is, and not just personally in terms of what we do, how we create ourselves, or how that effects other people in the family. Our actions and our choices have far wider consequences. And it is this notion that I feel may be the real, underlying theme of the play my partner and I saw at the Taper. What we do in the world has repercussions, as surely as a pebble thrown into a still pond. Ripples inevitably appear, bigger or smaller, depending on the size and the purport of our actions.

As such, it behooves us to pay attention. The first rule is perhaps to know oneself. What do we want? What will we do to get it? And then, how will it affect other people and their lives? At the end of the play, the old used furniture salesman, the ancient of days, who symbolizes—what?—those tricksters greed and time, but also compassion and wisdom (his name, after all, is Solomon), and all that we both most want and fear in life, sits alone like a ghost in the chair of the long-dead father, laughing uproariously at all he sees before him. It’s up to each of us to decide if the price of what we do is worth it, for ourselves, for others, and for the world at large.

THE LOVELY APRIL OF HER PRIME

By Paul M. Lewis

If my mother were alive, she would have turned ninety-five years old today. Not an impossibility, of course, since many of us know people whose parents are in their nineties. Yet, she died forty-five years ago, in 1970, when she was just fifty years old.

No doubt, everyone thinks of his or her mother as a special person, and it’s an old saw among the Irish that you practically have to say of your mother: “She was a saint.” But it’s also true that this happens to quite accurately describe my mother. Her name was Kathleen, or Kay, as she usually went by, and she was the most loving and compassionate person whom I have ever had the privilege of knowing. She worried about everyone: her own children, first of all, but other people’s children, too, as well as friends and relatives. Sadly, she fretted greatly about money, as well, of which we had very little. And she worried especially about her husband, my father, who hated his job in the local sandpaper factory, and whose intelligence—it must be said—ought to have insured a better position for him, one where he could have used his mind, rather than just his hands in so mechanical a way.

Intellectuality was not my mother’s greatest gift. I am not speaking here of native intelligence, you understand, but of what used to glibly be referred to as book-learning. She never graduated from high school, seldom read, aside from the occasional perusal of the local newspaper, and was not drawn to an overly cerebral, philosophical way of looking at the world, as was my father. No, she approached life as a thing to be cherished and taken care of, a gift from God to be nurtured and nourished, cultivated and encouraged. She saw life as a benefit freely bestowed, a thing not to be taken for granted.

Although she grew up during the Great Depression and had very real money worries, I never saw in her that persistent, underlying fear of there not being enough, so prevalent among many of that generation. The household she was reared in was entirely feminine. Her own father, my grandfather, met and married her mother, Katy, in what I always think must have been a whirlwind romance. Although no pictures of him exist, he was—or so my imagination likes to project—a dashing fellow. A baseball player for the Montreal Royals, one of the minor league teams of the era, he came with the team to upstate New York to play against the Albany Senators. Though family lore has not recorded just how, this handsome young French-Canadian, who went by the unlikely name of Pierre-Napoleon, somehow met a local Irish-American girl named Katy, and the two were married soon thereafter. Dates here are fuzzy, but the unstated suggestion has always been that Katy may have conceived before the blessings of wedlock were conferred, and she gave birth to Kathleen, my mother, on the 19th of February 1920. Soon thereafter, Pierre-Napoleon disappeared from sight, presumably hightailing it back to Montreal, and no one ever saw or heard from him again. In those days, such legal niceties as child support did not exist, and so Katy moved back in with her own mother, a widow by that time, and the two ladies raised my mother.

I don’t know where my own parents met. One of the many disadvantages of losing one’s parents early on is that there is no longer the opportunity for their children, later in life, when they might themselves be more settled and possibly interested in such matters, to ask these kinds of question. She married Francis (Frank) Lewis in 1940. Not long after, my father was drafted into the navy and served on a destroyer-escort in the North Atlantic, the USS Moffett, during the Second World War. He came home a few times on leave to spend a week or two with his young bride, and during one of those visits I was conceived. He didn’t return home for good until late 1945.

The years that ensued after the war were typical enough for many young couples of the time. My father got a job in a local factory, and my mother worked in a department store in Troy, New York, selling negligees to ladies much richer than she. We never owned a car, and my father walked the twelve blocks to work each morning; she took the bus because her feet always hurt her. Kathleen had five children, two of whom died soon after they were born, and there was struggle enough to raise the remaining three. Her husband was unhappy at work, and in much of life, although not in his marriage, and drank too much. She often had to work evenings at the department store, and the household was a miserable place when she was not there to lighten and brighten things up.

Because of smoking and drinking and, I always believed, failed aspirations and the bitter disappointment of his own life, my father died even younger than my mother. He was forty-seven years old. A few years later, my mother met a nice Italian man by the name of Carlo, and they enjoyed each other’s company for a few years. By then, she was working in the same sandpaper factory where my father had died, since the money was better than anything that could be made as a saleslady. She and Carlo went dancing on Saturday nights, and occasionally out to dinner, things she could never afford to do with Frank, and she seemed happy.

Not that there hadn’t been sorrows aplenty in her life: my father’s drinking, his early death, my brother’s drinking, my sister’s scoliosis and, I suppose, my own entry into the monastery at age fourteen. Far too young, she thought, as much as she never tried to stop me. It was considered a high honor in those years if one of your children had what was referred to as a vocation. Maybe people just thought of it as insurance for a better place in heaven. The church held great moral suasion in those days, far more than it does today. Even so, years later, after I left the monastery and my mother was still living, she told me that she had confessed to the priest that she and my father used birth control, as they could not afford to raise even the three children they had, let alone any more. In turn, the priest told her: “If you do not repent and stop using artificial birth control, you will burn in hell for all eternity. If you wish not to have any more children, cease having relations with your husband.” This was merely the first of many things that turned me against the Catholic Church, with its inhuman, rigid, and doctrinaire legalism.

Obviously, this priest did not know my mother. Anyone who did could never imagine a God by whatever name condemning her for anything. The Hindus speak of Divine Mother, and I have always felt as though my mother was a kind of reflection of that image, filled with great warmth and kindness and a profound empathy for her fellow beings.

Shakespeare writes in one of his early sonnets: “Thou art thy mother’s glass and she in thee/Calls back the lovely April of her prime.” It has always seemed to me that the highest goal I could strive for in life was to be some amalgam of my parents, combining my father’s intellectualism, his love for learning and of the written word, with my mother’s immense capacity for sensitivity and her concern for the sufferings of all living creatures.

I’ve never felt that I have been able to fully live up to either one of these aspirations, but it’s enough perhaps to keep on trying. On this day of celebration and remembrance, I wish my mother the happiest of birthdays. I am more thankful than I can ever express that she was born to Katy and Pierre-Napoleon. May she live long in my memory, and in my efforts to be like her. What better way to lead one’s life, I tell myself, than to do what I can to call back that lovely April of her prime?

CHRISTMAS — THEN AND NOW

By Paul M. Lewis

Not everyone likes Christmas. Certainly not the way I do. And I’m not just talking about those who weren’t raised within the yuletide tradition. Jews, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, atheist, et al. all have different feelings about the holiday. I get that, and of course, respect it. It even sometimes surprises me that I like the season as much as I do, given the fact that I no longer consider myself a Catholic, or even a Christian, or a member of any organized religion, for that matter.

Even so, I don’t deny that the memories are still there. Childhood in upstate New York with its snow swirling, cold biting, the wind howling. Inside was warm and cozy, or it was supposed to be anyway. And sometimes it was, except when my parents were consumed with worry about money, as they almost always were, or when Dad was drunk, as he was every night, or Mom had to work evenings, as she usually did, at the local department store over in Troy, selling undergarments to ladies much richer than she. Yet there was a tree, and somehow presents under the tree, and always turkey for dinner on the big day itself. So, things could have been much worse, and were for some.

I can also still see our parish church, St. Patrick’s, just across the street from the house: poinsettias, Midnight Mass, and a lovely manger scene set up just in front of the altar in honor of the Blessed Mother. She was, after all, the real star of the show. At least, that’s how the story came down to me back in those years. She and Joseph, who was pretty much a silent partner without a lot of clout, were the ones who had to go searching for a place to stay after Caesar Augustus came forth with his decree about paying taxes, and the two had to travel all the way to Bethlehem and wound up in a stable, when there were no rooms available in the inn. I always figured the stable couldn’t have been a very comfortable place, especially for Mary. But the infant Jesus didn’t know much at that point anyway, except we were always taught that He knew everything, so wouldn’t He have known how hard it was on his mother? And yet, he didn’t do anything about it; He didn’t find a nice warm room for her, even though He could have, being all-powerful and all. We were never told why He didn’t get a nicer room for her, but then I was a kid, and there were lots of things about the adult world that I didn’t get, and even feared I might never understand, so I just accepted things as a sort of given. The Church wasn’t big on being asked too many probing questions anyway, and the nuns could be pretty brutal, so best to keep you head down and your mouth shut. Silence was golden, as my 8th grade teacher, Sister Mary Barbara, was fond of reminding us, and the empty barrel makes the most noise. And who wants to be an empty barrel?

In those years, it seemed natural to believe everything I was told, and I did take things literally. In that, I was no exception. Pretty much everyone I knew did the same thing, and I’m not just talking about the kids. Most of the adults I knew did, too. Some people still do. Remember all of those Christmas cards people used to send with idealized scenes of the manger and the stable, ironically, contradictorily depicting it as simultaneously both ethereal and shoddy? Broken down, open to the weather. Usually a nighttime snowy scene with shepherds, and sheep, and lavishly berobed Magi in flowing garments, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, even though the Feast of the Epiphany, when the Magi actually were supposed to have arrived, didn’t take place until January 6th. Oddly, I thought, nobody ever looked cold, or uncomfortable, or particularly concerned that this young woman was giving birth surrounded by a bunch of farm animals. Not the most hygienic of places to give birth to the Savior of the world.

So, that was then. But what of now? I live in a different world at this point. It’s true that my partner and I still have a tree, one actually more elaborately decorated than any I ever knew as a kid. And there’s lots of good food, which I eat too much of, and try to burn the calories off at the gym each day. My partner is a terrific cook, so it’s hard to resist. We give gifts, and we make dinner for friends, some of whom we only get to visit with once a year, and we generally have a really nice time. Admittedly, there’s no snow here in Southern California, but we consider ourselves lucky if we have cool, rainy weather, which we’ve had a good amount of so far this season. And of course, there’s music. I love all the singing (well, except for some of the really inane songs that were so popular back in the 50’s and the 60’s that they still play: “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” – really?). No, I’m much more attracted to the old standbys, by which I mostly mean the traditional carols.

But I don’t take them literally anymore. I don’t take much of anything related to spirituality literally. The point is it’s all symbolic, and to imagine a God-child born to an earthly mother (in a stable or not), who had conceived Him immaculately, which is to say, asexually, impregnated by the word of a visiting angel, all this seems a little much. Far better to think of it as referencing a kind of beginning, a new birth if you will, of higher consciousness within each person. The angels we have heard on high are our own higher power speaking to us, implanting notions of elevated awareness within ourselves. That’s the birth we ought to be celebrating, since it’s an actual possibility, one that each of us can work to bring about in our own lives.

It doesn’t matter who we are. Whatever our race may be, or our gender, our religious affiliation (if any), our sexual orientation, our nationality, our age, our looks, our degree of material wealth, our state of health, et cetera, we’re all capable of elevating our consciousness. I understand that this doesn’t accord very well what lots of religious teachers preach, but then I don’t listen to them anymore. The birth of our own higher consciousness ought to tell us that the rigidity of the do’s and don’ts of organized religions are too often excuses for manipulating people, making them feel guilty of transgressions (sins, so-called), with the ultimate goal of controlling both how people think and how they act. Glory to the newborn King! Yes, definitely. Except the king is our own elevated understanding of what it means to be both fully human, and more than human. As the Irish poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, says so beautifully: “Man’s spirit will be flesh-bound, when found at best; but uncumberèd.”

And I’m not even saying I have anything against people taking these stories literally either, if they wish. Why not? If people find comfort in them, and if belief in the virgin birth of Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger puts joy in their hearts, who am I to say it shouldn’t be? I just wish that some of those people who believe these things in a literal way would give those of us who don’t a little room to make that all right, too

It’s true that not everyone celebrates Christmas. But whether we think of Chanukah, the birth of the Infant Jesus, the symbolic birth of Christ Consciousness, or just the turning of the year at the Winter Solstice, there really does seem to be an atmosphere of peace and joy around at this time. Longfellow once famously wrote: “The holiest of all holidays are those/Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;/The secret anniversaries of the heart.”

So, I say, it’s an excellent time for quiet reflection. Dare I even mention meditation? And if, for whatever reason, you still don’t feel some special presence this season, that’s fine, too. What’s maybe most important is that we act properly, treat others with respect, and would it kill any of us to smile a little more? Who knows? As actors discovered long ago, if you play the part right, it could well be you’ll begin to feel it, too. And in the end, that just may be the best holiday present any of us could give to those we love.

WRITING “AFTER THE DEVASTATION”

By Paul M. Lewis

It has been some time since I have written on this blog, and to those who read it on anything like a regular basis, I offer my apologies. What has been keeping me otherwise occupied is working on a novel that I originally wrote several years ago

The history of writing the novel goes something like this. Just before I retired at the end of the year 2006, I had a strikingly vivid dream. It was so powerful, and imposed itself so on me, that it woke me from sleep at 3 o’clock in the morning. I sat up and thought about it, but not wanting to awaken my partner, I went into another room and wrote it down. Basically, the dream gave me the broad outline of the book that I came to write. There are three parts to it, and each part was vividly laid out for me. This is what came directly from my subconscious mind. The characters described come, I suppose, from a combination of my conscious mind and the parts of my subconscious that leak out in ways that are both known and unknown to me. The “I” that speaks its name, that is, this amalgam of the aware and the unaware, the mindful and the slumberous, the cognizant and the incognizant that I normally think of and refer to as “me” is responsible for the detail of the story.

But the question that may legitimately pose itself is this: if I wrote the novel several years ago, why am I only now publishing it? That requires some small bit of explanation. The original writing of it took eighteen months. I wrote every day, and was utterly engrossed in it. The story followed the main outline of the original dream, but I had to create individuals to populate this superstructure, as well as plot, and of course conflict. The conflict was both easy and difficult for me. On the one hand, I have always been hyper-aware of conflict, both in my immediate surroundings and in the wider world. There is never, it seems, surcease of conflict. On the other hand, I have also never liked conflict, and my natural tendency is to shy away from it. Yet, you cannot write a novel without embedding discord, dissension and strife of various kinds within it. So, there is that aplenty in the novel. As an aside, all this reminds me of a story I once read about the great Bengali writer and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore. He was spinning a story for his granddaughter, who loved to listen to the various tales he would create just for her. But in this one instance, his story was going on and on, and he was elderly and getting tired. So he began bringing it to an end. However, the granddaughter had other ideas, and each time he would make a move toward an ending, she would say to her grandfather that this or that then happened to the heroine, and so it couldn’t be the end yet. As Tagore later noted, there is no ending a story until the conflict is resolved. Or, I suppose, another way of thinking of it is, the story goes on and on, and it never fully ends. Whatever end we come up with is always a temporary one.

Once the novel was finished, with lots of help from friends, I attempted to find an agent and get it published. However, as an unknown author with an untested novel, no one was willing to take me on. I cannot say that I blame them. The publishing world has changed drastically in the last several years, and continues to change. As a result, I put the novel away for the next few years. It literally sat in a drawer, or in a file on the computer (some of both, actually), until just recently. What happened then was that I was about to turn 70 years old. As that birthday approached, I said to myself that if I am ever going to publish this, to give it a chance to be seen by a wider world than my own eyes, or only by my partner and a few willing friends, I had no choice but to self-publish. And this has been what I have been in the process of doing

Fortuitously, all of this coincided with my partner’s retirement from work. As such, I coopted him (he was more than willing) to make use of his excellent editorial services. We both read through the novel three or four times, depending on how you count, and in the process he made many extremely useful suggestions. I will not say that I took every one, but I did incorporate many of them. And I think, or at least it is my hope, that the novel is the better as a result.

So, I have now submitted the work to the publisher (Lulu.com), and they have just begun to work their own magic. I want to add here too that my old friend and blog-partner, Kevin, who is one of the finest artists I know, was kind enough to agree to create cover art for the novel. I cannot yet say exactly when the novel will be ready, but I am hopeful that sometime in the next couple of months, six at the outside, it will be available.

The novel itself is called After the Devastation, and a brief description of it goes something like this: The year is 2024, and the world is teetering on the brink of global environmental disaster and nuclear war. Nora tells her husband, Aden, she’s leaving to report on a crucial meeting at the new Chicago headquarters of the UN. With the world about to fall apart, this is the last thing he wants to hear. A professor and environmental specialist, Aden understands all too well the risks and dangers involved. But the worst does happen, and the two become lost to each other. In the ensuing years, they lead lives apart in isolated communities without modern technology or the conveniences once taken for granted. Separated and still longing for each other, they both rise to positions of power and leadership in fragments of civilization torn by their own brand of conflict based on religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation and race. They meet traditionalists, doctrinal zealots, outrageous individualists, as well as shamans and those wise in the ways of the world. In the process, each discovers their own intuitive awakening and comes to know and rely on their personal spirit guides. It is a story of political intrigue and magical mysticism, as well as a tale of post-apocalyptic crisis and uncertain future for humanity, riven by its ever-present flaws, but bolstered by its greatest attributes. It poses the questions we ultimately all need to ask ourselves: can we learn from our past mistakes, and are we capable of building a new and better world, even after the devastation?

I have learned a great deal throughout this entire process, and again am enormously grateful for all of the help I have gotten along the way. I can only hope that the novel will live up to my own expectations, as a work that dramatizes and gives life to the enormous environmental issues of our day, to say nothing of the ageless human questions that challenge us all, and that it may serve to remind everyone who reads it of one essential truth – that the earth is not some senseless, inert thing, but has its own kind of consciousness, one that is both other, and greater than, our own.