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.

OCTOBER ELEGY

By Paul Lewis

As a kid in upstate New York, I always had mixed feelings about the month of October. We were back in school again, and that part wasn’t so good. As such, “the Good Nuns,” as my Irish grandmother always referred to them—who never seemed so good to me—were lording it over us once more. Even so, the horrible shock of the September return to school was over and you were beginning to remember again how best to hide behind the kid in front of you, so as not to be called on in class. All this meant that at least you were getting used to things once more, after a summer of freedom.

On the plus side, there were the trees, which were glorious. In my neighborhood alone, you could see the brilliant red of brash, almost arrogant Sugar Maples, the soothing yellow of tall, wispy American Elms waving in the autumn wind, and the browns of less showy, but always stalwart Sycamores, dropping leaves that rustled like bits of dried paper that crunched as you stepped on them while walking along the street. And the air! Leaving behind the dusty, depressing sultriness of still-warm September, the October air had become crisp and clean and invigorating. As you went outside and walked down the steps of your stoop and looked up, you thought that the sky had never seemed so deep a blue.

There really was no escaping the feeling that something miraculous was happening, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on, but which was so magical, so otherworldly, and so elusive that, if you could somehow manage to capture it, in that one instant you knew your whole life would change. You would become this massive being of light and spirit, free of the cares of the earth, living an evanescent and ethereal life beyond that of any ordinary mortal being. And if the feeling lasted only for a moment, at least it gave you hope, a kind of assurance that you would not always be a child, utterly powerless and tossed about by the vicissitudes of dread and the fear of failure, and that someday you would grow into adulthood and make your own choices. And if you believed those adult choices to be free of the crippling contortions of restrictive rules and binding regulations that you felt so keenly, so much the better. A good thing it was, probably, that you hadn’t yet come to realize how life at every age brings its own enormities of limitations and confinements.

Remembering those Octobers within a soothing haze of romanticized nostalgia, it’s easy to forget just how murderously complex and full of gripping drama life could also be: my father’s anger and his drinking; my mother, always worried about money and how to make the next payment on an endless list of bills; and my own dread of the horrors of grammar school, a place where I never failed to feel incapable of keeping up with its continuing challenges. But then October would suddenly come once again to the rescue, at least temporarily. In the town where I grew up and in those years of the 1950’s, by mid-October the plate glass windows of the larger stores were painted over in Halloween scenes created by local high school art classes. Each group outdid the next in more frightening depictions of witches, zombies and monsters lurking in darkened cemeteries, where enormous and ominous full moons loomed in the night sky, framing the silhouettes of owls that looked down on headstones leaning and sinking into the crumbling earth of newly dug graves. There was a kind of magic in the air, and an anticipation of something to come. And while Halloween was never my favorite holiday, it did announce the not-far-off coming of Thanksgiving and Christmas—festivals of light and love and a kind of comfort.

For the moment, though, death seemed to be everywhere. As lovely as the trees themselves had been in early October, by the time Halloween came they had become bare, twisted skeletons. Here and there a single dried leaf might cling tenaciously to a branch, all the while writhing in the increasingly chilly wind. And afternoons, soon after we were let go from school, a cold darkness would begin to fall, even before we were called in for supper. No one doubted that, soon enough, the snow would fly, though not before trick-or-treaters ventured along darkened sidewalks, and brash teenagers threatened soapy windows, or worse, if candy wasn’t quickly handed over. Even at that age, I sensed that a mask worn by someone could transform that person, a friend or a classmate, somebody from just down the block, into a wholly different persona, a menacing and aggressive figure that had lost all sense of right and wrong; unrestricted, such a hidden presence was capable of anything. Maybe what I really saw was the wildness of my own burgeoning urges and desires, things I knew I had to control at all cost, lest I lose my own way, offend the Church, and wander forever in the wilderness.

October was like that. It could on the one hand lull you into thinking that you were made of light and of spirit, and then the next moment show you the untamed, savage side of who you were, a side that masked all you thought to be exquisite and unearthly and that risked dragging you down into the freshly dug grave of your most base and craven desires. The Druids of old celebrated the Festival of Samhain beginning on Oct. 31st, a liminal time when the veil between life and death became thin, and fairies, witches and demons freely roamed the earth. Food was typically set out to placate them, an obvious precursor to the treats later handed out that day, so as to avoid an encounter with life’s less welcome tricks. Shakespeare, too, likened this time of the year to death. In his sonnet number 73, he lists a long line of harbingers of the end, everything from falling leaves to the setting of the sun to the glowing embers of a dying fire. And yet, he ends with this hopeful couplet: “This thou perceives, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

October reminds us of our mortality and warns us of a difficult winter to come, a time when we may have to struggle more, work harder. It begins in beauty, and ends in barrenness. Its opening days are still warm and filled with sunshine and light, and its last days are dark and promise yet more darkness to come. But it also shows us the glory of color and of clean, crisp air, and a light that somehow never shows itself at any other time of year. It brings to mind equally that beauty—as we normally think of it—is glorious, if fleeting, and that darkness and even death will surely come.

Living in the moment, seeing all of life as fecund and robust and full of its own kind of energy is what is called for. Was that the magic I sensed in the crisp air all those long years ago? What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is that the passing moment can be experienced in fullness. What seems ephemeral isn’t, at least not necessarily; instead, it can be eternal. Maybe what I saw that morning back then was a glimpse of eternity, showing itself in a second of time. Like October itself, such seconds can be their own kind of mask; or they can be a rich and luminous gateway, revealing what is, what was, and what always will be, forever and ever more.

TEACHING AND LEARNING: WHO TEACHES WHAT TO WHOM?

By Paul M. Lewis

When I was a young man in my early to mid 20’s, I spent four years teaching in a high school in rural upstate New York. There were a number of things I found interesting about the experience, and a few that were annoying, but overall it was a surprisingly positive experience. I say surprisingly because I had taken the job mostly to get a deferment from the draft. This was in the late 1960’s, and the country was enmeshed in the tragedy of the Vietnam War. Like many people my age, although by no means all, I was very much against the war. So, once I returned from graduate school in France, where I’d gone on scholarship directly after getting my bachelor’s degree, I knew I had to face the music of the military draft. The deferment they gave at the time for teaching came in very handy. My other option, I’d often thought, was to flee to Canada. And what a different life that would have led to. To an extent no doubt, maybe even if half-subconsciously, I’d planned out in advance the possibility of teaching, because I had managed to get a credential during my last year as an undergraduate at the State University of New York at Albany, just before leaving for France.

But, as teaching high school was not really my first choice of a career, I’ll admit I began with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. In my defense, I was only 23 years old, and what does anyone know at that age? While in France, I had perfected my ability to speak the language pretty well, having gone there initially with a good grounding in grammar and literature. Once there, I learned how people in the street really spoke. I learned, for example, that a “cigarette,” which I smoked at the time (Gauloises, s’il vous plaît), was called “une clope,” and “un franc,” the monetary unit then in use (this was decades before the Euro) was more commonly referred to as“une balle.” I also delved into what I thought of as the intricacies of Existentialist philosophy, and considered myself something of a philosopher-poet. Neither of which, as it turned out, I was.

As cringe-worthy as it may be to admit today, I thought of myself as somehow above the crowd when it came to these rural high school teachers. The locale was Lebanon Springs, New York, located in the lovely Berkshires, just a few miles from the Massachusetts border over the mountain from Pittsfield. If a person has any degree of self-awareness or openness, one of the things you soon begin to realize is just how dumb you can be. And I found this out soon enough about myself. If that sounds like too harsh a judgment on a twenty-something year old, maybe the least that can be said is that I discovered just how inexperienced I was in life, particularly when it came to people who actually did something expertly, many of whom had been doing it for a long time, some even before I was born.

That was the first thing that came to light in Lebanon Springs: I saw that the men and women who taught English there, or Social Studies, or Math, or Science were of the highest caliber. They were, by and large, smart, engaged, hardworking, funny, and creative; they cared deeply about their students and about the craft of teaching. And in spite of all, they treated me well, with kindness, courtesy and good grace. There were the occasional yahoos, and here maybe my prejudices further show themselves, gym teachers mostly, who couldn’t distinguish anguish from absurdity (I’m back to Existentialism again), or a Monet from a Manet. But even they, I saw, did their best every day for their students and helped those who most needed it. In four years, I never heard one teacher speak disparagingly of their students; no one ever called them stupid, or fools, or worse. Okay, sometimes they said they were lazy; and some, in fact, were lazy. Just as you can find in pretty much any grouping of a thousand or so human beings anywhere on earth.

As a new teacher, people often asked me if I had any trouble with classroom discipline. As a matter of fact, I did not. But then, this was a rural community and, so far as I knew at the time, recreational drugs were pretty much nonexistent. I’m sure some of the students drank, but that was probably the extent of their substance abuse. I was also working weekends and summers at a local reform school for teenage boys, and I’d learned a few things about how to manage groups of teenagers. Most of the time, it was pretty simple. I decided I would treat my students respectfully, as if they were adults, and intelligent ones at that, and I expected them to act as such; and somehow that seemed to work.

But even at the high school where I taught there were a few outliers. There are always a few, the wise guys who like to mouth off. As odd as it may seem, they were usually my favorites. I liked the bad-boy energy (almost never were they girls), the spirit of rebelliousness, and the intelligence and insight into the bizarreness and absurdity of the world that came with it. These were the ones who were forever asking what the French word for “a seal” was. How they had ever heard in the first place, I don’t think I ever found out, but somebody had told them that the marine mammal we call a seal was, in French, called “un phoque.” And anyone who has even a passing familiarity with French phonetics knows that the pronunciation of this word sounds almost identical with the English word “fuck.” So, this was great hilarity, although by the hundred and fiftieth time I was asked, I will admit to feeling a little bored by it all. Usually I would just stare blankly at them, shake my head, and walk away. For the most part, though, students were in my language classes—French and Spanish—because their fathers had told them that they needed it if they ever had any hope of getting into college. No one, or virtually none, had any real interest. But I had come to expect that, and doing so became just another part of teaching the class.

I liked all of my students. If that sounds like an exaggeration, it’s not; I actually did. They were good kids, and I did my best to teach them something about another culture, another way of being in the world, if not (lastingly anyway) another language. And some seemed to like me, too. One of them, Tommy C., I taught for three years, and it occurred to me he might have had a little bit of crush on me. Not that I ever responded in kind, except—as much as I could—to be kind to him. Or, I don’t know, maybe he just saw me as a father figure, or an older brother. Curiously, it turned out that our birthdays were on the same day, November 2nd, seven or eight years apart. Somehow, he always contrived to secretly pass me a bottle of Courvoisier cognac on or around that date, as a gift. I probably should never have taken it, and no doubt could have gotten in a lot of trouble for having done so, but he seemed so pleased about it, so delighted with doing so that I always took it. How a sixteen year old could have gotten hold of it in the first place, I never asked.

If I were teaching today, I would never accept such a gift. Maybe it was a measure of my own immaturity and insecurity at the time that I did so. Nothing more ever came of it. He never referred to it later, never appeared to expect anything in return; nor did I reciprocate with better grades, or any sort of special attention. He was already an excellent student anyway, so from that point of view there was no need to. But I sometimes think of him, and wonder what became of him, what he did with his life, and if he is happy.

I hope he is, as I hope all of my former students may have gone on to lead useful and fulfilling lives. Chances of that are slim, of course. How often does that happen with any group of people? More likely, some succeeded, some managed to get by, while others struggled, doing what they could to overcome one failure after another. That is, after all, the way of the world, isn’t it?

What I learned in the four years I taught high school has stayed with me all my life; and what I learned from my teaching colleagues may have been even more important. As Walt Whitman says in the preface to his great poem, Leaves of Grass: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy…” Later, he continues, “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,” and “dismiss whatever insults your own soul.” Isn’t Whitman saying that learning from life is the best kind of learning? How else do we attain anything of real, lasting importance?

A couple of years after I left my job as a high school teacher, I was astounded to receive an invitation from the senior class to be the speaker at their graduation. With gratitude, some reluctance, and a large dose of humility, I accepted. My first partner—lover is the word we used in those days—and I had been living in Brigantine, New Jersey. As ill luck would have it, soon after accepting the invitation he and I decided to split up. I will admit to having been devastated about it all and wanted to withdraw from giving the commencement speech. But, in the end, I soldiered on and went ahead with it: and he came with me. I have no idea now what I said to these students, but the energy in the room did me a lot of good. I remembered that I was liked, if maybe not loved, and that I could like—and love, if I chose—in return. It was the last time I saw these young men and women, but not the last time I have thought about them. There is no doubt in my mind that they were my teachers, as much as I was theirs, and for that I will always be grateful.

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.

 

 

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?”