On (Not) Writing in the Age of Covid

Covid Cases. Source: New York Times

I haven’t written any posts for this blog for quite a while. I used to post at least once a month, but this is only the fifth post this year and the first since late May. With the coronavirus restrictions, I’ve actually had more time to write than usual, but I’ve lacked motivation. In this post I’ll try to think through why that’s been so.

I think all writers have to believe they have something important to say, some reason why  a reader might benefit from their thoughts and observations. Perhaps it takes a touch of narcissism to believe that in the first place. In any event, I’m not as confident that my offerings are worthwhile as I used to be. There is so much going on in the world right now, so much that is affecting the well-being of millions and will continue doing so for years to come. The coronavirus has had a huge impact, as has the resulting financial devastation. In America, racism and its effects have become more evident to millions, and it’s unlikely that the band-aid of superficial racial comity that’s been torn off will be reapplied soon, if ever. From more severe fires to a more active hurricane season, extreme weather has been in the news almost daily, likely evidence of worse times to come as climate change progresses. With all that going on, my observations about the second half of life don’t seem all that important.

Writing not only hasn’t seemed as important; it’s also seemed less pertinent to my daily life. I have been mostly isolated at home the last six months, and have had to find new routines to sustain me. These include regular outdoor activities (biking, walking, running), practicing yoga more consistently, more prayer and meditation, writing poetry, reading more, and, just recently, starting to learn the guitar. Writing, though gratifying, doesn’t nourish me in quite the way these other things do, so it doesn’t exert the draw on me that it used to.

I’ve been writing less but reading more. At first I read to learn about the threat of covid 19 and what I could do to keep from falling victim. Threats to personal safety do capture our attention! Once I started thinking that I could manage that danger to some extent, I read about how it was affecting society. In order to be better informed about that and other things, I got an online subscription to the Washington Post. I already read pretty widely, and the Post presented me with a plethora of high quality journalism every day (as well as a considerable number of interesting opinion pieces). For a couple months I spent way too much time reading the news. I’m better about that now. Still, when I have a spare hour, I’m more likely to check on what’s going on in the world, even if I had gotten caught up that morning, than I am to write something. I’m hoping to emancipate myself further from my news habit. Even if I do choose to read rather than write, there are other things that it would be better to read.

I’ve not been writing blog posts, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing at all. As I mentioned above, I’ve been writing poems. I’ve put a few of those on my other blog here. In addition, I’ve written quite a few emails to a young friend who is struggling with early adulthood issues. I’ve tried to pass on to her her insights from my own struggles. Why was I interested in writing her but not in writing blog posts? I think it was because, in the isolation of covid, I craved personal connection. When I write a blog post, I hope that it will make a difference in someone’s life, but I often don’t know whether it has or not. A post may get a few likes and occasionally a comment or two, and in normal times that’s enough. Now I want more than that, so writing an email to a single person who I know will read it and give a thorough response is much more appealing than writing a blog post that more often than not won’t generate a deep connection with anyone.

So will I be posting more in the months to come? I don’t know. I’m living in the present more and planning less, which I regard as growth. I also think that there’s growth in placing less importance on what I write. Still, even in thinking through the above some things came to mind that I would like to write about in more detail. I am no more certain than any of you whether those thoughts will come to fruition!

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The Disposable Elderly

Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington where more than 40 died of covid19 (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

Are you prejudiced against the elderly? Am I? We both would probably deny it. Our actual attitudes, though, would probably be revealed better by what we do than by what we say.

Views of the elderly in America have always been complex—favorable in some respects, negative in others. Thomas R. Cole’s book The Journey of Life: A Cultural History of Aging in America, which I described in more detail here, covers how the elderly were seen from colonial times onward. It was longer ago than most of us might imagine—around 1790—that Americans first developed a proclivity to favor youth over age. The Victorians thought that for many, old age represented decline, but this fate could be avoided by dint of hard work, faith, and self-discipline. Efforts to provide social welfare programs for the elderly in the early 20th century depended on portraying them as sick, poor, and needy. Over the last fifty years, the fight against ageism has promoted the opposite stereotype: “Old people are (or should be) healthy, sexually active, engaged, productive, and self reliant.” (Cole, p. 229)

Of course not all seniors fit that characterization. Sooner or later, many of us wind up sick or needy. According to CDC statistics from a few years ago, there were 1.3 million Americans in nursing homes and another 800,000 in assisted living communities. This population typically receives little public attention, but that has changed over the last few months as reports of nursing home deaths due to covid19 have proliferated. According to a report a couple weeks ago in the New York Times, about a third of covid19 deaths were of nursing home residents or staff. And, through May 16, 80% of covid19 deaths in the US were of people 65 or older.

A recent column by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post was titled “America’s Seniors, sacrificed on the altar of reopening.” Milbank points out how vulnerable our oldest and sickest seniors are to dying of this virus. He describes how ill-prepared care facilities are to prevent infection. And he notes how the push to reopen the economy threatens this population:

“For frail seniors in the United States, there simply is no haven. The unspoken, if inherent, trade-off in reopening the economy without safeguards is the lives of our elders. Two months ago, Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas who was about to turn 70, argued that those his age and older are ‘willing to take a chance on [their own] survival’ to reopen the economy. Now they have no choice.”

So how do we Americans view the elderly? Few of us would state that they are expendable. But doesn’t our willingness to imperil vulnerable seniors suggest that that is what we believe? This is not to say that more businesses couldn’t be opened safely. But the eagerness to discard masks expresses better than would words how little value is placed on the lives of our seniors. Similarly, frequenting places like nail salons, sit-down restaurants, gyms, crowed beaches, and churches shows indifference to how spreading the virus is likely to eventually infect more older adults. As someone older than 70, it’s hard not to take that personally. My greater concern is for my 94-year-old mother, who would be unlikely to survive infection.

So, thanks to Milbank for his thoughtful column. The message I take from his observations is that I had better do everything I can to prevent infection, since significant numbers of my fellow citizens don’t plan to look out either for my welfare or for that of those older and sicker than me.

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Life Review: My Hardest Work Experience

From the Wellcome Collection. Licensed by Creative Commons.

I recently talked with a young adult friend about difficulties she’s having at work, and ended up telling her about the most difficult experience I had in five decades in the workplace. I’ve decided to write out the story as a life episode that shaped me. It’s part of my life review. This account will be as vague and non-specific as I can make it; I won’t identify the institution or my main antagonist. The point of the post is not to cast aspersions on anyone but to add to the narrative of my life.

A couple decades ago I  took a job in a small department headed by a man about my age (I’ll call him Dave). He told me even before I took the job that he had conflicts with higher management, and that proved to be even more true than what he intimated. I soon learned that he disdained everyone above him in the hierarchy and all but a small handful of colleagues at or below his level. There had been a good deal of turnover in the department; the one person who had been there a long time catered to Dave and made excuses for his overly forceful and demanding behavior.

Dave described himself as an idealist who had high standards; he was battling to make sure that things were done right. It soon became evident that in his eyes I wasn’t doing things right either. I listened and tried to do what he wanted, but I felt I needed to be true to my standards as well. We had some problems, but for a while he was busy fighting others so he didn’t pay much attention to me.

After a couple of years, the situation suddenly changed. Most higher-ups had minimized Dave’s behavior or were intimidated by his threats of lawsuits, regulatory complaints, and the like, so they pretty much avoided him. Finally, though, he directed accusations at a particular vice president who decided to take action. Dave couldn’t be fired, but could be removed as manager of the department, and that’s what happened. Guess who accepted the position of interim (later made permanent) department manager? Yeah, me. So one of the members of my department was the former manager, already highly contentious and hostile towards those in authority and now angry about being demoted. Not surprisingly, problems ensued.

From that point on I was challenged on most decisions. I was told I had extremely low standards that were turning the department into an embarrassment. I was repeatedly called a coward, a liar, and unethical. I was threatened and told I would be held accountable (though how was never clear). I reported all this to higher-ups, but the VP who had demoted Dave had left the organization and no one else was willing to do anything. They said I was doing a good job and supported how I was running the department, but the subtext was always that I had to deal with Dave myself.

Eventually, Dave stopped talking to me and would walk past me without acknowledging my existence. That was actually a relief. We still had to get work done, though, so there were email exchanges and department meetings. I came to dread those meetings. He was a bully, and I was afraid of him. But I wasn’t cowed into going along with his demands if I didn’t think they were in the best interests of the department or our clients.

After a few years, I realized something that probably should have occurred to me long before. As a Christian, I try to follow Christ’s instruction to love your enemies. The thing was, I had never had a real enemy before. Now I did. What a revelation! Dave had chosen to be my enemy, and what I needed to do was to love him.

So I tried my best. It’s hard to find ways to show love to someone who won’t acknowledge you, but I did find ways to make Dave’s life a little better. Previously, when others complained about him, I would join in, but I stopped doing that. When it was called for I even defended him. I prayed for him.

Eventually I left the job, though not to get away from Dave. I enjoyed other aspects of the job and found the work rewarding, so I stayed until something more important called me away. I think I left the department in better shape than it was when I came in. Clients and colleagues were complimentary. I was later told that I had gained a reputation as having more success than anyone at containing Dave’s mischief. I appreciated the compliment, but that’s not how it felt to me!

As hard as all this was, I’m certain that being in the situation benefited me. It helped me understand better what it means to love and challenged me to apply that in a very difficult situation. Also, my faith grew. At the hardest times, I had to ask myself whether I believed such verses as “I consider our present sufferings as not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Romans 8:18) I decided that I did believe.

I became a better person by being tested in this crucible. The ancients recognized four cardinal virtues, virtuous characteristics that are foundational to all the others. They are courage, prudence (or wisdom), temperance (restraint or self-control), and justice. I had to exercise all of these with Dave, and through that practice they grew stronger. It took wisdom to decide the best course of action when I was under attack, restraint to keep my own anger or frustration from dictating my responses, and justice to treat Dave and others as fairly as I could. Of the four, the one I hadn’t had to exercise much before in my life was courage; I had mostly gotten along with people and hadn’t faced much hostility. Dave accused me of being a coward. Yet in the face of his threats and intimidation, tactics that Dave had used successfully in wearing down others, I stood my ground. Dave wasn’t trying to do me any favors, but his attacks ended up benefiting me. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but in retrospect I’m glad I had the experience. Thanks be to God for how he uses life’s hardships to help us grow!

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Lessons in Loss from Brooks and Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven (Getty Images)

My most recent post on this blog described an article by Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic titled “Your Professional Decline Is Coming Sooner Than You Think.” In it he described research demonstrating that fluid intelligence declines after midlife. Due to this change, the sort of high-level analytic and reasoning abilities required in many professional jobs becomes more difficult. Based on the likelihood that his performance would eventually decline, Brooks resigned from his position as president of the American Enterprise institute.

Brooks continues to think about the losses that we will all eventually experience, as evidenced by a recent article in the Washington Post. In it, he describes pianist and composer Ludwig van Beethoven’s struggles over losing his hearing. His hearing was in decline by age 30, and he initially didn’t cope well:

“For a long time, Beethoven raged against his decline, insisting on performing, with worse and worse results. To be able to hear his own playing, he banged on pianos so forcefully that he often left them wrecked.”

Eventually, Beethoven had to give up his career as a pianist. He did continue to compose, but for at least the last decade of his life he was totally deaf and couldn’t hear works he had written. Paradoxically, many of his greatest masterpieces were written during this period. Brooks gives the following explanation:

“As his hearing deteriorated, he was less influenced by the prevailing compositional fashions, and more by the musical structures forming inside his own head. His early work is pleasantly reminiscent of his early instructor, the hugely popular Josef Haydn. Beethoven’s later work became so original that he was, and is, regarded as the father of music’s romantic period.”

Brooks suggests that Beethoven’s example might be helpful when we experience losses:

“Deafness freed Beethoven as a composer because he no longer had society’s soundtrack in his ears. Perhaps therein lies a lesson for each of us. I know, I know: You’re no Beethoven. But as you read the lines above, maybe you could relate to the great composer’s loss in some small way. Have you lost something that defined your identity? Maybe it involves your looks. Or your social prestige. Or your professional relevance.

“How might this loss set you free? You might finally define yourself in new ways, free from the boundaries you set for yourself based on the expectations of others.”

None of us welcome loss. Yet loss is inevitable. And, as Brooks suggests, it often impacts our sense of identity in some way. When I resigned from my position as a professor at Methodist University to return home to help my parents, my role as a teacher was integral to who I was. In moving several hundred miles away from where I had lived for several decades, I also lost the social network that had been a major part of my life. (I’m still in contact with several people, but relationships aren’t the same as they were.) I had to accept a new identity as a part-time caregiver. As with Beethoven, who kept his identity as a composer, I was able to maintain one important aspect of my identity—as a clinical psychologist. I had worked many years as a therapist in North Carolina. Once I came to Michigan I joined a practice here. That gave me continuity with a previous identity, but also involved change, in that my clinical work became much more focused on life changes, loss, and grief. I both continued one aspect of what I was doing and changed it in accordance with my new circumstances.

And it seems to me that greater maturity has resulted from the changes I went through. I  give less thought to projects that would burnish my reputation or my ego (well, most of the time, anyway). I am more accepting of who I am, faults and all. I value the relationships in my life more. I’m no Beethoven: I’m not creating great works of art that will last through the ages. But I do think that my experiences help me to both personally and professionally touch the lives of those around me in beneficial ways. For me, that’s enough.

Arthur C. Brooks


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Getting Past Professional Decline

Sometimes, articles addressed towards those in midlife contain insights that are pertinent as well to older adults. Such is the case with an article by Arthur C. Brooks in the July, 2019 Atlantic titled “Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think.” Brooks is speaking to busy adults at the peak of their careers, but it’s also useful for us older adults to think of how we navigated the treacherous shoals that Brooks describes as lying in wait for mid-lifers.

Arthur C. Brooks

Brooks describes himself in 2015, when at age 51 he had achieved considerable success–head of a think tank, author of several best sellers, columnist for the New York Times. Unlike those of us who simply revel in our immediate successes, he was thinking about the future:

“But I had started to wonder: Can I really keep this going? I work like a maniac. But even if I stayed at it 12 hours a day, seven days a week, at some point my career would slow and stop. And when it did, what then?”

He started reading the social science research regarding career performance and happiness. He learned that:

  • “…the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically,” and
  • “The data are shockingly clear that for most people, in most fields, decline starts earlier than almost anyone thinks.”

The last point is well-known to cognitive psychologists but hasn’t been disseminated very widely. Success in many fields depends on what psychologist Raymond Cattell called fluid intelligence–“the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems.” Performance on measures of fluid intelligence peak at different ages depending on the test used; some skills start declining in late adolescence, others not until age 30 or 40. On nearly every measure, our reasoning and analytic skills are in retreat by middle adulthood. Thus, Brooks was right to be concerned with how long he could continue to perform at the top of his game: at age 51, the mental processes that undergird superior performance were already eroding.

Fortunately, Cattell identified a second broad set of abilities that he labeled crystallized intelligence. It consists of applying the information and experience that was accumulated earlier in life, and it tends to increase until relatively late in the lifespan. It is used in such tasks as teaching; unlike those in many fields, teachers often maintain effectiveness well into late adulthood.

Applying this to his position as president of the American Enterprise Institute, Brooks noted:

“While I have not detected deterioration in my performance, it was only a matter of time. Like many executive positions, the job is heavily reliant on fluid intelligence.”

As a result of this analysis, he resigned from that position this past summer. He suggests that the rest of us realize that we, too, won’t be able to sustain peak performance indefinitely. In light of the inevitable drop-off in accomplishment, it’s best for mid-lifers to make plans to move away from tasks requiring fluid intelligence and into those requiring crystallized intelligence. More broadly, Brooks believes “what’s important is striving to detach progressively from the most obvious earthly rewards—power, fame and status, money—even if you continue to work or advance a career.” In other words, move away from investing so much of yourself in your work.

Besides direct recommendations related to our professional lives, Brooks offers other suggestions that are less work-related than they are ways to flourish in the second half of life. They are:

  • serve others
  • explore your spirituality
  • devote time and energy to relationships

For us older adults it’s useful to think back over the years since we were about 50 to look at how we did at transitioning away from professional careers requiring high-power analytic and mental processing skills both to other types of work and to goals that aren’t work-related. Was it a struggle or did it go smoothly? Have we completed the transition successfully, or are we still investing too much of ourselves in holding on to remnants of the intellectual apparatus that has lost its former power? I’ll try to analyze my own passage along this path in a future post.

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Forgetting and Identity

I recently re-read Falling Upward, Richard Rohr’s book describing the differences between spirituality in the first and second half of life. Some of the things that I hadn’t paid much attention to when I first read the book six years ago caught my attention this time around. For example, in a chapter titled “Amnesia and the Big Picture” Rohr states the following:

“Life is a matter of becoming fully and consciously who we already are, but it is a self that we largely do not know. It is as though we are all suffering from a giant case of amnesia.” (p. 97)

Haven’t most of us been constructing our identities ever since the first years of life? Before I was one year old, I learned my name; soon afterwards, I came to know that I was a boy. As the years went by, I learned other things about myself–I’m white and of Dutch ethnicity, an American, a baby boomer. Besides these things that were accidents of my birth, there were and are other features of my identity that come from beliefs that I developed–I’m a Christian, a vegetarian, mostly conservative socially and economically but  liberal when it comes to matters of justice. Some things about my identity resulted from things I achieved–I’m a college graduate and a licensed psychologist. I see myself as having certain personality characteristics–introversion and conscientiousness, for example. Finally, part of who I am consists of my activities–writing, reading, jogging, gardening, cycling. Don’t I have a well developed identity? Don’t I know who I am?

According to Rohr, these things may be true of me, but have little to do with who I am at a deeper level. They are part of my false self, which he defines as “Your role, title, and personal image that is largely a creation of your own mind and attachments.” It’s natural to focus on these distinguishing characteristics early in life, when we are still trying to develop a basic sense of our particularities. Once we establish that self-concept, though, returning again and again to orient ourselves by those coordinates is counterproductive, like someone looking continually at his or GPS location but not using the information to actually go anywhere. The constant need for reassurance about our rudiments displays insecurity rather than confidence. It’s central to the various forms of identity politics.

So who is this person I already am but that I largely don’t know? According to Rohr, it’s my “True Self,” which Rohr describes as “who you objectively are from the beginning, in the mind and heart of God.” And, unlike my childhood and young adult self-concept, it’s not based on identifying characteristics that make me different from others. Such focus on differentiation can be benign, but often slopes down into preferring those like me or even excluding those unlike me. Rohr thinks that such exclusion is our natural tendency in the first half of life but is incompatible with mature spirituality. Citing Ken Wilber, he asserts that “the classic spiritual journey always begins elitist and ends egalitarian.”

It’s taken plenty life experiences for me to even be aware of how dearly I held onto those things that set me apart from others. I had to be around people unlike me for me to start seeing that what is most central to my identity is not what differentiates me from them but what I have in common with them. I was a slow study–to glimpse this more fundamental identity, it took all of the following, plus more:

  • studying history, religion, and philosophy sufficiently to appreciate ways of thinking totally unlike mine,
  • moving far away from where I grew up, to a military town in the Southeastern US,
  • working in prisons and in a mental hospital, and
  • having as my best friend for twenty-plus years a woman of Native American and Hispanic origin

I’ve encountered lots of people, and gotten to know some of them quite well. At our cores, we are all more similar than different. Though I still sometimes forget, I come back again and again to who all of us are: children of the heavenly father, dearly loved by him.

By the way, if you’re interested in my earlier thoughts about Falling Upward, they can be found here.

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Traffic Jams And My Reason For Hope

I’ve written on my other blog about Tish Harrison Warren’s book Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. She’s interested in how we can find the sacred in the mundane events of daily life. I wrote there about her reflections upon losing her keys; you can find that post here. This post will look at another aggravation that Warren uses to teach us about God and ourselves: getting stuck in traffic.

A great place for practicing spiritual disciplines! Image from http://www.newmusicusa.org.

One day, as Warren was heading home on the interstate, the traffic stopped, leaving her and everyone else just sitting still. She wasn’t happy:

“I am impatient. I live in an instant world where I like to think I am the captain of the clock. I live with the illusion that time–my time at least–is something I can control.”

She soon realized the spiritual dimension of the situation:

“And here I am, plunged into an ancient spiritual practice in the middle of the freeway–forced, against my will, to practice waiting.”

All of us have limited patience. Sitting in traffic is not a particular favorite of mine, either, though, truth be told, I’m usually bothered less by traffic congestion than I am by seeing the other lane moving more quickly than mine (delay is less an issue for me than injustice). I think that age has helped me respond more tolerantly to traffic jams as well as a variety of other inconveniences. The older I get, the more I realize that I can’t control time.

It’s not age itself but the accumulation of experience that goes with age that teaches this lesson. Warren points to one repeated experience that helps teach patience: the liturgy of Christian worship as it progresses gradually and with much waiting from one season to the next. She writes:

“The practice of liturgical time teaches me, day by day, that time is not mine. It does not revolve around me. Time revolves around God–what he has done, what he is doing, and what he will do.”

Waiting and the liturgy alike teach us that what matters in the end is not my agenda, but God’s; not what I can accomplish, but what he accomplishes through me and countless others.

One thing I’ve always wondered about is why so many of us who are retired and supposedly in a position to adopt a more leisurely pace don’t do so. It’s common to hear retirees say that their lives are so full of things to do that they don’t know how they used to find time to work. I used to think that they (and some days, I’m included in their number) should just slow down. I’ve become a little more understanding as I’ve reflected on what’s motivating such overscheduling.

First, I think that our society equates busyness with importance. Thus, when work is no longer telling us how essential we are and what meaningful contributions we make, we look for something to reassure ourselves of our continued relevance. This is a matter of the ego, of the false self seeking affirmation through hoopla. For me, it’s becoming more and more important to have some time when I’m not accomplishing anything of significance. As with Warren’s practice of waiting, such apparently wasted time reorients me to the true source of meaning in life, the One in whom my hope resides.

The second reason I think some of us retirees overschedule ourselves is captured by the old joke that each morning we oldsters look for our names in the obituaries. If we don’t find ourselves listed, we decide we’re still alive and go about the day. Maybe overscheduling is similar to this: we look in our day planners to see what’s there; if there’s quite a bit to do, we know we’re still kicking. In other words, our busy days help us with what Ernest Becker called the denial of death. We don’t want to stop what we’re doing because then it will seem that we are just waiting for the end.

But of course in one sense we are waiting for the end. That pertains to all of us: the young and the old, the busy and the idle. Our hope lies not in getting a lot accomplished, nor in using our time efficiently, nor in extending our days. We either have a future hope that extends beyond this life or we don’t. And if we do have such a hope, we can afford to bide our time. In fact, we have all of eternity available. I’ll try to remind myself of that the next time I’m stuck in traffic!

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“To the Lighthouse” and Grief

I’m fortunate that, early in my 8th decade of life, I’ve had few people close to me die. The most significant loss has been of my father. Besides that, it’s mainly been aunts and uncles, acquaintances, and distant friends. Should I live another couple decades, during that time many people who have been important in my life will die. We don’t just lose spouses or other family members; we also lose friends, mentors, neighbors, co-workers, community members, and many others who make up the fabric of our social life. We grieve all these as well. How do we come to terms with all these losses—the ranks of the now-departed whose images and voices still populate our psyches?

I’ve been reflecting on this question after finishing Virginia Wolff’s novel To the Lighthouse. The first half describes a day at the summer residence of a middle-aged couple, the Ramsays. We learn a good deal about Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, their eight children, and their house guests. The next ten years are described only briefly, and that largely in light of the decay of the abandoned summer house. During that interlude, Mrs. Ramsay and two of the children die. Finally, after ten years, Mr. Ramsay, the two youngest children, and a few of the guests return. The final section of the novel, titled “The Lighthouse,” describes the two children and their father sailing to a lighthouse visible from the house, while simultaneously Lily Briscoe, an artist and one of the house guests, sets an easel on the lawn to work on a painting she had started there ten years earlier. The story is not so much about a sailboat ride or a picture, though; it’s about the Ramsay children coming to terms with their remote and unaffectionate father and Lily  coming to terms with the death of Mrs. Ramsay. Lily’s struggles illuminate the process of grieving friends.

Lily revisits numerous memories of Mrs. Ramsay. First, she thinks of how Mrs. Ramsay unexpectedly helped her connect with Charles Tansley, an arrogant and opinionated guest proud of ‘his poverty, his principles’ who had opined to her that women can’t paint and can’t write. Unexpectedly, she and Charles had an enjoyable time together on the beach, something than she now realizes Mrs. Ramsay facilitated:

“When she thought of herself and Charles throwing ducks and drakes and of the whole scene on the beach, it seemed to depend somehow upon Mrs. Ramsay sitting under the rock, with a pad on her knee, writing letters…. That woman sitting there writing under the rock resolved everything into simplicity; made these angers, irritations fall off like old rages; she brought together this and that and then this, and so made out of that miserable silliness and spite (she and Charles squabbling, sparring, had been silly and spiteful) something—this scene on the beach for example, this moment of friendship and liking—which survived, after all these years complete, so that she dipped into it to re-fashion her memory of him, and there it stayed in the mind affecting one almost like a work of art.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter III)

As a painter, Lily appreciates those who can successfully sculpt social interactions to create works of beauty much as artists do. Making peace with memories of those who have been part of our lives includes appreciating the blessings they brought to us, the ways they did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves..

Coming to terms with the dead is not just about appreciating their gifts but also about accepting their limitations. Lily thinks of a couple (the Rayleys) whose relationship Mrs. Ramsay had encouraged but who ended up in a disappointing marriage, and of Mrs. Ramsay’s attempts to pair Lily with another of the guests, William Bankes:

“….oh, the dead! She murmured, one pitied them, one brushed them aside, one had even a little contempt for them. They are at our mercy. Mrs. Ramsay has faded and gone, she thought. We can over-ride her wishes, improve away her limited, old-fashioned ideas. She recedes further and further from us…. For a moment Lily, standing there, with the sun hot on her back, summing up the Rayleys, triumphed over Mrs. Ramsay, who would never know how Paul went to coffee-houses and had a mistress; how he sat on the ground and Minta handed him his tools; how she stood here painting, had never married, not even William Bankes.” (The Lighthouse, Ch. V)

Only those who idolize the dead can think they were right all the time. It’s more healthy, and by no means disrespectful to their memories, to recognize their shortcomings and mistakes as well as their strengths and successes. By so doing we release their power over us.

Lily wishes to express the complexity of her memories to someone. She has the impulse to engage Mr. Carmichael, another guest on the lawn, but holds back:

“Little words that broke up the thought and dismembered it said nothing. ‘About life, about death; about Mrs. Ramsay’—no, she thought, one could say nothing to nobody. The urgency of the moment always missed its mark. Words fluttered sideways and struck the object inches too low.” (Chapter V)

This inability to connect with another produces a sense of emptiness, which brings her back to Mrs. Ramsay’s absence:

“To want and not to have, sent all up her body a hardness, a hollowness, a strain. And then to want and not to have—to want and want—how that wrung the heart, and wrung it again and again! Oh, Mrs. Ramsay! She called out silently, to that essence which sat by the boat, that abstract one made of her, that woman in grey, as if to abuse her for having gone, and then having gone, come back again.” (Chapter V)

There’s in her yearning a sense of wrongness about death, which she imagines that she and Mr. Carmichael could rectify:

“For one moment she felt that if the both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return.” (Chapter V)

She cries in anguish, then feels relieved, and with it senses Mrs. Ramsay’s presence:

“And now slowly the pain of the want, and the bitter anger…lessened; and of their anguish left, as antidote, a relief that was balm in itself, and also, but more mysteriously, a sense of someone there, of Mrs. Ramsay…” (The Lighthouse, Chapter VII)

All these things—the urge to say what’s inexpressible, the thought that the person could be brought back if only one did the right thing, the alteration between feeling the person’s absence and their presence—are part of the complexity of grief.

A few chapters later, Lily is still working on her painting and still thinking of Mrs. Ramsay. She still feels that something is missing, both in the painting and in her emotions. She tries to resolve the impasse by thinking of how others viewed Mrs. Ramsay. There were those at the house who disliked her—who thought she was too given over to activity and not enough to thought. Lily thinks about the Ramsays’ marriage—how her husband offended her, how she responded, how they eventually made up. Lily seems to be filling in her mental picture of Mrs. Ramsay. She’s making sense of the person, distilling disparate memories into a coherent essence.

At the same time she is trying to solve what is missing in her painting. As she’s thinking of how to view the objects she is painting, she’s thinking simultaneously of how to view Mrs. Ramsay:

“One wanted, she thought, dipping her brush deliberately, to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and yet at the same time, It’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy. The problem might be solved after all.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter XI)

Someone moves inside the house, changing the scene, which throws Lily suddenly back into her desire for Mrs. Ramsay:

“Mrs. Ramsay! Mrs. Ramsay! She cried, feeling the old horror come back—to want and want and not to have. Could she inflict that still? And then, quietly, as if she refrained, that too became part of ordinary experience, was on a level with the chair, with the table.” (Chapter XI)

After one’s memories and feelings about a loss have all been reviewed, one must wait and pay attention. Something will happen—in this case, movement indoors—that will change the vision, the picture. Then one sees two realities simultaneously—the chair and table that are also a miracle. In the emotional realm, she still has the same desire for Mrs. Ramsay, but that becomes no longer (or perhaps not only) a horror but part of ordinary experience. It’s interesting that the term “miracle” is used to describe this dual awareness, since neither Wolff nor her character seem to believe in divine intervention. The absence of God or an afterlife is for many of us a necessary horizon for coming to terms with the death of a close friend or family member. Perhaps Wolff has some sense here that successful grieving requires awareness of the transcendent, though she doesn’t make that explicit.

Eventually, Lily concludes that Mr. Ramsay has reached the island. She’s relieved. Mr. Carmichael appears beside her and she realizes they were not as disconnected as she imagined:

“He stood by her on the edge of the lawn, swaying a little in his bulk and said, shading his eyes with his hand: ‘They will have landed,’ and she felt that she had been right. They had not needed to speak. They had been thinking the same things and he had answered her without her asking him anything.” (The Lighthouse, Chapter XIII)

So, connection to another person is an additional element in coming to terms with the loss of someone who has been important to us. This is the final piece that Wolff gives us, along with appreciating the blessings we’ve received from them, accepting their limitations, desiring to bring them back, experiencing both a sense of the person’s continued presence and their absence, pulling together a more coherent or complete view of the person, and waiting for the shift from tragedy to recognition that grief is part of normal human experience. It’s a beautiful and nuanced portrayal of grief, though I think it’s incomplete since it omits any notion of God or an afterlife and is skeptical about our ability to communicate our experience to others.

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Playing Pool While Old

“Ya got trouble folks,” sang Professor Harold Hill, the con man in The Music Man,

“Right here in River City
Trouble with a capital ‘T’
And that rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool!”

Professor Hill convinces the town that forming a band will save the youth of River City from the depravity sure to result from them spending their days playing pool. I’m afraid that I was once one of those youths that took up pocket billiards, though in my case that didn’t require frequenting a pool hall. I just had to go downstairs.

For years, my dad ran his accounting business out of the basement of our home. When his business moved to a different location, the basement became home to a pool table. I was in high school at the time, and worked to convince my parents that a pool table was just the thing to put there.

It was quite a challenge to get the table downstairs. A carpenter had to remove most of the stairs and several of us stood the table on end and lowered it to the floor. It just fit the space; some shots required use of a junior-sized cue since the walls were too close to the table to use a full-sized stick. My friends and I were the ones who made most use of the table. I eventually got proficient enough to at times sink a half-dozen or so shots in a row.

The table was used quite a bit for perhaps a dozen years, but it fell into disuse once my brother, sister, and I moved away from home. Eventually, my parents’ grandchildren were old enough to play an occasional game. When I returned home to help my parents in 2012, the table was still there, used only as a flat surface for temporary storage or for wrapping presents.

Last fall, I decided to play pool again, and have regularly done so now for the better part of a year. Most evenings shortly before bed I go downstairs, rack the balls, and shoot at them until the table is empty.

I find myself looking forward to this nightly ritual. Partly, it’s because I’m reminded of the countless games I played a half-century ago in that very spot. I’m connected to my younger self and to the friends that came over to play with me. The table shows signs of wear: the cloth is threadbare in places and there are dead spots in the rail cushions. As such, it is an old friend: timeworn but still stalwart, welcoming my attentions.

Playing pool is not just a matter of nostalgia, though. I like the sensory aspects of the game: the smooth barrel of the cue stick as I slide it forward between my fingers; the sharp crack of the break, balls scattering as if in panic; the playroom-bright colors of the balls as they lie on the cloth like Easter eggs waiting for a child to basket them; the click of ball against ball; and the satisfying clunk as each ball is holstered in a hole, followed by the rumble of its run down the ball return and thunk as it tumbles into the collection receptacle. A pool game is a well-balanced world of sight and sound, of stasis and movement.

It is for me a calming world. Most of the day, I’m prone to what Buddhists call “monkey mind,” which is to say that my thoughts are unsettled, restless, and inconstant. I jump between past, present, and future, from one topic to another. I would prefer that my mind be more steady and focused, but that’s not easy to achieve. Playing pool puts the monkey mind to sleep. I’m paying attention only to the table and its contents. I think just of the physics of the shot that I’m about to take, or at most of that shot plus what I hope the next shot will be. I have to concentrate intently on where I want the ball to go, and get immediate feedback (in the form of a missed shot) if I let my concentration lapse. For me, pool evokes mindfulness better than reading, yoga, or breathing exercises–it’s about on a par with meditating on Scripture or an early morning jog.

This settling effect of pool is more pronounced for me than it was in my teens and twenties. Back then, I was focused on improving my game, and would be unhappy with myself when I missed easy shots. Now, I’ve accepted that I’m at best a slightly above average pool player. So a missed shot is useful feedback as to whether I am concentrating, but is not an occasion for judgment. For me, a pool shot matters sufficiently to absorb me in the moment, but matters not at all afterwards. It’s useful for all of us to have something like that in our lives.

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The Christian Communist

I’ve been writing recently about stuff–our tendency to acquire too many things, our difficulty letting go, our need to simplify as we get older. Recently I ran across a quote on possessions and spirituality by Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk. As befitting someone who gave up personal possessions in order to enter the monastery, he doesn’t consider possessions all that important. What is interesting is how he suggests that serious, mature followers of Christ handle the possessions they do have. He writes as follows:

“A man cannot be a perfect Christian–that is, a saint–unless he is also a communist. This means that he must either absolutely give up all right to possess anything at all, or else only use what he himself needs, of the goods that belong to him, and administer the rest for other men and for the poor: and in his determination of what he needs he must be governed to a great extent by the gravity of the needs of others.” New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 178

The book containing these thoughts was published in 1962, in the midst of the Cold War. To advocate for communism at that time was to be deliberately provocative. Merton wasn’t referring to the capitalized Communism that characterized the totalitarian state founded by Lenin in 1917, though, or even to communism as public ownership of a society’s means of production, an alternative to capitalism. He’s not suggesting the abolition of personal property. Instead, he’s suggesting that followers of Christ not withhold any property from the realm over which Christ reigns. He seems to suggest two forms that such a renunciation of control over possessions can take. One is for us followers of Christ to give up all possessions and own nothing–and that’s what’s been done through the ages in many monastic communities and intentional Christian communities. The other is to retain possessions but to not regard those possessions as our own, to be disposed of as we wish. Instead, possessions are to be administered–stewarded might be a good equivalent here–to meet not just our needs but the needs of others.

Frankly, I would prefer to regard the things in my name–a house, the contents of that house, a car, several bank accounts–as mine. I’m pretty good at managing them so as to have money left over at the end of most months. I’m not extravagant. I have made some purchases recently–buying a house after selling another one and getting a new couch and kitchen table for that house. They were sensible purchases. And I do make charitable gifts to meet the needs of others. But I haven’t fully adopted the view that Merton is proposing, which means to take the needs of others as seriously as I do my own needs.

What does it mean to take the needs of others, especially those who are quite needy, that seriously?  Is it to do something like mid-twentieth century thinker Simone Weil is thought by some to have done–refusing to eat more than residents of Nazi-occupied France while herself seriously ill? That was a costly choice, contributing to her death at age 34. I can’t imagine that degree of self-denial, and I don’t see how those in whose name she sacrificed were materially improved by what she did. Taking others’ needs as seriously as I do my own probably does mean, though, to be well-informed about poverty in our world, to live quite modestly so as to have extra resources, and to share generously of those resources. It’s to remember as well that poverty isn’t just material. It’s also social, emotional, and spiritual. Some people I pass on the street have ragged clothes; some have ragged souls. I could do much better than I am doing now at being aware of both sorts of need, and sharing of my resources to try to help with both. To do otherwise is to be miserly. I want to be a better communist, seeing my resources as not mine alone but as available to whatever members of the human community can benefit from them. I’ve been blessed, and it is only just to try to bless others as well.


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