received_1027144970649322Listening to On Being, on the way home from work today: Jean Vanier talks about the wisdom of tenderness. He talks about St. Francis of Assisi, who said that his encounter with lepers brought a “new gentleness” to his body, and his spirit. To his body, and his spirit.

If you aren’t familiar with On Being, the question that drives the podcast is, “What does it mean to be human?”

The answer for Vanier is bound up in reality, and for him, that means the body. He mentions the joy and freedom he has found ageing in his body. How his ageing body solicits new, and different responses from the people around him. He’s hugged more often.

Maybe that is something that comes with the wisdom gained by moving through the world, this gentleness of the body and spirit. More hugs.

I am still working out the connection between the body and the spirit. Between the spirit and the phenomenological, day to day reality of the body acting in the world. The tongue articulating, the fingers producing symbols that force other people’s perceptions into existence, right or wrong.

The counselling textbook I’m reading claims that, according to existential theory, our “essence” is the product of our actions. I have problems accepting this. For one thing, an essence must be unchanging. An essence, by definition, determines character. Character determines the choices we make. How can we grow if our choices are (pre)determined by an unchanging, true self? If our choices and actions create our essence, at which point is this essence fully-formed?

It seems to me existentialist would have to drop the idea of essence all together. Didn’t Sartre?

I am probably missing something; I’ve forgotten my Kierkegaard. But I am wondering if it would be a wise use of my time, at this point, to go back and attempt to rehash the old, one-sided arguments I’ve had with dead philosophers.

The fact is, I don’t believe that any of us have an essence, a real “I” that will be discovered, uncovered or freed through an epiphany of any sort. I recognise the person I was ten years ago. Thirty years ago. Two. But I’ve changed, in ways that defy an essence (though, granted, people who’ve known me throughout those years may not perceive what I know are a series of sea changes).

If a mean, little god were to take me, as I am now, to any time period in my life and drop me there, I would experience shame in regard to my actions. It seems simple to me: if I were the product of those actions, if those actions created my essence, I would not be ashamed of them.

Unless the essence of my being is bound with shame in some way.

But I’m beginning to understand that shame is not an essential part of me. Only now, heading toward 50, I’m beginning to look at the person I was and let go of shame, in favour of sorrow. I am learning compassion. And  I think that compassion is probably what St. Francis meant when he spoke of gentleness.

There is a dialogue repeated on twitter in various forms:

“How should we treat others?”
“There are no others.”

We may just as reasonably ask the guru how should we treat ourselves. Compassion is all-encompassing.

There is an interesting project called “What’s Underneath“. Women of all ages answer simple questions while undressing. There is nothing provocative about it. Not in the way that word is usually used.

These women are demonstrating compassion towards their humanness. What it means to be human. To be a body. In the world. And, often, one of the questions is “What is the greatest risk you’ve ever taken?”

I used to think the greatest risk I ever took was moving from my home country. Traveling alone. Getting in a car with a stranger. The women in the project have some very interesting answers.

But I think we are all wrong.

I think the greatest risk is bound up with self-compassion, with gentleness, with forgiveness. It’s stripping down to the human essence that transcends any one of us: the mortal body. And walking around in the world without shame.

It’s an inspiring project.

 

 

 

Last night I was listening to Andrew Solomon’s Ted talk about forging identity. Which is about taking hold of the narrative and creating a point of view. And this morning, on the train, I read an article in Aeon by a professor who disputes the idea that he is a story.

Strawson writes: “Life simply never assumes a story-like shape for us. And neither, from a moral point of view, should it.”

I couldn’t agree more. Life never does that. We do. If you have ever held a grudge (an awfully universal human thing to do, I would think), you are clinging to a story, not a sequence of events.

Events happen. [His]Stories are remembered and often told.

Dr. Strawson is a philosophy professor. I’m not. But when he writes:

I don’t think an ‘autobiographical narrative’ plays any significant role in how I experience the world, although I know that my present overall outlook and behaviour is deeply conditioned by my genetic inheritance and sociocultural place and time, including, in particular, my early upbringing. And I also know, on a smaller scale, that my experience of this bus journey is affected both by the talk I’ve been having with A in Notting Hill and the fact that I’m on my way to meet B in Kentish Town.

I can’t help but wonder if he leaves the possibility open that the knowledge he has of his own personal history, that his history perhaps* being rather unexceptional/not in conflict with, while embedded within, the larger cultural history, means that he is unaware of how significant his “autobiographical narrative” is or might be under other circumstances, circumstances under which the disparity between the autobiographical narrative and the culture’s larger narrative bring the former into view.

I’m not sure why he put the term “autobiographical narrative” in quotes, but I do because I think it is just jargon for our sense of identity. Which can be nothing but a history. A story.

Stories are not necessarily Scribe’s well-made plays. In fact, the best ones never are.

Nor are we likely to engage or encompass ourselves in a single story. I am one story with my children. One with my students. One with my lover. I can selectively block details of my personality when responding to situations that are embedded within larger stories. Sometimes my stories change.

Sometimes they involve me changing dramatically: a turning point. I choose to acknowledge and aspect of myself in the story and attempt to change it–I don’t attempt to alter the facts. I find a balm for guilt in the new story of redemption, or growth. And life goes on.

It doesn’t make me insane. It doesn’t even disturb my sense of identity. The very fractured nature of my daily existence is part of my personal narrative. I’m comfortable with that. Strawson repeats Henry James’ description of life as a “great shambles”. That is a story. And at junctures, my story.

Strawson’s article describes in praxis his own story by describing what it is not.

If you were to wake tomorrow in a hospital bed and no one claimed you. You would have to begin to forge an identity. To get to know yourself. And, as much as we want to live in the present, we only know how we fit into the larger story when looking at the past. Even if the past is nothing but a single day, or a matter of a split second and a recollection: “I don’t like peas.”

I am sure if someone disputes Strawson’s standing as a philosophy professor he has a history to bring out as an “official record”. Those are the facts. His narrative, my narrative, each of his students’ narratives–that of his mother–will differ just slightly.

And sometimes slightly is just enough to cause trouble.

Strawson writes: “Salter in Light Years finds a matching disconnection in life itself: ‘There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.’ ”

This, too, is a story.

Not mine.


*I say perhaps because I do not presume to know anything at all about Dr. Strawson’s life, nor do I intend to imply anything. But since he wrote his critique based on personal experience and literary quotes, so will I now: I have found that when stories are told – when people talk about how their experience on a bus journey was affected by a talk they were having, it usually, if significant, reaches back to other talks, connects to other experiences that shaped that person’s personal history. It gave it a significant meaning. Or, “narrative”. This is in no way an attack on his perspective. Just the questions that came to my mind based on general experience, not specific philosophical study. 

(Again, check out Solomon’s Ted talk! That’s my literary quote.)

DSC_0550E.’s grandmother is in the hospice. The head of her bed faces a small wardrobe with family photos taped to the pressed wood, and a large window that gives her a view of the tops of a few birch trees, and an expanse of sky.

We arrive just after the nurses’ aids have delivered her evening meal: a smoothie, a cream soup of some sort, and one piece of bread cut into 4 small squares, each with a dollop of a different kind of jam. But she says she has no appetite.

Remembering now, I almost write, “she sighed”. But that would be wrong. She was having trouble breathing. Speaking a single sentence was as exhausting as it would be for me to run up a steep hill as fast as possible. Or more so. Her chest rises and falls, with difficulty. And more rapidly than one would expect. Like a small bird–yes, the cliché.

She recovers slowly. Then asks about the weather. A single, careful sentence that costs her.

E. tells her that his mother had remarked earlier that afternoon that the day reminded her of apple-picking. His grandmother smiles and nods. She stares at the blue sky through the window. “An autumn day,” she says.

She has pain in her legs. In her stomach. She has trouble straightening her head on the pillow and needs to ask E. to help. To touch her on each side of her thin face and gently move it, just enough, to release a neck muscle that was gripping out of habit.

I stare at the mystery soup in the Styrofoam cup. I try to smell it, inconspicuously. But the other scents in the room are overwhelming: the mushroom smell of cleaning cloths, and spongy smell of green soap.

E. settles her head on the pillow. She closes her eyes. A few moments later she asks again, “So, it’s nice outside?”

Again, at a cost.

E. says yes.

I become aware of my feet in my too-tight dress-shoes; my hand in E.’s hand; I think about how I had commented earlier on our run, about the “bite” in the air. It had been a mindless complaint between strides.

I see now, through the window in her room, the jewel-blue sky and the cotton-ball clouds. It’s beautiful. And I want to be out there again, out in the biting wind that carries Jæren’s round/sharp smell of livestock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11821293_1650321128515024_1613060457_nSitting on the train today, on the way home from work, I listened to Jimmy Carter’s press conference, and cried.

And I felt foolish, crying for a man I never met.

I’ve spent the afternoon wondering why this touches me so deeply. Why this ache is vaguely reminiscent of the feelings I had when my grandfather lay dying 2000 miles away, and the nurse on the other end of the phone patiently pieced together my sob-staggered phrases  to understand my questions, and answer them.

There’s no cause for that kind of parallel: I have no claim on Jimmy Carter. I never sat with him in the evening, watching Hawaii 5-0, and eating chocolate ripple ice cream. He never grumbled at me, telling me to hush in church, only to be ribbed himself – just minutes later by my grandmother, for snoring.

I was 10 in 1976. My mother and my grandmother voted for Carter. There was grown-up talk in the living room, that I parroted in the schoolyard with friends. Not deep conversation, not in either venue, but emotional. There was a rare earnestness and conviction in the air. It was the Bicentennial, and earnestness was in fashion. Americans wanted to believe again. We were painting fire hydrants, and celebrating democracy. Carter was a symbol of adulthood and responsibility. I saw, in him, the grown-up for the grown-ups in my life.

This was a few years before Christopher Columbus fell from elementary school grace, and America changed.

But Jimmy Carter never did change.

While the rest of us moved on to irony and cynicism, he literally kept the faith. He was ridiculed and mocked for it. Yes, people would express admiration, but with a fearful kind of foot-in-the-door when it came to his goodness: an assumption that his compassion went likely hand-in-hand with naiveté. “A good man, but a not-so-good president” was a phrase I heard often. As though compassion necessarily went hand-in-hand with weakness.

But he has been around all these years. Is still here, as a reassuring background in (I suspect, nearly all of) our lives. The hum of his humanitarian work has been constant presence in the news, in the world. He is a part of the good I’ve clung to from my childhood memories. The good from which everything else “grown-up” (the cynicism and scepticism) seems to stand out in relief.

Settling down for the evening with a glass of wine and the computer, I lounge on the couch with the old lady. She’s here for two weeks, and it has been more than two years since I’ve had her with me this long. Next week my ex will be back in town to pick her up and take her home with him. To the garden where she has lived her whole life, where she is happy.

But tonight, I’m rubbing her stomach. She smiles. (I can tell).

I can feel the tumours in her teats. They are still growing, but slowly. I rub her shoulder blades, and find new places I’m not allowed to touch her. The arthritis affects more than her hips now.

She’s well over 15. Over 100 in dog years. She rarely complains. And on walks, she still stops in open spaces and challenges me to a game of tag. And she, still, never takes shit from other dogs.

Vulnerability is not weakness. I see that when I look at her.

Right now, she is the reality that makes real the nearness of death. Not Jimmy Carter. To claim that would be an insult to his family and to the people who do know and love him, to those for whom he is not a symbol, not a background hum.

What frightens me about Jimmy Carter’s illness, about his leaving this world before too long, comes from a selfish and cowardly corner in my spirit: when he is gone, there will be no more grown-ups out there for me, maintaining that white-noise goodness. Daring to believe.

I am not sure I am ready to take over that responsibility.

People say that hope and faith are for the young. They are so wrong.

Now, before bed, I’ll go pull Jimmy Carter’s book of poems off the shelf and read it. Again.

The last time I kept a blog, I was training for a marathon. I was making major changes in my life, at a point where people generally decide to do it, or not. Midlife crisis, they call it.

I made more changes than I had anticipated, because change never happens in isolation. But there is no such thing as a midlife crisis, really. No one can predict a midway point to any destination. There are, however, lookout points all along the way. If you take the time to pull over, get out for a minute. A rest stop.

It wasn’t the first time I had experienced a “crisis”: took on major challenges, took off into completely unfamiliar territory. It wouldn’t be the last time. Won’t be.

Things are different now, though. Now, four years after running a marathon, I’m restless again. But this time, I’m looking backward as well as forward–and no longer afraid to do that. There are practices and beliefs I’d once nourished, things I’ve dropped or forgotten, that I now understand the value of. For example, the potential for faith. All kinds of faith.

I once knew that living is dying; we should remember that fact, in order to die in a way we choose–no matter how death might take us by surprise. There is a man in Denmark who lives each day dying well. And, I hate myself for my first thought after listening to him: I need to move to a place where I can dig a pond, like he did; where I can fashion my life like his. I use the word fashion deliberately, for all it is worth. I am even considering his eccentric knit strawberry hat.

I am still there. Here. Stuck, trying to make meaningful change, to find meaning, without giving up my life and making a pilgrimage to someone else’s belief system.

Someone asked me not long ago, if I was still running. I take that as evidence I have stopped proselytising. I take that as evidence in my progress towards becoming (authentically being) what I choose to be.

I am still running. Like so many others, asking myself questions I’d stopped asking for a while.414066_359311840791185_1987797442_o-2

And telling myself that the solution is not to buy a knit strawberry hat to wear on my runs.

(Check out the mini documentaries in the links!)