ALL THE WORLD’S A STAGE
First of all, apologies to Shakespeare for rewriting his famous line from As You Like It, where the world is compared to a stage and people to actors. What follows in the play is a description of seven stages of life, from the mewling, puking infant to the aged person returned to childishness, a typically brilliant Shakespearian mish-mash of humor and truth.
You may be familiar with the Hindu teaching of the Four Stages of Life, which is less physically focussed than Shakespeare’s stages, and less psychologically-based than the the stages of human development famously proposed by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson*. The four stages in Hinduism are known as Ashrama and are roughly correlated with biological age:
- Brahmacharya (Ages birth – 24) – Student Life, focused on education, including the practice of self-discipline, learning to live a life of moral righteousness and duty, including celibacy (hmmm).
- Grihastha (Ages 24 – 48) – Householder Life, focused on relationships and earning a living, all undertaken virtuously.
- Vanaprastha (Ages 48-72) – Retired Life, a time of handing over duties, serving as an advisor, and transitioning to a more spiritual life.
- Sannyasa (Age 72-on, or any time after age 24) – Renounced Life, release of material desires and prejudices, represented by disinterest and detachment from material life, generally without any meaningful property or home, and focussed on peace, simplicity, and spiritual life.
No matter which phase you find yourself in the Ashram scale, one can benefit by keeping the main thing the main thing, and assessing where our priorities are off track or unhelpful. What I love is the priority given to ethical training and behavior, along with the deep significance of the final stage of life.
For many older people with their life’s work done, finding a continued sense of purpose can be a challenge. Hobbies and television can only take one so far before the deadly despair of loneliness and boredom take hold. While particularly the bane of the elderly, this can really happen at age. Many in their peak earning years are trapped in unfulfilling jobs, living from vacation to vacation, from purchase to purchase, or paycheck to paycheck.
I am in the process of marketing a novel entitled Borderland, in which the protagonist, Claire Blixt, undertakes a major transition to a simpler life, inwardly knowing what she needs without really knowing what she’s doing. In the midst of ennui and on the heels of several disasters, she tries and fails at suicide via bridge leap. Instead of suiciding her body, she suicides everything except her physical existence. An ill-considered move to a remote town where she had never been bring her to a connection with the natural world and to people whom she unexpectedly learns to love.
As the materialistic trappings and desires of her former life melt away, Claire finds meaning and purpose.
And isn’t that the goal for each of us?
Yesterday summer officially began. As usual, my dog and I started the day with an early morning walk through Minnehaha Park to the confluence of the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek. Other than a couple of fisher-people, we usually have the place pretty much to ourselves. Armed with a plastic bag and gloves, each day I pick up garbage left by visitors since the previous morning’s cleaning. It is satisfying work.
Public parks are such a gift. Natural features are protected from development and harm, and everyone is welcome. Fees are minimal; many are free. Public parks allow access to beautiful places regardless of your ethnicity, race, income, age, or gender. Think of it! We all own riverfront, lakefront, and historically or environmentally significant areas that we can visit whenever we wish.
Along with parks as great institutions of equality, we need to place public libraries. As a small-town kid one of my greatest joys on summer days was riding my bike to the library and checking out a stack of books. Anyone can get a library card and educate themselves. They can use a computer to look for a job, do their homework, or research an interest. In my adult life, when I need a change of scenery, my public library offers a quiet, comfortable place to work on writing projects. Plus libraries smell great. Like books!
My kids attended a diverse public high school in St. Paul. There they had the opportunity to excel and grow as human beings. On a daily basis they interacted with students who were born in other countries and who were culturally diverse. A few students were well-to-do, some were mid-range, as we were, and many were truly poor. With all due respect to those who send their kids to elite private schools, I believe that a real education must take place in the real world.
Public institutions are created to be bastions of equality. Parks do this well, libraries, too. Public schools certainly have a way to go in terms of funding. Our legislature would well to consider how our schools are paid for, and how to distribute funds fairly across all school districts. There is no excuse for kids in Edina, for example, to get a better education than kids in North Minneapolis, for example.
In addition to supporting and improving parks, libraries and schools, we can extend the equalizing power of public institutions by working toward universal health care, free home internet access for all, and free community colleges. I had the good fortune to teach at a great community college in Chicago for a few years. Many students were newly arrived immigrants, as well as those who had ability but didn’t thrive in their high school environments, and those who were wise enough to see community college as an affordable option for their first two years. Every American of any age or circumstance should have the opportunity to attend community college free of charge. This should be extended in the future to 4-year state colleges and universities.
In this time of social upheaval and momentum for improvement, let’s look to the equalizing power of our great public institutions as agents for societal change.
I live in south Minneapolis. During the recent troubles, the police precinct that serves our area was destroyed, as was the post office and the public library. Our nearby Walgreens was looted, and across 46th Street from Walgreen’s, the Holiday gas station was torched. Lake Street, a mile away, is nearly destroyed. A few long nights were filled with the constant smell of smoke, the unnerving sound of loud booms (guns? smoke bombs? fire bombs?), whirring blades of helicopters passing low overhead, and endless sirens.
Protests continue, as they should, and peace has returned. Trucks haul loads of rubble away. At some point, rebuilding will commence. We hope, wait, and work for positive change in our community.
In the meantime, the universe conspired to bring back into my hands a copy of a book that I first read in 1993 and which had a great impact on me at the time. What follows is a true story. At some point, my copy of Respect for Nature disappeared. It’s importance was such that I wouldn’t have given it away, although it is possible that I loaned it out. Last week while walking through my neighborhood I stopped to check out a Little Library. Inside was a copy of Respect for Nature! My day was made and with a silent “thank you” I carried it home. The next day, I started paging through the heavily marked up book, and here’s the thing that I wouldn’t believe if it hadn’t happened. The book I found in the Little Library was MY COPY! Marginal notes in another hand had been added to mine, but there is no mistaking one’s own scrawl.
Respect for Nature by the late Paul W. Taylor, presents a well-expressed biocentric theory of environmental ethics. He places the well-being of all life forms on the same plane. There is no hierarchical system of value with humans on the top rung. He begins his book by discussing human ethics, before fully expounding his theory of biocentric ethics. Respect is the centerpiece of his theory. He refers to all humans as “persons”. Every person is a member of the human community, in which all others are members on equal terms. Further, Taylor proposes, the human community should be ordered so that each person has the ability to live self-directed lives, subject only to constraints required to give everyone the same opportunities. Other humans are seen as persons with no greater or lesser than value than oneself, and are all due respect.
Think of this. How would our world be different if we accorded equal value to every human being? And if we respected the right to life of non-human beings, making all our decisions on the basis of this value?
Place the obscene murder of George Floyd, along with so many others in the context of respect for and the equality of all persons. Place the destruction of businesses employing people and places offering essential services in the context of the right of all the pursue their own well-being.
There are those who are so blinded by fear and anger that they are incapable of seeing the value of others. There are the bullies, there are the greedy, there are the cruel. They must be stopped.
Every person of relatively sound mind can make the choice to live by higher values, reflected in compassion, generosity, and kindness. We can make the choice to toil tirelessly to make our community, our state, our nation, and our world better for all who live and breathe.
This unique time of stay-at-home orders and six-foot distancing from other humans is taking a toll on relationships and mental health. Fractured couples and families are taken to a new level of brokenness during enforced togetherness. Calls to police for mental health issues are up. Calls to domestic abuse hotlines are up. With bars closed, drunken driving arrests are down, but liquor store sales have risen dramatically.
While the situation of enforced isolation is a challenge whether or not one lives alone, those who live solo face unique physical and emotional dangers. Isolation comes from the Latin word insula, meaning island. Isolation, chosen or unchosen, is situational. Loneliness is an emotion, a feeling, an interpretation of a situation which is also an issue for those in the midst of a dysfunctional relationship.
A sense of loneliness comes from the perception that we are missing something that we need or are without that to which we had been accustomed. From general discontent to out-and-out despair, loneliness is no fun.
Back about a dozen years ago, I found myself living alone for the first time ever. The kids were grown and gone. My marriage was over. The first couple of years were really hard. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I missed having someone there, someone to process ideas with, someone just to ask, “So, how was your day?” I missed physical intimacy, I missed someone to do things with that didn’t involve scheduling time with a friend. Generally speaking, I spent my time and energy focussing on what I didn’t have and in doing so, made myself miserable.
Over time, isolation and loneliness fitfully evolved into a fruitful and generally welcome solitude, a capacity to enjoy going places alone, to enjoy the freedom of doing what I want when I wanted, of being grateful for what I have, rather that fretting over what I don’t.
But still, there are times. There are those hours and days when the serenity of solitude is replaced by a sense of lonely isolation. Aloneness becomes loneliness.
My antidote is physical activity. Lately, to stay in a place of serenity I have been taking long walks, saying “hi” to everyone who crosses my path, exploring my new neighborhood, observing the first signs of spring, and the wondering at the strange stuff which had lay hidden under snow drifts. And then there are the birds and squirrels and dogs. No end of entertainment. Most days are good.
How are you doing? What is your prescription for staying balanced as the world sways beneath our feet?
ROBIN’S GOOD DEED
This morning I went shopping at the Richfield Target, arriving early, imagining it wouldn’t be busy yet. Wrong. My primary mission was dog food, but the list expanded to include a bag of whole wheat flour. The flour section of the baking aisle contained a few bags of white flour. Period. An employee finished confirming with a customer that no yeast was available. I asked him about whole wheat flour. The response was a negative shake of his head. The poor man had to be weary from answering the same questions over and over while trying to keep the shelves stocked.
A woman and her adult daughter shared the aisle. In their cart lay two bags of white flour.
The woman spoke. “Excuse me. I know this’ll sound strange, but we just bought a bag of whole wheat flour at Cub because that’s all they had. It’s out in the car and you’re welcome to it.”
Those who know me will be surprised, but I found myself momentarily speechless.
Finally I said, “No, that’s okay, really, you’re so sweet.”
“Well, it’s up to you.”
Then I began to appreciate the kindness of the offer and the importance of accepting.
“Where are you parked?” I asked.
“We’re in the handicapped area. A black KIA SUV. We can watch for each other at the check out.”
After going through the self-check, I looked around for the woman and her daughter. Maybe they already left, I thought, and headed out of the store, but parked in a handicapped spot was the black SUV. After putting my groceries in the car, I circled around and parked nearby. In the meantime, I prepared something for the duo.
Five minutes later, the mother and daughter approached their vehicle and I jumped out of my car and gave them a friendly wave.
“Hi, I saw your vehicle and waited a bit,” I said, pulling a card from my pocket.
The woman thought I was offering money, “No need to pay,” she said.
“Actually, I’m a writer and want to share the story of your kindness. This card has the web address of my blog. Check it out later today.”
As the daughter rummaged through the back of the SUV looking for the flour, the woman accepted the card. She reached her mittened hand toward my gloved hand and we shook.
“My name is Robin,” she said.
The daughter handed me a 5-pound bag of whole wheat flour and we parted ways.
A GREATER BEAUTY
(What follows is a passage from my novel-in-progress. The protagonist had been visiting friends whose son suffered a life-threatening gunshot wound.)
As Claire walked home from the hospital in the warm slanting sun of late afternoon, a co-worker from the newspaper honked and waved. She glanced over and waved back. In that brief moment, her foot crushed the head of a plump iridescent green caterpillar. She stooped to look and burst into tears. Claire picked up the intact part of the caterpillar corpse and deposited it, with an apology, at the foot of an oak tree.
For the past year it seemed that the universe kept hammering home the message that life can change in a flash. A misstep on the sidewalk. A moment of inattention behind the wheel. A disgruntled coworker with a gun. The bursting of a brain vessel. A gush of blood in a ladies’ room. A sudden insight that it is time to leave. A knock at the door. A glance across crowded powwow grounds.
That evening she sat in her chair, lights off, pondering the life of a caterpillar. What does it need to do in order to carry out its life’s mission? Eat, stay out of trouble, and ultimately build a cocoon for itself. All a caterpillar can be is a caterpillar until it’s not a caterpillar anymore. That didn’t mean its life was easy. Maybe there are insufficient leaves of the right kind. Maybe a careless person steps on you, or a bird has you for breakfast. That’s it for this life. No lovely moth or butterfly will ever emerge.
Claire recalled a funeral service during which the pastor used a caterpillar metaphor, where the caterpillar has no idea it will transform into something entirely different and beautiful. She wondered if that wasn’t a bit presumptuous. How do we know that a caterpillar isn’t aware it will transform into a moth or butterfly? Maybe it knows, maybe it doesn’t. And really, what does anyone know about what’s coming down the sidewalk at them? All we can do is munch our leaves and try to stay out of trouble.
Change often seems to come in unexpected bunches and bundles.
February brought for me a serendipitous and sudden house sale, with an aggressive closing schedule, necessitating the need to rent an apartment, to say nothing of packing to move from a 3-bedroom home with too much storage into a 1-bedroom + “den” with modest storage space.
In the midst of this effort, my mother, after 104 years of physical and mental vibrancy, took a turn and died. She was ready, she was unafraid, so to grieve would be almost selfish. But ever since getting a cell phone with unlimited calling (when was that, anyway?), I had called her once or twice each day. Although I accept her passing, the thought of hitting “Mom” on the top of my phone favorites list crosses my mind most mornings.
Mom lived about 5 hours north, in small-town northwestern Minnesota. Since leaving home for college, my various vehicles have made hundreds of trips up through St. Cloud, past Little Falls, Motley (stop for smoked salmon at Morey’s!), Akeley, and Bemidji. Other than going up for her burial come spring thaw, the trips up that way will be few.
Our bodies respond to change with weariness. Our minds cope by seeking order or escape. Our spirits, if not crushed, can respond with freshness and creativity, transformed by new contexts and perspectives.
Change is inevitable. Let it open us to a greater beauty.
REALLY, HOW ARE YOU DOING?
Actually, not fine.* I write this on the second day of non-stop rain (flash flood warning!). Morning headlines informed us that the administration will finalize the rollback of clean water protections. Gun violence continues, including a murder-suicide a block from my home. Having chosen to leave my professional career to pursue a dream of actually completing a novel, I stand one disaster away from taking a deep dive into my modest retirement savings. My ankle still hurts eleven weeks after a ligament-tearing incident. My normally dependable ability to sleep soundly has devolved into lying awake at 3 in the morning.
So how are you doing today? Are the problems in our society getting to you? How’s your personal life? How’s your health? Your work? You’re finances? Your mental health?
During the long course of yet another sleepless night, this phrase came into my mind: To triumph over darkness, give light. Not get light. Give light.
After choosing an early retirement to pursue writing, I took a part-time job at my local Target in women’s apparel. It gets me out amongst people, provides a little extra cash, and ticks about 5 miles on the FitBit each time I work. Yesterday an older woman, let’s call her Bernice, came in shopping for some new clothes. She and a helper from her nursing home were trying to find a suitable pair of black pants.
“I haven’t been shopping for a year!” Bernice said. Her manner was anxious but open, her conversation a little confused but enthusiastic.
After helping her to explore various options in black pants, we found a pair that suited her needs–black, with stretchy fabric, durable, washable, and classy looking.
She pointed to my required-by-Target red shirt. “I sure would like to get a new red top. It’s my favorite color.”
The attendant looked worried. “Remember, Bernice, you have only $40.00 to spend. And you also want to get those cough drops.”
Earlier in the day a red top on the clearance rack caught my eye. “If you can wait a moment, I have an idea. No promises, but we might have just the thing.”
There it was. In her size. A loose-fitting red top with lace trim on the sleeves.
“What do you think of this?”
“It’s so beautiful!”
The attendant pulled out her calculator. The pants, top, and cough drops came to just over $39.00.
Bernice looked up and held out her arms to me. I leaned down for a hug.
“I love you,” she said.
As of that moment, I was doing fine. Thanks, Bernice.
* FYI, I am not depressed or despairing. Just speaking truth about life.
DO NO HARM
My personal discovery of Jainism came while teaching world religions at Oakton College in suburban Chicago. This non-theistic (no “god” per se) religion arose in India around 500 BCE, based on the insights of the spiritual teacher Mahavira. While I am not a Jain, the teachings have a positive impact on my life.
The symbol shown above presents the main tenets of Jainism. The word in the center, ahimsa, literally means “stop”, referring to cycles of reincarnation as represented by the wheel. The answer to how this cycle of birth and death may be stopped or transcended comes in the practice of ahimsa, which can provide the basis for a renewal of the world, through the healing of a single life.
The Jain teaching of ahimsa asserts that by doing no harm to any living thing, we heal ourselves and create healing energy that moves beyond us. We are counseled to also avoid angry thoughts and actions. According to Gandhi, a Hindu who valued Jain teachings, ahimsa additionally precludes evil thoughts and hatred, and unkind behavior such as harsh words, dishonesty, and lying, all of which he saw as manifestations of violence.
No violence, no harm, no unkindness. What a world we could create while seeking to renew and free ourselves!
A few years ago I was invited to teach a series of classes on religious traditions at a synagogue in suburban Minneapolis. For those unable to attend, a friend recorded a video of each session and posted them to YouTube. Amazingly, the video on Jainism has received more than 15,000 views.
Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPoJPd9z6mo&t=594s
En route to a show at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, my friend Sergio and I decide to park halfway and then take a bus.
“Easier than parking downtown!” say I.
Then again, maybe not.
Waiting for our bus, we chat with a man named Steve. One leg artificial, the other wrapped in an Ace Bandage, Steve has the appearance of a too-young-for-VietNam vet. Friendly and talkative, he continues to engage with us on the trip downtown.
Getting off the bus on Nicollet and 7th, I manage to trip, ending up sprawled on the sidewalk. My friend helps me up and to a nearby bench, as my left ankle rapidly puffs to double its normal size.
Having gotten off at the same stop, Steve walks over.
“Wow, that looks bad. You need to head to the emergency room,” he says.
We had reached the same conclusion.
As we arrange for a Lyft driver, Steve unwinds the Ace bandage from his leg. Handing it to me he says, “Don’t worry, it’s clean. You need this more than I do.”
Rather than a concert at First Avenue, I spend the evening at the Abbott-Northwestern ER. My ungraceful fall results in ligament tears on both sides of the ankle, as well as in the ligament connecting tibia to fibula in the calf.
Twelve weeks recovery,” says the orthopedic doc.
But the residual glow of Steve’s open-hearted generosity continues to defeat the shadows of temporary discomfort and inconvenience.
May he receive a thousand times over the goodness he shared.
WARNING – TRUTH WILL BE TOLD
If I were to draw a picture of my childhood home, it would show a single-family house, clean to the point of pain, silent in what is left unsaid, false in what is shown to those who dwell beyond the four walls, rising in the midst of a fastidious yard, on a quiet street in a small town dominated by self-contained Scandinavians.
My brother Rick died recently. Properly my half-brother, he was a little guy when his birth dad died in a car accident. Ten years older than me, he left home for college when I was only seven. My dad, his step-dad, adopted him and our older sister Sylvia after he married our mom. Dad could be sarcastic to my brother, and Rick felt that I was the favored child. Which, in some ways, I was. I wish it could have been easier for him growing up. And then he served two tours in Viet Nam. But with humor, a loving wife, great sons, and many friends, he appeared to do very well in his life.
Yet we never fully know the secret complexities of another’s life. Upon others, we may pronounce judgment and dismiss them. We also judge ourselves, as we do our best to cope. And that coping may lead us into the darkness of disfunction and shame until we stop accepting responsibility for circumstances over which we had no control.
As I only learned many years later, our high school counselor, Mr. Woods, suggested to my parents that I see a psychologist, so apparent was my emotional disarray. They declined without telling me. In those days, I carried a well of sorrow that flooded into tears at the slightest provocation. My anxiety was constant. At age 13, I began stealing liquor from my parents in an attempt to ease my distress. After high school, I floated in and out of college and relationships, in and out of jobs and apartments. Then in my mid-twenties, I changed my college major to forest management. The study of solid subjects like calculus and botany and meteorology and surveying began to balance and rectify my soul.
And I wrote.
Now I am older, calmer, kinder to myself, immersed in the beauty of life, family, friends, nature, and my own true beloved. We are composite creatures. Bodies which function autonomically, souls which guide us if we listen. We are the result of myriad generations of successful reproduction and survival. We are born and we will die. What comes after is a supposition.
Today, we are.
Beyond the basics of survival, which none of us should ever take for granted, does it matter how much stuff we have? Are we concerned about the judgment of others, when all anyone else can know is the teeniest corner of someone else’s life? Do we dwell in regret and shame about a past that has brought to where we are today?
No. No more. And the relief is beyond words to express. My story is my own and I turn it into healing words.
Peace be with you. May we each find our way.
I am more intrigued by commonalities than by differences. Walk around a neighborhood anywhere in the world and you will see green plants, intentional and unintentional. Some plants arrive wind or animal-borne. These we often call weeds, but what is a weed besides a perception of desirability? Other plants we intentionally introduce to our yards and homes as sources of beauty or nutrition.
Yesterday my mom and I visited Bergeson’s Nursery in rural Norman County, Minnesota, where we always purchase our plants. Now an urbanite, each spring I make a pilgrimage to Bergeson’s. They sell vibrant stock and offer free homemade donuts of the highest quality. Both body and soul receive a treat.
A home without intentional outdoor greenery causes me to imagine trouble indoors. Can one equate enjoyment of plants with health? You may say that there are people who are physically unable to garden. Fair enough. On a walk this afternoon, an unscientific survey of 60 nearby homes showed that 90% have outdoor plantings.
The pleasure I take in gardening feels deep and old. I remember being out in the vegetable garden with my step-grandpa. I tasted my first radish and the burning taste made me cry. I remember the lush pink peonies grown by one grandma, and the fragrant sweet peas grown by the other. I remember my mom and dad planting a vegetable garden in the spring and each year adding new plants to the backyard flower garden. Both of my grown children enjoy gardening, and my 2-1/2 year old granddaughter has her own set of garden tools and pair of gardening gloves.
There can also be great pleasure found in observing the plants which happen to grow in a patch of bare soil. Leave a corner of your garden unplanted and “unweeded”. Over the course of a season see what appears. Explore an empty lot and note the variety of life inhabiting the space. Or go rogue! Plow up your lawn and let it grow wild. Your neighbors may come after you with hoes and pitchforks, but you will doing doing a favor to creatures of many sorts.
People can be bound together by hatred or love, by ugliness or beauty, by death or life. In an increasingly dark world, let’s acknowledge and celebrate the universal healing power of plants.
Go forth and grow!
HISTORICAL INQUIRY/HISTORICAL INIQUITIES
While reading “The Relentless Business of Treaties: How Indigenous Land Became U.S. Property” by historian Martin Case (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2018), I began thinking about the homesteads of my maternal great-grandparents, the Blixes and the Johnsons. On both sides, they settled on rocky, inhospitable tracts in Nora Township, south of Bagley, Minnesota.
The western edge of Nora Township lay only a few miles from the White Earth Reservation eastern boundary. On the Blix side, Albert and Anna arrived in 1901. Did they have interactions with residents of White Earth? Having themselves come from far-northern Norway, and being of probable Sami extraction, did they feel a kinship with the indigenous people of the area?
Much of the White Earth land was sold to timber companies, land development companies, and individuals who had the money to invest. The injustice of the treaty system rankles and questions remain. My ancestors lived on land transformed from hunting and fishing grounds, formerly inhabited by people for whom land as “private property” was unthinkable. The future of the Ojibway people of White would be challenging.
Not that life was easy for the homesteaders. After the Blix family settled in Nora Township, husband and father Albert was committed to the Minnesota Hospital for the Insane in St. Peter, where he died in 1915. Meanwhile, Anna Blix raised sons Arthur, James, and Erven (spelling varies), managed a farm, and served as postmistress and secretary to the school board.
My mother remembers Anna, her grandmother, as small and stern. She raised her sons strictly, punishing Arthur for chasing a rabbit on Sunday. She was a Christian of the stoic variety, interesting, since organized religion came late to northern Norway, where they followed their own spiritual traditions well after the rest of Europe succumbed to the missionaries.
Great-uncle Erven died early in World War I, a radio operator who went down with the ship. My grandfather Arthur died at the Crookston tuberculosis sanatorium at age 49. Great-uncle James never married, remained in the small homestead house built by his parents, and was found lying dead on the kitchen floor in his mid-sixties.
Political institutions, religious hierarchies, financial institutions, and corporate entities tend to obscure their real goals behind a mask of caring for the needs of those they supposedly serve. As “The Relentless Business of Treaties” make clear, there is nothing new under the sun, nor in the penumbra of disguised motives.