Sunday, December 31, 2017

Letter to the Last Day of the Year

Well, hello last day of the year. Here I am, awake yet again for another spin of the earth. How shall we spend the day together? (And when did people begin talking about “spending” days as if they were so many coins to be spent wisely, knowing that our allowance wouldn’t be renewed?)

As you know, I have my routines. Water boiling first to cover the ½ cup of oatmeal and while it cooks covered in its flowered bowl, I sit cross-legged and try to breath myself into your welcome arms. Light the incense, ride in on the sound waves of ancient Buddhist chants, three bows at the end, step out onto the deck and greet the trees in my yard, inhale the fresh air. Short little back exercises on the floor and ready for the oatmeal, orange juice and three games of Solitaire. Shower and shave and dress and probably open the laptop to look at the day’s list (again, numbers and things to be done) as suggested by e-mails.

It’s Sunday, so my wife will go off to our 20 plus year biking routine with friends and when the clock reaches 10, per the agreement with my upstairs neighbors, the piano keys are open for me to traverse, down the pathways of Bach, Monk, Ravel, Joplin, Chopin, Cole Porter, take your pick. Perhaps a short bike ride to the local Farmer’s Market, though pickings are slim these days, perhaps continue to Ambassador Toys to return the bop-clown that didn’t work, a stop in the old Park-and-Shop turned Andronico’s turned Safeway Community Market for Adelle’s sausages and dry black beans and poblano peppers for a ritual Brazilian black-bean soup. And then the weekly Trader Joe’s shopping.

That leaves the afternoon and if I have any good sense, I’ll bike or walk out into your welcoming arms and notice all the gifts you perpetually offer which I often don’t notice. Take a moment to sit on a bench or better yet, the ground leaning against a tree and see what I see, hear what I see, smell what I smell, the ancient art of simply paying attention. And then retreat into a book or write in my journal or get the heart pumping and muscles working biking up San Francisco hills.

Are you still with me, day? Now the sun is setting and the soup is cooking and after dinner, the new annual ritual of going to hear the hilarious genius of Paula Poundstone, topped off with another ritual party at my ex-school head’s house that culminates in taking to the streets and ringing his family’s collection of Tibetan bells as the clock strikes midnight.

Of course, there was the time writing this blog, closing out 7 years of marking in print the joys and sorrows of some 2,555 days in some 1900 posts, to be shared with a public who might or might not find something affirming, thought-provoking, funny, poignant, boring or parallel to their own experiences.

So day, what do you think? Shall we do this? Let’s go!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Cards in the Silver Bowl

Though it’s luster and magic is fading, the Christmas tree remains lit in our living room. The Holiday CD’s are still out, but truth be told, I am ready not to hear Jingle Bells for at least a year. The cards we received—a minor miracle in this electronic age—sit nestled in the silver bowl. One more last hurrah tomorrow with New Year’s Eve and then it’s back to business as usual and refreshingly so.

Looking at the cards, I feel both gratitude for their presence and a sense of foreboding that the day will come when the bowl will be empty—or at least sparse. If I make it to old old age, I know that some other friends will not and their annual greetings will come no more. It’s also somewhat astounding that I’ve never yet had a Christmas with just my wife and I— somehow the children, now 33 and 37, still come home or we go to them (in fact, have shared a few Christmas days with them in Chile, Peru and Mexico) and I’ve certainly never yet spent a Christmas Day alone. But that day may come and I already can feel its sadness.

Alas, this is the shadow of the gift of the imagination, not only anticipating the delights of the days to come, but the sorrows as well. Truth be told, I don’t spend much time at all dwelling on future suffering—what’s the point of that? But just looking at the cards in the silver bowl gives me a moment’s pause to think of all those who are lonely, how that must feel magnified at this time of year and how I may someday join them.

But not yet. Gratitude for the warmth of companionship as the year turns to its final day.

Bliss-Bestowing Hands

The Ten Ox-Herding Pictures in the Zen tradition are a series of poems and images describing the steps of a seeker of truth. The sequence, in short, is searching for the ox, discovering the footprints, seeing the ox, catching it, taming it, riding it, freeing it, transcending it, reaching the source of you and ox. And then the final picture is returning to the marketplace with bliss-bestowing hands, mingling with the people of the world as an ordinary person who can make dead trees spring to life with your mere presence.

I can’t claim such lofty abilities, but I did descend from our annual retreat up to Mount Tamalpais and two days at the West Point Inn with a bit more happiness radiating from the body and ready to face the New Year with the full measure of my meager powers. Returning there for the 15th year with two other families, it’s the perfect blend of family, friends, evening games, great cooking, daily hikes, music (piano there and this year a banjo), reading, writing, astonishment at our longevity (before this were the snow trips with the same families, starting around 1986) and delight in the next generation of kids from 2 to 6. And then there’s waking up each morning to the astonishing view that has been my blog screensaver (this year’s version above) and then stepping out at night to look at the moon or the stars.

One family missed this year to be at the birth of their second granddaughter and another was missing their kids and grandkids gone to visit the other grandparents, but still we managed to fill the house. Some highlights of this trip were Zadie (granddaughter), Talia (daughter) and I putting on spontaneous plays at the Mountain Home Theater, playing horseshoes with Zadie and Malik (grandson) and then a real game with Ronnie (son-in-law), and my lifetime of reading and curiosity paying off as I conversed with seven different people around seven different themes—old movies, depth psychology, English poetry (reciting poems together), the history of racism, German culture and politics, education. Happy to have something to contribute to the conversation and happy to have something to learn.

Though we skipped it the last two years (last year partly because of my surprise attack of kidney stones!), I often ended the trip with my wife Karen and two friends walking down the mountain to Mill Valley, catching a bus to Sausalito, a ferry to San Francisco and a streetcar home, a five-hour undertaking of great delight making the transition back to busy city life slowly. This year did it with Karen and Talia and again that feeling of having caught sight of the ox, followed it, tamed it and ridden it a bit. But instead of the ox of Buddhist enlightenment achieved in solitary meditation, it was simply a taste of life as it’s meant to be lived in a small, dynamic group of some 15 to 20 people balancing companionship and solitude, games and conversations, hiking and relaxing, the little ones taken care of and enjoyed by the whole village, the surrounding beauty of pines and hummingbirds, hills and ocean and the City’s silhouette in the distance, above it all and also part of it all, no distracting machines or bright lights. A little piece of heaven 45 minutes away by car from our city home.

And so the year winds to its close and ready to take hold of the next, with bliss-bestowing hands.

Friday, December 29, 2017

The Mathematics of Appreciation

Let me confess that I was a perfect, red-blooded, patriotic American who did my duty to do what all of us American are expected to do. Meaning I bought way too many presents for my grandchildren! But I will also confess I fell short on the G.I. Joe/ Barbie/ Nintendo side of the equation. For 6-year old Zadie, I bought gifts like a pair of chopsticks attached at the top like a clothespin (ie, training chopsticks), the Uno card game, a Concentration game with faces of children of diverse ethnic identities, a jumprope, a wallet with foreign money inside that I had collected over the years, a dinner out downtown at an Asian restaurant (the chopsticks worked!) followed by a wonderful play (see last blog), a second-hand pair of sneakers and more.

So I feel good about each gift and how it matches Zadie’s developing personality and how satisfying it was to play Uno with 8 people last night and feel how much she was loving the game. But it is the “more” that concerns me. Because in the course of actually opening the gifts on Christmas morning, it was more like a Black Friday Walmart trample than a slow savoring of each and every gift. Between her grandparents, her aunt, her parents and Santa, Zadie got A LOT of gifts. And again, each one carefully considered and just right. But it was the sheer abundance of them that made it so hard for her to appreciate each one, to enjoy, to savor, to feel grateful. She would look at a gift for 5 seconds and then try to go tearing into the next. Sometimes she's whine about her brother's Malik's present or complain that she got yet another book or prematurely express disappointment that she didn't get one of the gifts she asked Santa for. We did our best to reign her in and slow things down, but you can see she was caught in the throes of a genuine syndrome—too much means never enough.

And this just seems to be a law of sorts. Abundance breeds greed and dissatisfaction with what one has. Scarcity breeds generosity and thankfulness. As Mary Pipher eloquently noted in her book The Shelter of Each Other:

Today we have the poverty of consumerism, which means never having enough…bring ‘thirsty in the rain.’ …We are too rushed to do the things we really value. With more entertainment we are more bored. With more time-saving devices we have less time. With more books, we have fewer readers… (p. 81)

And so on. As Zadie began to use or wear some of the gifts over the next couple of days, her excitement and appreciation slowly grew, but truth be told, the frenzy of unwrapping on Christmas morning ended up in retrospect feeling a little creepy.

Ever-solution-oriented, we have some ideas for next year.

1)    Buy less.

2)    Follow a 5-minute unwrapping rule. Only one person unwraps at a time and we all focus on that particular gift for 5-minutes. If it’s a shirt, put it on and model it. If it’s a book, read aloud from the back cover or select a random passage to share. If it’s a card game, play one hand. Yes, it will prolong the whole ritual (though maybe not—see Number 1), but who’s in a hurry on Christmas Day. Why not take time to savor. Maybe even take a break for breakfast and resume later.

So I hope to try this next year. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Passing It Down

One of the great pleasures of raising children is passing down to them the things that you have loved in this life. From reading to them The Little Engine That Could to Charlotte’s Web to The Hobbit, initiating them into their first Hitchcock or Frank Capra or Charlie Chaplin film, taking them to the first symphony or jazz concert, the first trip to the art or science museum, the first camping trip and so on and so on. You hope they will be as thrilled as you were by some of these things and they might but then again, they might not. One of the few disappointments I have in my kids is that they roll their eyes if I suggest they sit down on the couch with me and watch—Heaven forbid!—an old black-and-white film. And my wife is dismayed that they won’t enthusiastically accompany her to the next art exhibit at the museum.

Oh well. They have their own loves and rightly so. But one of the great pleasures of grandparenthood is getting to do it all over again with the grandchildren. And this time with more pleasure and attention because you’re not so busy feeding them and sheltering them and keeping them from beating each other up and so on.

And so it was that my wife Karen and I took granddaughter Zadie to her first professionally-produced play, A Christmas Story. It was a perfect choice because we had watched the movie with her the year before and she watched again with her parents a few weeks ago. So the story was familiar and fresh in her mind and she could perfectly follow everything.

It felt like a very grown-up night out on the town, Zadie dressed up in her black dress, dinner at an elegant restaurant where she got to try out her new attached-at-the-top chopsticks, a walk through Union Square still bustling in its finest holiday dress with the big tree outside in the square and another inside Neiman-Marcus, Macy’s windows lit with wreathes, ice-skaters zipping about, a peek into the St. Francis Hotel with its gingerbread house and sugar castle. Then the excitement of the lights coming down in the theater, the music starting up and a two-hour production that had her full attention every step of the way, ending with the magical snowflakes coming down while the cast sang out the ending in full voice. Beautiful! And topped off with an It’s It ice cream walking back to the car.

Well, I missed Zadie’s first camping trip, but ahead I look forward to those old films and books, more plays and concerts and museums, a first trip out of the country. And then also with her younger brother Malik, waiting for his moments of readiness as well.

Alfie is not the only one who has wondered “what’s it all about?” (a film that didn’t quite hold-up and is not on my Zadie-Malik list), but if we have to put words to life’s meaning, I would say that all the encounters that have captured our hearts, have made time stop, have helped us feel that all is well and we belong to it, that remembering them all and passing them down to the next generation, be they our blood relations or the children we teach or our friends and neighbors, is as good an answer as any. Zadie, it was a perfect evening with you. May there be many more to come!