Saturday, May 4, 2019

Addition and Subtraction

To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t thrilled to be running out of school yet again on Friday afternoon to get in a car in heavy traffic. Last week was 4 hours to the south, stop-and-go to the Orff Mini-Conference in the Carmel Valley. Yesterday was 2 hours to the north, to the annual Men’s Group Retreat in Bolinas Beach. Something strange about going through the stress of traffic to be able to “relax” on a retreat. 

But something must be working, because I came up with a prose poem today, inspired by a spirited discussion at breakfast as we read several poems aloud. A walk to the beach and I sat down and wrote this. Definitely a first-draft, but I share it here.

It’s the annual Men’s Group Retreat. Nine of us are gathered around a ringed oak table for morning pancakes and poetry. The chosen poems about are all about aging, singing their mournful song about the body’s decay, the diminishing of faculties, the loss of memory. 

When we began meeting 30 years ago, it was all talk about hopes and dreams amidst the tangles of life lived in the thick of it, in company with young children, aging parents, advancing careers. Now white-haired with slower steps, the talk turns to aches and pains, the losses of loved ones, the wounds from the lion’s paw of time. 

And so we read these poems while passing the butter, nodding in agreement with the old Chinese poets that “everything passes, everything goes and never looks back, as we grow older and less strong.” Aging as subtraction. Every day we have less and less—energy, vitality, libido, you name it. We are retreating from the great game, casting off onto the ice floe toward our next incarnation.

And yet. There is more. There are great pleasures and rewards in eldership beyond the grandchildren and cruise ships. What so few speak of is aging as addition. 

Walking down the hall of my school to the kitchen, a trip I have taken almost every day for 44 years, I am in company with thousands of former students and hundreds of former teachers that I have shared this life with. With a mere moment of remembrance, each one is present, a tangible presence, not in flesh and bone, but in mind and memory. Each an indelible unerasable part of the grand ever-enlarging adventure. Like figures in the landscape of a Chinese scroll, they walk by my side, unrolled by memory’s invocation. 

The ghosts of those who I couldn’t love and couldn’t love me are present also, only now redeemed through the forgiveness the aging heart can finally know. We join hands in the dancing circle and lift each other up through lightness and laughter. The subtraction of loved ones we once held and heard and hugged is surely one of sorrow’s most heartbreaking burdens to bear. But the constant addition of each day’s dawn and those we spend the day with makes us larger and more grateful and less lonely, held in a constantly growing circle of mirth and miracles.

The addition and subtraction of aging. This is the math you can’t learn at school. 

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