random thoughts on the end of the decade
December 31, 2009
Hmm, it's been an interesting 10 years. In just about 6 months, I turn 50 and it seems to be making me a little philosophical in my old age. The last 10 years have been, in comparison to, say, my 30s, really good personally, despite some things most people would call tragedies but that I've come to see as either life stages or just ordinary events. I think I've grown and changed more in roughly the last decade than I have in the first 40, with the possible exception of childhood, when pretty much every human being grows and changes exponentially. It's not that I've gained so much more knowledge (though I hope I never stop learning new things), but that I've figured out what to do with what I already know, emotionally and otherwise.
Both my parents died about halfway through the decade, one in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the other in the wake of the Aceh tsunami. I watched the aftermaths of both of those disasters from my childhood home while mourning people who'd raised me. I loved my parents, but Mom and I didn't get along very well the last 10 years of her life, in part because of a series of small strokes that changed her personality and the constant pain that she was in that would probably make anybody cranky, and in part because I'd refused to make it my job to make her happy. Dad and I, by contrast, got along better than we ever had, and I miss him more than I miss Mom. I feel like I didn't know him as well as I should have and then ran out of time. That's a tragedy.
But losing both Mom and Dad, at 76 and 86 respectively, is just what happens to everyone, eventually. I grieved for a while, and then I got on with it: sorted the stuff out, sold the house, put Michigan behind me. In some ways, I felt liberated, more by Mom's death than Dad's, because he never laid any expectations on me except that I be happy. Mom had the expectations and I met very few of them. After she died, I made the final step away from the religion I'd grown up in, and that's been liberating too, mostly from guilt. It's not like I felt I missed anything by being a JW, or that I was somehow deprived, but that I couldn't live up to those expectations either. For one thing, I don't believe women should be subordinate to men, or that they're in any way inferior to them. I don't believe how I dress defines who I am. I think too much and always have to follow blindly and not ask those uncomfortable questions about contradictions; I have a fairly rigorous mind that knows a bit about scholarly research and textual studies so believing the divinely inspired line got harder and harder.
The most liberating part about leaving the JWs was becoming politically active, something I'd always found frustrating: the lack of participation in even social justice issues. I'm still a pacifist in the Gandhian sense, but I also see the necessity of winding up a war the right way once you're in it. (The best tactic, of course, is don't fucking start it, but if you do, finish it and clean up your mess.) I still believe that changing people's minds and offering aid is better than bombing, too, and cheaper. Forced conversions of any kind don't work and never have. And I voted for the first time ever, in the last presidential election, because the idea of four more years of neocons terrified me. I missed voting in the recent mayoral race because I was working from 6 AM to 9:30 that day, but I would have voted for Mike anyway, because the other candidate sucked, and Mike's done some good things. I do wish he'd stop auctioning off bits of the city to developers though. I don't know that I would ever campaign for someone, but I write a lot of letters and sign a lot of petitions now. I'm looking around for something to volunteer for, too. For the last ten years, I've been actively supporting Amnesty International, NOW, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Center for Victims of Torture, among others with letters and money, but I'd like to find something a little more grassroots to actually volunteer for: a literacy program, some kind of education or environmental program that I have skills for.
I haven't really been able or wanted to entirely give up the spiritual component though. I can't call myself an atheist, or even an agnostic, really. I've always been drawn to meditation and I've been exploring Buddhism for a while now. I'm still leery of religion, per se, and so many branches of Buddhism are still full of deities. I think this is why Zen appeals to me, or one of the reasons it does. It seems not so much austere as stripped clean of the encrustations of superstition. The thing that most attracts me about Buddhism is the emphasis on compassion, though. That's something I'm trying to cultivate in my own life, more and more. But after most of a lifetime thinking as a JW, I'm not really ready to get myself entangled in another religion just yet. Don't know that I ever will be. And that reincarnation thing . . . well . . .
Despite my interest in neuroscience, I don't think biochemistry and physics explain everything about our need for belief in something bigger than ourselves. I don't think we know enough to explain everything in the universe yet and I'm not sure we ever will. I have uncomfortable questions about the dogma of science too, the same way I did about the dogma of religion: What was around before the Big Bang? Why did it happen? Why did it result in just the conditions it did? Why do these conditions support life? Is it possible that others would too, of a different type? If so, why us? And those are just a few of them. So many explanations on both sides of the faith/fact divide elicit the response "Yes, but." . . . I doubt there will be definitive answers in my lifetime, and that's okay.
And that's something else I've had to get used to in the last ten years: the finiteness of life. My health has generally been pretty good, still, but I know things are starting to go. I had a couple of really ridiculous health problems that cost me an inordinate amount of money for what they were, but I can probably predict what's down the road: I'm sure there's a couple of hip replacements in my future and the arthritis in my hands is already becoming a problem. I'm fighting off being insulin sensitive with a good diet, and my blood pressure and cholesterol are pretty much under control, but as I get older, there's always the specter of stroke lurking. My Uncle Art (Mom's oldest brother) died in his bed in his 50s of an embolism; Mom had a number of TIAs before the big one got her at 76. Dad, by contrast, was pretty healthy right up to the end, when his ticker gave out. So it's a crap shoot. All I can do is take care of myself because with luck, I've got anywhere from 25 to 35 years more and they'll go in a blink. And that's it.
When you're a JW, you believe not in an afterlife but in a resurrection, earthly or otherwise, i.e., a second chance and immortality. I believed that fervently for a long time, and looked forward to it, but I couldn't ever quite commit to not having a "real life" here and now. Immortality still looks mighty attractive when you're as curious as I am; there are so many things I'd like to learn yet, so many places I'd like to go, and so many things I'd like to do. I'll never get through all of them, but I'm working hard to make the kind of life I'll look back on and say, "Yeah, I had a good run, did some good, enjoyed myself, and have no regrets." That latter part—I think there are always regrets, just because we make mistakes, but I don't want any of the regrets to be "I wish I'd done/said that, gone there."
Which is why I went to China last summer, and to Barcelona a few years ago too. China wasn't someplace I'd ever wanted to go, and I didn't go as a tourist, but I'm glad I went. I met some of the nicest people on earth, who made me feel more welcome than anyone else ever has anywhere. It's a beautiful country and going there was a great learning experience for me, as well as a bit of adventure. Barcelona was an adventure too: something I'd never have done on my own twenty years ago, even though I'd been abroad. Going to a place where I didn't speak the language was too scary then. After twenty-three years in New York, not so much. I got along fine with my street Spanglish. China would have been impossible though, without the kind assistance of our hosts, not because people weren't astonishingly kind and helpful, but just because it's not even the same alphabet. I still want to get to Italy, and I'd like to go back to both London and Edinburgh to see them as the kind of traveler I am now, not the kind of traveler I was in my 20s.
During the last ten years, I think my main goal has been to live a good life, to be a good person, to do good work and be happy. Rob and I have discussed this many times: what kind of lives we want to have. I've never been spectacularly ambitious, never been a driven, Type A personality and the older I get, the more I want to just enjoy my life. I want to be surrounded by good friends that I love. I want to write what I want to write (not that I'd mind getting published and getting a bit of income from it, but i don't want to get on that high-pressure merry-go-round of a book a year. That's just another form of wage slavery.) I'd like to travel more. I want to cook and eat well. I want to make more books. I'd like to feel the work I do to earn my living is worthwhile, even if it doesn't pay spectacularly well. I'm too curious and too much of a dilettante to enjoy being locked into any one activity. I love teaching, I love writing, I love making books, I love cooking and entertaining. I love good talk, good books, good music, travel. I want to enjoy all that now, not when I retire. If that means I'm poor, so be it. I'll have a fabulous life anyway. That's mostly how this last ten years feels, despite or perhaps because of big changes in my life.
Among the other losses of the decade was the job I thought I would be retiring from in 20 years. I was sorry to leave the place I'd been working at for more than 10 years, but we'd both changed and it was time. I went back to work as a freelancer and adjunct, and stumbled into the best teaching job of my life, despite the fact that the pay is unlivable and I have no benefits. It's the students who make it worthwhile every day (though right now they're annoying the hell out of me by calling me during break to discuss their papers; no, people. I love you, but I'm not on call like a doctor.) Teaching at the College of New Rochelle extension campus in the South Bronx is, without exception, the most soul-filling thing I've done in my life. The students are great, despite the fact that they're often ill-prepared by the system and faced with multiple obstacles. They're so intellectually hungry, most of them, far more than kids who take going to college for granted. There's a lot more opportunity for switching on light bulbs here than anywhere else I've been. It's anything but draining, though it's damned hard work. I always leave work exhilarated and happy. Now if only I could pay the rent on the salary.
I think one of the reasons I'm enjoying it so much is that I've become a different person in the fifteen years since I last taught. I had a few years of therapy and just generally grew up a lot. I gained a new sense of competence as a teacher. Sometimes I listen to myself lecturing and am amazed at what I know, that I'm confident I know and can explain—things I didn't know I knew and yet I must have after getting that Master's degree and getting through all those Ph.D. courses. It's not just the sense of competency that's made the difference though, it's that I've become a more patient person and developed my own set of beliefs about teaching and learning that I hone in each class. I believe you get what you expect out of students. I believe that anyone can learn anything with the right teacher and right approach. I believe it's a process, not an outcome. I believe it's more important to teach people how to think than what to think. I believe the only stupid questions are the ones left unasked. I believe college is the place to take risks, to fail, to explore, not just to learn a set of skills. I believe GPAs and standardized tests don't really mean shit. I believe structure is important, but rules are made to be broken. I believe my students can teach me as much as I teach them, if I keep my mind open.
As I seem to do when I teach, I started writing again, and making books. Another thing I was able to do once Mom died was go back to edit my novel, which I think is going to be an entirely different book than it would have been when she was alive. I've become an entirely different person since I started it too, so how could it not be? I was never able to dedicate it to her (and still can't) because it will never be the kind of book she would have wanted me to write. Now, at least, it can be the kind of book it needs to be.
I'm in the limnal space with my poetry right now, where it's shifting over to another voice and I'm still flailing around trying to find it, but there's some good stuff coming out. This one seems like a good summing up of things I've learned, how I've changed over the last ten years:
You wake up one morning
and it’s fall.
The leaves outside your window
have gone yellow overnight,
as though bleached by moonlight,
or red, as though set on fire
when you weren’t looking.
The air smells of loam and compost,
even beneath concrete.
Bare branches begin to show
and you see the skeleton of things:
life stripped down to the bare essentials.
Or that’s the metaphor.
Fall is like sleep, like death waiting for rebirth,
like a thousand other things
we make into symbols
to explain this quantum randomness
of our lives
to ourselves, to give us a shred of comfort
in the constant reminders of our own
You wake up one morning
and it’s fall,
beauty, time passing, life.
© Lee Kottner, 2008
The book binding started in a serious way with 9/11, as so many things did. It started before that, with Kath, who was another loss of the decade, one far more mysterious and hurtful than the others. She taught me in the University of Maryland library how to case bind with book cloth and got me started. That was also, I think, the seeds of the end of our friendship, which was precipitated by a plan to make a book together and finished off in a disagreement over stories, though those were just excuses, I think. We've made tentative approaches to restarting it, but I don't have a lot of hopes. I still haven't figured out what went wrong in the first place, except perhaps that it took us both ten years to see who the other person was.
But I have her to thank for many things I learned, including making books, which became both a calling and a source of terror. I've never thought of myself as a visual artist or craftperson. For a long time, I'd forgotten how much fun it is to make things. It's a lot more fun now that I have more patience and a good workspace, but it still makes me anxious. I feel a little like I used to about calling myself a poet, like I'm an impostor, or that I'm arrogant. I doubt my own creativity and vision. And yet, the book I'm making for Carlos is pretty amazing, and the book I made with Marcia is too. I have to learn to own my aesthetic and trust my sense of design, uncredentialed or not. I don't say "uncredentialed" because I grew up with an artist and I've been looking at art the way artists do for most of my life, but my formal training is pretty scanty. So this is a new challenge I have to deal with: coming to terms with the artist in me, and acknowledging her abilities and skills. Highfield made me laugh this morning on Facebook, when he replied to my announcement that I wasn't going to do a New Year's card this year. He said I had to or I'd destroy his collection. I think he's hedging his bets that I'll be famous some day, and he's been collecting all my cards and books.
And I have Kath to thank for the new apartment I'm in, which is a lovely space, though not as sunny as my old Brooklyn apartment. The neighborhood is better, and it's about the same distance from Manhattan as my old one. About the only thing I'm missing is a bookstore and a good neighborhood bar. There's even a Starfuck's, but to offset it, there's a good classic diner too. The old place holds a lot of memories: my first nights in New York with a sleeping bag, a suit case, and no electricity; two break-ins, which taught me not to get too attached to things; my insane burglar-mangling, visitor-hating cat; the opportunity to learn what it feels like to be a minority; the cat conclave in the neighbor's yard, the fighting roosters and voodoo chickens behind us; the motorcycle club's vengeance on the crack dealers down the block; the kid sleeping on my doorstep one Sunday morning (I would handle that so differently now; what an asshole I was then); Bruce and his viola; Bob dying of AIDS not long after Nick did; Larry and I watching the Towers fall and me sobbing in his arms; Les sobbing drunkenly in mine. I miss Brooklyn, but I like it here in the Bronx, too. It's all New York; it's all good.
Lots of other gains these ten years, too, to offset if not replace the losses. I have a cat again, this one sweet as pie but still wonderfully attitudinal. I doubt she'd maim any burglars, but she's very demanding. She might squash or smother them, if they sit still long enough. I've made some new friends and renewed some old friendships too, even while old ones were changing. Jen got herself married and moved out to the other coast and I miss her a lot, even though we talk fairly often. Not long after, my friend from grad school, Helen, decided to move here for part of the year from London and I've been helping her find a place and get it set up. She has a nice little pied a terre in the same neighborhood as my newish friend Julie, a friend that Eva introduced me to. Jen's friend Calla moved out here from Utah a while ago, and we've struck up a friendship as well. And Rob finally got himself a tenure track job in a place he loves that's not half a world away. He's just bought a house up in Maine and we see each other at least once a year, like we did when he was in Detroit. We also talk often, which is great. I got lucky and have seen both Liz and Corinda, my other British friends a couple of times this decade, though I think it's my turn to go see them now. I'm glad I can be friends with Peggie now without feeling like I'm going to get reprimanded by somebody for it (we've both left the JWs though she beat me to it).
I cut a few ties when I left the Witnesses, one intentionally, the others more their choice than mine, but I've reacquainted myself with other old friends who'd dropped off my radar for various reasons, some through Facebook (which is where Marcy and I picked up again and how I ended up in China), some through luck and the intertubez. Facebook has been more fun and more rewarding than I thought it would be, and I'm slowly learning to not let it be such a time suck. The polish is wearing off. But I'm glad I stuck with it. I've made some interesting connections and had some interesting conversations. I don't like losing friends or cutting ties but sometimes those things must be done or they hold us back. I'm too old now to keep giving people infinite chances when those opportunities wind up hurting. I wish them all the best and happiness in their own lives.
It's been a nasty decade in a lot of ways: the increase in terrorism and learning to live with that fear and possibility; the savaging of our economy, constitution, and civil rights by the neocons, swing us into fascism and blocking the most compassionate act any government could perform for its citizens: instituting universal healthcare; the criminalization of poverty; the use of torture and disappearing prisoners; the war-mongering and outright greed; the recognition of global warming as a serious threat; the increasing embrace of superstition in daily life and the trading of vituperation between rationalists and the religious; backsliding in women's rights and the continued devaluing of half the population of the world. It reminds me not so much of the signs of the End Times from Revelation as it does of Charles McKay's 1841 book, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. And the rancor is so bitter between opposing factions and philosophies that even agreement to disagree seems impossible, and I can't help but be reminded also of Yeats' "The Second Coming":
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The Best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Which goes to show this is nothing new because human nature is what it is. I think societies and attitudes can evolve also, but not without strong or extraordinary leaders. I don't know if Obama has the right stuff to be that person the way Cheney and Wolfowitz et al had the wrong stuff to be the Machiavellis of our age. We'll see what the next decade brings.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.