Memories out of Season

Memories Out of Season


Sure, anyone can be glum about a global pandemic, but what about the bright side? What about the opportunities it gives us, to catch up on our reading, or have extra time to do our taxes? A global pandemic is also a great opportunity to ponder one’s mortality—or, if that makes you uncomfortable, ponder your neighbors’ mortality.  The wonderful thing about reflecting on your death is that it invariably makes you reflect on your life as well: How you lived it, and how you want to live the rest of it.

You can begin by studying the examples of those who faced their mortality before us and learn from them. The Stoic philosophers taught that you should think of each day as your last. This probably explains why they weren’t more popular on Rome’s cocktail party and orgy circuit.

Conversely, there is the school of thought that espouses we should live as if we were never going to die. Yet, both these attitudes—Live as if this was your last day, and Live as if you’re going to live forever—bring us to the same place: Live each day to the fullest, without dread, without demands.

For many people the main problem with death is its uncertainty: We don’t know what’s going to happen next—or even if there is a Next. Millions of monotheistic people (Christians, Jews, Muslims, Wall Street bankers) believe they will go to Heaven when they die, or anyway, hope they will. (Interesting, those who believe in Hell usually see it as a place God intended for others.) But even believing in a heaven isn’t always as reassuring as you might think. The theosophist Frederick Myers once pressed a famous churchman on what he thought would happen when he died, until, exasperated, the man exclaimed, “Well, I suppose it will be all eternal bliss and joy but I don’t see why we have to dwell on such morbid subjects.”

Reincarnation has a certain appeal, especially now as more and more of us practice recycling, and there are even some who maintain that death is an illusion, a kind of metaphysical misunderstanding and really not necessary. For example, in 1875, the prophet and spiritualist Thomas Lake Harris famously announced that he had discovered the secret to eternal life and was immortal. (He died in 1906.)

If nothing else, it should be reassuring that those who have had Near Death Experiences (NDEs) frequently report that their “death” was accompanied by an enormous sense of relief and peacefulness. In fact, a number of them, including Carl Jung, the renowned Swiss psychoanalyst, experienced feelings of deep sadness and disappointment when they were “called back” to their life on earth, and this was even before Trump was president.

While respecting people’s many and differing beliefs on the matter, we are ultimately left with our own mortality staring into its own uncertainty, standing before a great mystery that we sense we are a part of, without knowing the particulars. When you honestly think about it, your death is theoretical until it actually happens—and then worrying probably becomes irrelevant.

 

 

First posted: May 7, 2020

 

 

Sheltering in place is a great opportunity to discover your Inner Introvert and to develop your creative powers.

 

But first...

 

 

 

 

 

Ideas to help you survive (revised guidelines)

  1. Stay at home except to get essentials: food, medications, more guns and ammo (It’s your 2nd Amendment right.)
  2. Leave six feet between you and other people. Maybe a challenge for your dentist and barber, but they should at least make the effort.
  3. Try to keep your breathing to a minimum. Think about it: Do you really need all that oxygen?
  4. Do not touch your face. Ever again.
  5. Wash your hands with warm water and soap regularly. In fact, better to wash your hands continuously. Don’t stop. This will also help keep you from touching your face.
  6. Avoid going to the hospital. Sick people are there. If you believe you may have been exposed to the coronavirus, think pleasant thoughts.

 

Ideas to help you thrive

If you’re among the fortunate ones who have the basics covered (food, shelter, heat), then address your higher needs.

  1. Use this time for those projects you never have time for: painting the bedroom, writing your memoirs, raising chickens (city codes may apply), digitalizing the family albums or organizing the 12,000 slides you haven’t looked at since 1996.

  2. Host your own NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month.) Since you’re stuck at home anyway, write that novel that’s been simmering in you for years. Set the next 30 days for the challenge. Maybe call it CoRoNaNoWriMo.

  3. Libraries are closed but you can still check out audio and e-books through their websites. Read all of Jane Austen (again.) Or read what you’ve always wanted to read: Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Sue Grafton’s complete alphabet of mysteries. Hot romances. Historical fiction. Survival epics. Trash.

  4. Support your local bookstore: Paperbacks Galore will send out books ordered through email (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) and through Facebook Messenger. They also provide curbside pick-up service by appointment. A personal library is a wonderful source of entertainment and edification, plus, if the nation does run out of TP…well, you make the connection.

  5. Tired of reading? Re-watch the complete Cheers! seasons to cheer you up. Or The Jeffersons. Or all of Star Trek (again.) Take up hobbies: Quilting. Watercolors. Scrapbooking. Gardening (Thank you, Spring. You arrived just in time.) No garden? No problem. Work in your neighbor’s. They’ll thank you. Probably. (Hint: Best ask them first.)

  6. Use this time for self-improvement: Commit to reading all of Wikipedia; learn to meditate online (Check out Headspace.) Write a whimsical 17-syllable haiku about deadly global pandemics. Co-ro-na-vi-rus—that’s five syllables already. You’re almost a third of the way there! Re-discover the lost art of letter writing. Help people re-discover the lost art of letter reading. (Yes, Virginia, people once actually wrote in complete sentences.)

  7. Need to get out of the house? Go for a walk, commune with nature instead of people. Less social pressure to be nice. Do something kind for others: pick up groceries for your elderly neighbor; walk her dog; walk her thirteen cats.

There are opportunities even in the bleakest of times. Chances are good you will survive, so why not decide to thrive?

 

Expanded from a presentation at the March WordFest.

 

First posted: April 2, 2020

 

 

 

I was a very serious child. 
Everyone agreed. Yes, very serious.
Perhaps too serious.
Yes, probably too serious.
Born under the influence of Saturn
I was...well, saturnine and solemn
as if knowing from an early age
that life was serious business
and not to be taken lightly.
Two elementary school teachers noted
in my report cards:
Alan doesn't smile much. 
Like, though doing well
in Reading, Writing and Arithmetic,
I might fail Smiling?

 

 

 

 

 

 

First posted: February 16, 2020

 

I came to Lower Columbia Community Action Program in 1999 as the new Community Services Director. By then, I had been engaged in the AIDS epidemic for over 12 years and had lost more than thirty friends, colleagues and clients to AIDS. I needed a change.

Friends expressed their concern for me, joking that I was moving forty miles and fifty years north of Portland, into the American “heartland” of small towns and small minds. But I had already accepted that I’d be alone.

It didn’t come up until my second week, when I was meeting each of my eighty-plus staff individually. She came into my office, an older woman looking rather stern, I thought. We’d only just started, when she said abruptly, “I heard you worked with the AIDS people.”

The AIDS people. It was the way she said it, like the Sand people, or the Pod people.

“Yes. Yes, I have,” I said. “For a number of years.”


I braced myself to get an earful of what she thought of “those people.”

Her gaze dropped, her voice falling to a whisper. “My son has AIDS.”

I got up and closed the door, came back and sat down. “Would you like to talk about it?”

And as she told me about the family secret and the family shame and the family silence, and spoke of her own terrible isolation, I realized that I had come into the Heartland.

 

 

 

[First posted: October 6, 2013]

 


It’s the quiet you first notice. 
A pristine stillness, so quiet you can hear your own soul.
Which is kind of the whole point.

Here we find the sacred,
not really in nature
as in ourselves,
like a faint homing signal
bringing one back on course.
True, one can find the sacred in the city, as well—
Mother Teresa found it among the dying and dispossessed of Bombay—
but it’s generally more difficult for those of us who are not Mother Teresa.

Here amid the stillness
comes a quiet joy,
a contentment complete.
And a sublime relief, 
of the navigator regaining the lost signal
showing him the way home.

 

 

[Biographical note: During the years in southern California (1970-76), the Sierra Nevada were my sanctuary and my sanity, and I made as many trips into them as I could. Perhaps ironic: Attending seminary and serving a church, it was the mountains where I went seeking my own spiritual source and salvation. Yet I am far from the first to sense and seek the holy in the mountains, far from the teeming city. “I lift up mine eyes to the mountains,” proclaimed the Psalmist. “From whence comes my help? My help comes from the Lord (the Source), who made Heaven and Earth.”]

 

[First posted: June 9, 2019]