His Highness Mr. Smudge the Cat doesn't seem to have recovered from the fall time change yet. He wakes me up at all hours of the morning to feed him. The one commonality that all these times have is that it's pitch black in the apartment whenever they occur. Sometimes there's a bit of red as I look out the kitchen window over the Tobin Bridge and I spoon out the Friskies, but not often enough for my liking. We are again at the Winter Solstice, the darkest part of the year.
For some reason, this year, the toughest part of the cycle for me is the fact that it gets dark so early. Being a night person, it takes me most of the day to get the metabolism in gear and then when I'm hitting on all cylinders I look outside only to see the sun setting in what seems to be the mid-afternoon. It's a bit disheartening. But then I have to remember that all of this is cyclic. The black rolls back and that process starts today -- a good time for me to take stock of the year and for me to report to you, my prime constituency -- the folks who have kept me kicking all these cycles.
As you probably know, there is no life without work.
This year, I spent a lot of time recovering from working at Harvard. With almost nine years to recover from, I was amazed at how much the place had gotten under my skin. Since I like to think of myself as someone who is pretty impervious to the Harvard Mono-myth ("We're real smart and it's not only okay that we run the world, but it's preferable") this was surprising. But, nonetheless, the first part of the year was spent wondering where all the institutional props had gone (not to mention the institutional paycheck). I never had any regrets about leaving (it was time to go), but suddenly not having an institutional context in which to live was disorienting at times.
Of course, you can make the argument that I did this to myself (I never make this argument), since I didn't immediately go out and find myself a job which would give meaning to the striving for excellence in my life (Did I tell you that I used to work at the Business School? Didn't affect me at all). Instead I decided to spend time retooling the tech skills and freelancing on those skills that only needed a quick buffing and not a total re-grooving. This worked, sort of. I was able to cobble together a minimal living by doing computer support, database development, and web site design between major naps. My clients, especially Priscilla and Victor Claman, were extraordinarily patient as I learned and re-learned tech that had somehow passed me by in my former incarnation as a tech manager.
There are people who understand their situation, develop goals, set timetables, and progress in measured steps toward the achievement of these goals. I am not one of these people. I do start off well. I can do all the planning and other intellectual work, but when we get to execution then, after a good beginning, I usually get interested in something off topic and the plan goes all to hell. Such is the downside of being a generalist. So by the fall I realized that without some sort of external framework to contain my work life, there was much too much of this kind of process going on and, therefore, I started to look for a part-time job.
Luckily enough, old aikido friend Dr. Terry Gibbs mentioned that the computer support person for the Pharmacology Department of the Boston University Medical School, where he worked, had left. He arranged that I meet Dr. David Farb, the Chairman of the department, and we agreed for me to I start working in the department on a part-time basis in late September. Not only did this provide me with income, but it spared me the wondrous process of looking for a job (which I hate so much). Currently, I work three days a week and the commute to the world of the former Boston City Hospital (now the Boston Medical Center) where the BU Med School is located. The context is Afro-American and poor and a long way from the gates of Harvard Yard. At times it's a stressful and strange environment for me (there's lots of what appear to be junior high students in white coats running around talking about topics like histology), but it's also good for me to apply the comp skills in a totally new context. The rest of my time seems to disappear into other freelance work, writing, and sometimes even work on the Master's thesis that I am allegedly writing.
As my grandfather used to say, you learn something everyday if you're not careful.
The cat and I are doing very well, thank you.
If you read the first volume of Robert Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson, he starts with what amounts to an extended essay on the geography and the ecology of east Texas and how these factors affected LBJ's character. Of course, George Bush grew up in the same sort of environment. It's been a number of years since I read the book, but I don't remember reading anything about swamps in this essay. The thing that both Presidents have in common is that they both had to deal with political situations that have a very swampy feel to them.
I did grow up playing in a swamp (the Great Swamp of Southeastern Massachusetts) and and I can attest that the first thing that you have to pay attention to is where you step. Any attempt to plow through a swamp in a linear John Wayne sort of way soon results in being sucked down into wet black ooze from which it is very hard to extract oneself. I, like Lyndon and George, learned this the hard way. The difference is that while I lost shoes to the swamp, Lyndon and George have lost many people's lives.
So, here we are. We're three years into the Iraq Adventure sitting in our expensive Hummer. The vehicle is stalled and isn't going anywhere but down and the ooze is starting to come up over the level of the windows. There's no way forward; there's no way back. What do we do?
Maybe we need to go back to Uncle Remus to find out how Brer Rabbit did get out of that tar baby. I think that it had something to do with convincing someone to throw him into the briar patch -- his natural environment. What's our natural environment here? Do we have one? How do we get back to it? At the moment, the main problem is that George doesn't even think to ask these questions.
No doubt about it, the fall elections were good for the 51% of us that didn't vote for George Bush, but they were also dangerous. If the Democrats don't appear to come up with a viable alternative to what we've been going through for the past 6 years, they're going to get blamed for what's happened by the 2008 Presidential campaign (Karl Rove may be down, but he's not out). We also have to remember that the hand on the foreign policy tiller is still George W. Bush and this isn't going to change for the next two years.
What a mess. And every day we create more terrorists that the invasion was supposed to help eliminate. It's a swamp, George, -- sometimes the best way through is to take the long way around and not go straight through.
On the state level, I'm happy that Deval Patrick won the governorship of the state (and happier still that "more right wing by the minute" Mitt Romney will be leaving us in a few days), but I'm enough of a cynic (sometimes called a person experienced in Massachusetts politics) to take a wait and see attitude as to what this is going to mean in the long run for the citizens of the Commonwealth.
One attains public office by putting together a broad coalition of people -- a percentage of which you must inevitably disappoint if you win and have to actually govern. The fuzzy "Deval Patrick Cloud" that focussed on "hope" and "togetherness" must now necessarily give way to hard policy decisions and budget numbers that will determine what the real priorities of the administration. As a "reformer," he has a very tricky line to walk -- he has to be enough outside to be the "different" political force that people definitely want and enough inside to actually be able to get something done.
All this being said, it is going to be a relief to actually have people in power that at least give lip-service to the idea that the power of government should be used to benefit the citizens of the Commonwealth. After 16 years of the official line of "government being the problem" maybe we will find out that the problem was the people who were running the government and not the government at all.
Intimations of Mortality
No doubt about it. Mortality has been a major theme this year on both the personal and social levels.
Normally, I'm as healthy as a horse - a healthy horse at that. But the ever-present allergies were a bear this year -- from March all the way through to November even with industrial strength antihistamines. The main symptom was fatigue and I had to drag myself through most of the summer and into the fall. But with the coming of the winter also comes relief - at least until March when some sort of version of this merry-go-round starts again. All of this is not really news - after all it's been going on for 56 years now -- but what was different this year was the severity of the attack and how much it disabled me for much of the year. I heard from other afflictees that it was a bad year for them as well, but as comforting as it is that I am not alone in this regard, it doesn't do much for having to take a nap in the middle of the day in order to get through it. I'm not looking forward to spring.
Of course, the allergies are old news, the new addition on the mortality front this year is that the body is starting to get stiff if I stay in one spot for too long. Where minimal (very minimal) flexibility was something that I took for granted up to this point, this year it is something that has to be worked on to be gained. I always knew that as I got older I was going to have to pay more time and attention to the body to keep the strength and flexibility that I had always taken for granted. Looks like it's time to start to pay attention.
On the social level, I'm getting the the impression of the tide starting to go out as I read the obituaries. More and more people that I had heard of during my youth and middle age are leaving this particular plane of existence. My step-mother has not been feeling well this past year. I've had friends (younger and very vital friends) who have been fighting for their lives against major illnesses. The cat has a slightly tougher time jumping up on the bed to get his food in the morning. I'm not slowing down as much as I'm having a harder time speeding up.
Surely, all of this is not new nor unexpected. But it is new to me and I can't say that I like it much. Even time is starting to become more of a limited resource and that fact has to be factored into long term decisions now because remaking myself over the long term is becoming less and less practical. These are some of the new factors to be considered as I have to acknowledge that I'm heading toward what my Aikido teacher (at 76) laughingly refers to as the "Golden Years." I don't think that I'm in God's waiting room yet, but I can see the building. I don't like the architecture.
In the Orient, a dozen years is considered to be a cycle and I've been back from Scandinavia and doing these missives for 11 going on 12 years now. Over the past year, I have felt that I 'm at the end of some sort of a cycle and now I'm waiting for the Next Big Thing. As usual, the Next Big Thing (NBT) has been slow in showing up. All in all, life has been pretty surprising so far - the biggest surprise being that I still have one. I struggle everyday to appreciate what I've been given and to be worthy of the gift. I wish that I was doing more with what I've been given.
And so, while waiting for content, I have turned to try to clean up my process. I'm again attempting to cultivate "Beginners Mind" for, as Shunryu Suzuki pointed out, for a beginner all things are possible. I've tried to re-establish a mediation practice so that the mind is clear enough that when the "NBT" shows I'll be able to recognize it. I watch. I wait. I struggle with what to do next. And I mediate on the fact that Phil Ochs was right when he wrote:
"All my days won't be dances of delight when I'm gone,
And the sands will be shifting from my sight when I'm gone,
Can't add my name into the fight while I'm gone,
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here."
I have tried over the years to keep The Writing as part of my own personal gift economy, since it has always been a gift to me over the years that I have been scribbling. I have tried to use it as a small way of returning what has been given to me and acknowledging that I could not be here attempting to string these words together without the help of you and the support of too many people to count. Please accept this gift of my gratitude for your support of my efforts now and over the years. Thirty-eight years in for this particular incarnation. Next? No idea. And I guess that that's the way it should be - who'd want to spoil the surprise?
Anyway, thanks for all the help in at least getting this far.
The light returns starting today. Let us remember this fact and help the process of along of more light among all of us.
Happy Solstice and Much Love,