The Arc of a Life
Seventy two years ago, I was born in Miami Beach, Florida to my young, ill-suited parents. It was the last year of Word War II, and from what I've heard I seemed to be the gift that made everyone feel hopeful about their marriage. I was cheerful, curly haired, and according to all who knew me then, very well behaved. As I study the photos of this cherubic child whom I don't recognize, I can't help but feel a certain wonder at the gift of a life. I have lived long enough to know that it's been a complicated and rich ride. And today, the day after my birthday, I want to take a look back at the landscape that I have traveled all these years. Old age is a time to go inside, isn't it, a time to ponder and reflect, and I'm of a mood to consider this vast landscape, and feel the wonder of having lived this long. Aaron Sorkin, the brilliant writer, said recently: "the most powerful delivery system for an idea is a story." I love this. I'm going to offer an abbreviated "story" of the journey this country and I have been on these many decades, and try to understand the arc of her narrative.
In the early days of my life, when my mother went to art school and my father practiced accounting, dressing up in a grey flannel suit and trundling off to his office, there was a great deal of good will in our suburban community across the bay from San Francisco, and indeed in the rest of the country. This was the comfortable, post World War II fifties in America. I had a best friend called Boo who lived next door. My father built a playhouse and he and I created great scenarios together in that playhouse. People had jolly parties in their backyards, played jazz on their record players, didn't lock their doors, and it was safe to walk to school. My mother joined the Socialist Party along with some of her artist friends, and spoke up for those who would protest our conservative Republican president. They were Bohemians with strong opinions and needed to express themselves, but they weren't really outraged or angry or alienated -- yet.
I spent three years of my childhood in Italy, and fancied myself an expatriate. Again, there was a carefree, spacious sense of our world. In the late 50's Elvis Presley was a phenomenon worldwide, and went off to become a soldier and hero to the American public. We loved our symbols of patriotism then. I believe we were a patriotic country, though for myself I chose an alternative path: the skeptic. I wasn't sure because I saw the swagger of those I knew in the military and foreign service. I saw an inflated sense of importance on the part of Americans who visited abroad, and was repelled by it. But what I didn't see, because I lived away from this country, was the continuing struggle of the black people to gain a foothold in our culture. Over decades, as they fled the South and moved north and west seeking opportunities and freedom, they were met with an entrenched racism. But, I was living far away, and I didn't know this. Racism sadly lived on.
Returning to America was fraught with difficulty for me, for the failure of a beautiful romance with a Sicilian boy 6 years older than myself, and because I was caught in the crazy restlessness of my mother's trajectory. We moved to New York, where I finished high school, and we watched in wonder as John Fitzgerald Kennedy beat Richard Nixon for the presidency. Again, liberalism and hope -- and relative prosperity -- were in the air. This young Irish Catholic was a visionary, and he had us looking to outer space and dreaming about what we could give our country ("ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country"). I think we all fell in love with this man, only to have our hearts broken when he was assassinated.
In 1963 when Kennedy was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, our entire world changed. We no longer felt safe.
In 1965 two years later, my world changed. I got married and had my first child. And though I had no model to guide me, I had to figure out how to create safety for my daughter...
The United States swarmed with anti-Vietnam protesting in the late 60's as we watched our government wage a war that couldn't be won, with the sacrificing of thousands upon thousands of young lives, and the burning up of a small southeast Asian country. I didn't march with the protesters, but I watched every moment of it from my suburban home. I saw a huge upwelling of energy, the voices of the young and those on the left shouting "no more war." If the landscape of this country was a swath of fabric, we saw it ripped and torn to shreds during those years. The war ended finally, perhaps hastened by all the passionate protest, and our crooked president resigned, but the wounds of discord and distrust and fear remained ... We carry those wounds still as a country.
We lost two powerful voices for justice in 1968, the year my second daughter was born: Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Our wounds became deeper ones. We were witnessing an unraveling of civility and order, and we were afraid.
We moved to the suburbs to raise a family -- too many drug deals gone bad in our San Francisco neighborhood... The joyous consuming of drugs that seemed benign during the Summer of Love in the late 60's gradually grew into a culture of alienation with young kids sniffing glue on the sidewalk and Hells Angels shooting up things when the going got rough. In the late 70's I returned to college to complete my education, find my way. The more confounding my world became, with the economic disparity and greed that the Reagan era offered up, the more I hunkered down to find myself. And in finding myself, I eventually saw the road leading away from marriage and family.
I taught college English, I left my marriage, I moved to the wild and rugged landscape of Northern New Mexico with an unreliable partner. Despite my education and my success with teaching, the center wasn't "holding" and I just kept on moving and searching. Meanwhile our government, having devastated Vietnam and Cambodia, continued a campaign of warfare and exploitation, and more and more American men died in far away places. And many more innocent civilians with dark skin perished. Afghanistan and later Iraq come to mind. Greed, aversion, and dishonesty seemed to drive this country's efforts as the economy gradually bled out from all the warfare, and the middle class and the poor saw their options shrink. I watched the news and struggled to wrap my mind around the insanity. I felt disconnected from my country, sensed a climate of fear spreading far and wide...
When I found mindfulness practice in the mid 90's, I had some degree of relief. I saw that, Yes, misfortune and pain in this life are inevitable, and yes we have choices for how to deal with suffering, and yes, we have choices for how to live in this complicated world. We can choose compassion and understanding instead of aversion and ignorance. And so a beautiful portal opened, and I walked through it. Ah ... I remember feeling ... this makes so much sense. I might not be able to fathom or do much about what was going on in Washington DC, but I could embrace my immediate world with kindness and mindfulness, and thus lighten my psychic load. My mind was able to relax and expand and I could allow all that was going on to be present. I gradually found a way to be present for my self, who I really was. And as I discovered some portion of ease, the country experienced a new prosperity under a young president from Arkansas, whose mind was brilliant and whose character was flawed.
I wouldn't be writing this if I hadn't walked through that door, and for this I'm grateful beyond measure. And there is a great deal more that I'm grateful for: my beautiful children, grandchildren, my dog and cats, my peaceful little home(s), my stunning city, my loyal and true friends, my mind which is still perking, the beauty of the ocean and the birds, the sounds of my piano, and the wisdom of my grandmother which endures inside me ... and so much more.
The trajectory or arc of this life feels vast and it is all moving quickly now ... it sprung from a relatively peaceful time with our people sensing they were in a good and safe place; it has roller coastered through perilous ups and downs, through bright light and darkness, with a sense of safety and wellbeing becoming more and more diminished. How quickly the landscape changed from relative comfort to the reign of George W. Bush and Cheney and our cruel campaign in Iraq. Nothing stays the same ... just check the Buddha's teachings. In 2017, it feels that we're on an acid trip with a president who's often unhinged, every single thing changing moment by moment, the ground below shaky, and we worry too much about being safe.
In order to summon I hope, I remember Pablo Neruda's profound line which says, "You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot stop the Spring." Change that moves in the direction of good will and harmony and safety is possible. And human beings all have beating hearts they can listen to. We can stand up for the abused and invisible, we can fight for justice on all fronts, and forge community. When I marched in Washington this January, I felt a return to that sense of hope and good will that colored my young life, and I was refreshed and exhilarated. Yes, I thought, yes.
The arc of my life, of this country's life, continues to swirl inexorably and mysteriously into the future, and we who are on this ride must pay attention, give all that we can, and love one another.