A gentleman in his 80th decade walks down the corridor. As we pass he pauses.
“A good afternoon to you,” he says.
“How are you doing today?” I ask, going against my personal vow to avoid trite social questions.
“This the best day of my life,” he responds.
I didn’t ask what made this a grand day. His response could have been either cynical or deeply meaningful. Not knowing the man well enough to probe, I smile and continue on my way.
Ze hayom, a Hebrew phrase meaning “this is the day,” opens Psalm 118:24. What day? Asah Adonai. The day that the Creator has created. So what? Negilah v’nismacha bo. So, we are to rejoice and be glad in it. End of story. Just do it.
Once upon a time, I called my mom, who is no more in this life, to complain, “I am having the worst day ever.”
Her response? “Well, Gail, if this is the worst day ever, then tomorrow has to be a better day. Right?”
But was it the worst day? That have certainly been some dillies since. Did that day, with its unremembered challenges, teach me something important? Are there really “good” days and “bad” days? Who are we to judge?
I am sitting at a desk in Minneapolis, looking out a window as snowflakes pass by on a 45 degree trajectory from the south. A man with a COVID mask hanging from one ear walks by accompanied a high-stepping maple brown poodle. They walk under a leafless ash tree, its twigs swaying in a light breeze. Earlier, on a brisk morning walk (3 degrees F), I watched a pair of hunting coyotes, on the lookout for bunnies or rodents. Then I spotted an albino squirrel on a tree, which despite the presence of my dog, stayed still long enough for me to dig my phone out and take a photo.
This is the day. The only day. This is the moment. The only moment. As I write this, as you read this, the moment is here, then the moment passes. We awake, we sleep, we dream, on and on, the days pass.
Back in June, early on a gentle morning, my dog Roo and I walk through an encampment of 40 or so tents set up on the west side of Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis. A man in his 50s stands over a Coleman stove making a pot of coffee.
“Good morning!” I say.
“Morning. That’s a cute dog you have there,” he replies.
“Thanks. Her name is Roo and I’m Gail. How are things going for you here?”
“Nice to meet ya. I’m Bobby.* It could be worse. There’s a few troublemakers but I steer clear of them.”
Joined by older camper named John, we chat about the nice weather, and the beautiful location under large oak trees. They don’t address why, as individuals with a past, present, and future, they dwell in tents in a public park.
I walk on among the rainbow-colored tents, some with lawn chairs out front, others surrounded by large plastic bags, some covered by tarps. A young man sits alone on a bench. Again, I introduce myself and ask him how things are going.
“Yeah, I’m Jason and my girlfriend and I want to get the hell out of here. This is no kind of life. My uncle up in Red Lake says we can stay with him, but no drinking or he’ll kick us out. That’s good with me.”
His girlfriend comes up and sits next to him on the bench. She is a tiny woman, unhealthily thin, with sallow skin. He introduces her as Fern. Jason continues to talk, telling me that he is a drummer and wants to get back to to playing in a drum group. I tell him that I used to work for the Red Lake Forestry Department. Then we discover an acquaintance in common. He invites me to attend a pow-wow up there. I tell him that I’ll try.
Fern sits silent, with closed eyes and bowed head. Then she lets out a low moan. “Sorry, I’m but I’m so hungover,” she says.
Roo is getting restless so we part company.
The question I refrain from asking is this: What brings youto this place in life?
For a fascinating, difficult, and transformative year of my life, I worked as director of spiritual care at a men’s maximum security prison. What brought the inmates there was not a question I asked in relating to them as individuals. What I found of more interest were three related questions: Who are you today? What do you hope to achieve? What do you need to get there?
Circumstances beyond control, poor life choices, and mental or physical ailments land people in predicaments. Why are you struggling with substance use disorder? Why are you a repeat felon? Why are you unemployed? Why are you lacking education or job skills? Why you struggling with untreated mental or physical health problems?
What matters much more than “why” is what an individual needs to help them thrive.
Few people choose to live without permanent housing. My daughter-in-law, as a nurse (later a nurse practitioner), worked with homeless vets. There were those who, because of trauma, did not feel safe indoors. They preferred living in the open. Others, being in a state of active addiction, avoided housing that requires abstinence. Mental health issues prevented others from getting along with others in a congregate setting.
No human being should be living in a tent in a park. How would you feel spending Thanksgiving Day or any other day there? What’s the answer for those in such a regrettable situation? The answer is that there is no one answer. For example, one size will never fit all in terms of housing. Some simply need help getting into an apartment. Others need sober housing. Still others may need a harm-reduction setting. Even if every one of these people were housed, providing housing alone is like giving charity. It helps today, but doesn’t necessarily provide what is needed for a long-term positive change in circumstances.
Some look to the past success of the Civilian Conservation Corps during the depression of the 1930s. ‘Let’s give people jobs! Make them work hard and they’ll be fine!’ I think this is truly a laudable idea for some who lack homes or employment. For others, not so much. It seems that current methods of addiction treatment are not successful for many addicts. Is anyone working on new models? Solid mental health treatment facilities or access to therapists are sorely lacking. Working in prison system taught me that the current model of lengthy incarceration, solitary confinement for rule infractions, and dehumanizing conditions does not make people better. Also the stigmatization of those with a felony record is permanently damaging to the life prospects of those individuals.
On and on it goes. Dear friends, where do we begin?
We listen with our ears, our eyes, our skin, our spirits. Listening is the raw input. Hearing is the reception and interpretation of what is heard. We can block out communication, mishear, misunderstand, misinterpret. We filter input through our expectations, biases, and traumas.
The world is noisy. Stop and tune into the sounds around you. What do you hear? I hear my refrigerator, a car driving by, a door slamming, a siren in the distance. In many homes, television or music are on most of the time. On my daily walks through a beautiful park, I observe people wearing headphones or earbuds, thereby missing sounds of the river, breeze ruffling leaves, and birdsong. They miss their own thoughts, distracted by whatever they are listening to.
“The word ‘listen’ contains the same letters as the word ‘silent’.” ― Alfred Brendel
A. HEARING ANOTHER PERSON
Person A: “You’re not hearing me.”
Person B: “I’m listening.”
Person A: “But you’re not hearing.”
One of the biggest challenges in any relationship is communication. When I work with couples in counseling, most are challenged by communication. If they are arguing non-constructively (often the case) one thing we talk about is how to discuss a pressing topic: schedule a time and place, keep the discussion to topic at hand, structure so each person has an allotted time to speak without the other responding. At the end of that time, the listener recaps what she/he heard. If the first speaker believes their message was received, the second speaker continues by offering their perspective. If not, speaker A restates and again seeks response. And so on. If it’s a “hot-button” issue, it is best to have the conversation in the public place.
2. Body Language – This is written in the mask-wearing era. How much harder is to listen, much less hear what another is saying while wearing masks? I find it difficult and disconcerting. We communicate volumes with our facial expressions, posture, relative positioning, hand gestures, and eye movement. We are subconsciously aware of the body language of others, but are oftentimes less aware of the messages we send out.
B. HEARING ONESELF
Yes, we communicate with ourselves.
Dreams – Do you listen to the communication of your dreams? I keep a dream journal, noting in as much detail as possible the content of the previous night’s dreams. As we sleep the deep levels of our interpretive awareness are accessed. While the setting and the people may be drawn from daily life, look deeply at what happens. Understand the dream as symbolic. See the characters as aspects of yourself. It’s great fun. Ultimately, we must interpret our own dreams, although an intuitive dream interpreter may be of assistance. Unsurprisingly, recurring dreams are those with the most to teach is.
Conscience – Jewish tradition teaches of two competing voices or inclinations, which are constantly vying for our attention: the Yetzer Tov (good inclination) and the Yetzer Hara (bad inclination). The voice we listen to most often becomes stronger, and the one we ignore or suppress becomes weaker. Each of us is free to make thousands of choices each day–what we say, think, do, wear, eat, buy, watch, listen to. The list is endless. The Yetzer Tov seeks to lead us toward honesty, health, gentleness, truth. The Yetzer Hara counsels dishonesty, unhealthy behaviors, violence, deception. Decades ago, I sought to quit smoking cigarettes. I clearly recall a “little voice” in my mind urging me to “just have one.” One was, of course, never just one. Eventually, I tuned out that voice and kept in my mind a list of the people in my life who didn’t smoke. If they could do it, so could I, and I did.
Monkey Mind – With all do respect to our kindred creatures, the image of “monkey mind” resonates for those who endure racing minds and obsessive thoughts, as if the accelerator pedal in their brain is stuck. This may be a symptom of a serious mental health condition, or it may be a habit that can be alleviated by thought monitoring, quiet time, and some form of meditative practice.
Think About What You’re Thinking About – Thought monitoring can be immensely helpful in dealing with unwanted thoughts, preventing rash decisions, changing unhelpful habits, and becoming a more positive and caring person. If you become aware of angry or fearful thoughts, which are basically the same thing, replace them with, “I will trust and I will not be afraid,” or “All is well; I am safe.” If you are having negative thoughts about yourself, replace with, “I am doing my best,” or “I can either change this, or learn to live constructively with it.” For negative thoughts about another, try a classic, “Do onto others as you would have them do to you.”
Meditation (Bridging outside oneself) – Have you tried meditation and not had success? It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be appropriate for you. Some people find sitting meditation to be very helpful. In the past, I struggled until I discovered walking meditation. Slipping away from oneself into a deep and soaring silence grounds and heals us. Give it a try. Find your own best method.
C. HEARING NATURE
Find a Place – It could be a park, an untended and overgrown lot, your backyard, your balcony, or a country lane. Basically, anywhere outdoors which isn’t totally eradicated by development. My personal idea of hell is a mega-mall surrounded by acres of treeless paved parking. Return regularly to a location and you will develop a relationship.
Unplug Your Ears -This is self-explanatory. Trust, you can take a break from your music or podcasts. You’ll be fine.
What Might You Hear? – Creatures, wind, flowing water, trees, grasses. Those who are sensitive may hear even more…
D. HEARING BETWEEN THE LINES
Hearing Even More – Listen openly and you will receive. This might be the real meaning of a loved one’s words. Or the pain behind friend’s sarcasm. Or the truth under the lie. This takes whole body listening. At times I can perceive the flow of sap within trees. There are frequencies of sound below and above the range of our normal hearing, messages for us, if we only listen.
Poetry – A few poems can be read at face value. “Listen, my children and you shall hear, of the midnight ride of Paul Revere”. Most poetry must be read in levels–the words, the meaning behind, between, and amongst the words. That’s what I mean by “listening between the lines”, as applied to life.
First of all, apologies to Shakespeare for rewriting his famous line from As You Like It, where the world is compared to a stage and people to actors. What follows in the play is a description of seven stages of life, from the mewling, puking infant to the aged person returned to childishness, a typically brilliant Shakespearian mish-mash of humor and truth.
You may be familiar with the Hindu teaching of the Four Stages of Life, which is less physically focussed than Shakespeare’s stages, and less psychologically-based than the the stages of human development famously proposed by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson*. The four stages in Hinduism are known as Ashrama and are roughly correlated with biological age:
Brahmacharya (Ages birth – 24) – Student Life, focused on education, including the practice of self-discipline, learning to live a life of moral righteousness and duty, including celibacy (hmmm).
Grihastha (Ages 24 – 48) – Householder Life, focused on relationships and earning a living, all undertaken virtuously.
Vanaprastha (Ages 48-72) – Retired Life, a time of handing over duties, serving as an advisor, and transitioning to a more spiritual life.
Sannyasa (Age 72-on, or any time after age 24) – Renounced Life, release of material desires and prejudices, represented by disinterest and detachment from material life, generally without any meaningful property or home, and focussed on peace, simplicity, and spiritual life.
No matter which phase you find yourself in the Ashram scale, one can benefit by keeping the main thing the main thing, and assessing where our priorities are off track or unhelpful. What I love is the priority given to ethical training and behavior, along with the deep significance of the final stage of life.
For many older people with their life’s work done, finding a continued sense of purpose can be a challenge. Hobbies and television can only take one so far before the deadly despair of loneliness and boredom take hold. While particularly the bane of the elderly, this can really happen at age. Many in their peak earning years are trapped in unfulfilling jobs, living from vacation to vacation, from purchase to purchase, or paycheck to paycheck.
I am in the process of marketing a novel entitled Borderland, in which the protagonist, Claire Blixt, undertakes a major transition to a simpler life, inwardly knowing what she needs without really knowing what she’s doing. In the midst of ennui and on the heels of several disasters, she tries and fails at suicide via bridge leap. Instead of suiciding her body, she suicides everything except her physical existence. An ill-considered move to a remote town where she had never been bring her to a connection with the natural world and to people whom she unexpectedly learns to love.
As the materialistic trappings and desires of her former life melt away, Claire finds meaning and purpose.
Yesterday summer officially began. As usual, my dog and I started the day with an early morning walk through Minnehaha Park to the confluence of the Mississippi River and Minnehaha Creek. Other than a couple of fisher-people, we usually have the place pretty much to ourselves. Armed with a plastic bag and gloves, each day I pick up garbage left by visitors since the previous morning’s cleaning. It is satisfying work.
Public parks are such a gift. Natural features are protected from development and harm, and everyone is welcome. Fees are minimal; many are free. Public parks allow access to beautiful places regardless of your ethnicity, race, income, age, or gender. Think of it! We all own riverfront, lakefront, and historically or environmentally significant areas that we can visit whenever we wish.
Along with parks as great institutions of equality, we need to place public libraries. As a small-town kid one of my greatest joys on summer days was riding my bike to the library and checking out a stack of books. Anyone can get a library card and educate themselves. They can use a computer to look for a job, do their homework, or research an interest. In my adult life, when I need a change of scenery, my public library offers a quiet, comfortable place to work on writing projects. Plus libraries smell great. Like books!
My kids attended a diverse public high school in St. Paul. There they had the opportunity to excel and grow as human beings. On a daily basis they interacted with students who were born in other countries and who were culturally diverse. A few students were well-to-do, some were mid-range, as we were, and many were truly poor. With all due respect to those who send their kids to elite private schools, I believe that a real education must take place in the real world.
Public institutions are created to be bastions of equality. Parks do this well, libraries, too. Public schools certainly have a way to go in terms of funding. Our legislature would well to consider how our schools are paid for, and how to distribute funds fairly across all school districts. There is no excuse for kids in Edina, for example, to get a better education than kids in North Minneapolis, for example.
In addition to supporting and improving parks, libraries and schools, we can extend the equalizing power of public institutions by working toward universal health care, free home internet access for all, and free community colleges. I had the good fortune to teach at a great community college in Chicago for a few years. Many students were newly arrived immigrants, as well as those who had ability but didn’t thrive in their high school environments, and those who were wise enough to see community college as an affordable option for their first two years. Every American of any age or circumstance should have the opportunity to attend community college free of charge. This should be extended in the future to 4-year state colleges and universities.
In this time of social upheaval and momentum for improvement, let’s look to the equalizing power of our great public institutions as agents for societal change.