Are We There Yet?

From time to time I get lost in my mind
When thoughts let go of now and turn to meaning:
A peek above the hedge to seek and find
A bigger picture of life's path so fleeting.
At times my passions mapped a path quite bold
Across the landscape seen by eyes so young,
But more and more now that I have grown older
My visions of horizons come undone.
For forty years my future was so certain;
The path would blur but the compass point stayed clear.
But now all roads are hidden by rain curtains,
And far as I can tell my goal's no nearer
Than when I first set out so long ago.
Are roads and maps and trips an empty show?

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“A Labonza!”

We’re all dying.

From the moment we’re born, we’re all terminal cases. Of course. And shortly after attaining adulthood, parts and systems in our bodies start to break down, if ever so slowly at first. Metabolism slows. Repairs to damage happens slower and slower over time. Cells eventually start to make errors when reproducing. Our vision dims, tinnitus may show up, and we discover the weird and annoying consequences of “sleeping wrong”. Eventually we develop aches that seem to have no specific source at all. This is all very normal. And for most of us, it takes a very long time for one of these systematic breakdowns to lead to actual death.

But there’s another way we are all fading from this earth. Our memories are slowly dying, you see. Not just in our own minds, but really long before any mental issues might kick in, the constantly growing collection of stories and experiences overwhelms our ability to share them with others. At first this is no big deal, as most of the things we experience and then later remember are not really that significant.

But a point comes in life where our specifically cherished memories also begin to lose purchase on the world.

I remember when one of my uncles passed away. It was very sad for me; he was one of the very small collection of adults I had looked up to from my earliest memories. He was a smart man of integrity with a great sense of humor. But as hard as it was for me to lose him, it was a thousand times harder for his two siblings, my mother and my other uncle on that side of the family. And I remember my mother saying something to me that has really stuck in my mind in the many years that have gone on since then. She said that one of the hard parts about losing a brother like that was that the circle of people you shared a very large collection of memories with suddenly shrank. There were things she and her two brothers experienced together that were really just theirs and no one else’s. And now half the people she shared those memories with was gone.

And over time, that shrinking of the various circles of people you share particular memories with continues, a rising sea of human entropy slowly washing away the little islands of shared experience that we build up in the first half of our lives. A few years ago, one of my three best and earliest childhood friends died, well before his time. I probably spent hundreds and hundreds of hours wandering around our small town, just him and me, playing all sorts of imaginary games, having all sorts of conversations. Whole summers spent with mostly just him. We built up a huge canon of inside jokes and “do you remembers” and weird shared experiences. The time he flipped his bike end over end at the bottom of Cathedral Hill and a woman jogged up to us announcing she was a trained nurse. Weirdly, we laughed about that for years. The complex fantasy world we built up over several summers, in which we were characters in the Star Wars universe.

There were also hundreds of more hours we spent together in shared company with other friends. Playing dungeons and dragons with his older cousins and their friends. Hanging out with other classmates of ours. Getting into pretty serious trouble with adults for various things we did.

And then he died.

I believe in a life after death, but I also really cherish this life here and now. And here and now I am no longer able to connect with my friend. I haven’t for years and years. And that makes me the sole earthly guardian of those hundreds of hours of cherished shared memories, now.

What do you do with that burden? I can share those memories with others, like I am now, or maybe in much more detail. I can tell my kids about him. I can reach out to his kids and tell them about their father’s goofy childhood adventures. But honestly? I’m not sure these memories I hold will really bare any meaning to anyone else.

When I was a teenager, my father took me fishing for bluefish off the New Jersey coast. He did it once a year for many years. It was a trip that he had started doing just with some friends, and I would hear about it but never go. Then one year, I was old enough. We woke in the dark of night and drove to Barnegat Light on Long Beach Island. He, a couple of very good friends of his, and the oldest sons of each of those friends, who also happened to be friends of mine. Six “men” off to do a “man thing” at dawn.

Every year was basically the same as that first time. We would arrive in Barnegat Light around dawn after a two hour drive from Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. We’d eat breakfast at a diner, there, and then go find our little chartered fishing boat, and climb aboard with coolers full of hoagies bought the night before, and plenty of cold drinks.

The ship was the Dan Rick, and it’s captain was Joe Burt. The first thing I remember Captain Joe saying was a question to my father, “Did you tell them I yell?”

And yell he did. Once out on the sea, this ancient mariner seemed hell bent on scaring bluefish up from the depths by the sheer power of his temper. I loved fishing, and he hated missing a catch. He cursed and swore but he also hollered and celebrated, as the occasion called for it. When the fish began seriously hitting our lines, he yelled out, “A labonza!” which he gleefully explained to us meant “Gut them in the belly!”

A couple of weeks ago I was back on Long Beach Island. My mother has a beach house, there, and my extended family takes turns vacationing there. I got to thinking about old Cpt. Joe and the Dan Rick, and wondered if there was any way to figure out which diner I had gone to as a kid on those trips, decades ago.

The thing is, Joe Burt is dead. My father is dead. The fathers of the other boys on that trip are also dead. I could call my childhood friends up and ask them about it, but they too had been young teens and after tens of years, the odds that any of us would know where the diner was was pretty slim. Really, the diner probably doesn’t exist any more. Certainly the Dan Rick is gone, I would think.

But I fired up the google machine anyway. I figured if I could find an old reference to the Dan Rick in a newspaper, maybe in an advertisement for Joe Burt’s charter fishing services, then I could figure out where exactly the ship had been berthed. And from there I could maybe begin a search for the old diner.

What I found, instead, was a memoir. Joe had a son. He had been mate on the Dan Rick at one point, but moved on in life long before my father ever sailed with his father. He eventually went to Oxford, and to Yale, and became a lawyer. He moved to London. And now he’s a poet. And he wrote a memoir that had a lot to say about his old man.

I had known Joe Burt as a wild character. The stories he told while we chummed and fished were colorful and fascinating, especially to a young teenaged boy. But they were just a tiny sliver of the man. He had been a boxer as a youth. His family had connections to Jewish mobsters in Philadelphia on his mother’s side, and the previous generation on his father’s side were all wiped out in a single day in revolutionary Russia. And he was a difficult man to be the son of. The Cpt. Joe I knew was an elderly shadow of the violent tempered man that had come before.

Joe died taking with him many more memories that were never captured in his son’s writing, I’m sure. And I have my own personal memories made with the man that are not in the slim book, that I share with a couple of friends, at least so long as they continue to live. And myriad swirling jumbled-up recollections and experiences live in my mind, unshared, even now. And I now understand what compels older people to push their stories on the younger generation, even when the audience seems politely bored at best.

What do you do with them? They are treasures, in a way, but they hold no currency with most of humanity. Some I value because of what they represent, but many more I value merely because they are mine. A part of me wants to share them with my children, an endless stream of remembered hopes and dialogues and feelings and events. But to what end? And who has time for the past when the present is already so full and insistent on being lived? I think allowing the past to crowd out the creation of the future is a mistake. And so my past, like everyone’s, is slowly dying ahead of me.

John Dunne wrote that “no man is an island”. But Matthew Arnold (one of my favorite writers ever) took issue with that notion. Read his “To Marguerite: Continued”, or (even better in my opinion) “The Buried Life”. Arnold beautifully and sadly shows us that each person is a vast realm of thoughts, feelings and experiences that we only ever catch a bare glimpse of. Only with great effort do we share a small piece of our true selves with another person. Read James Joyce’s The Dubliners, especially its final story, “The Dead”: the dramatic stories that unfold just in one person’s mind, unshared and maybe unsharable with the world around them, despite a desperate need for connection, are a very real part of the universal human experience.

All that we are is constantly fading away. We forget so much ourselves, and so much more is never known to any but a few, and they too are passing, as Roy Batty said in Blade Runner, “like tears in rain”.

And so I write.

Like I said, all adults are dying. Of course we are. Cells don’t repair and reproduce as quickly and as well as they did when we were kids. Memories fade. Eyesight dims and eventually we start waking up with little aches every day. But that’s not all. Our stories are slowly dying, too. Memories of special times that have not faded from our minds are nevertheless fading from the world. Slowly, the characters who were there are themselves dying. The diner where we had that memory no longer exists. The person we could always say, “Remember that time?” to, is gone.

And the things we once thought would be important are perhaps still important, but also so unreachable that we slowly let go of their importance because…what else can we do? Dreams of our childhood were not all significant, but some were.

I have a million private joys and hopes and dreams, and a bare fraction of them have been shared with my children. I’m not at the age, yet, where I feel compelled to tell stories of my youth to the uninterested generation that follows me, but I can now feel where that comes from.

We all contain worlds. And those worlds are forever disappearing.

And perhaps that’s because those worlds are not what matter.

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Shower Questions

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” So says Ralphy E. But I say publishing consistency is the bugbear of creators, adored by advertisers and algorithms and subscribers. Also, how did the semi-helpful trickster sprite become a tribal warrior opponent of first-level wilderness adventurers? Seems like a strange journey, and one made even stranger by how few bother to ask the question.

The One Thing I Know

Four and a half years ago, I was thinking about someone I loved very deeply, who was suffering terrible pain that I felt I couldn’t do anything to ease. And I was thinking about my own pain, past and present. I was thinking of losses I had experienced, and some of my darkest moments of doubt and despair. And I was thinking about many others I knew or had known, who struggled. And some who lost the struggle. Not knowing what else to do with my thoughts and my feelings, I wrote a letter to everyone in the world.

I keep meeting new people who need this message. I keep discovering I need to hear it again myself. So here it is, in the hopes that it reaches one more person who needs it.

I’m doing fine, by the way. But life is pretty rough sometimes, isn’t it?

Look. I know you are stressed. I know you are anxious.

You think things are spinning out of control. Or maybe you think things are permanently stuck and will never change. Or maybe even both.

You are staying above water for now, but you see swells on the horizon that you know will eventually break over your head, and you don’t know how you’ll survive it this time. You don’t recall how you survived it last time.

Maybe you’ve lost your purpose. Or never had one. Or have a very clear mission in life that you understand is impossible.

Everything you thought was certain has turned to sand. Everything you thought would get better has gotten worse. People you expected would always be there are now gone, or soon will be.

You wonder about your worth, your value, your contribution, your impact. Or you regret the impact of your past actions or words. You’ve done things that can never be undone no matter how much you wish otherwise, or you just lack the courage to do the things you know you really should.

Your opportunity will never come. It’s slipping away. It’s long, long gone.

Your happiest moments only touch a part of you, while another hidden you experiences them as if through thick glass.

You just don’t know what to do or who to be or where to turn.

I get that.

You are loved.

I won’t say that none of the rest of it matters, but a part of me believes that, in the face of this one truth, the rest matters less.

You are loved.

I believe you are loved by your Creator. I know you are loved by other people who know you. If I know you even a little, I either love you already or am working on learning to love you. (Please be patient.) Many others are, too.

And even if you no longer know what matters, or know that nothing matters any more, or darkly suspect that nothing has ever mattered, this does matter.

You are loved. Even if you can only find one person who loves you, that is huge. It is immense, and powerful, and real. Even if you don’t know who it is that loves you, I guarantee that there is someone.

Your connection to someone else matters to them. Let it matter to you.

Together, you and they can get through this. Together, we can get through this. I mean it.

You are loved.

I have been there, and Love has pulled me through. You can do this. We can do this. Because you are loved.

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If Work Had Mandatory Homework, I’d Quit

The school I work with and that my youngest son attends is resuming in-classroom teaching today for the first time in over a year. (Well, only in some grades to start with.) For the past year, students have been doing online schooling, which to be honest is not that great. I have huge admiration for what the teachers I know have accomplished with very difficult circumstances, but it seems to me (and this is about all schooling, not this particular school) that online school is missing out on the best of both worlds of traditional and home schooling. Home schooling allows for a great deal of flexibility. Traditional schooling has very clear boundaries.

Oh wait. Maybe not. Now that I’m thinking about it in these terms, I find a renewed dislike of “homework”. When one of my children complained about the arbitrariness, the difficulty, or the tediousness of their education, I would remind them that its purpose was to prepare them for adulthood. Yes, there are parts you don’t like; but if you don’t develop habits that allow you to tackle tasks you don’t like, you will be miserable as an adult. I would also say that everyone needs some useful purpose in their life. Adults have (among other things) careers. Children are not equipped, yet, to pursue careers, so going to school to prepare to be useful is their use in life, at least temporarily.

But thinking about how school normally works, it occurs to me that we are now asking kids to put in something quite close to a full day’s work at school, and then come home and do more work. Every day. In my adult world, sometimes I bring work home. But it’s a choice. And in a lot of jobs, that never happens at all. When you’re off the clock you’re off the clock.

Why can’t schools just get their work done in the time already allotted to them? I hear it when teachers argue that homework helps concretize lessons, that it is important for students to have time on their own to process and work through learning. Great. So let’s carve an hour out of the instruction that’s already happening and instead designate that “work alone time”. And put it somewhere in the middle of the day, when their brains are still working optimally.

Maybe homework made sense when students were only spending mornings in the classroom. But these days the average student is spending close to seven hours a day at their school, and then coming home to do three or more hours of homework that same day. This is dramatically up from twenty years ago. Not many adults would put up with work conditions like this. I know I wouldn’t.

Now, I’m happy to say that my child’s school is actually fairly good about their attitude towards homework. But even here I sometimes wonder if we are asking too much of the kids.

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