“A man only learns in two ways, one by reading, and the other by association with smarter people.” Will Rogers
November 1st (November 2nd in Mexico), is All Saints’ (or All Souls; Day of the Dead) Day in the Catholic tradition, Halloween is the eve. Evidently the whole thing began in the fourth century when persecuted Christians and admired saints were venerated somehow. Generally, the idea is there is a bond between the living and the dead. If you care to research, you’ll find many interesting traditions associated with those days.
I don’t officially celebrate All Saints’ Day, but my mind has been rolling around lately…thinking about the gifts, particularly the lessons learned, from all sorts of people (I would modify Will's quote) – most of them very much alive (even children) and some dead. And this thinking has led to a deep state of gratitude, peace, and joy.
The biggest source of lessons learned has come from my family members. From my mother, Ruth, I inherited the mantra “don’t waste your sorrow or suffering.” She felt grief was a great gateway to spiritual awakening, compassion, connection, and growth. From my husband’s mother, also Ruth, I adopted the words which comfort me continually, “I’m doing the best I can with what I’ve got.”
From my husband I learned to keep my promises - to be conscientious, committed, reliable, and persevering. That whole cluster around conscientiousness has been associated with all sorts of positive outcomes in terms of good relationships, health, and high performance.
Now I realize, I simply cannot convey every single lesson I’ve learned from my sons and grandkids (I have already written about a lot of them in more detail), let me hit some highlights. One son has taught me the value, the joy of challenge, getting out of one’s comfort zone. It started when he, as a little kid, despite his fear, pushed himself to swim the Cashmere pool when everyone else was screaming for me to jump in and save him. He’s still doing it, this challenge yourself thing. It is so easy for me to let my fears stop me from pursuing my dreams, but it helps to remember the heart of that little guy.
The other son started early in life singing “love hearts” which beckoned us all to sit by the fire and chat, to enjoy each other’s company, to relax and “smell the coffee” as he put it. A great balance to pushing ourselves. We still definitely need this one. You wouldn’t think so in retirement, but sometimes we get ourselves in the same harried knot that has chased us around for years.
And the grandkids. They have taught me incredible lessons. Again, some highlights.
As a two-year-old, this little grandchild worked hard on a difficult puzzle. She stuck with it and after successfully completing it, hopped around the room in delight. Then undid the puzzle and did it again and hopped again. I started noticing more about what makes June hop for delight. It can shock myself sometimes. For example on Sunday, I noticed my interior hops jumping at the strangest time…while playing a game of “Big Bad Wolf” on the playground with grandkids and an assortment of kids of all color and ages and sizes. Who would have thought that would be fun in their 7th decade of life? Researchers say we don't have a great sense of what makes us joyful. Good thing to learn.
Another gkid, at two, stooped over her cousin who was lying on the floor getting a diaper change and said, “don’t worry, me do dat sometimes too.” What a great gift… to drop the urge to impress people and instead connect through our common humanity, that’s a lesson that my husband and I use almost daily with each other. I said it today to John. He couldn’t remember where he put the frozen spinach. “Don’t worry, me do dat sometimes too,” I assured him. It always gives us a laugh and helps us remember we’re all human.
A lesson that I learned from my grandson happened after John and I were doing yoga. Our usual custom after yoga is to face each other. “I see the good in you; you bless me,” we say. On this occasion, Eli came over with his fingers circled into imaginary binoculars. “Sometimes you have to get really close to people to see the good in them,” he said. Oh yeah. Remember that one.
I’ve also learned a valuable lesson, not from family, but from two wildly opinionated women with widely opposing political beliefs. “How do you do it, keep this friendship?” I’ve asked. They look at me like I’m stupid and then at each other smiling. “We know if anything happens, in a second she’ll be at my side.” “Yeah, we’ve got each others’ back.” I keep that front and center with my friends who have different ways of seeing and operating in the world. We can think differently AND have each other’s back.
You’ll be glad to know I’m not going to share all my other pages. In this season of gratitude and reflection, right in the midst of all the world's pain, you might find peace and joy out of reviewing some of what you’ve learned from others. (I hope you’ll let me know).
While I’m at it with the recommendations, one of the books and authors I am ever so grateful for is David Brooks. His new book, How To Know A Person (my friend, Gene Sharratt, sent me an article about it) is touching me in a thousand different good places (available on audio; I’ll be sharing more in later articles). Brooks gives me a new word which I absolutely LOVE. Herzensbildung, “training one’s heart to see the full humanity in another.” What a superpower that would be.
Let me close a few extended excerpts from an article I read recently by Anne Lamott on aging (She has a new book, Somehow: Thoughts on Love). She reminds me of a friend who continues to teach me how to journey through all phases of life with ease… and that’s a big deal for me right now. Maybe you too.
Aging has brought a modicum of self-compassion, and acceptance of what my husband and I call “the Sitch”: the bodily and cognitive decline that we all face sooner or later.
So many indignities are involved in aging, and yet so many graces, too. The perfectionism that had run me ragged and has kept me scared and wired my whole life has abated. The idea of perfectionism at 60 is comical when, like me, you’ve worn non-matching black flats out on stage. In my experience, most of us age away from brain and ambition toward heart and soul, and we bathe in relief that things are not worse. When I was younger, I was fixated on looking good and impressing people and being so big in the world. By 60, I didn’t care nearly as much what people thought of me, mostly.
And anyway, you know by 60 that people are rarely thinking of you. They are thinking about their own finances, family problems, and upper arms.
I have no idea of the process that released some of that clench and self-consciousness, except that by a certain age some people beloved to me had died. And then you seriously get real about how short and precious life is. You have bigger fish to fry than [thinking about] your saggy butt.
Which brings us to death, deathly old death. At a few months shy of 70, with eyeballs squinting through the folds, I now face the possibility that I might die someday.
Some weeks, it feels as though there is a sniper in the trees, picking off people we have loved for years. It breaks your heart, but as Carly Simon sang, there is more room in a broken heart. My heart is the roomiest it has ever been.
I do live in my heart more, which is hard in its own ways, but the blessing is that the yammer in my head is quieter, the endless questioning: What am I supposed to be doing? Is this the right thing? What do you think of that? What does he think of that?
Now, I’m happy with the little nesty areas that are mine. For some reason, I love my softer, welcoming tummy. I laugh gently more often at darling confused me’s spaced-outed ness, although I’m often glad no one was around to witness my lapses.
Especially my son, who frequently and jovially brings up “ aplaceformom.com”. He’ll say, “I found you a really nice place nearby, where they’ll let you have a little dog!” Recently, I was graciously driving him and his teenage son somewhere and made a tiny driving mistake hardly worth mentioning — I did not hit anyone, nor did I leave the filling station with the nozzle still in the gas tank — and he said to his boy just loud enough so that I could hear, “I’m glad we live so close to town, so it won’t be as hard for her when we have to take away her keys.”
I roared with laughter, and with love…
(As I mentioned, there are too many stories and people to mention here, but you’ll find more in past and future articles if that sort of thing interests or inspires you. But please, allow me one last mention. I am grateful also for my quick-hit lessons. Like with Rudy. Rudy, who lives on “the rainy side” was given a subscription to The Good Life magazine by his daughter. I met him coincidentally while strolling through Cashmere recently. He is handsome, dashing, and wise at 93. What I learned, talking with him there on the street, is to get singing and especially dancing! As his daughter pointed out, dancing provides movement, exercise, relationships, a mental workout - it's got a lot going for it. Note to self: dance in 2024. One of the people I’ve come to deeply appreciate for her love of life and community line-dances twice a week, gotta be something there for me to learn next).
How might we journey together to the Good Life with joy and gratitude, noticing, appreciating, maybe even venerating those who have bestowed us with gifts and life lessons, at least relishing the bond…and perhaps looking not only backwards but forward to experimenting with some new things like herzensbildung and…dancing!