Issue #15, July 1996

Late-Summer Quandaries



That's a Dutch variant I picked up the other day on the Internet, of the old exclamation, Wow! Much more expressive than the standard version, don't you think? It has a bit of Whoa in it, and Whew, which is all (and hardly all) of what this summer is doing to me.

Wauw . . . I am reeling from this summer! A real head-banger. A gut-twister. Things have gone right and things have gone wrong, but all of that seems beside the point, which is that they have gone on without let-up. No rest, no pause, no ending.

You know, of course, that I'm not talking about the weather, which is how most people tend to rate a summer. It is the action pace, the intensity factor, which is - for me - what the season is really all about. Summer always gets intense; but this year has been something of a marathon run among hundred-yard dashes . . . a sheer, testy, endurance ordeal, with no midway breather breaks.

You'll recall my early comments on the tiger tails I had hold of - that was back in April (Ripening Seasons #13). I innocently supposed that the one which was whipping me around at that moment - the battle with the Housing Authority of Seattle - would run out of steam in another week or so. I am still trying to let go of the damned thing! But more on that in a moment.

My endurance has actually been pretty good. I'm not exhausted, I've held to a pretty even keel of temper, parceled out my energy in a fairly stable way . . . of course, practically everything I'd rather be doing has fallen by the trail-side . . . my poor Web site was virtually abandoned for the summer. Ripening Seasons has only been limping along, compared to last year. In other words, I've made the necessary shifts and accommodations with fairly good grace. But inside of me is a pressed and not very happy soul at this late stage of the season. Can anything be done for it? It is always a predicament in a would-be Taoist's life: when to resort to free will. Timing can be so important when one understands the seasonal imperatives. Whether the personal thrust will or won't work . . . and at what cost?

Here's the shape of it: The moment could be premature. Summer normal-ly runs until early or mid-August. It is July 19 as I write this, and the last few weeks of summer can contain its heaviest intensities. I am just a small boat on a windswept sea, and if that hurricane is coming I'd best not be raising my own sails. On the other hand, there is a sense of seasonal shift in the air - slight, to be sure, maybe just the calm before the storm, but it has a tangible quality.

Well, I don't know . . . but I am making some changes that don't quite amount to setting my sail. The writing of this initiates a period of retreat, maybe casting off some lines to let myself drift free of the summer's engagements. And maybe I should say more of what that's been all about, before going on with it.

In the common conception, Nature is chaos and civilization is arrangement and order. But this is one of the illusions that sustain our frequent, if not continual, plunge into disorders of the most extravagant sort, from boom and bust, to terrorism and outright war, all directly attributable to our order-making efforts. Nature, on the other hand, presents a high degree of order if we learn how to observe it.

An instance of the more predictable sort is that change and development have a seasonal aspect. Generally speaking, some major stage of development in personal life takes place during the central part of a year. There is no magic to this, though to a confirmed rationalist it may seem like magic. It's just pattern-creation in the outer world, arising from deeply embedded archetypal form rooted in our being since time primeval, and easily attributable to the natural year. We are creatures of nature, reflecting its seasonal format as all organisms do - it is essentially as simple as that.

Like snowflakes, the pattern varies in detail within a constant form. My own year has had an interesting variation. I was not aware of the usual February sprout (as I call the first appearance of the year's engagement). It appeared suddenly full blown, early in March, with immediate impact. The sprout is often followed by a period of quiescence, but there was none here. In a range of announced policy changes for the senior housing I live in was one item related to the handling of the waiting-list for tenancy: better-off applicants would henceforth be given preference. It threatened to block Joy's entry into this housing, for who knows how long.

The hallmark of the true sprout - even the late one - is that it compels action, and this one left me no real choice . . . I had to challenge it. It was vitally important to me that Joy receive her apartment here.

At the time, it seemed a challenge and contest of relatively short duration, not a summer-long engagement. The Board of Commissioners was to decide the matter at its mid-April meeting, actually a mere formality of implementation, as we were given no voice in the decisional process. But I `girded my loins,' as the saying goes, and did battle. In the flow of those weeks before mid-April, some marvelously validating things took place, including an alliance with a powerhouse of a woman (another tenant here), and the successful stirring of a mini-mass response, at that April meeting, sufficient to somewhat shift the tide.

But the principal issue in question - the waiting-list thing - was merely sent back for further study . . . and so the engagement continued, with no hint as to how long it would go on. And thus, the summer's prime focus became clear, for we had the difficult task, now, of maintaining the momentum of resistance.

On it went, then . . . a steady drumming of the theme in a tenant newspaper, a continuing and vocal presence at the monthly Board meetings, and the sort of mutual support that would keep our own fires burning. A lawyer (pro bono) was found for the cause, our strategy continually revised and pursued. By mid-June, the Board was feeling so plagued with senior discontent that they convened a separate "informational" hearing to try and contain it - a hearing that only exacerbated it.

Meanwhile, there were other developments. Joy was close enough to the active section of the waiting-list that she had a fairly good chance of getting her apartment before the summer was out, if we could hold the critical policy issue at bay. And that is precisely what happened. The Housing Authority folks knew I had a stake in this, so it was sort of touch-and-go - I couldn't be sure whether they'd ease her passage or somehow find cause to vindictively reject her - and then came the question of whether she'd get the apartment of choice, among several that became available at about the same time.

As it happened - and this by the sheer work of the gods - she got precisely what she wanted. I lay it to the gods, because she should have had another, if the waiting-list had been properly handled, that had become available before we even knew of the choice one. As near as we can tell, they actually pulled a sly move, to bypass Joy and get a higher-income tenant into it, without our knowing . . . and then allowed Joy her choice among what next came up. But it worked to perfection for us, because the apartment she did get is one of the two largest that have outside decks.

The intensity of politicizing thus shifted into the intensity of actually making the weekend move, over the first of July. A weekend of staggering physical activity that took Joy and me into a new phase of our relationship. No longer was my life segmented into neat compartments: weekends together and weekdays secluded in my bailiwick. Starting this month, it has become a whole new ballgame.

Which brings us just about to the present, except that . . . the Housing Authority tangle would not, thereby, just fold up and go away. There are aroused tenants, now, and moves afoot to establish oversight committees, and . . . and, the devil will surely take the hindmost - which now seems to be me.

Will the gods of summer let me creep away from this engagement, now that my own purpose has been served, or have I set something in motion that will not let go of me, as I so recently would not let go of it?


Unless you are well into your sixties and perhaps, like me, have whiled away too many of those years in pursuit of one idle dream or another, you can have no real idea of how terribly swift can seem the turn of calendar pages. Swift, and (one ruefully adds) deadly. This is the ultimate "rock and hard place," for there are beckonings both to things unfinished and things not yet begun, but, oh, somehow, so absolutely, urgently necessary . . . or so it ever seems.

I tend to look down my nose at those cogwheel folks who put in the proper number of years at the grindstone, then close the door on all of that at 65, to rock away the remainder with a glazey-eyed kind of contentment befitting the stereotype of retiree (or in Britain, the pensioner). I want no affiliation with that breed - the very ones, however, whose vocal help my summer's labors inspired, and relied upon. But they do indulge - or seek - a kind of grace that I shall never know, in the leisure pursuit of their latter years. It is not a leisure in time-span that I envy, but leisure as a way of being. To be able to do whatever there is to be done, in a framework of disregard for passing time: this I regard as the greatest gift to be had - at any age, but particularly my own.

That would-I/could-I state of grace is the bottom-line reason that I would turn back the years if I could, either to my own youth or a time before I was born. I write about the thrill of moving adventurously into a new millennium, but believe me when I say it is only a second choice, for I cannot have the first.

It seems perverse, I know, to wish I could go back in time. There are so many images of hardship and dreariness there, especially if one tracks such a vision into the last century (I would go back perhaps 150 years, not more). But there is also, in photos and renderings of that period, the most wondrous sense of leisure as a way of life, that one could imagine.

Well, it was not leisure, of course - it was life-as-it-was, in those times. But from the perspective of life as it is now, it seems leisurely. Today's crowd, assertively pursuing the leisure use of far more free time than anyone had, in those days, knows nothing of what a leisurely way of being is all about. I suppose it is terribly judgemental to say such things, but all you have to do is sample the atmosphere in the pizza parlors and bagel shops where `leisure time' is spent, these days: the lines, the crowded seating, the steady, high-volume drone of a radio nobody listens to, or else an escape to outdoor tables in the midst of traffic grinding and growling its way up the street. The real index of this madness being nobody's realization that there is nothing relaxing about it.

That imagery of the past, for someone of my age, is part of an innocence lost, for the motif was present as recently (if you'll stretch the term) as the 1940s. I lived in that sort of world and have a residual sense of its reality. Hence, perhaps, the shade of envy with which I regard the true retiree, for he would return to that past in a way that I cannot - though in a way, I think, that he cannot, either.

There is a bit of irony in this, for I'm the one who thinks it possible to alter one's own reality - and your average retiree, who would scoff at any such claim (for he doesn't see reality in those terms), is actively, if unconsciously, trying to do just that. He supposes that all the things he never had time for have been patiently awaiting his attention, sitting on a back burner as it were. But nothing on a back burner for twenty, thirty, forty years ever tastes like it once did.

Yet, leisure itself, as a way of being, is an aspect of personal reality, and should be as readily subject to the re-visioning process as the sort of change that enabled me to go through Europe on $100 per week, or live happily without an automobile after having once been hooked on it. The only issue, really, is how to get from here to there, wherever those respective points may be. But "there" cannot be twenty, thirty, forty years back in one's life. Transformation cannot transcend time, which is why the retiree is playing a losing game.

So what is the prescription, then, to enter the realm of a leisurely life, as I would now do? Okay, it is to begin living as if it were leisurely. Stop responding to other people's expectations, change my mind on whim or impulse, avoid looking at clocks, refuse to answer my phone, never begin anything under a time limit of less than an hour, and preferably two. Better yet, don't even think in terms of how long I've got for it, let things "show me their own time." Don't make time-bound arrangements: be there when I can, and expect no different from others. There's my opening handful of remedies, and enough to keep me on my toes for awhile - or maybe it should be off my toes.

But the real prescription, or the heart of it, is a caution: for two or three years of this, I'll only be living as if it's my true reality . . . and then one day I'll realize that something has subtly shifted in my world. I'll be in that space, instead of just making believe I am. That's the whole exquisite secret of changing one's reality: to persevere for a requisite amount of time, in a world of "as if."

I make it sound simple, and in a way it is. But it forces a confrontation with a lot of conflicting agendas that presently keep my life running like an Olympic Pentathlon. I have yet to establish the triage that will settle me down to a few central purposes, and apply the discipline that will keep out all the rest. And because so many things in my life are interlinked, this is a major hurdle. A possible approach is to let the triage assert itself, like: those friends who cannot relate to "I'll be there when you see me," will deselect me from their list of worthwhile companions. That sort of thing.

But at a deeper level, the problem is still my own, for I have a hard time saying such things to friends - much less accepting it from them. So you see, it is not so simple a prescription, after all. Maybe that's why it takes three years to shift some aspect of one's reality.


There is something lurking deeper, in all of this. I have not really been skirting it, but I begin to see the outline as the fringe elements are given substance. Like a black hole, it occupies that negative space in there, and I'm not very sure, at all, that it will show itself for an adequate description.

Things come to light, as one grows old enough to start seriously thinking about how long is left . . . or maybe, rather, it's that things assume different shape than the old, familiar way of seeing them. For example, it has become very important to get my writing out on the Web, as an avenue of last recourse, since it appears unlikely, now, that it will ever see the more substantial and traditional form of collected publication in print. Much of this writing concerns the wisdom of freeing oneself from the crippling crutch of material well-being - the driven need to pour one's life into the 40-hour commercial week, either in hopes of great financial reward or simply in the illusion that it's the only respectable way of staying solvent. I have disproved the latter, and disdained the former, quite effectively by my lights, for the past 25 years, and this is largely what I write about.

However, I have not cared to look at the fact of my own "driven need" to get this material, already largely written in the form of memoirs and head-trips, into some collected format, seemingly as some kind of testament to a life perversely lived. Is this not just as crippling a crutch, in these latter and increasingly precious years, as the possessional one that absorbs the larger populace?

Consider this passage from Erich Fromm, in To Have or To Be? (Harper & Row, 1976): "Only to the extent that we decrease the mode of having, that is of non-being - i.e., stop finding security and identity by clinging to what we have, by `sitting on it,' by holding onto our ego and our possessions - can the mode of being emerge. `To be' requires giving up one's egocentricity and selfishness, or in words often used by the mystics, by making oneself `empty' and `poor.'" That hits pretty close to home.

It sometimes seems as if I still have to justify myself - a onetime habit born of responding to the challenge of less imaginative people. Challenge that often hit below the belt, to justify their own slavish conformity to the norm. And maybe even challenge from that side of my own being, for I have always been a mass of inner contradictions, not given to stifling internal dissent but prone to argue with it continually. It is these very arguments that often flowed into my writings - the writings that I now want to `preserve for posterity.' What is going on here, then? Does it make sense to immortalize my own misgivings? Is anything worthwhile really served, here?

Such are the questions that emerge from that formless black hole. Questions to test my very sense of who I am, and whether my life has any larger meaning than the breadth of its experience. Is it merely ego that thinks so? I'm very much afraid that's the case. And so . . . is it worth gratifying the ego, if it bends my head under its insistence on "so much that has got to be done"?

Take another probe, on a different level: After years of fending off committed relationship, doing that strange dance of self-pity for the lack of it and fast footwork for the evasion - the pull-you/push-me adagio that sends mixed messages all over the place - the butterfly finally alighted on my shoulder just tenderly enough (if you can imagine a butterfly being anything but) to gentle my anxieties and sweeten my cynicism. Providence, bidden in, provided the thread and wove the web more magically than any I could have devised on my own initiative.

I don't think I've detailed this before, so let me show you the precisional flow that "knew where it was going," to make this thing happen. When Joy and I met, through her response to a mysteriously worded ad that I put into a senior paper, almost as a no-cost lark, I was living in a basement apartment costing about 60% of my meager income. Joy resided in quarters just as tight, about five miles away, on an income that was fast becoming too shallow to afford it. Neither of us lived in a "make it happen" world, and the chances of us ever living together were about like Black Bart's chances of becoming famous. (Choose your Black Bart, here: the real one or the namesake.)

About the time that I placed that ad, and before the basement apartment was even discovered, I put myself onto a two-year waiting-list for the senior housing I now occupy. The 6/17/92 journal entry wherein that was noted closes with the following assessment of my relationship odds: "I'm a Peter Pan, I guess . . . never wanting to grow old - never really thinking that I have! And perhaps fooling myself into it, as long as I'm alone in this world - maybe remaining alone, so I can keep fooling myself into it."

In exactly two years, I got my senior housing, suddenly cutting the rental portion of my income from 60% to 27% - in effect, making me `wealthy.' And a year after that, Joy reached the qualifying age to put herself in line for it - again, with an expectable two-year wait. When this summer's Housing Authority issue erupted, less than half of her waiting time had gone by - it could have added years more to the prospect. And I could have taken it as "the way things were," hoarding my solitude for as long as it should last.

Yes, that was an option. But I also saw other things in the situation: Knowing the cyclic moment for action gives the Taoist tremendous leverage. We - Joy and I - had come three and a half years down a stream of development, and this was its critical juncture, our own moment of truth - and mine, in particular.

So here we are, she on the second floor, me on the third, each paying 29% of income for our rent. We call it the east wing (mine) and the south wing (hers) of "our mansion" - nevermind the 37 other `houseguests' floating around the premises. You see how potent Providence can be? And, equally, the two important things to stay mindful of: to let the flow work for you, and to know when to intercede.

So here am I, in a particular kind of Paradise . . . with the ghost of my cherished solitude still butting in, "Hey, Irv, do you really want this much togetherness? Isn't it sort of compromising your independence, a bit more than you bargained for?"

Yes, and no, I say in return. I'm not about to change it - I really couldn't if I wanted to . . . well, I'd be a damn fool to. But this is beside the point, which is that it's a summer of vast change for me, though change within a stability that I have never had. A stability I am willing to accept because I am growing old - I admit it (to myself, finally) - and there are orders of significance different from before. My task is simply to come to terms - not with the changes, but with myself.

For I am the fly in the ointment, here, the speck of anti-matter that dallies in the turbulence on the edge of my private black hole, amazed and amused at how lovely life can be, on its edge, but always and ever crabbing about what I want. And unsure, as we all are, of how long I can dally in this abundance.

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