Late December, 2013
Boulder County, Colorado, USA
Despite what may follow here, I do sincerely wish you happiness, good health, and the kinds of fulfillment you desire, today, tomorrow, next month, and in the coming year. The nature or complexion of that fulfillment is not for me to decide or prescribe. One of you may thrive on chaos, risk and drama, while another prefers predictability, order and calm. A month of frenzied “Wolf of Wall Street” activity may be your salve, or a meditative weekend at the spa at Ten Thousand Waves in Santa Fe. Maybe your prescription is more exercise, less smoking, a novel a week, and closely restricting your usage of words like “awesome”, “leverage” or “hashtag”. Or maybe it is an entire year free from prescriptions, left alone without a therapeutic or moral guidebook to help you select the worthwhile from the debauched. In any event, I hope you get it and I hope it works.
I feel drawn, at year’s end, to say something. What that is will reveal itself slowly, here. I appreciate your patience. I want to avoid the usual recapping of the events of the year, family members who did this or that, political triumphs and losses, witty social observations and the like. Similarly, it is customary to offer some comforting insight into the coming year, with hope. I am not so sure about hope. I want to think about hope awhile.
In a New York Times commentary the other day, Akiko Busch lead into a lovely essay about being on the edge between wilderness and civilization, ocean and shoreline, paved versus wild, with this thought: “We are on the cusp of the year, where the past and future intersect.” This caught my attention, because I struggle with the seeming arbitrary positioning of “New Years Day” (a product of the relatively recent Gregorian calendar, a Catholic creation, unhooked from natural cycles and non-western worldviews), but also because Akiko’s thought is essentially a good one, especially if not confined to just one holiday. Every second is indeed that cusp between past and future, and neither what precedes nor what follows actually has any substance whatsoever. Looking through that cardboard kaleidoscope, right now is New Year’s Day. And now. And again…now. You get the idea. But that could take this message in a direction I don’t intend at all.
Like most, I get melancholy and reflective this time of the year. At times I envy those who can don the red sweater with reindeer motif, or the Stewart plaid holiday vest, sip spiked eggnog, go caroling and otherwise be normal. I have already determined there is no environmental or socio-mythical reason for my December moroseness, save, possibly for Winter Solstice, which surely must have a psychosomatic impact, in a way similar to how the moon’s cycle creates monthly ”lunacy”, sending scores to emergency rooms and maternity wards all over America’s cities.
I respect the Christmas holiday, and we usually observe it in some manner or another. I enjoyed Christmas as a child, and I have fond memories of the rituals and get-togethers. But no longer being Christian takes away any deeper meaning for me, and historically, Jesus was more likely born another time of the year altogether. So the Truth is not coming out of the rocks or the burning bushes and hillsides of Colorado on December 25th. And frankly, Chinese (or Lunar) New Year (Nián Jié) makes much more sense to me. After all, it’s tied to the sun and moon, and this year (Wood Horse) marks the 4712th cycle. Pretty solid stuff. I have enjoyed being in Beijing on Lantern Festival day, the final night of the two-week celebration, when we blew the shit out of three to four cubic meters of festive ordnance in the middle of a wide street just off Tiananmen, and the entire city appeared to barely be withstanding its own, self-imposed “shock and awe”, with clouds of smoke drifting over the Forbidden City in the snowy cold, visible from space. That is a fine and noble way to celebrate being a year closer to death.
So what brings on this hair shirt of melancholia? Hallmark? Wal-Mart? Groupthink? Maybe the long, cold days? What would I feel like in Montevideo? There, it is summer just now, and their leader, Jose Mujica, is very progressive in all things social, embracing same-sex marriage and Uruguayans smoking dope. Would it feel like New Years? Would I become reflective and fixated on the finite?
It is enough for me to just notice that it happens each December, without understanding the cause. I get a sense of the wind blowing by me, of objects in motion, of scenes passing. More properly, it feels that I am moving through the air, through the objects, through the scenes, all too quickly, toward an encounter I dread, on some terrestrial vehicle bound for the extra-terrestrial. I get the same feeling when the motion picture academy presents their annual collage of those big screen luminaries who passed during the prior awards year. Really? Him? Her too? Most of them went home empty handed. All of us will. And then the other lists of those passed during the year, like the Times’, that this year, includes more from my tribes: Doris Lessing, JJ Cale, Lou Reed, Seamus Heaney, David Frost, James Gandolfini. At these times, I feel a “whoosh” of time and honestly, I don’t like it one bit.
The other image I have at times like this is of riding in a car, “some vehicle” is Joni Mitchell’s picture, looking out the front windshield, then turning to look behind, slightly panicked: The destination approaching altogether too quickly; where we’ve been receding into the darkness.
The antidote to this festering and dwelling, of course, leaning on the automobile metaphor, is to look side to side, out the other windows, at the passing scenery, pastures and small towns, bowling alleys and factories, at where we are, right now, right here at Akiko’s “cusp”.
Yes. That’s what we will do. We will continue to focus on that cusp, that nexus, that passing moment.
With those confused caveats, I wish you a qualified Happy New Year.
Let me get this next part out of our way: I thought you should know, if only for context, that 2013 may come in dead last on my “Top Sixty Favorite Years” list. I’ll be quick about it and I am not trolling for sympathy. This may just be the way the Jockey shorts waistband rolls from here on out. I rounded the “decade corner” exactly a year ago and for the rest of the year, it’s been, figuratively speaking, as if I drive my Opel Kadett into a parking lot in a Tujunga, California, 1960’s strip mall, housing a Dollar Store, a Goodwill, a storefront claiming, “Checks Cashed Same Day”, a café offering “Tapas / Dim Sum / Sushi / Quesadillas / Burgers”, a 7-11 and a KFC, where I buy a bucket of wings and two six packs of Keystone, sit in the car eating, smoking and drinking cheap beer, with the windows rolled up, for a year. God, the smell.
Not literally. I got a handful of poor annual health check-up results in January, and like a baby, signed up for a double-dose of garden-variety depression. I promptly bailed out on my 100+-mile-per-week road riding routine, and in the course of twelve months, added another quarter of a guy to my tare weight. I divorced a forty-year Zen practice and began reading a couple books a week, trying to make up time by stuffing my consciousness with as many facts and opinions, historic trends and literary movements as could fit. I wrote a poor piece about the sometimes benefits of anger and violence. I dwelled on the thought that being unemployed at this age would be an express ticket to my own Refrigerator Carton Condo. I festered over whether I should replace our twelve-year-old cars, or just drive them until we all poop out. I drove that Opel from the strip mall right into a dead-end cul-de-sac in a planned subdivision long since abandoned, and parked it.
But enough about me. How was your year?
Despite my self-sentenced gloom, good things happened this past year. In my family, my brother and son got married, one daughter delivered another bright new tiny grand-person while the other daughter continued to forge ahead in her successful culinary career. And I did manage to not buy Marlboro’s all year, and I did read a book a week or more, and I do remember most of it, and I am back in the gym and soon will be back on the road machine. We did put up a Christmas tree, even though it was the living tree from last year that we never got around to planting. It was in bad shape, so we brought it in, named him “Jimmy” and loved him up. He’s skinny but festive. Ho, ho, ho.
But beyond the personal, things happened at the ten-thousand-foot level in 2013 that inspired me and, I say this very carefully, may have given me hope. I thought I’d share just a few.
At the top of my list for 2013 is the emergence of Number 266, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, popularly known as Pope Francis. I was raised Catholic and Kennedyite and in my ten-year-old heart, the two conjoined. I saw Kennedy speak in the desert, and I may as well have seen the Pope. I participated in the mass, six times a week for six years. Catholics were supposed to be good, to care about the poor, to work for peace and sharing. Like Thomas Merton or Oscar Romero, or Dorothy Day, or the Berrigans and the nuns murdered in El Salvador. Kennedy was one, so I assumed all kinds of things about his family. But the Church and the Popes drifted into the social conservatism camp, and got scooped up by the Reaganites and Rovians. The modern Catholic Church in America (Latin America is another thing altogether) looks more like a PAC for the RNC or Tea Party, these days.
Enter Francis, with a message more clear on poverty, economic justice and how we should be in the world, especially how we should care for one another, and particularly, the weakest, sickest, poorest and most vulnerable among us. While still lagging behind regarding women in the clergy, clerical celibacy and same-sex marriage, Francis rang the bell for social justice, accurately labeling trickle-down theory and conservative libertarianism what they truly are: Not-so-thinly veiled selfishness, greed and abandonment of our responsibilities as citizens and fellow human beings, in an interconnected universe. The wheezing, drug-addled chattering class reacted as if on queue, reaching into their tool bag and coming up with that trusty but rusty “Marxist” label as their only rejoinder.
I am truly hopeful for what Francis will do during his tenure.
The US State Department has been a star performer the past year, both its current leadership and its alumni. Somehow, the appropriate fanfare has been missing from two events I find extraordinary. I am left wondering when the PR machine went on vacation.
Get this: It’s huge. John Kerry and his teams managed to avoid violent escalation with Syria, and, working with Putin, got al-Assad to agree to dismantle all his chemical weapons. And today that is happening. When do we EVER have those kinds of diplomatic results in such a short time?
And the other one: The US and a group of allies are actually talking with Iran about nuclear disarmament. Can I say that again? Now, McCain still wants to sanction them and maybe more. But the world community most likely will prevail. I saw where McCain crashed in Hanoi. What was he doing flying over a densely populated civilian area?
And, from the Alumni, I was so proud of Hillary being questioned by Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) about Benghazi. Another right wing witch hunt well underway, and Hillary stood her ground, speaking truth to ignorance, from the position of having to be the one making actual decisions, versus hunting imaginary witches: “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans,” (while Johnson continued to interrupt her) “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk last night who decided to kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.”
Hillary spoke to the yawning void of leadership between the political Sharks and Jets, one group actually concerned about governing, the other playing some expensive game of “gotcha”. I was proud of her, and though that clip will be used against her when she runs for The Big Chair, I saw real power in her eyes.
Nelson Mandela may well have inspired more of us in his death than during his life. More people I know have given his life and example a new thought this past month, mostly people who previously may not have been able to connect Madiba with any specific African country.
This extraordinary life sets such a high bar for human behavior, both on the face-to-face level and on the global stage. Mandela could have emerged from Robben Island bitter and vengeful. He could have snapped his fingers and started a civil war of retribution. He chose a higher path.
Last night, a few of us were discussing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, and what a powerful and human effort that was. The TRC looked political, but it was so purely about the human heart and its needs and longings. Mandela could have held trials and hung perpetrators. He instead chose healing and real peace. It is inconceivable.
We then asked, “Would this have worked at Nuremberg?” While compelled by this question, we agreed it would not have. What changed? Today, I wonder, is it too late for Americans to do the same with Native Americans? Black Americans? The Japanese people?
Closer to home, I find my most compelling and frankly, humbling story from 2013, and one that hinges beautifully into the coming year. My friend, Jeff Lowe, is one of the greatest climbers ever. There may be competing lists of those mountain dancers who created art on rock, snow, ice and atop the world’s highest peaks, but even the most stubborn will concede Jeff to a “top five” in the history of modern climbing. Jeff has been working for years to film a chronicle of his epic solo climb of the Nordwand or the North Face of the Eiger, in Switzerland, in 1991. The thing about this historic climb is partly that it was a first, but moreover that it was a last: No one has repeated the route.
Jeff and my sister-in-law, Connie, have finished shooting the film, and are in post-production, working with professional film staff, lining up promotions and raising the staggering sums of money needed to launch a major film. (Care to help? www.jeffloweclimber.com)
This would be extraordinary in and of itself, a monumental undertaking, consuming, as it does, every waking hour of Jeff and Connie’s lives and every nickel they can gather. But what makes it an other-worldly accomplishment and such an inspiring send-off into 2014 is that Jeff is in the final stages of MS, is confined to an electric chair or his bed, can speak only well enough Connie and a few family members can understand him, and requires continual help and monitoring. Jeff may not see the premiere. I see Jeff exude the same courage and commitment in his life today as he did throughout his climbing career, and I am truly humbled.
I’ll leave you with that image of Jeff this New Year’s. Here on the “cusp” there is no better one I can conjure up to hold onto to walk into another year and face what can only be known as the unknown. Not being so sure about hope, I draw it from Jeff. If he can keep going, certainly we can.
In the end, all I have left to do is wish you a very Happy New Year, Chinese or western, saying, “And to all, a good night.”