Monday, November 28, 2005

A Walk on the Beach: Tales of Wisdom from an Unconventional Woman by Joan Anderson

Isn’t it funny how little accidental meetings turn out to be main features in one’s life.
So muses Joan Anderson as she reflects back on her accidental but momentous meeting with Joan Erickson who, quite literally, steps out of a fog at the Cap Cod shoreline and begins immediately to bring Anderson out of a midlife fog that had seemed impenetrable.

As you may recall, Erik Erikson was a psychoanalyst who studied briefly with Freud in Vienna, and then went on to develop a theory about stages of development in life, and, more importantly, about how identity is formed in these stages. His wife, Joan, was much more than a supportive companion and source of inspiration; she co-authored much of what he wrote, and was especially influential in what they took to be an eighth stage, expanded into a ninth by Joan after Erik died.

But Joan Anderson’s little memoir, A Walk on the Beach, is primarily about the relationship that sprung up between the two women when Anderson literally runs off to the seashore to try to reassemble her life. She is in her early fifties, Joan Erickson in her very vital early nineties. Erickson is there to look after and ease into death her lifetime love and partner Erik, which she does with a devotion and grace that is inspiring to read about.

I should say at once that this is a book about existential discovery, and like many such books, it needs to be understood in context. There is a very real sense in which many, even most, of the world’s inhabitants don’t have time for existential crisis or existential enlightenment. They are simply too busy eking out an existence in this economically cruel and unjust world. Self-help manuals invoking us to take charge of our lives, to become authors of our own destinies, can be downright insulting to people who are quite literally chained by daily necessity. Still, there are plenty of us who live well in the sense that we have enough: enough money and food, adequate shelter, even occasionally enough time. Indeed, we may even have time on our hands and wonder why we do so little with it. This memoir is about two such women; both are privileged in the sense that they do not have to worry about their next meal or their next paycheck. Erickson certainly could retire were she of mind to do so, and Anderson, too, appears to be seeking some sort of internal fulfillment rather than a career.

With that preface in mind, I think the advice that Joan Erikson offers Anderson, and all of us who are troubled by a particular internal angst, is right on the mark, and Erickson lives her advice rather than merely giving it.

Let me back up enough to fill in the setting: Anderson has raised her children, nurtured a long and apparently successful marriage, and even managed a moderately successful career as a writer of children’s books. But somehow in the process, she has lost herself and her vitality for life. She is adrift. Her marriage she sees as stale; her children are successful and into their own lives, and she realizes that she has somehow confused serving with living. Says Erickson, “Having a husband can be such an alibi for a women; in the end she never lives her own life. I believe that a full life needs to be about self-cultivation.” Anderson realizes as she looks back at her own mother, grandmother, aunts, that they “allowed themselves few personal dreams and acted on even fewer.” She realizes that she has learned (from in most ways very good women) this gospel of living through serving. One of Erikson’s first lessons to Anderson is to play more. She applauds Anderson for having already broken one of the rules by taking herself away to the sea, but that is only the beginning. Erickson stresses “The importance of play all the way through life and how we all need to unlearn the rules that are set up for us by others.” Couples, too, she insists forget to play, and forget the necessity of solitude.

So many couples cling to what they have instead of moving on to what could be. You know the poet Rilke had it right when he suggested that the highest task for two people in a relationship is to stand guard over the solitude of the other ... I think our devotion to our routines causes us to lose sight of each other as separate individuals.
Besides (intentionally or otherwise) losing our sense of play, we also forget to sense the world.

We are taught early on to stop sensing the world. Parents say no to their toddlers all the time, when all their child wants to do is sense the world around him. Pity, isn’t it! Overdose on the senses is what I say, all the way through life.
Erickson is especially interested at this time of her life to talk to older people, those who have entered the eighth stage. She is convinced that people give into old age too easily, that they stop really caring for their bodies, stop playing, stop taking risks (both physical and emotional). Though she is certainly not the first to point this out, she insists that older people live too much in the past, too much through others (especially their children). “….we owe it to ourselves to create something out of nothing. It’s a weakness to just sit around and wait for a life to come to you.”

Erickson tells Anderson a little story about having bought a manual typewriter at some point in her life because she was writing a lot of poetry and prose. Erick caught on quickly that Joan and her typewriter could be of service to him; he gave her a letter to type, which she did gladly. But the next day there were three or four letters. This went on for a week, and then Joan simply gave away the typewriter. It was not long, she insists, before “he came to respect my role in my own life as much I respected his.” The little story helps Anderson to realize that she has always confused serving with loving. No wonder, Erickson continues, that so many women look around after their children have gone and wonder who they are and what they want to do.

There is so much practical wisdom in this little book, and she has a special message for us city-dwellers. Erickson is convinced that we have lost touch with nature, and lost touch so thoroughly that we have forgotten what we have lost, forgotten even to seek it out (and to keep our bodies in the shape they need to be in order to really be in nature). She insists that there is no substitute for nature, “without it you are doomed to a dull, lifeless existence.” I read this little book at the ocean, and in that setting, she seemed to be talking directly to me. Both Anderson and Erickson see themselves as giving a kind of summons, “to guide people back to themselves—get them out of the mold. The great loneliness is that most people don’t know who they are.”

Anderson looks in wonder at Erickson as she is celebrating her ninety-fifth birthday, her body finally failing her some, but still vibrant and joyful. “Joan looks around like an expectant child, living in the openness to the wonder of being alive, no matter how much longer.” She is asked by some in the throng who are there to wish her well what she would have to say were this her last day.

Make time for play each day,’ she answered without giving the question a moment’s thought. ‘We’re asses if we don’t. Nobody is going to force you to—no one says go out and play. It’s a shame there is no philosophy of life anywhere that insists on play.’
And what about the ninth stage that Erickson discovers only in her nineties?

I really thought that when you got old you stopped learning: I thought it was a plateau. The fact that each day you learn something new never crossed my mind and that’s fun. So, I advise you to take care of yourself and let yourself grow old.
No doubt, good fortune had a lot to do with Erickson’s vital and joyous life into her nineties, but I have no doubt that her wisdom played a generous role. I have been talking about Joan Anderson’s tribute to Joan Erickson, A Walk on the Beach.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Terry Tempest Williams and Wendell Berry

I want to talk to you this morning about two wonderful authors, and about how the books came into my hands, how most books come into my hands. Terry Tempest Williams and Wendell Berry are two of the most inspirational authors and social critics around these days, and I think we are all lucky to inhabit the planet with them. Wendell Berry has been writing environmental/political essays, poems, and short stories for over fifty years now, and while I am not usually a reader of short stories (finding them tantalizing but somehow too quick), this set of five stories gathered together under the title of Fidelity is a wonderfully satisfying read. His writing is in so many ways simple and straightforward and yet so revealing of the human condition; his honesty and integrity show through as much in these stories as they do in his environmental essays. I’ll get back to the stories in a moment.

imageTerry Tempest Williams grew up in Mormon dominated southern Utah and is one of the first writers I know of who began to expose the horrible health problems brought about by the nuclear testing sites in Nevada (and, of course, denied by the government for many, many years). The book I want to talk about today is entitled The Open Space of Democracy, and includes among other things her Commencement speech at the University of Utah in 2003. I marvel at her bravery, reading a speech that was highly critical of the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq in front of a crowd that contained many super conservative Mormons, including the Republican Senator Robert F. Bennett, who had been both a neighbor of hers and her Mormon Bishop. I, too, am a graduate of the University of Utah, and a refugee from Mormonism, but one who escaped Zion long ago and am thankful simply for the escape. I admire Williams for remaining in Salt Lake, for staying in the fray, for teaching at the University of Utah, and even (as far as I can tell) remaining a Mormon in what I have to suppose is an attempt to do her best to reform from within.

The Terry Tempest Williams book came to me from an old friend from Utah (one of my oldest male friends), himself raised in a Mormon household even more devout than mine. I glanced at it, put it in my hundred or so to-read stack where it may have languished for months or even years. Fortunately, my partner spied it, read it up in a day or two, and insisted that I put it back on top of my pile. She has ‘resurrected’ a half dozen or so of the books I have reviewed in the last few years. So often books come to me via friends and colleagues, and that is one of the reasons I continue to do these reviews—to act as a resource, a list.

Let me read you a few paragraphs from the Terry Tempest Williams volume, hoping to whet your appetite for more.

When minds close, democracy begins to close. Fear creeps in; silence overtakes speech. Rhetoric masquerading as thought. Dogma is dressed up like an idea. And we are told what to do, not asked what we think. Security is guaranteed. The lie begins to carry more power than the truth until the words of our own founding fathers are forgotten and the images of television replace history .... We are no longer citizens. We are media-engineered clones wondering who we are and why we feel alone. Lethargy trumps participation. We fall prey to the cynicism of our own resignation.

Question. Stand. Speak. Act.
Patriots act—they are not handed a piece of paper called by that same name and asked to comply.
Williams reminds us that Thomas Jefferson believed in perilous liberty over quiet servitude, and she sees so clearly that those now in power would have us bound in quiet servitude.

She continues:

Since George W. Bush took the office of President of the United States I have been sick at heart, unable to stomach or abide by this administration’s aggressive policies directed against the environment, education, social services, healthcare, and our civil liberties—basically, the wholesale destruction of seemingly everything that contributes to a free society, except the special interests of big business.
What I admire about Williams even more than her heart and her vision is her willingness to act, to engage. After receiving a letter from Senator Bennett expressing his extreme disappointment with her commencement speech, she sent him a wonderful reply, agreeing to visit Baghdad with him if he would visit what had been wilderness areas in Utah opened by Bush and his business buddies for oil and gas exploration. He agreed to the bargain, and surprisingly, she seems to have won him over regarding the Utah wilderness. Williams worries that the Left too often is content to speak to the converted and simply to share with one another its anger and chagrin. In her words,

We are nothing but whiners if we are not willing to put our concerns and convictions on the line with a willingness to honestly listen and learn something beyond our assumptions. Something new might emerge through shared creativity. If we cannot do this, I fear that we will be left talking with only like-minded people, spending our days mumbling in the circles of the mad. I recall the words of William Faulkner, ‘What to we stand to lose? Everything.’ ... Politics may be a game of power and money to those who have it, but for those of us who don’t, politics is the public vehicle by which we exercise our voices within a democratic society.

Williams is more hopeful, more optimistic than I. Still, I think she is right to demand action and voices. She insists that,

We have made the mistake of confusing democracy with capitalism and have mistaken political engagement with a political machinery we all understand to be corrupt. It is time to resist .... It is the passivity of cynicism that has broken the back of our collective outrage. We succumb to our own depression believing there is nothing we can do.
Turning now to the Walter Berry book, were Berry beginning his central story, “Fidelity”, as a philosopher, he might have begun with the question, “What is fidelity? What is it to be faithful to someone?” Instead, because he is a storyteller, we are told a story of a man, Burley, “a man who was freely in love with freedom and with pleasures,” now so ill that his kinfolk feel they must put him in hospital. The gravity of his condition soon leads to his being connected to machines that keep him living, more or less a captive of the hospital. And then what does fidelity demand? That they get him out, of course.

The story is about how they get him out, and then how they, as a community, stand behind the rescue, presenting a usually cordial but very stony and unified wall to the official investigators. Some of the passages involving the good-meaning detective, who comes questioning the townspeople about just how Burley was rescued from the hospital, show so clearly Berry’s understanding of how the power of, and impersonality of, business (using law as its accomplice) simply bowl over individuals, towns, communities. But not this community, these people stand and fight together. In each of the stories in this volume, Berry’s love for what get called simple country folk, his compassion for all people, glows out. I suppose in some way each of the five stories elucidates a different aspect of fidelity.