Sunday, March 9, 2014

A Birthday Message of Myself

It is a question of experiencing everything.

"Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day."

― Rainer Maria RilkeLetters to a Young Poet

no photoshopping

I am 68 today, roughly twice as old as I expected ever to be. Flirting with the full spectrum of disaster has filled my life with excitement and beauty with a normal portion of sadness. (I used to complain about boredom until a therapist explained that boredom is simply the inability to pay attention...she didn't actually say, "You dope," but I heard it.) There have been near-death experiences but no significant run ins with the law. It is a wonder to have made it this far. Forgive me but it is hard not to reflect and I'd rather not do it alone. Let me see what regrets I've accumulated.

I don't believe that I have physically harmed anyone, not even in Vietnam. There is that. (The only time I ever fired my rifle was to win a bet from the platoon sergeant that it would actually fire and not explode in my hands [I never cleaned it.] I might have fired it to save my life but I never had to. Five dollars in scrip and no place to spend it.)

What I did for love?
My 20's were a reckless, nearly feckless decade about which the less said the better. Large sections of it are unavailable as memory. The war was an excuse but the truth is that I wasn't ready to move on until I broke 30.

When I finally woke (read...detoxed) , I had cleaned up and began to look around for my place and time. My goals were modest and quiet and I began to address myself with sympathetic affection as if I were Rilke's young poet. So I listened more and became less angry and ashamed.  I began to be available to whatever there was for me.

Eight or nine months after my last drink, I took modern dance classes* in pursuit of a woman (that's her, spinning by the piano.) We had virtually nothing in common so I tried her world. Trying new things? Living the question as I wore a Sherwood Forest green leotard. By day I worked as a free lance writer/editor which is hardly even possible without scotch. There was still no real life passion (just passing fancies.) But it was certainly entertaining and I remember it all.

Then came Nora and a couple of years later, Emily. It's a commonplace, but no less true, that children wake corners of your heart that you never knew were there. I stopped regretting that I had no particular passion, no mission. Within the moment (being there then) I had a father's love for his daughters and for a while didn't really need more. I am more in love with them now.

By the time I hit 40 I was fully integrated. A house in Chevy Chase (on Tennyson St.); Emily and Nora were at Lafayette Elementary with the children of movers (if not shakers.) I wore a suit and tie (with an eye-patch) and commuted during the week to southeast DC and my job as a mid-level bureaucrat. For a while, there was a second house in the Shenandoah valley. Except for the lack of affairs (I am nothing if not loyal) my life became Cheeverish and Updikey: full of envy, guilt and circles with which you're in this week...and next week you are out, Auf Wiedersehen.

I was unhappy in my government job, I was competent but didn't fit. Socially there was pressure and competition to be the most informed and clever and (truthfully, I thrived at parties [with facile repartee-thanks Dad]) I was pretending that it wasn't tense and exhausting. I did excel at the bon mot. I am still awed by the astonishing phrase, and bow before superior Scrabble Players.

Then I began to cook and feed people. There were a few false starts like being sidetracked by what Nora Ephron called "competitive cooking" or the struggle to find more and more obscure cuisines and ingredients. But, since I was sober and could think clearly it became apparent that feeding people somehow stacked up my Chi or aligned me with the Meridians.

This discovery and its implications didn't really take shape until I turned 45. It was an entirely new life and I started to become myself. I passed through the hubris of mastering the art of baking, believing that the purity and quality of my bread made me important. But my daughters and many, many good friends have permitted my idiosyncrasies until they were no longer necessary. There is a saw about people like me: an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.
Thanks, Mr. Tatarka

Perhaps not everyone would be convinced of my better nature. Still, my impulse to feed you, to see that your needs are being met, has become my salvation. It is my way of life and my method of self rule: the moment I wonder what you would like to eat, I cease being your enemy. It keeps me out of trouble.

I had a friend who was a holocaust survivor. He was a happy and zestful man but he knew that any one of us is capable of evil. He taught that it is our responsibility to guard against this possibility. I have always secretly been afraid of my potential to damage and I see Arnost's point.

I am 68 today.

I cook to gather my friends and give them pleasure and nourishment, to see to their needs and enjoy their company, to create community. It is working for me, I trust myself to be a good man in ways that I could never have at 18, 28, 38... And I have others who are glad for me. Why, just last night they surprised me with balloons and a truly warm family meal. Meatloaf, mashed potatoes, kale salad (it is Asheville) and carrot cake. You see, we all cook for each other even though I am the actual obsessive. Balloons at 68, how about that?



*I achieved the apex of my dance career as an off-stage voice.