The Narrowing

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 The summoning of Courage is the most dangerous of spells. For you cannot summon Courage to do one thing. You must summon Courage to do all things.”

As I turn 65, I am increasingly aware of a Narrowing in my life, the sense that the parameters, the boundaries, have closed in, and will continue to do so. My life, which had been a pyramid, has become a pillar. I am the atlas alone atop the stone, bearing the weight of the decisions that have placed me here

It makes sense in a way. The narrowing may have started soon after the most notable widening of my life. In 1993, I moved to Minneapolis. My wife and I had started our marriage in Washington DC, which was home to me. But she hated the traffic and her job and possibly me. So we decided to move to Minneapolis, her home of many years. I had hoped the move might rescue the marriage, but it didn’t. It did open my eyes in other ways, though, as moving someplace new can do. And Minneapolis, despite or because of the grand disruption of my life and plans, Minneapolis with its lakes and arts and smiling people, opened my creative heart, and the city became a muse.

My mind, which had always been pretty open, waited for its own muse, and it was not long in coming. In 1997, after the marriage had ended in the mutual recognition that we had engaged in hopes unfounded in reality or personality, I took a solo car trip across country, a transcendental journey described elsewhere. This was I think the widest moment of my life, where any road seemed open to me, reaching its apex on a highway on the plains of South Dakota, as the limits of the world fell away, the road went on forever, and the moment was defined by freedom.

But as I discovered on that trip, in choosing one road, others are let go. In the year or two that followed, I chose two roads. I chose to be a writer, and I chose to take care of family.

I see now (though I did not completely at the time) that in making those choices I let others go. Marriage or any kind of romantic partnership was not included. Deep friendships in essence became infrequent companions in practice. No one asked me to make these choices. I made them, and I don’t question the choices now, because they seemed best to me then, and what good would it do anyway? Focus and necessity became my principles, though perhaps they were only a cover. Perhaps the Narrowing had already begun.

My choices came with a cost, and that cost has become the Narrowing. My life is circumscribed into smaller and smaller limits. A trip to the store or Starbucks is my adventure for the day. I dream of travel, but the effort and stress and uncertainty seem beyond my powers. I don’t drive at night, or on the highway, or to places I don’t know. I have lived in this apartment for nearly twenty years, not because I like it (though for the most part I do), but because the thought of uprooting my life at this age, and from within this solitude, is daunting.

I watched this Narrowing towards the end of my parents life. Once world travelers, wonderful friends, wide readers, their world became chair and bed, television and tray, doctor and hospital. I live in a retirement community and I see daily that my life is not the only one Narrowed. Many others around me have been, by grief, by isolation, by illness, by money, by age itself.

The Narrowing in my case is based less on capacity than on fear. I see this. But so far I have not been able to work past it. As an intelligent person, I feel that I should be able to. I should be able to solve this problem. And sometimes I feel that I am on the brink. I am not sure of what–a widening, reformation, a renaissance? So far the brink is as far as I have reached.

Yet other times, as I sit in my chair and listen to music or read or write, I have a vision I can only dimly apprehend, like the Xanadu of Coleridge (without the opium), a vague sense that the Narrowing is in its own way a transition to be embraced.

As the pyramid narrows into the pillar, the atlas atop climbs higher. The base is more unsteady, and toppling is a twist away. But the scene is expansive. We see farther, and further. Beyond ourselves. And when the clouds dissipate, the view will be transcendent.

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Memory

"I am grown old and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened."   

        Mark Twain

Autobiography

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The Blue Cap

She wears a dark blue raincoat on this cloudy day, and a lighter blue cap, something out of the sixties. I can imagine her then, a young woman, wearing one to a party, dazzling with her golden hair and brilliant smile, charming them all.

Now her hair is white. And white tennis shoes. Always the white shoes.

And alone. Always alone. Except for the dog.

Her dog is smallish and also white, like most of the dogs in this community. For some reason, they are the canine of choice, maybe because they don’t eat much or fit just so on an eighty-year old lap.

As she walks, she sways side to side. Maybe her hips don’t work as they used to or she is shielding her knees. Still she walks. Twice a day. Every day. At a good pace relatively. Holding tight to the leash. As though something about it keeps her upright.

I walk past her and smile, saying Good Afternoon. She doesn’t seem to recognize me, though we have passed a few times before. Her face brightens and she smiles, but she doesn’t speak back. Unused now to speaking to anyone, except her children on the phone every few weeks.

She is alone. Always alone. Except for the dog, who is now the beneficiary of all the love and care she has stored up since her husband passed.

So she walks every day. Rain or shine. In peril of falling every step it seems to me. I worry for her.

She is alone. Yet there are many like her here in this community. She passes them every day. They have never spoken yet they know each other.

As she passes me, I turn and watch for a second.

Maybe this is not her story. Maybe she has a family close to her, who visit most days, like my next door neighbor. Maybe her husband does the laundry and she walks the dog for exercise. I don’t really know.

But as I imagine her, she is a reminder.

And a warning.

And an inspiration.

I will find my blue cap.

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The Jesus of Silver Spring

In my novel The Island of Always, Lena (my protagonist) compares her ex-husband to Jesus—in that he loves everyone, just no one in particular (meaning her).

I was thinking about that today as a friend and I were exchanging emails on the subject of being alone later in life (I'm 63, and have been alone or on my own or however you want to put it for some years). My friend and I both agreed that writing (which is what we do, or at least how we think of ourselves) plays a part in that, both as a prerequisite, solitude being implicit in the writing life, and as a proxy, providing the joy and meaning that might otherwise come from companionship. 

Then I thought about Lena's line, and it occurred to me that there might be another alternative: compassion. Or perhaps the more personal counterpart: kindness. Maybe being kind to others, not just to other people, but to all the life around you, generates in you some of the same well-being that partnership might. It’s more spread out, certainly, easier to miss, no doubt. But maybe in aggregation enough to keep the heart alive. 

Perhaps in the end it all comes down to endorphins and complex neurochemical reactions. Or maybe there is a higher accounting, a karma to be built. But I wonder if the choice to engage with your little patch of the world in this way, each day, to smile at a neighbor, give a treat to a dog, or leave bread out for the birds and squirrels, can sustain the heart through the solitary years ahead. 

I hope so.

Hearts are important. 

 

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