Bernie’s grandson, Ethan, is having his Bar-Mitzvah in Jerusalem and grandpa can’t go. So yesterday we sat down, he dictated his thoughts and blessing, I wrote it down, printed it, pasted onto a card, and then asked Bernie to sign it.
What’s in a few letters or a few words? Everything. Those mysterious squiggles, the curves that don’t curve and the lines that don’t go straight, all speak to me of a life beyond prediction and control.
I can plunge into the Black Hills, with their ghosts of Native America, a lot easier than I can plunge into these few letters. Love is clear enough, but Grandpa Bernie goes all over the place. Figures, I think to myself.
The anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson said that most of us treat the prospect of growing old as if it’s adding a room to a house. We already have our 60 years, we already have our kitchen and dining area, living room and 1 or 2 bedrooms, and now that we live till 80 and even 90 or older, we think it’s like adding something to the rest of our life in a straight, linear fashion. That’s not what old age is at all, she said. It’s not adding a room to an existing house, it changes the entire house.
Getting sick is like that, too. When Bernie had his stroke, once he was out of danger and I had some sense of what the work would be, I thought I’d just add it to everything else I was doing. All it would mean is maybe getting up a little earlier, going to bed a little later, working a little harder, cutting corners. After a period of time in which I rushed through things like a tornado, creating havoc and misery in my wake, I understood that wasn’t it at all. It wasn’t about adding more distance before you get to the finish line, in fact it wasn’t any kind of race or an endurance test. It was simply going to change everything.
I’m beginning to realize that a meaningful change is never an extra room, but something that changes the house.
That’s how I think, too, about the election of 2016. Focusing on Donald Trump and losing your cool about him is like thinking that the election was about adding a tiny closet that eventually, maybe in 2020, we could all lock up and forget it ever existed, except as a reminder of some errant behavior weird, beer-guzzling voters indulged in once upon a time. The next president would have us sigh in relief and we’d all go back to normal.
But the election of 2016 changed the house. Or perhaps it showed a house we didn’t know existed, one with rocky, termite-eaten foundations. A house built on stolen land, using slave labor till 1863 and slave-like labor to this very day (i.e., the prison economy). Those of us who knew of these things perhaps had hoped it had all gone away, or that it was going away. But it didn’t, and it’s not. Not quickly, at any rate.
Take advantage of the election of 2016 and look at the whole house, at the different skeins of thread still unspooling and unspooling, not finding common ground, at the many things we can’t come to peace with. Remember we’re here for the long run. Have patience.
Love, Grandpa Bernie.