Today is my 73rd birthday.
Yesterday we finished our winter retreat and I feel the results of it even now, sitting at the computer wearing a large, bright, red sweater. I got the sweater last summer on the island of Grand Manan. I went with Peter Cunningham and Ara Fitzgerald to visit their friends, who grow and sell food at their farm. I can’t remember their names, only that the woman made the best jam I ever tasted in my life and that she had hung up some used clothes for sale. I looked it over, picked up a red sweater, and asked how much it was.
“It’s free,” she said genially.
I brought it home and it’s keeping me warm this evening. Also reminding me of endless free gifts that I’ve received my entire life, especially when I finally learned to listen.
If I want to get depressed, all I have to do is glance back at my life and list the many times I was offered excellent advice and didn’t listen. The many friends and family members who made suggestions: take some writing workshops, take better care of money, buy yourself something nice, slow down, the man you’re dating isn’t behaving right—and I shrugged it all off. Why? Because I knew.
But I don’t get depressed anymore because I try to listen more deeply to advice, new ideas, and plain messages from the universe. Day after day I find that I’m getting answers to questions about work, teaching, writing, friends, dogs, and whatever arises. Before I also got terrific answers, only I didn’t listen.
One of the things that happens when you have a birthday in your 70s is this: Rather than thinking: It’s my birthday, my 73rd year, etc., even as you’re still learning, doing, and exploring new territories like a senior Huck Finn, you start seeing yourself as a function of history. You start seeing yourself as a function of lineage. It’s not about you anymore, it’s about what flows through you, what flowed through your parents and your grandparents, and what’s going out through your descendants, who aren’t just your children but also the people you’ve learned fro, and who have learned from you, be they students, friends, collaborators, co-workers, whatever. You start identifying the stream that runs through you, carrying a pinch of your own individual flavor.
Bernie knew this long ago. In the late 80s we began to build permanent supportive housing for homeless families. I can write books about all that, starting with the fact that at that time there were almost no permanent apartments being built with wrap-around services like child care, jobs, tenant support, after-school programs, etc. We had a hard time convincing state officials in Albany that this model was viable.
Finally, after a lot of setbacks, we put together the money to buy a run-down building that needed to be totally renovated, and one fine day Bernie, along with some seniors (I was not one of them), obtained the key to actually go inside and have a look at it. After so many years of work, this was an exciting development.
That evening, a Wednesday, was when he gave his weekly talk to the community. He sat down and said this: “As you know, today we went in for the first time to look at the inside of 68 Warburton. We unlocked the door and had to push it hard to get in. The floor was wet from where the rain had come in through the broken roof. There was a terra cotta staircase at the center leading to the upper floors, and at the bottom of the stairs lay a dead dog.
“This is what will happen. We’ll renovate 68 Warburton, create a childcare center on the ground floor and apartments for families on the upper floors. Then we’ll buy more buildings and do the same for them. We’ll develop after-school programs for teenagers and hire parents to work at the bakery and in construction of other projects, families will move out and we’ll bring in new ones. Some of you will leave and new students will come in. We’ll do this for a long time and then, as things go, we’ll either move on to other things, go to other parts of the country, or maybe die, and new people will take over.
“They will do wonderful things till they also change and move on. After a while the building will be sold, then sold again. The apartments will get run down and no one will renovate them. The roof will again start rotting and will let in the rain, and finally the Housing Authority will come in and condemn the building. The families who live there will leave, and one of them will leave their dog behind before locking the front door and the dog will die at the foot of the terra cotta steps. And that’s our life.”
Much later on I’d tease him that my favorite of all his talks was also the shortest.
Bernie kept his promises, and more. We did buy more buildings, we renovated them and brought more families in, we even built an AIDS center with care and housing, expanded the childcare and bakery, things he didn’t predict back then. But throughout it all he knew it wasn’t about him or us but rather a stream of energy where he and we were just the tiniest of wavelets, bubbles in the foam.
He accepted that fully; perhaps it even gave him some relief, knowing that nothing was all up to him. I know it gives me relief that nothing of any substance is really up to me. The Jewish sages said that your job is just to start, not to worry about how things end. Just do your part, be a bubble in the stream.
But this bubble needs support. I ask for support for my blog several times a year. I won’t kid you, tomorrow Jimena Pareja will be here. I told her that I’ll be leaving to visit my family, so we will review what’s needed for undocumented families before I go, including our annual Amazon list of Christmas gifts for children. The stream I talk about derives its power from infinite acts of goodness and generosity.
But this time I wish to ask for support for my blog. I use my blog to get help for others, but mostly to explore my own edges and calls, the dimensions of a bubble that goes here and there, bumps into rocks and fallen tree trunks, or else sparkles modestly in a shiny sun. And what I discover, I share with you.
If you can help, please use the button below, or else send a check to the address below. This past summer we lost the entire subscription base for the blog. Fixing that cost a lot of time and money, and we still lost some readers. But, like 68 Warburton, we renovated and built anew—and no dogs died.
“Where are you going?” Aussie asked me 5 days ago. ”Take me with you.”
“I took you to Washington DC for Thanksgiving,” I told her.
“That was then. Take me now.”
“I took you shopping at the dog supply store this afternoon, Aussie.”
“I want to go now. By the way, where are you going?”
“I’m going to a retreat, Aussie.”
“Forget about it.”
You can also send a check to: Eve Marko, POB 174, Montague, MA 01351. Thank you.