The Dance of Memory

Le Moulin de la Galette’ by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

There is a thread running through the coincidental events of late in my daily travels. As I notice them, I try to integrate these events into my broader perspective; being careful not to place too much emphasis on any single coincidence when attempting to decide what the implications might be. Unlike Icarus, I have no interest in flying myself recklessly toward the sun.

What stands out, though, upon reflection, is the connection between all of the coincidences, which has only become possible for me to notice more readily now through repeated experience over a fairly long stretch of time. My awareness of these links helped me to understand that I was experiencing aspects of my existence, which had no corresponding temporal source. As a very young boy, I knew that something “out-of-the-ordinary” was transpiring within me, and that I was viewing the world in a way that others did not seem to see. Even as those early years were accumulating and leading me toward my future, I wasn’t fully aware of what might be responsible for the extraordinary nature of my experiential awareness of non-material phenomena. It is only now, in reconsidering those events, and in view of my increased awareness of the events taking place in my present life, that the significance of what we often describe as coincidence is finally beginning to reveal itself.

It’s interesting to me to go back and read some of my earlier writings, when I first started to become aware of this parade of synchronous events and intuitive sensations that had been occurring all along. I often expressed surprise and delight when life seemed to bring me together with people and locating me in precisely the right venue for dealing with whatever I was struggling with at the time. There were certain periods of my life where they seemed to be coming at me on a regular basis, and other times when they were few and far between, but as I progressed in my understanding, and knew the feelings well enough to recognize them more readily when they appeared, I also began to appreciate that having these experiences were in some way necessary, just as it was necessary to have gaps in between at times, in order for me to figure out just what the importance of them might be.

Recently, I was reviewing one such written account of an encounter with a young woman, when I was a young military man stationed in Massachusetts, and it illustrates well how the power of these special connections can affect the flow along our path in life, and why time in between can be equally important in discerning the significance of each event:

The Dance

Painting of a Woman by Abbey Altson (on the left)


“Her eyes were dark—like a deep summer nighttime sky—and her flowing dark brown hair framed her face in such a way that I could not help but wonder if I might eventually get to kiss that face. She was radiant and beautiful in a way that stood out more than with other women in my limited experience. At the time, my typically low self-esteem would not have permitted me to imagine myself at the local neighborhood festival slow-dancing with her. Beautiful women had never seemed much interested in spending time with me over the years. I always thought that I just wasn’t that interesting or flashy or whatever it is that a man has to be to get a date with a beauty like her.


My confidence was never really able to get off the ground in cases like that, but in this case, I was surprised to be standing with her, talking to her about the festival, and actually found the courage to ask her if she would be willing to go with me. When she said “yes,” I could hardly believe it.

I arrived to pick her up a few minutes early. She was in a pretty white dress with thin shoulder straps and she looked like an angel to me. We greeted each other with a hug and, for a brief moment, when we were standing together still in the embrace, she smiled at me widely.

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“It’s a lovely evening, and I haven’t been out in ages.” We both laughed and I told her it should be nice for us both.

When we arrived there weren’t many people on the dance floor, but the music was lovely—a live band playing a good variety of popular songs—and after a few minutes to get reacquainted, we finally stepped out on the dance floor. It was a lively song. I honestly don’t remember what it was because at that moment I could only wonder how it was even possible to be dancing with the beauty in front of me. I loved her laugh. It was infectious and sweet, and she seemed to enjoy laughing in a way that makes you want to laugh. We seemed to spend a fair amount of time giggling at one thing or another, and we were having a really good time.

Suddenly, standing on the floor listening to a story she was telling me, the band started to play a slow song. This time I remembered the song, because after just a moment of the beginning being played, she just reached out, grabbed my hand, and pulled me to the center of the floor. They were playing, “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons),” one of my favorites from Nat King Cole. When I grabbed her hand and placed my arm around her, I must have had a huge smile on my face, because she seemed amused.

“What?” I asked.

“You seem so happy,” she replied.

“Well, I am,” I said. “You really look nice tonight, too,” I added.

After just a few seconds of silence, she replied, “It makes me feel special to be here with you.”

She pulled me closer, and we were suddenly cheek-to-cheek. My heart started racing. The music was swelling right along with my heart. She placed her hand on the back of my neck, and my whole body began to quiver slightly. I felt her embrace tightening, and it relaxed me a bit. I pulled my face back slightly and looked her in the eye. There was a slight hint of her perfume mixed with the warmth of the evening air. Our bodies were pressed together, and our embrace allowed me to notice the contours of her body, which was warm, and soft, and fit perfectly in my arms.

She seemed completely comfortable with my hand placement, and when my right hand slid down her lower back, she didn’t seem to mind at all. The dance was heating up.”

I wouldn’t have occasion to think much about how this event would matter to me until some years later, when I was waiting to depart America for an assignment overseas. We had exchanged letters for a time after my reassignment, but our correspondence dropped off after a while, and when I was about to embark on the next phase of my journey, I thought of her and that extraordinary dance, wondering if it really even happened at all.

Some months after arriving overseas, I received a letter from her announcing her engagement to another guy, and while it made me feel a degree of melancholy at first, unbeknownst to me at the time, it would set the stage for one of the most intense love affairs of my young life.

In the New Year, I will be writing more about this period of my journey, and elaborating further on the importance of these synchronous events as they ebbed and flowed in the years that followed. Extending to all my readers and visitors here best wishes for whatever holiday you celebrate, and hope you all make the New Year in 2020, not only memorable, but the best it can be.

Letters Between A Young Man Serving Overseas And His Mom at Christmas

Since I personally have direct experience in being away from home on military assignment during the holidays, I felt compelled to share with you an excerpt from an historical exchange, which took place at that time, by way of excerpts from two important letters, written while I served overseas in the winter of 1975, between me and my mother.

November 29, 1975

My Dear son,

First of all, we received your recent letter, written while on duty today. I was very happy to receive it, and all read your letter with feelings of concern, yet also happiness. It is hard to explain. We all love you, and hope that the time you must give to the Army goes as quickly as you would wish it to go…in spite of everything.

(What follows is a section of that letter, which contained my description of the experience of being on duty at the border station.)

“Dear Mom and Dad and everyone,

By the time you receive this letter, I will have returned to Augsburg, with the mission completed. I won’t be able to send it until I get back. We are on a border site mission, which means that right now, your son is sitting about 5 km from the East German border. We are on top of a small mountain from which you can see into East Germany. Right at this particular moment it’s snowing pretty well, after having snowed yesterday about a half a foot before it stopped last night. It’s really quite cold; however, I am relatively comfortable considering the circumstances. We work in shifts so no one is out in the cold for too long. When we finish work for the day, they drive us into a nearby town to take showers and have a few beers. It’s really not too bad actually.

The one thing I really wanted to tell you all about was the feeling I had last night as I watched the snow fall over the other side of a large barbed-wire fence that separates the East Germans from the free world. It’s not a spectacular scene really, but the implications, at least for me, are very graphic. The fence itself and the area within about 50 meters are lit up like it was daytime. Every hundred meters or so, you see a guard tower with the East German border guards sitting up there just watching you watch them. There was hardly a sound to be heard.

The snowfall seemed to make everything peaceful, and I began to think a little bit about just what it must be like to live on the other side of that fence. How does that East German soldier feel about his lot, and how he must wonder about what I’m thinking? Needless to say, it was a very sobering moment. I thought of you all, just at that moment and I have to admit I cried just a little bit and wished I was home. I was tired and cold and I guess a little lonesome for my family—a feeling that I learned to appreciate a while ago, emphasized somewhat by my surroundings; one that I could not have known without having had the experience.”

(Back to Mom’s response)

“By the way, I mailed a Christmas package. A couple of things are to be opened immediately, but others should remain until Christmas. It’s hard to be away for the holidays, son, but remember, we are thinking of you, and when you are home again, we shall have the biggest homecoming party you have ever seen!

The whole house is starting to become active with secret shopping and the Christmas Spirit! Your sister tells me, “It’s building!” We have our nativity scene up on the mantel piece. We are hearing more and more Christmas songs on the radio. Stores are decorated and it’s cold out—down to the low 20’s tonight. No snow yet!

We expect your sister and her family on Christmas Day; both your brothers will be here Christmas Eve also. We have a limited Pollyanna because both married children, plus our military son, will not be here on Christmas Eve. Your older brother is going to cut down the tree tomorrow. The girls and your younger brother are going with him. We expect to trim the tree Sunday.

Everyone is getting excited as usual. They all have come to me at different times and said how much they miss you, and how much they wish you were here for Christmas. My dear son, your mother thinks of you often and also of our talks in the kitchen when you were home. They are a great comfort to me. I love you and miss you.

God Bless You, with Love…Mother”

As you can see from this exchange, the circumstances for me and for the whole family were affected by my assignment and deployment, and while the situation wasn’t anywhere near as dangerous or difficult as those brave soldiers serving in combat zones, the stresses and responsibilities are still daunting in their own way. I know my parents and siblings were worried about me and missed me. It was difficult to be away from home for so long and through times when we were traditionally together, but it was vitally important work that we were doing in defense of our country, and at the end of it all, once that duty was finished, the lessons learned stayed with us.

In the photo above, at Christmas time one year later, my parents and four of my siblings came over to visit me in West Germany, and we were joined by the German family who hosted me in Augsburg, more than making up for the lonely Christmas the year before.  My German friends understood well the important American values held by our family.

Being far away from home, during the holidays especially, our appreciation of the freedoms we enjoy in America, and the love we have for our families and for our way of life as Americans, become something more than just words on a patriotic poster, or in some speech by a politician. The deeper meaning of our values and our heritage as citizens of the United States comes into sharper focus, in a way that just reading about such things could never impart.

The changes you go through, the challenges you face, and the altering of your view of the world, acquired as a result of participation in the defense of your country overseas, regardless of the motivations you may have had when you entered the service, will very likely stay with you for the rest of your life, just as they have for those of us who have served in the past.

We all recognize that the sacrifices made by our military men and women in uniform are necessary in order to fulfill their responsibilities, and we must support them unconditionally in their endeavors.  I recommend to all military folks out there to be sure and write or communicate in some way with your loved ones. Take it from me, it’s the best way to get you through whatever comes.

May God bless them all and keep them safe always, and continue to bless the United States of America!

The Allure of Sanctuary

Way back in 1976, a film appeared on the scene called, “Logan’s Run,” starring Michael York as a law enforcement “sandman,” tracking down people trying to escape from being “renewed,” at the age of thirty, in a futuristic dystopian world where no one grows old. He is assigned to go undercover and expose a place where those who don’t want to “renew” go for refuge called, “Sanctuary.” It’s an interesting film which also stars Peter Ustinov as one of the very last surviving “old people,” and it presents the viewer with some thought-provoking material regarding the value of maturity and of Sanctuary.

Sanctuary can be one of the most important ideas to ponder, as well as one of the most useful places, that we can seek out, no matter where we live, and no matter what our circumstances. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve an elaborate or hidden place like the one in the film, but, by definition, it constitutes a safe location, but it may simply require achieving a peaceful and calm state of mind, in order to be considered a sanctuary of sorts.

 

It is difficult at times, especially in the midst of chaos or turmoil, to disassociate ourselves from our circumstances, even temporarily, and so a sanctuary generally takes place away from the general run of life, maybe a quick stop at a library, or a local park, during a walk on a brisk winter day, but with practice and determination, we may also be able to find sanctuary within ourselves, even when the physical place isn’t ideal. Wherever we are able to be alone with our thoughts and to disengage, even for just a few minutes, from our busy modern lives, we can find brief encounters with solace and sanctuary.

 

When we can actually divert our attention from the everyday hum of life, even a humble spare room in an attic or basement can suffice, and as someone who spent more than 20 years raising a group of six children, I can assure you that the effort to find even brief moments of what one might describe as sanctuary can make a huge difference in one’s ability to cope with the fast pace that such a life can attain at times.

 

My own first attempts at achieving some degree of calm and quiet as an aspiring writer nearly always required me to simply wait until everyone was asleep, and then dragging out all my books and papers and materials out to the kitchen table, and then dragging them all back before they woke up. Eventually, after the nest started to empty, I was able to cordon off a section of the laundry room for a desk and a bookshelf, so at least I didn’t have to keep moving everything around, but as you might imagine, the parade of people into the laundry room and the relentless running of the washer and dryer didn’t always add up to a clear sanctuary experience, but the “waiting-until-sleep” mode was still available.

More recently, as the nest finally emptied in the traditional sense, I was able to convert one of the upstairs bedrooms into a real “office,” with the customary equipment and options for dedicated application of a “writing space.” For some time now I have been able to spend continuous hours of quiet and calm in my own version of “sanctuary.”

 

Sanctuary should be a place where we can “let go,” and not worry so much about the world outside of us. Something important to remember, though, is that we cannot forget, even when we are in that place, that it’s not supposed to be a total disconnect from the WHOLE world, because every moment as a living being takes place in THIS world. It is mainly up to us to figure out how much is too much, and to what degree our disengagement must achieve in order to be useful and productive.

I occasionally take great satisfaction in the available moments of quietude to run a bunch of warm water and soap into the tub and withdraw into the warmth with some calming music to distract me from even the way working in my office can’t always seem to do.

The important part of all this is to recognize and establish whatever routines help us to “clear out the cobwebs,” or to seek refuge in whatever space might be available, and to attend to our inner life…advancing our “inner evolution.”

A Teachable Travel Moment

Recently, I have been reviewing the collections of photographs and other memories from my journey of discovery which began more than forty years ago now, and several pieces of the puzzle have started to be filled in with particular memories, which have sparked new levels of awareness about just how important some of the events which occurred along the way were, leading me inexorably to this moment in time. The image above is one of my most important memories from 1975 when I was living in Augsburg, Germany, and first visited the Ancient Roman Museum there as a young soldier. The photograph depicts one of my very first adult encounters with ancient artifacts, and I will be posting an entry in the coming weeks about those heady days in Europe when so much came together for me.

I’ve also been reading posts by my friend Anthony at zenothestoic.com these days, and his recent posting about travels prompted me to dig through the archive to locate this one special travel memory that now looms much larger in the big picture, which I have been constructing all these years. I am grateful to Anthony for a number of teachable moments of late, and recommend his blog to anyone who has an interest in straightforward, no-nonsense stories that often get right to the core of whatever matter he takes on.

His travelogue in the English landscape stirred my memories of travels through the many small villages and remote country towns when I was a young man exploring the outer world in Europe, and just beginning to awaken to my expansive inner world. This recent stirring reminded me of a more modern memory, and I will tell you about that now, and how it all fits in to the larger story about my focus on consciousness.

It was a dream I had one night long ago. I met a woman on the steps of a university somewhere, and upon the very first glance at her face, I immediately felt a connection and a degree of intimacy that could not be explained by the temporal circumstances. I seemed to accept that it was so—that it was completely normal to encounter someone and to have this response.

I remember as the dream progressed, being close—face—to—face. I distinctly remember the look in her eyes as I spoke. Somehow, I knew that whatever I said had better be the truth, because she would know—she would know whether whatever I said was true or not—and I remember hesitating, only briefly, but deliberately pausing, as I was about to say something non-threatening—something neutral, and when I looked at her directly in the face, I was compelled to tell the truth…and the truth was…that I was absolutely, completely crazy about her.

It’s not like there wasn’t any precedence in my life experience with this phenomenon, but I have to say throughout my lifetime of experience, when attempting to interact with another person with whom I sensed an intimate connection, I almost always knew right away, instinctively, yes or no, and when it was yes, I was frequently met with responses like…”how is it even possible to say these words…it’s only been this amount of time;” the connection for me was always immediate and intimate, and once in a while, it would remain strong and involve a depth of caring for some time.

Most often, though, I remember the response being incredulity or astonishment or confusion, but for me, none of those words applied to my response; I was completely accepting of my own response to the individual. For them, it was always some abrupt expression like, “Wow,” or “really?” For me, it was something like, “Of course,” or “yes, really,” or “I know.” I couldn’t pretend that it wasn’t so.

Looking back over the years, it happened so many times, and just as often the other person had a very difficult time accepting that I could feel the way I truly did feel. For me, it was impossible to deny what I absolutely felt without a doubt. I kept getting the sense that none of them were prepared to accept the truth that I was able to accept easily. Thankfully, it was just at this time when I started to take a serious interest in photography, bought some quality equipment, and began to record more than just images on film. I was also documenting my life at a critical time, and expanding my range of skills.

For a time, it became an issue when I shared these ideas, prompting blank stares or disbelief. One particular example occurred as a young man in the U.S. military living overseas in Europe. One day after work, I met a beautiful young woman, and at the very moment we met on a street corner, waiting for a bus into town, she turned to look at me in a most peculiar way, and I noticed my heart rate accelerated rapidly, without judgement on my part, but the suddenness of it gave me pause. We struck up a lively conversation about local attractions and initiated a polite exchange of information about our shared military duties, and when she asked me where I was headed in town, I reported that I was going home to my off-base apartment downtown. Her eyes suddenly lit up with surprise, her face immediately softened, and she smiled in a way that grabbed me right in the solar plexus. At that very instant, I felt a surge within me that was unmistakably of the same sort as before, only now it hit me like a cresting ocean wave.

The conversation took on a whole new level of urgency at that point, and by the time the bus arrived, we had made an arrangement to meet the next day to visit with me there. The rest of that evening I was unable to settle down or think clearly at all. I found myself oddly unable to go to sleep that night; so instead, I decided to clean out and rearrange the cabinets. I was an emotional wreck, and exhausted from anticipating her arrival the next day, but when she finally arrived, all the anxiety I felt just melted away.

We chatted briefly about locating the ingredients for a recipe she wanted to try for something called, “Hungarian Chicken.” Without having any idea exactly why I felt so compelled to rearrange the kitchen, it now seemed as though my mind had been operating on some level outside of conscious awareness, because it turned out to be the exact task I should have done, even though I couldn’t figure out what was making me act that way the night before.

We ended up spending a great deal of time together in the days following that first meeting, and all the while, outwardly I behaved with courtesy and as one would when first nurturing a friendship, but on the inside, I was a bubbling cauldron of intimate emotions, swirling like a tornado in my head and heart. I was in love. I immediately wanted to be close to her, but it seemed that it was impossible to express it without endangering the whole enterprise. The challenge for me was to avoid giving any overt indication of the inner turmoil, while still behaving in a rational and explicable manner. We laughed often and she seemed completely open to listening to the stories of my adventures over the years, and all I could do was remain totally open to her bright spirit, encouraging her to share time with me on her terms. I just wanted to be where she was.

One night, after a lovely day spent enjoying a warm spring afternoon walking around together in town, we were sitting on the sofa in the living room and I couldn’t hold back any longer. I had to try to express what was going on inside me before I exploded. The beginning of the conversation went well as I recapped all the wonderful parts of our friendship and the time we spent together, and without getting overly emotional or suggesting what might happen next, I simply allowed my heart to gently speak its truth. Her immediate response was a blank stare for about a minute, followed by an expression of agreement with the clear advantages of our friendship, but also noting her astonishment at how it would even be possible to have such a strong sense of connection, adding “It would take me a year to say those things to someone.” My time in Augsburg held some of the most important events of my young life, and when the time came to leave that city, I climbed to the top of the city hall there to take one last look before moving on to Central Germany and a brand new assignment.

Similar circumstances happened to me all the time, even with important friendships with others of every variety. For me, there was no doubt at all. It became clear eventually, after numerous repetitions of this scenario, where I was absolutely certain of what was happening, that the cause had something to do with ME. It was about ME. I was different, but I couldn’t explain it. This and several other pivotal events during this time brought all of the mystery to the forefront of my experience and pressed me to dig deeper. For the longest time, I wasn’t able to see a connection between these events when they occurred, and while some were more intense than others, certain ones were so profound, so in-depth of a connection that it completely enveloped all of my senses and occasionally saturated my entire experiential awareness.

Hopefully, after all this time, and years of paying attention to the particulars in these situations, writing about my experience in the Roman Museum and reflecting on everything that happened to me during that time will assist me now as a mature person, to not only understand myself better, but to have some improved grasp of the phenomenon of the human spirit, which I still see and experience in the same way sometimes.

My subjective experience of my own self continues to force me to confront these connections, and while I continue to see and feel these sensations at particular times and establish similar connections with certain individuals more intensely than others, I recognize it as the same phenomenon of an ineffable nature no matter how it occurs. Consciousness is much more than a result of brain physiology. That much, for me, is certain.

Forging Ahead

Reflecting back over the years of my life now has taken on a wholly different character and sense of urgency. Each time I sit down to write these days, I am reminded by all of the objects surrounding me that the accumulation of years has also resulted in an enormous accumulation of memories and souvenirs of the many experiences of my life. There was a time when I barely had even the shortest amount of time for such reminiscing, and I told myself over and over that the objects and documents and articles that I set aside would one day be a rich resource for writing about the times of my life. It seemed urgent to take this approach at that time since there were so precious few opportunities to review the past, and the important aspects of my experience of life, that I feared losing the thread to lead me through the labyrinth of time when I finally was able to withdraw from the relentless burden of obligation to generate income.

Even now, as I type these words, I am still not entirely certain that my intentional review of nearly a lifetime’s accumulation of memories and important objects which surround me will be concluded in time to avoid the inevitable reluctance to execute the process of letting go of them. I must now confront the uncertainty of just how much time remains before the threshold will approach for the great purging of the physical reminders of the events of my life and the historical record of all that I have committed to memory already. There are so many thoughts all jumbled up in my mind already—the flood of a lifetime of thoughts and memories often seems to overwhelm me even as I consider the ways to edit the most important ones down to a manageable amount in order to organize and collect them into some semblance of coherent expression.

My online blog, “John’s Consciousness,” began as an earnest effort to begin to formulate a practical collection of deliberate and considered entries which would form the foundation of a much larger work. While my current life is finally less crammed with the immediacy of unavoidable daily tasks for the most part, the daunting volume and immensity of the accumulated objects and documents weighs heavily on my ability to methodically and thoughtfully review them in a manner that is both advantageous and productive.

What is at least clear in one important way is the desire to make some kind of sense of all the important events and to spend whatever time is required to arrive at a reasoned and considered result, which may offer some useful insight for those who will survive me in the years to come. At first it seemed to me that all the efforts at preservation were primarily for my own benefit, and while I wasn’t always clearly thinking about the specific motivation being employed at every moment, in the back of my mind, I usually supposed that the why and the wherefore would become evident upon review at some later time.

Looking back over the decades leading up to my current circumstance always seem to initially lead to a degree of melancholy, as is typical of any effort being reviewed in retrospect. There are so many instances in a lifetime when we are either forced to choose a path at a crossroad, or perhaps even when we make a conscious, deliberate choice as we approach a crossroad or other pivotal moment, which we might view as a mistake in retrospect. We cannot know with certainty, at any given moment, the full range of consequences which might ensue upon making such choices, and must often rely on some intuitive or instinctive inclination. Over decades, we can look back on instances when we achieved practical or beneficial results, and balance those achievements against whatever hard lessons may have resulted, in order to evaluate our current circumstances. Still, those hard lessons can weigh heavily on us, and any benefits which may have subsequently appeared may not mitigate regrets.

Recent events and current circumstances have pressed me to reflect with much greater intensity on the cost/benefits sides of the equations which I have inflicted upon myself over time, and while it seems to me that there has been a reasonably fair balance between the number of benefits worth the cost and the number of costs which bestowed very little if any benefit, several important choices at pivotal moments still feel unresolved in ways that may or may not be still possible to mitigate.

We cannot reverse time nor can we untangle whatever confusion or uncertainty governed the circumstances surrounding any choice made in the swirling maelstrom of the past, but this acknowledgement hasn’t yet dissuaded me from meandering from time to time through the perennial realm of what might have been, or its close companion—what still might be possible.

Unresolved anxiety over what might have been doesn’t seem especially helpful in the grip of melancholy, but the road leading to the realm of what still might be possible is no cakewalk either. Powerfully negative emotional and psychological circumstances in my past have been a continuing source of bouts of second-guessing, and wrestling with them as I sometimes do, has occasionally resulted in episodes of emotional and psychological distress, characterized by a crippling degree of self-doubt and even deep sadness.

Whenever we project ourselves forward into the realm of what might still be possible, we are often limited by what we have already experienced as a starting point, which can make it more difficult to envision a future where our hopes can be realized, and so we must be able to somehow suspend our expectations based on previous experience in order to move forward.

What we sometimes describe as “thinking outside the box,” a phrase meant to suggest an approach to thought that is completely new or original, or at the very least some variation of the standard approach, may provide a degree of difference within our thought process, with which we can then aspire to begin anew in seeking a resolution to whatever dilemma we face, but which also requires an additional degree of willingness to venture outside of our comfort zone in important ways. Such measures also require a degree of courage in treading a path previously untried.

In all of my deliberations thus far, I have steadfastly applied a deliberate effort to forge a new approach to resolving what has been an intractable problem, and have done so over a period of decades. It has been an enormous strain on my creative senses and has, up to now, not produced very much in the way of useful results, aside from helping me to recognize just how difficult such results are to obtain, and to assist me in becoming accustomed to repeated failure.

While it has been suggested by a number of sources in the creative world that failure is one of the best teachers, as well as an absolutely necessary component of any true success, it has not accomplished much in my case other than to perpetuate a degree of frustration at how perplexing it all can seem. Most rational people would have abandoned the effort years ago, and while I would like to suppose that my approach has been generally rational in the main, my inability to abandon these efforts suggests that I might actually have crossed over the threshold of irrationality some time ago, and have simply been unable to see it and to acknowledge the limitations which consistently appear upon each effort to forge ahead.

In the weeks to come I will be reviewing a number of the components and accumulated memories, stories, documents and objects that I retained as souvenirs which surround me in my writing space, and explore the rationale for retaining these objects, and attempt to sort through the potential consequences of either letting them go, or holding on for dear life.

Hopefully, in the process, my readers and visitors might find some benefit for themselves from following along with my struggle to sort it all out. As I happen upon important topics suggested by this review, I may veer off the beaten path for a bit to elaborate and/or mitigate the process, just to keep it interesting. Looking forward to sharing this part of what continues to be a challenging journey with you all…..John H.

Moments of Being

“Driftwood,” by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)

“I can reach a state where I seem to be watching things happen as if I were there. That is, I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favorable moods, memories—what one has forgotten—come to the top. Now, if this is so, is it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into a wall; and listen in to the past…I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”

—excerpt from Virginia Woolf’s “Moments of Being,” published as a collection of essays in 1976.

Homer’s painting appeared in 1909, a short time before his death, but is reflective of a lifetime of creativity and artistic acumen. Combined with the quote from Woolf, it inspires contemplation of a much more profound idea concerning the nature of being and the significance of the foundational experiences which lead us to become who we are in our lives.

Currently, I am engaged in exploring a number of the complete works of Virginia Woolf, and recently came across a selection of her essays published in 1976 entitled, “Moments of Being.” This collection of her writings has become an important part of my reading regimen, and has sparked a number of recollections, and inspired some self-examination about my own life experience. Her suggestion in the quote above about a device that one might “plug into a wall,” and “listen in to the past,” struck me as precisely what I have been doing these days, recording my recollections of “strong emotion,” and then listening to them with my audio device as a way of once again “getting attached” to them.

A portrait of Woolf by Roger Fry c. 1917

As an additional aid in recalling my own memories, I have been rereading what Woolf described as “A Sketch of the Past,” and sifting again through some of the photographic evidence of my early life, and the practice has stirred my creative juices in some surprising ways. What follows are a few samples of the results that have appeared lately.

In Woolf’s accounts of her memories of her mother, who passed away when she was only thirteen in 1895, she describes moments which struck a chord within me in recollections of my own mother. To me, when I was similarly youthful, my mother was the most beautiful woman in the world, and even though she was quite attractive in a number of ways, my child-like view of her exceeded any of the other mother’s in my admittedly limited circle.

My mother holding me on the occasion of my christening in 1953

I feel fortunate to have many happy memories of sitting either with her or beside her as she read books to us, or told us stories about her own life growing up. Woolf’s accounts are particularly vivid and have sparked a host of “moments of being” within me.

There are moments in a lifetime, some fleeting and some lasting, which alter us in ways we did not expect or want, but which, nonetheless, result in forward movement toward becoming who we WILL be. We fill in the spaces between those moments, if we are fortunate enough, with a search for who that person might be. If we can recognize that person as who we are, at that time, we might then get to choose our path forward with greater confidence. We don’t always get the chance to make that choice for ourselves, but we do dream of the day when our life’s choices are more frequently founded in this person we have become. It’s not easy, and there are no guarantees, but I believe we must first acknowledge that something is possible, before it ever will be.

In a stroller in 1954

The dynamics of each unique personal relationship has always been a subject of interest for me, especially since I began to explore the nature of human interactions as they relate to our very human spirit. As we make our way through our lives, we probably encounter hundreds of other individuals through our educational and social circles, but normally only a very select few become particularly significant to us in one way or another.

These images of my earlier self along with my parents and siblings are now even more startling, as I begin to contemplate how those early connections set the stage for those which would follow and form as I grew into adulthood.

My father, myself, and my son pictured at age six in first grade

We generally become aware of these connections when proximity permits sufficient opportunity to do so, but proximity alone cannot account for the development of close, personal (and dare I say….spiritual) connections, particularly those which endure across great distance and long years. While there are many different foundations for our unique relationships, and much that is not necessarily self-evident regarding the psychology which supports them, the existence of a powerful personal and emotional affinity for another clearly infers a greater degree of connection not explicable by simple biology, psychology, chemistry or mere chance.

Our current social structure in the Western World has evolved significantly in the last hundred years or so, and we are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of our unique personal relationships as part of a broader and completely natural social adaptation, which has been part and parcel of our continued evolution as a species since upright humans first walked the earth.

There have been very few individuals in my life with whom I have felt a clearly powerful and profoundly affective connection as those of my parents and siblings, and even though our individual temporal lives may go in completely different directions, continuing a unique relationship is very important, not just on a personal level, but also as an affirmation of a much more expansive, natural, and spiritual aspect to human nature.

We must expect that when we forge new paths, listen to the beat of our own hearts, and follow what is, for us, the only true choice we can make and remain who we are, there will be those who cannot see what you see, who cannot feel what you feel, and who genuinely could not know life in precisely the same light that you do. Be as gracious as you can be with those who do not share your vision, but do not be persuaded beyond reason and what’s in your own heart and mind.

What I am embarked upon is nothing less than the assignment of a lifetime. These many years I have struggled to maintain the continuity of my family, and to eek out a semblance of a beginning to understanding what it is that makes us uniquely human. The search has taken me to the limits of credulity, tested me more than any temporal challenge whether of my own choosing, or thrust upon me, as has been so often the case lately. There can be no doubt that I have struck upon something of great importance to my stated goal, which is to come to terms with the person I have become.

Grandfathers And Grandchildren

Recently, I performed the stage role of an elderly grandfather for a gathering of my extended family over the Christmas holiday, and enjoyed having the opportunity to express through a theatrical scene, the importance of giving serious consideration to our contributions to the well-being of our family, and to acknowledge both the challenges and the rewards that being a grandfather can bring to our lives.

Being a grandparent these days, while retaining many of the basic characteristics we normally associate with this important role, has become expanded and extended beyond what it was years ago. Even just fifty or sixty years ago, the traditional roles of grandparents were fairly straightforward generally, requiring a supportive stance toward the parents, and filled with many pleasurable moments, not only watching the grandchildren grow and learn, but also spending time sharing advice and telling the grandchildren stories about the days when Mom and Dad were growing up. It was much more rare for children to have to live with their grandparents, although extreme circumstances did occur, like the loss of one’s parents, divorce, through some disabling illness or in the case of serious parental neglect or inability to care for a child.

In some ways, our modern day social environment is much more volatile and strenuous than in previous generations, and those conditions and exceptions are much more common these days. That certainly would explain how the role of grandparenting needed to change to meet this new reality. Each generation has its own unique challenges and opportunities which shape the social landscape through the years, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to recreate the conditions of previous generations in order to reduce our 21st century expectations and demands on family life.

What does seem most urgent to me, though, is the recognition, that being a grandfather or grandmother, no matter how one arrives in that role, and no matter what circumstances occur that assign us this very important role, presents us with an enormously important opportunity to not only assist in shaping the lives of the next generation of our family, but also points toward a fundamental connection that each of us has to all life, whether it is a very specific human life that a grandparent shares with their grandchild, or the most far flung life anywhere on Earth.

In a recent article by Jim Sollisch in the New York Times, he recalls how much more concern and stress accompanied the birth of his own children, and he describes his experience of becoming a father as “…a lot like becoming a German shepherd if German shepherds were capable of constantly calculating the risks of SIDS and peanut allergies.” Becoming a father is a lot like becoming something you couldn’t even have imagined being BEFORE having a child, but his exaggeration for emphasis does sort of capture the strangeness of it at first. He goes on to detail the difficult days of early fatherhood with his son’s several bouts with typical illnesses, and his stories about the differences with his second child definitely rang true for me, including one fairly serious injury report that most young parents could match at some point looking back.

He concludes by describing his experience of being a grandfather now, as always being “…the second line of defense, a bench player.” While this is frequently the case, it is much more common these days to be on the front lines of caring for and worrying about our next generation’s progeny. In my case, the role of grandfather took on a whole new level of worrying and concern when circumstances required us to care for several of our grandchildren on a daily basis for the early years of their lives. As a father, I had a fairly rocky beginning in the early years, not in my unabashed love and concern for my two small children, but in my inability to sustain a relationship with their mother.

The arrival of my children in my life was fairly challenging due to the circumstances into which they were born, but when I finally saw them as they entered the world, there was an extraordinary surge of love and positive emotion within me that could have overcome any obstacle, and I took to my role as father to my children without reservation. All other concerns melted away as I held them in my arms for the first time, and I was irrevocably altered in ways I never could have foreseen. Even as the circumstances worsened outside of their existence, there was a deepening of emotion and unconditional love that was unstoppable. Just when I thought that this would be my only experience of fatherhood, destiny and my connection to the heart of life, readied an impossible dream to unfold that would change me in ways that I never could have imagined.

****next time–an impossible dream come true****