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December 25, 2017

For the last couple of years, we’ve given ourselves a writing prompt for Christmas Day and read our offerings out loud to each other. This year the prompt is “orient.” Ron wrote a good science fiction story about the effects of human magneto-perception sense when the earth’s magnetic poles suddenly shift, and Eleanor wrote a great story about the last generation of Tarquins returning to Rome after the fall of the western empire. As usual, I wrote an essay, and here it is, with their permission:

Lately I’ve noticed that when people reach my age, they get set in their ways, and have been seeing first-hand how it happens.

I see parents on Facebook certain that they know “the truth” about Santa Claus, and determined to shape their family’s expectations to match their own. This is something I’ve always thought was short-sighted and lacking in imagination. Ron and I started out by asking our children to help pick out a thing or two to put in the stockings for pets or older relatives and have ended up with a household full of adults who delight in finding ways to surprise each other at Christmastime without wanting credit for each gift. We think this is a fine thing, and it grew out of a conviction that we can create some of the kind of world we want to live in.

We see our congressional representative, whose net worth is $2.3 million dollars, acting certain that he knows what is best, helping to push through a new tax law to take from the poor and give to himself, cloaking it in thoughts and rhetoric about “de-regulation” and “financial systems” rather than seeing himself as a modern-day version of Ebenezer Scrooge.

There’s a re-orienting that has to keep happening in order for people to get older and wiser, rather than just older and more convinced that we’re right about everything.

When I see friends my age set on pursuing their own dreams for an adult child who clearly doesn’t want to follow their proposed path for her life, no matter how much the mother rhapsodizes about how good she is at it, or how much the father wants to protect the child from the consequences of her inaction, I get a perspective on continuing to re-orient my own hopes and expectations for my children. Although I still wish Walker would take some of those civil service tests.

When I see the people I work with trying hard to implement their ideas of what is right for our college, I get another perspective on pausing occasionally to make sure that my idea about what is right is still on target. In terms of a weapon analogy, it’s an occasional recalibrating. If I’m aiming at something, I’d better be sure that it’s the right target. I’ve had help with this, the kind of help that liminal people find in odd places—because I’m “half-time,” I’ve had to create positions for and delegate lots of responsibilities to a growing number of student managers, who give me good advice and ideas about how to do things better.

After many years of being a leader, I’m trying to keep learning about humility and how sometimes I have to take a few minutes to follow instead of leading all the time.

For me this has been literal, in terms of walking. Everyone walks faster than I do now, even though I have long legs and for years was at the front of the pack, waiting for those with shorter legs (friends, children) to catch up. Now I’m always behind, singing the line Orpheus sings on the soundtrack of Hadestown we’ve been listening to (“wait for me, I’m coming, wait, I’m coming with you”). In a different family, I might be a grandmother already, or at least an aunt whose nieces and nephews get together at Christmastime. In a family like that, I imagine that it doesn’t matter when an older person can’t keep up if she’s willing to help amuse the little kids. We’ve never had a lot of extended family, though. Since my parents died, my brother and his family are spending Christmases with her parents, and Ron’s family usually have their own plans with friends and the families they married into. It’s hard to re-orient my idea of what the holidays should be, but clearly I need a new perspective, one that doesn’t include so many expectations about families.

It helps to go somewhere new; we’re trying New Orleans for a few days right after Christmas. Why not go south, we figured, after all those years of holiday treks to the north?

And it can help to learn something new. Since I started taking violin lessons again three winters ago, I’ve had the pleasure of being a follower in a string quartet at a wedding and a Christmas party, a violin duet at a retirement home, and even a fiddling group, which is not something I ever pictured myself doing, before. Fiddling sounds quick, and I was never sure my fingers could fly that fast or that I could improvise rather than just reading the notes.

I’ve always been part of a family who like to read and look things up. We like well-timed quotations and quick retorts in our conversations. Now my adult children are often quicker with a quip than I am, and faster at finding relevant and correct information on any topic. I have to accept the humility of letting someone else lead when we have a conversation or explore a new place. One of the things my immediate family has always needed me for is the job of tour guide, but now that they have each traveled on their own, everyone knows better ways of getting around, so when, for instance, I reserve an airport shuttle they say “we could have just called an Uber.” Now, if we could just agree about whether I’m making a plan or we’re improvising.

Even at home, in my own small town, I’m having to re-orient myself, after living here for more than 20 years. The other day I typed in the address of a fairly new business where I was supposed to show up for a rehearsal (“you don’t need to know where it is, mom, just type it into your GPS”) and I was informed that I had arrived when I was in front of the Woodward Opera House. I kept driving up and down Main Street until I found a storefront with the correct sign. Then I dragged my stand and violin case through that doorway and up a step, only to be informed that the place where I was expected is two doors down, where I’d seen a sign for an art shop. So maybe the best way to keep re-orienting is to keep exploring. Our weekly political demonstrations on the town square on Saturdays have certainly offered me a wider perspective on this place where I’ve been living, waving at strangers who sometimes wave tentatively back, probably thinking they must know me.

Even if there are days I can’t get out, like on icy roads when re-orienting could be disastrous, it’s important to keep my expectations from petrifying, like in this poem by Tess Gallagher:


I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
the uppermost branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

If you get fixated on your desire for that distant view of a mountain, you’re going to miss generations of people and animals coming and going right in front of your face. I think congress has been doing this–getting fixated on the distant view–and I hope we can eventually show them that they need to re-orient. It’s the experiences of re-orienting that eventually accumulate and become wisdom, not staying in one position until all your thoughts and ideas get calcified and rigid.

Well, that’s my essay.
And here is Walker’s poem, a kind of meditation on The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, reproduced here with Walker’s permission:

Navigation Song For Me and Saanvi, by Walker Griggs

Let us go then you and I
To Agra, stopping in Shanghai
Who’s there? And how, and what, and why?
Is it evening? Is there sky?

I leave from Tulsa, heading East
A brain of tunes, a trunk of beer
I wave to every passing beast
On highway – skunk. In forest – deer.

What fool goes down the road in want
Of home or plan or favorite haunt

I fail to mine these Eastern trees
I fail to tap the waterfall
The hardest part is not of seas
It is to mine or tap at all

A girl named Saanvi dares to tap
On tempered glass of door or phone
Does she dare to check a map?
She dares, and finds herself alone

What fool would question maps with “Whither?”
For dread the map would answer simply “Hither”

She leaves and comes and goes and waits
Through citadels and rogue states
She sings and shrieks at airport gates
Escaping peace, outrunning fates

In Shanghai Saanvi nearly finds
A map that leads her past the crowds
of vacant hands and sweaty minds
Into the garden in the clouds

What fool would trust in maps to guide
Where East and West and faith collide

I pick up Prufrock in Shanghai
though his appearance gives me pause
He’s turned into his scuttling lie
Of silent seas and ragged claws

With him in tow I go and go
He pumps the gas when I refuel
He plays the parts, puts on a show
At last the Prince, with me the Fool

We meet at last in Agra far
Removed from who we were, or are
And Prufrock sings, to my guitar
His Love Song once, now his memoir

And Saanvi stares as in a trance
And then at once begins to dance
We’ve found in India a France
Of fire and rose and blithe romance

I pop the trunk, I crack some beers
as Saanvi plops upon the curb
She turns to Prufrock, saying “cheers,
this universe you’d dare disturb?”

They hit it off and leave, I stay
And watch the ghost lights flicker past
In Agra there is more than day
There’s evening, and the sky is vast

What fool expects a different sky
What sage seeks only gentler sea
That fool is I
The sage Saanvi.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2017 1:36 am

    I have been to Agra within the past two weeks. Vitually, because I was writing a scene set there, but your poem reminded me. I’m so glad there is so much I can see out there, while still stuck most of the time at home.

    I look out and see the birds, and the bushes and trees I’ve planted or had planted over the 36 years we’ve been here, knowing it will soon be for the last time. We are trying to retire to California from suburban NJ, but it is bittersweet knowing I may not be here for the hummingbirds this year.

    • December 26, 2017 8:12 am

      Sounds like you’re trying something new. Not many people undertake such a massive move in retirement!

      • December 26, 2017 7:03 pm

        While I was under retirement age, I was still disabled – and not working – and responsible for much family and paperrwork stuff. While my husband was still working, I did al the paperwork (at my slow speed), things like taxes and bill paying and financial aid application for the kids’ colleges. When he retired, he sort of took the paperwork over; the kids are out of the house.

        It’s my turn, and the desire to DO something with my life has never gone away, regardless of my ability to do it (or I wouldn’t have gone to grad school, etc.).

        I have a very strong unmet need – and my brain is making it difficult. But not impossible. and of course the size of the project is the size of things I used to be able to handle – so I keep wanting to do that.

        I may actually pull it off; the first volume took me 15 years because i had to learn to write, to edit, to plot, and to publish (including graphics). The second shouldn’t take more than maybe another year (or two); possibly I can bring the third in under three?

        Things are both more connected – and resolving – as you go along. Some is harder, other things easier. I have a bunch of legal challenges to understand for the third book. I did a lot of research on them before, but there is more.

        Anyway, I will either achieve it, or go into mental decline or die before I do. Scary. But I’m 68, and my mother was 94 when she died this past year, and my dad died at 91, so I have to try! Of course, neither of them was chronically ill at my age and before, but still…

        I would kick myself if I didn’t try.

  2. December 26, 2017 10:02 am

    Very nice essay and wonderful take on Prufrock. What a great tradition you have! I may have to “borrow” it for next year! :–)

    • December 26, 2017 11:30 am

      Feel free. It’s one of our favorite traditions (the other is “text-bombing” children’s books by replacing the text with our own).

  3. December 27, 2017 3:20 pm

    It is so hard to re-orient your expectation of what holidays are “supposed” to be like, isn’t it? For so long ours involved a trip to middle TN to visit my grandmother and uncle, and now both of them are gone, and I miss them, although when I was making the trip in in my twenties I didn’t properly appreciate the visit. I know changes will come again in future years. I love your idea of traveling south. Why not? There’s a big world out there! I hope you had a Merry Christmas!

    • December 27, 2017 4:13 pm

      Thanks, we did. I was missing my mother, and then I started to realize a few of the ways I like to celebrate, distinct from the way she always liked us to celebrate, and figured out that I don’t have to do some of that formerly traditional stuff anymore.
      I think it’s hard to “properly” appreciate anything to do with families when you’re still in your twenties.

  4. December 27, 2017 5:41 pm

    I love this tradition and your essay. Our adult son has health problems and people are always telling me I should tell him what to do about it. Sometimes it’s hard to keep my mouth shut but I’ve tried very hard to re-orient myself into always remembering he’s an adult who’s in charge of his own body and medical car.

    • January 3, 2018 8:16 am

      It’s important to support the idea that all adults are in charge of their own bodies (especially when elected officials meddle with women’s health care).

  5. Jenny permalink
    January 2, 2018 1:29 pm

    I too have been meditating on humility lately. This is not news, but it’s in short supply among humans; one of those things it’s hard to achieve unless you practice a lot.

    I really love Walker’s poem.

    • January 3, 2018 8:18 am

      I hardly ever achieve humility, but practicing to get there is a necessary exercise.
      Glad you enjoyed the poem!

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