Who we are includes our bodily selves. . .
and our reflections . . .
and shadow . . .
oh yes it does:
Before ever we left on sabbatical, I wrote a post on August 1 titled, “Margaret.”
She was 104 that day.
On August 9th she died.
Saturday, November 17, we will honor her life and celebrate the gift of life . . .
and long life. . .
at St. Andrew UCC . . .
as we savor scripture, sing songs, pray, and listen to stories of the life of this remarkable woman.
It will be good!
Here is an image of Margaret when she was younger:
and here is a picture of Margaret much later in her life:
Wow . . .
you are invited to the celebration of life . . .
Saturday, November 17,
It will be awesome!
And . . .
so . . .
well . . .
the Thursday study group has just begun a study of “The Force of Character and the Lasting Life” by James Hillman . . .
and . . .
the first chapter is titled, “Lasting.”
Hillman wrote these words for this chapter that we will discuss tomorrow at 10:00 am:
“The longer one lasts, the longer one wants to last – for the most part. You know the joke about the ninety-nine-year-old man, fighting off the day-care worker who is trying to freshen up his room: ‘Never mind the quality, I just want the quantity!’ Just by adding another day, I again prove my worth. ‘Your mother’s ninety-seven? How wonderful!’ People smile, congratulate. No one says, ‘Ugh, that’s tough; poor thing.’ Sheer numerical longevity, by becoming an end of its own, can keep at bay and in the shadow other meanings of ‘end,’ such as ‘finish’ and ‘closure.’ Moreover, when the idea of lasting can be reduced to numbers of years and days, then medicine can justify its radical treatments to prolong what may no longer be wanted at all.
Of course there are virtues to longevity. For one thing, it’s a favor to your decedents. It may lower their life insurance premiums and raise their life expectancy. You may yet meet your great-grandchildren and observe the repetitive twig formations of the family tree, or just watch one more World Series. Although statistics never lie, they don’t tell the whole truth, either. They say nothing about what is being prolonged.
With aging, a curious kind of life extension happens without our doing anything to force it. After fifty we find ourselves more allied with our parents in thought, feeling, and memory than with our children. At seventy we seem more akin to a long-gone grandfather than to the very alive grandchildren who drop by from time to time like aliens from their spaceship. Our elders seem to be extending the soul by drawing it back to them. As interiority expands we move more easily into the rooms of late-stage quarters, taking up less space in the world.
There is a clean distinction between statistical prolongation and psychological extension. The first doesn’t speak at all to the worries about a possible afterlife, to growing scruples about clearing up and cleaning out, to added physical fragility and fear and already too-long-lived bitterness, shame, regret. That a life is lengthened says nothing about the character of those days and years. They may have one quality only: length. Long nights and long days. While our statistics are improving, our soul declines into charts, schedules, and shots.
So it is not that longevity should be extended, if that extension merely adds more days of pain, sorrow, and incapacity. We need rather to extend the idea of extension. We need to broaden and deepen our thinking. Contrary to Matthew we might need to add a cubit to our stature by giving more thougt to extending the idea of longevity.
First of all, we can extend backward. Why do older people in our societies read biographies and turn to the History Channel? Why do they travel to the ancient sites of dead civilizations, visit museums, support historic preservation? What drives them to search for and restore rusted tools and outdated machines, buy old rootstocks for grafting, and repeat stencils, stitches, and quilting two hundred years old? Or catalogue old coins and spend their money on specimen rocks? Why do they fall for medicines touted as ancient cures, from amaranth to St. John’s wort? Old soldiers become civil war enactors: old women prefer historical novels played out in costumed settings. These are longevity fantasies of another kind than those offered by statistics.
The further back you can reach in imagination, the more extended you become. Your character and its oddities find echoes in similar characters who walk the streets of imagination, displaying essential qualities freed of the confusing disguises worn by family and friends. The soul is being replenished by the richness of images; even more, it is being absorbed into another imagination, which extends you beyond the confines of your actual condition. The old man in the trailer park lays out his buffalo nickels and Indian-head pennies, releasing fantasies that take him further afield than his game leg can. You can imagine living in an old Scottish castle amid a fond family clan, awaiting Ulysses’ return to Ithaca, mourning Lincoln’s funeral cortege. You can discover the country, period, compatriots that suit your character and where your soul feels at home. Longevity becomes a kind of osmosis, merging with older places and older things. You are outliving your own life. No longer a lonely leaf on a drying branch, or even it fruit, you are sinking into the sapwood, and you become one hundred, one thousand years old, as old as the tree itself with the long life to come – a life of stories and scenes that go on and on, of shards and talismans that provoke ever-fresh fantasies.
Growing into the roots of tradition lengthens life backward. We can extend downward too – into descendants; into apprentices who seek out our character traits – and also upward, into the family of images pasted into the photograph album and dumped into the keepsake drawer. I become extended through others whose images animate my solitary cognitions as well as through the daily others who come calling to see how I’m getting on.
Inquisitive curiosity into the lives of others extends our lives. This is not sharing; it is artful listening. The other person is a fount of lifeblood, which transfuses vitality into your soul if you can provoke the other with your listening. Probing – sniffing for lowlife, tidbits of scandal, tasty morsels of salacious gossip that awaken the appetite for the teeming life around you – loosens the limits of personal self-occupied concerns. Backward, downward, outward extend a life beyond its borders and free it from attachment to personal identity, character freed of that greedy bully. Me.
The further back into history you can reach, the further down to what is later than you and lower than you, and the further out to what is not you, the more extended your life. Longevity is liberated from the time capsule. This is true, longevity, n outlasting that is everlasting, for it has not stopping place.
Perhaps a long way from the celebration of Margaret’s life . . .
and, then again, perhaps not far at all . . .
she did reach back and down and out . . .
Her love was fine . . .
May ours be, as well.