Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger
For the many decades now, since my childhood, there have been two underlying ideas about life that have guided me as I’ve journeyed through the years. The first is that life for all of us is at best bittersweet. This blog is about the first of these ideas and the second will be expressed in a companion piece. I attended my first funeral at the age of seven. It was for someone known as “Aunt” Amelia, who lived with my Aunt Mollie in her rooming house in upstate New York. I was too young to ever find out just what Amelia’s relationship was to the family. I remember her as a woman who spoke with a Yiddish accent and dressed like a Gypsy. She was very nice to me whenever we travelled from the City to visit Aunt Mollie, my mother’s oldest sister. The many other cousins around my age were not taken to the funeral, presumably to shield them from the knowledge of death, but my parents believed that I should be exposed to all of life. I don’t know how it is for most people, but my life has always had in it the concept of illness and death. In the Jewish tradition I was named after my Grandfather Moses. Jews tend to name their children after departed loved ones. I knew who I was named for from a very early age because it was felt to be an honor that I was the first male child named after the Patriarch of a family of nine children. If you add my mother’s family to the equation, then the fact is that I had eighteen Aunts and Uncles, with perhaps fifty first cousins. Since I am now pushing seventy years of age, you can imagine how many funerals I’ve attended in my life. Thus from my earliest memories death has played a sad role in my life from an up close and personal perspective.
The irreducible fact of the human condition is our mortality and it is a subject that weighs heavily upon us. Our psychological imperative is that we live life to its fullest, burdened with the knowledge that at some unknown point it will end. Most religious belief stems from this knowledge in order to replace fear with comfort and order. With some religions, like Christianity and Islam, the palliative to mortality is the attainment of “heaven” after we die and thus immortality. In my religion, Judaism, the promise of an afterlife is at best nuanced, or non-existent. We humans are ego driven beings and abound with hopes and plans. The knowledge that all our hopes and plans can end in an unexpected minute must be somehow mollified or pushed out of our consciousness. As we age we reach a point where we realize that we have less of a future than we have of a past. In writing this I feel a bit of queasiness in my chest, because given my age and life experiences that is certainly true for me and I’m willing to bet that the feeling is universal. The thoughts about writing this blog came to me as a kind of mini-epiphany on New Year’s Eve and while it is quite different in theme than most other things I’ve written here, I ask your forbearance as I explain my thoughts.
For New Year’s Eve my wife and I attended a party given at a good friend’s upscale community clubhouse. Like my own, this is an “Over 55” community and the age range of the guests seemed for the most part to be in their seventies, or even older. The club was elegantly appointed and the New Year’s decorations both festive and tasteful. Since this is in Florida the dress was more or less evening party casual, with the women wearing sparkly tops over black pants, or skirts. The men wore shirts and long pants and I pulled my best shirt/pants out of the closet for the evening. There was first a “cocktail party” in the vestibule outside of the ballroom, with the doors to the ballroom opening at Nine PM.
The ballroom was well decorated, as was the stage that held the three piece band. The band members, dressed in tuxedos, were all white haired and appeared in their seventies. There was a spacious dance floor surrounded by tables of eight. The band’s opening numbers were standards like “Fly Me to the Moon” and people began dancing almost at once. At our table we were all chatting amiably, but as is my wont, I was mostly surveying the scene, taking in its entirety.
The man from the couple at my left began talking to me and he seemed quite interesting. He had been born in Holland and his parents left there as World War II began to loom. I found though that Holland was an introductory gambit since his extolling of the place soon turned to describing its legalized marijuana and contrasting it to the emergence of marijuana legalization in the State. I realized that he had spotted me as a “pothead”, as I had spotted him when I sat down. Back in the early sixties as “grass” was just beginning to become popular, those who smoked it as I did could walk into a room and “spot” the “potheads” in the room. It is a sense akin I guess to “gaydar” in the homosexual community. Now my days of marijuana use ended many years ago when I became a father. Returned after my children left the home and ended as I started dying from Congestive Heart Failure. However, there is perhaps a glint in my eye that betrays me as someone who had, or did smoke grass. His identification made me uncomfortable somewhat, because on the cusp of the long due legalization of marijuana in this country, I can no longer use it. Studies have shown that marijuana use interferes with the immuno-suppressant drugs I must take for the rest of my life. What happened next was of course the source of my discomfit as he offered to go out on the back patio and “turn me on.” I felt compelled to decline, explaining why and his interest in me became indifference quite quickly. In his mind I wasn’t as “hip” as he had first thought. I noticed though, as throughout the night he took many of the men out with him to “smoke”. That was the start of my mini epiphany.
In my hippie days, back in the 1960’s and 1970’s marijuana smoking in New York City was quite common among those my age. You could “smoke” on the street; you could “smoke” in restaurants, in movie theaters and at concerts. You could do this without fear of arrest unless you were a person of color, or too obvious in front of the police. You could go to no party that didn’t have people smoking grass and certainly an evening of friends getting together would always involve smoking grass. Here I was four decades and more than a thousand miles away seeing the remnants of my life back in those two tumultuous decades of my young manhood. This got me to thinking about the moment of time I was in at this party and the people, my contemporaries, surrounding me. When the music started to swing into harder rock music and I watched my geriatric contemporaries on the dance floor, I began to see the vestiges of their youth shining through the sagging of their faces and the aging of their bodies.
This is how life is. In my inner self I still think of myself as I did when I was a teen. I deal with the same inner conflicts I had to deal with in High School, but therapy, experience and the beginnings of wisdom allow me to cope with them more successfully, in a greater variety of ways. Our interactions with people always are quite similar to those interactions of our youth. Don’t we see that every day here on the blog? Haven’t we seen it played out in our careers and in our social lives? Finally, aren’t the political battles that make up so much of our news, mere egotistical strivings akin to the struggle for supremacy in high school and on the playing fields of our childhood?
Here’s the rub though. This lack of emotional change and this clinging to a past long gone, is greatly the result of our consciousness that we are going to one day die and all that will exist of us in this world are our memories and perhaps the retention of some of our genetic makeup. So as I participated in the New Year’s celebration and danced with the best of them, there was present the knowledge of the fragile hold on life held by all there, as we drove our demons away for another moment by lapsing into the familiar patterns we have developed over decades. I write this not as someone immune to these things, but as someone who is living through the same things all we humans live through, separated by the particular uniqueness of our own experience.
We all hopefully develop successful coping mechanisms to continue to live fully, even as we know the inevitable fate of our organism. What has worked for me in life has been the ability to recognize the reality of my environment in the “here and now”, to know when to adapt, when to change and when to move on. No matter how much we desire it we can’t cling to life, or to escape the inevitable passage out of existence. As Baba Ram Dass said “Be Here Now!” It is the best way to cope.
This brings me back to the issue of loss. My parents have been dead for more than fifty years. All my Aunts and Uncles are dead, as well as some of my first cousins. The three best male friends I’ve had in my life have all been dead for more than a decade. My beloved Father-In-Law, who was a father to me for longer than my own father was, died fourteen years ago. Some women that I was involved with before I met my wife have also died. Friends that I had during my career have died. In fact, as I have related on this blog, more than three years ago I almost died. As Jews do in the Synagogue service known as “Yiskor”, periodically we remember and cherish the memories of those we love and then we move on.
If we are lucky enough to age we must accept the inevitability of change, hence loss. As I learned in Gestalt Therapy we must try to view our environment as it is, not as we think it should be. We change, we grow and we grow infirm if things go well. I’ve almost reached the infirm part of it and yet it all still seems fresh to me because I embrace change in my life and move on with little regret and no expectation of imminent salvation from the inevitable.
Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger
Please note that these two blogs were written as my last actions as a guest blogger on the Turley Blog and that I will not be commenting any further as well. This last piece is about my lifelong commitment to fighting for those who are being oppressed and who are being bullied. When I first began commenting here it was because I had seen Jonathan on TV and was impressed by him and his struggle for civil liberties. I supported him through the years and was honored and thrilled when he asked me and others to be a guest blogger. In all the many blogs I’ve written here Jonathan has never called me to task for their content and I appreciate that as well.
However, it has come to pass that there is a fundamental difference in approach between Jonathan and myself about certain blog rules. Those of you who are regulars will understand just what I am talking about, for those mystified by my decision they can write me after tomorrow at Mikespindell@gmail.com, which is an E mail account I’ll be setting up. I want to thank Jonathan for giving me this opportunity and I’m truly sorry it is not ending well. There is a possibility that I will set up my own blog, or perhaps I will just fade into the “obscurity” that some GB’s have threatened will be my lot if I leave. In this context perhaps my last two guest blogs will be seen as having deeper meanings and a more thorough explanation of who I am.