December 31, 2020

Here we are, finally, at the end of a tumultuous year, the worst year in people’s memory the world over. I imagine a thousand people, many thousands, are writing up their summaries of what this year has wrought, what’s it’s meant to them, how it’s changed the world forever, what the “new normal” will be, how we’ve all been transformed by the global pandemic, by the racial reckonings of this past summer, by the reign of the god-awful Donald Trump. Yes, it’s been a year like no other.

Here at the year’s end I’ll take my own measure, look back on all this year has brought me, what light it cast, or didn’t, on the life I hoped to achieve by moving to Boston. And if I separate the atmospheric gloom of 2020 from the year I experienced as life lived for real, I can only admit, without embarrassment, that the year hasn’t been so bad. In fact, it’s been a fine year, a successful transition from one life that ended in 2019 to a new one that began on January 7th. For me, 2019 was far worse a year than 2020.

By coincidence I’m reading a newly published book titled On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives, by Andrew Miller, an English professor at Johns Hopkins.  I read a review in The New Yorker and ordered a copy from Amazon. It came in a day.

The book is a combination of memoir and a literary analysis of writers and their books or quotes that deal with the theme of lives not lived, what might have been…and the world as lived being the only world we really have.

The first chapter opens with an Oscar Wilde quote: “One’s real life is so often the life that one does not lead.”

In a roundabout way I think that’s the harm I’ve done myself: not living my real life. But then, I really don’t know, because I never lived any other life. What would my real life have looked like, if not the one I have lived?

I’m past the age when new life chapters hang tantalizingly available, like low hanging fruit, ripe and full, ready to be picked at random and eaten with delight. Yet in 2020 I did embark on a new life chapter, not entirely randomly picked. I decided early on in the dissolution of my marriage that not only my marriage but my entire West Coast adventure was over. And that it hadn’t been in vain at all—very much the opposite—but it was over.

One thing Brenda said to me near the end that hurt, hurt more than most of the hurtful things she said, was that she had lost the five years she had spent with me. Like I had been some kind of down payment on a future life that had to be forfeited, lost, never to be regained, with no accruing benefit while it matured in the bank deposit of life.

Once before in my own life I thought that way at the end of a marriage and it made me suicidal. All those years wasted, the life I wanted not lived.  But the fallacy of that kind of thinking, the death trap, is its negation of experience, its negation of agency, and will, and life lived on life’s terms, unknowable and expansive in its mystery. We only get one life, no matter how much we think about the lives we haven’t led.

In the book I’m reading there’s a lengthy discussion of Frost’s great and mysterious poem The Road Not Taken.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Traveling two roads as one traveler. Is the road we didn’t travel by the harm we do to ourselves? Unexplored pathways, untaken journeys?  The only way we can ever approximate two lives is sequentially, and then the second will always be built in some manner on the foundation of the first.

If life harmed me, can I make amends to myself, and try on a new life? I’m living a new life in Boston. How new do I want to make it?

I’ll end this reckoning with a gratitude list. It seems an appropriate way to end 2020, to set aside the virus, Trump, the deep divisions of the country, and focus on all the good this year has seen in my life.

I’m grateful that Brenda ended our marriage. I know we cared for each other; yet care does not equate to love. She had the courage to end what only would have continued in tranquilized obviousness, safe but soulless. That I fought so hard to save what wasn’t salvageable reflects only on my insecurities, not on any hope for a better future.

Brenda didn’t close a door in my life. She opened one.

In moving out I gained a new lifelong friendship with RD. I experienced a new and vastly different part of the Bay Area. I was able to be close to my son Adam when he needed me most. I connected with other new friends, learned the freedom and joy of painting from one afternoon spent with Dennis P.

I never waivered in my decision to move to Boston. New York was never really an option. Somehow I knew my next road taken was also a return. It has not been a disappointment.

I’m grateful to my son Sam and his wife Saga. They gave me a home for two months while I found my own in a new city. More than shelter what they gave me was an open embrace of welcome and family love.

I’m grateful to have rented the small and unfashionable apartment I chose in Orient Heights. It’s warm and comfortable inside, a marvelous evocation of me, clutter and all. It’s provided access to the beach across the street and the opportunity to swim in the harbor, sheltered by the Logan Airport runways. I’m grateful to Sam for joining me in my passion for open water swimming, a new swim mate for life.

I’m grateful to Hult for transferring my teaching role to their Cambridge campus. I’m grateful to the many new students I’ve taught there this year, and to the new friendships being formed.

I’m grateful for another year with TP, his friendship and faith in what I can offer.

I’m grateful to my friend EM, for recommending me to the interim role as marketing director at Fletcher. Whatever the final outcome is, the experience has been illuminating.

I’m grateful to be living on my own. I’m grateful that I don’t want another woman in my life. I don’t mean that in a sexist or defeatist way. The deepest love and union I’ve ever had was with a woman, the one I didn’t marry. Now, though, the idea doesn’t appeal. I’m open for revision, but for now, no. I’m open, too, to other options. Free to be, free to act.

I’m grateful to have kept the virus at bay. It’s one day at a time, an exercise in careful living. In a weird way, I’m grateful for what the virus has created, a world of Zoom possibility, of connecting and reconnecting with friends old and new that would not be possible in real life. Maybe that’s a piece of the new normal people talk about.

I’m sad to have lost my friend Ray yet grateful to have his music in my life, a daily reminder of friendship and shared experience. I’m grateful for thirteen years of sobriety, the same as Ray. I’m grateful for my many friends in the fellowship, men in my life who share our common destiny.

I’m grateful that my friendship with JS in San Francisco remains as rock solid and lasting as it ever was. Our book club of two is a success! That friendship is another door that Brenda opened, for which I’m forever grateful.

I’m grateful for my friendship with JKD and the life at Midwood into which she so warmly welcomes me. She, and my other friends, prove to me the life affirming value of friendship over transitory love. Another kind of love.

I’m grateful for little things, my love of books and bookstores, unabated even in the face of space limitations.

Most of all, above all else, I’m grateful for my three sons—the sure reproof for any regret for taking that fork in the road when I married Evelyn. My life obviously would not be the same, and obviously it would have been diminished. 2020 has seen Adam recover from 2019’s cancer. It’s forged new bonds with Sam and his family. The virus has curtailed travel to visit Adam in Oakland and David in New York, though it hasn’t lessened our bonds.

I have no predictions or resolutions for 2021. No one could have predicted 2020.

It’s one day at a time, keeping the past in the past drawer, and being open to the possibility, always, of a future that didn’t exist before.

Notes at Year’s End

Christmas Eve, 2020

It’s my first Christmas in Boston, and the first Christmas I’ve ever spent alone. Sam and family are in Finland. Adam is in Oakland, both he and Rachel as residents on hospital call. David and family are in New Hampshire. It’s okay, even better than okay. After the heavy snow of last weekend the weather’s turned warm and wet. It’s to rain tomorrow with high winds and power outages predicted. Home cooked lamb shanks on the menu tonight.

Foregoing expectations is the sure route to a happier life.

Christmas Day, 2020

Warm rain and wind all day, at times torrential. The good news is that the rain washed away the piled and dirty remains of our two feet of snow from a week ago Thursday. It’s the way of city snow: the white and silent beauty lasts only a day or two.

On that snowy Thursday I drove from Boston over to the Hudson Valley to stay with JKD at Midwood. On Friday morning it was -4°, the river steel grey with the snow blanketed Catskills beyond looking as austere and beautiful as I have ever seen them. I can’t recall ever being at Midwood in the snow, when snow filled the landscape and set the great pink house even further apart from the less civilized world, an island of remarkable quiet and joy. Time spent at Midwood is a subtraction from the gloom of the world.

Several trips over to the town of Hudson, now so tony beyond anything it ever was. I remember back in the late ‘70’s when I lived in Pine Plains no one would go to down-and-out Hudson. Nothing but bars and abandoned houses and New York’s last brothels. Then it succumbed to drugs and gunfights before gay New Yorkers discovered its historic architectural bones and slowly began restoring the houses and buildings to their current immaculate state. A year of Covid closures has taken a toll, with many empty storefronts, but for the holidays most of the antique shops and art galleries were open and the upscale housewares stores thriving. I made two trips to my favorite shop, The Red Chair, finding its vintage French treasures too special to pass up, and adding to my collection of 19th century confit pots, perfect for small plants in my small apartment. It’s an indulgence.

On Sunday Joan invited a new friend for dinner, a young and amiable philosophy professor from nearby Bard College, and the table conversation ranged from the merits of different translations of the Iliad to the late writings of Hannah Arendt. Our new brilliant and charming friend turned out to be a poor driver however, skidding his car off the winding driveway in the icy dark. It had to be towed out of the snow bank the next morning.

In the nearby town of Catskill, across the Rip van Winkle Bridge from Hudson—all of Columbia County feeling like it just sprang from a Washington Irving tale, painted by Frederick Church– I found a gem of a used bookstore and filled a bag with must-haves including three first edition Philip Pullman’s I’ll send to Maxwell for his birthday and Nigel Nicolson’s short biography of Virginia Woolf, which I finished this morning (December 28th). As much a memoir as a biography—as Vita Sackville-West’s son he knew VW and the Bloomsbury scene well—it’s much my favorite of the many biographies of VW I’ve read over the years. Nicolson capture’s VW in all her acerbity, brilliance, wit, and compassion.

December is nearing its end, the end of a strange and unhopeful year. The wages of the pandemic, of the BLM reckoning, of Trump’s destructive energy—hardly abating despite his election loss, the loss he refuses to accept—have all colluded to make the year one of continuous stress and anxiety in day-by-day anticipation of the next calamity.

Still, beneath this atmospheric gloom, 2020 has not been personally a bad year. Moving to Boston has been a success. Work has expanded. I have avoided the virus. I swam in the harbor most days of the summer and fall. Adam recovered from cancer and Rachel is expecting a baby boy in June. A Christmas spent without Brenda’s killjoy displeasure.

My bonds with all three boys have deepened despite the inability to travel. I mourn the loss of my friend Ray, though his music fills my apartment with his memory every day. Moreover, inheriting Ray superb collection of CDs has inspired my own renewal of musical passions, building on new discoveries and adding movements of my own.

Sigur Rós’s brooding Icelandic musical saga “Odin’s Raven Magic” has been playing in a nearly continuous loop for the past week, its deeply melancholy sense of doom overlaid with rich waves of harmonics that made me cry the first time I listened to it, somehow suits the year’s ending. The poem from which this musical collaboration springs tells a Norse myth in which the god Odin sends his ravens Huginn and Muginn to an oracle seeking answers to a catastrophic future.

She can only weep when she sees what lies ahead.

Welcome 2021.