Already-always listening

We talk in Creating Course Leaders about climbing a mountain with no top.

What I have discovered about my already-always listenings is that they exist in a well with no bottom.  As soon as one already-always listening is distinguished, another one is revealed, one layer beneath, down ever deeper into the person I wound up being.

I’m reminded of the final lines of Wallace Steven’s Sunday Morning:

And, in the isolation of the sky,

At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make

Ambiguous undulations as they sink,

Downward to darkness, on extended wings.

Downward to darkness, on extended wings: I experience an expansion of self-awareness as I dwell deeper and deeper in my already-always listening.  I have come to realize that everything I perceive is through these already-always listening multi-layered filters.

I meet another person and before they ever speak I have processed my perception of them though a complex system of signs and codes that calibrate my acceptance of their very being. Speech adds another set of filters. Prior or newly acquired background information about them fills in the gaps.  All this before actual experience.

Years ago I took a two-day interviewing skills seminar and the facilitator claimed that the majority of hiring decisions were made in the first ten seconds of an interview.

One story I tell about myself is that I have escaped the WASP strictures of my privileged white male upbringing, that I have grown into a progressive liberal man free from all the conservative stereotypes that label implies. And while this is true in a political sense, I know, now, that my already-always listening ingrained since birth is grinding away in the background. I know my hierarchies of what I regard as human acceptability.  I have been able to distinguish between openness in my head versus openness in my life.

I realize that while I may say I have few prejudices of race, sex, education, origin, style, or other markers of human potential, my comfort zone of friendship lies in a narrow range of parameters—very particular parameters defined idiosyncratically by the things and characteristics I value most, and aspire to, in my own life.

I once compiled a list of the one hundred books one must have read to be regarded as a civilized human being; and I meant it. I have preferential, already-always listening, hierarchies of colleges and universities, States, musical taste, countries and nationalities, clothes (shoes!), physical size (obese people trigger an automatic negative response: they’ve lost control of their lives), food and dining, the list goes on and on—or deeper and deeper into that bottomless well of already-always listening. All of the boxes are rarely ticked.

While once I might have characterized these traits as discriminating, in a good sense, I realize now how confining these already-always listening filters have narrowed my life experience.

Distinguishing these layers of already-always listening is heavy going, revealing layer under layer. Ultimately it’s liberating, allowing for the possibility that I can be free to be and free to act.

A final story (with due respect for our avoidance of storytelling).

Five years ago I was traveling alone on a month-long trip centered on my son’s wedding in Finland. I was visiting Tallinn, Estonia for a few bitter cold days between Christmas and New Years, having come directly from Finnish Lapland a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. There were few tourists in Tallinn, and the nights were long, cold, and dark.  Having spent many enjoyable evenings in old-style, wood-fired saunas in Finland with the brother of my new daughter-in-law, I decided to find something similar in Tallinn.

I located a likely candidate outside the old city walls of the city. I walked through an unfamiliar working class neighborhood to find the place, hesitant to enter given its down-market exterior and sketchy environs. Nevertheless I went in. A group of guys in the undressing area were in the final stages of a drunken post holiday celebration. They paid no attention to me. I showered and entered the dark, exceptionally hot sauna, where about ten men were sitting in silent steamy contemplation.

There’s not much to know about ten naked men sitting in a sauna in a foreign country. Doctors or ditch-diggers? Professors or thieves? Old school communists or progressive reformers? No way of knowing. My already-always listening feared the worst and I was apprehensive.

After a while one guy observed, in perfect English, “you’re not from around here.”  I explained I was from San Francisco, en route from my son’s Finnish wedding. Immediately I had ten new friends: instant chatter about Obama and the American elections; the silliness of Mitt Romney, the emerging dangers of conservative politics. The men wanted to know everything about me and my life—all well-informed, in comprehensible English. With no embarrassment one man offered to beat me with his bound birch leaf branches, and I accepted. I stayed for hours. The evening turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, profoundly human, experiences of my trip.

Locked Doors

We are living in times of a global virus pandemic with no known end, a collapsed economy, and under the spiteful administration of, in the words of The Washington Post fact checkers, “the most mendacious President in U.S. history.”

Yet I dwell on the end of my marriage.  When I come to think I could care less about her—the “her” who forbids her name to be mentioned for fear her identity could reach the future ex-cons whom she’s interviewed over the past few years—something happens that makes me realize what a mistake of judgment I made.

On this past Wednesday my son Adam graduated from medical school, receiving an outstanding student award. Without comment I sent his graduation announcement to my ex-wife, thinking she would be interested in seeing this, especially given the past year Adam endured successfully battling lymphoma. She had once liked Adam, had helped him with advancing his medical prospects, for which both he and I were grateful. She didn’t respond.

There was no need for a response, and I question my emotions for being disappointed.  My own dictum has been put the past in the past. She told me about her resolve to end our marriage that she had clarity of vision, and now apparently her vision clearly tells her never to communicate with me, even to say anything about Adam.  The doors to her heart were never open, and now they’re locked.

She never regarded my family, my boys, as being part of any family unit we shared together. Family was—I assume still is—a charged, unhappy concept for her, especially one’s true family. Still, I had hoped there could have been one last moment of shared happy experience, having nothing to do with us. 

But no.

One Moment

Was there ever a moment when my life was lived outside the walls of the identity I’ve built to describe “me,” the person who “I” am, the person I wound up being?

A moment springing forth from pure being, not from the construction I call myself. A moment of unfiltered bliss. A moment of shocking intensity, unplanned, unanticipated.

This was a question asked by the Forum leader in today’s final session.

A person may only have one or two such moments in life, if lucky. And then that moment lives on in memory as the experience of being alive.

Yes. I relive that moment in my life now and my heart leaps. That perfect moment when suddenly I wasn’t the man I wound up being.

I can feel the warm spring air on Fillmore Street. I can feel the evening; I see the street before me as clearly as the street out my window. I see the Balboa Café, lights gleaming, the street windows open on the warm night. I hear the people inside.

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I see E is standing in front of the open café window. We had arranged to meet there following a dinner she had planned with another man, a man she was letting out of her life. It was only the third time we had met. The first time was the fateful dinner party at TM’s house. The second time was for coffee outside in Hayes Valley.

Given the short time we had known one another E had made an unusual request. She had asked whether she could spend the night in my apartment on the night in question. She had planned the dinner in San Francisco and was meant to drive to a rowing competition in Sacramento early the next morning. Staying in the city would eliminate her need to drive home to Menlo Park, and then back through the city again the next morning. I explained that I lived in a studio apartment but had twin beds.

And there she was in front of the Balboa. She didn’t see me approach until the last moment when she turned and without hesitation I took her in my arms and kissed her. I kissed her as I had never kissed anyone before. I have no idea where the confidence, the passion came from. It was a moment of total abandonment.

She responded and everyone seated at the front tables at the Balboa broke out in applause.

In that kiss, that brief moment in time, I was alive. I have never been happier. I had waited my entire life for that moment. I will never again have such a moment. For giving me that respite from the man I wound up being I will love E forever, even though I erased her from my life. That was later.

That warm spring night all the lights of life burned brightly. We walked up Fillmore Street to Gamine. We stayed there briefly; I don’t think E even finished her glass of wine. We went to my apartment, my first apartment in San Francisco, in Golden Gateway on Battery Street. The twin beds lasted for a while. That was the beginning.

Can the memory of that moment out of time be a springboard to a new possibility? Not to be duplicated but to be realized in a new state of being, free to be, free to act? To live a life of my choosing, not constrained by the past, not constrained by my self-defined identity? Can I take that once upon a time spontaneity and project it into my life today? To live without fear? To know there’s no other shoe to drop?

To accept that there’s nothing here but this moment in time, that the past doesn’t exist, the future doesn’t exist, and to accept that this moment is meaningless, and to stand in that meaninglessness and create a future that doesn’t yet exist? To bring forth something from nothing? To declare the possibility of a new way of being? And be it?

The kiss isn’t gone. It’s as real tonight as on that years ago warm spring night on Fillmore Street. E is gone. San Francisco is gone. To be free is also to allow others to be free. To release them from the constraints of how I think about them.

The past is meaningless. Let it go and be free.

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Just a boy

Apparently a joke went around in Wuhan during the current virus pandemic:

Client: My wife and I have been quarantined together for 14 days and we’ve decided to get back together. I don’t want to go ahead with the divorce. Can you refund the fee?

Lawyer: 14 days…hmmm….Let’s not rush it: I think we’re still in business.

Having lived under the same roof with my wife for seven months under the dark clouds of impending divorce, the joke is only semi-funny. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be funny, only droll in a sick sort of way. Divorce isn’t funny, ever. And neither my wife nor I saw any humor in the circumstance; it was sad and painful. The lawyer was definitely still in business.

For the past two days, continuing again tomorrow, I’ve been engaged in a refresher Landmark forum for graduates of the in-person Forum. This three-day marathon is online via Zoom, not an ideal platform for such personal work. On the whole it seems to be working well enough.

We’ve been revisiting all of the basic principles, grown “crusty” in our own practice as the forum leader puts it. Rackets, life sentences, always already listening, the way we wound up being, winning formulas, the genesis of identity. The goal—indeed, the title—of this online forum is Free to Be, Free to Act. Only transformation can achieve this. Not knowing anything, or insights, or figuring anything out. Being on the court with the reality of our lives is a lot different than being in the stands. Recognizing that the “I am” we say we are is a created identity, drawn up from our past, described in language.

Much of the material remains fresh in my mind having been core to the UCLA course last summer, and continuing with the bi-weekly reading of the 1978 Forum lead by Werner Erhard, Speaking Being. At UCLA, Werner Erhard led a third of the sessions, driving home the points in his intimate, sometimes confrontational, always compassionate style. It was an immense privilege.

I’ve been revisiting the work I did then, relevant in my life today.  I cry, still, when I read the letter I wrote to my wife about the racket I was running. That she said nothing in response, nothing at all, never acknowledging what I wrote in any way, remains a wound that can’t be healed. Perhaps she thought that any acknowledgement, even a Fuck You, would be providing some kind of satisfaction that she was so very unwilling to provide. She once told me she refused to be compassionate because she knew that’s what I wanted.

I wrote then:

Dear……,

Currently I am engaged in the Being a Leader leadership course. During the course I came to realize that I have been running, what in this course is called, a “racket” with you. I have come to see this is not a productive way of being and it has actually cost our relationship something I am no longer willing for you or me to continue paying.

While it is probably obvious to you, what has not been working for me, or you, is that my default way of being is being the “good” man in our relationship. By this I mean I have defined myself as the flexible partner, the one always trying to please and willing to compromise, as though these behaviors were admirable.

What I now realize is that the issue identified above has persisted because there has been a payoff for me in running this racket.

The payoff that I now see is that this racket has allowed me to be right, to occupy a moral high ground that when not appreciated by you allows me to be the wronged party. My racket has been based on the paradigm that there is always a right and a wrong in any situation.

What I have also come to realize is that running this racket on our relationship has cost me your trust, your love, and our marriage. 

I leave you with my word that in any new future we may create this racket will be no more.

Love always,

This racket of being the Good Man is my self-imposed life sentence, the way I wound up being. Somewhere deep in childhood I developed the idea that if I were not the good boy, I would be the bad boy. There were no boys in life, only good boys and bad boys. Bad boys lived in bad houses with bad families and did bad things.

I remember once, I must have been in fourth grade, I went home after school with the class bad boy, Eddie Messner. Funny how I remember his name to this day. He lived literally on the other side of the tracks, in a run-down house, with a run-down family. Cars on blocks outside. He was incredibly exciting. I don’t remember what we did, but at some point in the late afternoon his mother shouted out the back door that I had to go home. How I would get home had never occurred to me. There was no one at the Messner household to drive me home (that wouldn’t have occurred to them) so I set off walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood, not sure of where to go. Meanwhile my mother, having learned from one of my other friends where I had gone, had set out in her car looking for me, eventually finding me half way home, in tears. I wasn’t punished—I was never punished for anything—but firmly made to believe that something dreadfully bad had occurred, that I had skirted horrible consequences by the skin of my teeth, that befriending a bad boy like Eddie Messner would only lead to ruin. Good boys didn’t have bad boy friends.

Years later, long after I was sent to a private school where no bad boys went, I came to realize that Eddie Messner wasn’t bad, he was poor. And that to my family associating with a boy who lived in the squalor of poverty was behavior beyond the pale of their self-defined, and fragile, dignity.

To succeed in life, I would need to be a good boy, a refined boy, a reasonable boy. I couldn’t worry my mother by going off with the likes of poor Eddie Messner. At the same time my genteel mother covertly communicated that I couldn’t follow in my father’s footsteps, either. Poverty wasn’t the issue, very much the opposite. He was a handsome, successful businessman, a sportsman, hunter, fisherman, champion shot. He had played minor league baseball. He played golf. Turned out he was philander, adulterer, too. He divorced my mother to marry his best friend’s secretary. Oh no, don’t be like him.

The way I wound up being is to be the good boy, always. Good boys inevitably wind up being victims to their own scheme of life. Good boys try to please, not to provide pleasure but to avoid displeasure. Always waiting for the next shoe to drop, good boys try to anticipate where those shoes are treading, and head them off in another direction.

What I have learned from the women who have been in my life is to be fearful: fearful of their censure, fearful that they will leave. Twice I have been with women who were always already leaving, incapable of commitment. I wanted so desperately to please them, have them love me, have them recognize all the good boy attributes as something to admire, not grow to hate.

Being the good boy among other liabilities didn’t work.

It’s time to move on. No more good boy. No bad boy, either; maybe be just a boy. A man.

Free to be. Free to act.

Loss Upon Loss

We move from loss to loss. This morning I opened Facebook only to learn of my friend Elizabeth G’s death. I couldn’t believe what I was reading, posts from mutual friends, mourning the loss of yet another South Ender.

Elizabeth taught me how to row the club’s old wooden boats, braving the Bay with a novice who needed all the instruction and patience she so kindly offered. Later, Elizabeth was the professional photographer at my wedding, lovingly assembling an album—an album commemorating a happy day that only later dissolved to dust—that I no longer can see. That it should have remained with the marriage dissolver is an irony not worth pondering.

Elizabeth was to have also been the photographer for Adam and Rachel’s wedding celebration scheduled for this past Saturday May 9th. She was excited to carry on the tradition for me and so pleased that we had asked her. Unfortunately, that event was postponed due to the virus lockdown. Would she have been there on Saturday? The news I had this morning was when she was found in her apartment on Monday she had been gone for more than a day.

I look at a photo of Elizabeth, [X], and me, and all I see despite the obvious joy is grief. A person gone. A marriage gone. A time of happiness gone. Those that remain endure the loss. Death is unknowable, yet inevitable. To wield the cruel knife of divorce is a murder of possibility.

BrendaNiland_315

 

These are events in life, in my life, that have happened. They are simply what’s so. By themselves, as events that happened, they have no meaning. I attribute meaning, spinning narratives of loss, and grief, and wrongness. My story. My rackets. I know this.

Every day for the past three weeks I think of my friend Ray, also lying dead to be found in his apartment. His death has left a gaping space in my experience of San Francisco, my connection to a chapter meant to be forever. Ray remains with me in the everyday reminder of the music he loved, having been left his vast collection of cds. Listening to what Ray listened to, distinguishing his taste, what he loved, what he left out of his collection, is a journey of remembrance and connection. I have no such link to my married past, nothing joint to share having been given nothing.

The enforced isolation of the virus pandemic spells too much time dwelling on death, loss, and life’s disruption. I’ve made it to the other side, reasonably unscathed, set down near family and a few old friends. The time will come when visiting becomes possible again. My life of the past twelve years, but for a few lifelong friends, whom I miss intensely, is slowly receding. Today’s news of Elizabeth’s sudden and shocking death is another nail driven ever so quietly into the coffin of that once upon a time life.

Please no more death and dying for a while. The omnipresent horrific national news is bad enough.

Friends, be well, stay with me for a while longer.

Version 4

Sunday Evening at Home

Saturday evening at home, listening to Keith Jarrett playing Handel’s Suites for Keyboard, part of Ray’s CD legacy. UPS delivered four large boxes of CD’s yesterday, hundreds of CD’s, packed and shipped by Ray’s executor Tom, who’s performing a labor of love cleaning out Ray’s so well appointed Pacific Heights apartment, the apartment where Ray lived thirty-six years, with its views of the Bay and Golden Gate off the tiny balcony. The music is Ray’s presence, not a substitute but a comforting feeling of Ray being here in the piano notes. To be the custodian of this musical legacy is an honor I didn’t expect.

I’m home from having had dinner with Sam and family. Sam made for the first time homemade lasagna. The twins were dubious, never having had lasagna before. We told them it was a spaghetti sandwich. Still dubious. Eventually they finished their dinners though not with pleasure, only as a way station on the route to a promised dessert. Sam, Saga, and I on the other hand had seconds.

The otherwise quiet of the apartment, with the Handel piano playing, is peaceful. It’s [x]’s sixty-fifth birthday today. Of course I’m thinking of her, how could I not be. I don’t miss her, though I miss the idea of being married, in the abstract. I can let my imagination conger up the ideal partner, a fiction. Reality is never ideal. Was it ever real? I had ideal for a time. It was brief and it was worth it, worth the heart pain that came later. To have had it remains better than never having experienced that first flush of passion, that first kiss. Maybe there is only ever the one time, the first time, and everything after is a photocopy of the original.

Maybe what [x] offered could never have filled the void left empty and sad inside me. It was different, not less than, simply different. And that made all the difference. I tried to fill it with her, and the very trying was an undoing, an unwanted togetherness that I couldn’t comprehend. The water was too cold.

The man I share with my few guy friends is not the same man who was once with three women. Nor was that man the same man with each of the three women in his life. Different woman/different man. Moments of perfection—perhaps that’s all we get if we’re lucky.

With my male friends perfection, peak experience, isn’t required. With my closest friends—there are only a few—there’s a mental oneness that communicates without words. When I moved to Boston Ray told me he wouldn’t any longer know who to talk to about the things we spoke about, the same line communication without explanation. We simply knew. Charleston. No, not the city in South Carolina. Vanessa Bell’s house. Billy Budd. Benjamin Britten’s opera, not the novella.

The piano music permeates the house, and my memories.

Nothing she ever did evokes similar.

Why I Don’t Unfriend Facebook

 

This morning I opened Facebook to discover something remarkable, a message from the past that I welcomed with a smile.

Years ago—more than twelve years ago—when I worked at FCB’s offices on Herald Square in Manhattan, I would frequently go over to the dingy Post Office in the Empire State Building. One day after waiting in line for the usual interminable amount of time, I was greeted by the guy behind the counter who, noticing a paper shopping bag I was carrying, said, “Where’s Yellow House Books, it’s a bookstore I don’t know?” I think I said something like, Come again? not believing that this ordinary postal worker had asked me about a used and rare bookstore in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

This began a many year at-the-counter friendship with a man who was no ordinary postal worker. He was a reader, a deep, avid, fascinating reader from Staten Island. We shared our favorite authors, favorite bookstores, offered suggestions, all the while ignoring the irritated customers standing behind in the inevitable line. He paid no attention to their growls of displeasure, and instead told me about his latest find.

In mid 2008 I moved to California and have never been back to that Post Office. I’m not sure it’s even there anymore. On many occasions I’ve thought about my postal worker reading buddy, but thought him lost among the many people we meet in life in one circumstance or another and never see again.

Until this morning. There in my Facebook Messenger inbox was a message from RK:

I don’t know if you remember me – I used to work at the Empire State Building Post Office- we used to talk about literature & recommend books to read … You turned me on to Murakami & I recommended Par Lagerkvist’s “The Dwarf” to you. Anyhow I just read Joyce Cary’s (an Anglo – Irish author) “The Horse’s Mouth” – never read anything quite like it – took me a while to get into it … but the language & writing is so unique, quirky & funny! It’s more than a bit politically incorrect for these times – so I wanted to share it with someone- but couldn’t think of anyone who could appreciate it – And then I thought of You! If my memory of you is correct – I think that this book will be right up your alley – well written , funny, quirky, odd

I literally burst with delight! Of course I remember! How but for Facebook could this reconnection have occurred. I know young people today scorn the platform, thinking it’s for old folks– like me. But what a joy to discover, or be discovered, by a long lost acquaintance. And to begin a conversation as though there had been no hiatus at all.

I’m not unfriending Facebook any time soon.

Time Passing

In a few days she’ll turn sixty-five. Before I used to joke she was a junior senior. Now she’s graduated. She can get a senior MUNI pass.

When she turned sixty I created a special birthday party for her, prepared elaborate food from scratch, invited all her friends, made it a birthday to remember. I wonder if she does. It was a lovely occasion, undertaken with love.

I wonder who will give her a sixty-fifth celebration, a moot question given the coronavirus and social distancing. What a convenient excuse.

She used to say she was a serially monogamous athlete, committed to one sport at a time: tai quan dao, technical climbing, cycling, swimming, running, rowing. Always looking for the next fix, not the pleasure of the activity. When I once asked whether she ever rowed out on the Bay for fun, she replied, “Why would I do that?”

These commitments last only for a while, then on to the next. Her approach to men is the same: serially monogamous. The relationships could never last; the end is ordained from the beginning. For a brief time the flame burns brightly, then she extinguishes it with ice water. It’s her history– as many pointed out after she ended our marriage. For her, commitments are not forever, whether sport or marriage(s).

On my own now, away from the toxicity of her false superiority, her I know more about the brain than you do judgments, her censure and quiet disapproval, I can relax my guard, be the man I am without trying to please someone for whom the mere act was displeasing. Let no man love a woman incapable of accepting it. Doomed failure, learned the hard way.

I hear from others how dramatically this lockdown is affecting them, how they hate it, feeling constrained, constricted, limited, panicked. I don’t feel this way. The entire circumstance of the virus is horrendous: people dying, ill, out of work, out of money. Then there is moronic Trump, as though the virus wasn’t bad enough. But sheltering in place, staying at home, is a kind of comfort. I like where I am, what I’m doing.

And I realize I would not be feeling this way if I were still with her, in her house.

I hope she, too, is happy on her own. I hope she has a happy sixty-fifth birthday.

I’m sorry she had to lie to me. I’m sorry she could not accept what I had given her, that her need to lie rather than to accept was all she could muster. That silence and distance became her defense. That fear undermined compassion. That she resorted to lawyers rather than conversation. That her name cannot be written. That she remains the woman she wound up being, stuck in those serially monogamous fixes. That like drugs pulsing through her veins, fix only momentarily before the next fix comes due.

After all that’s happened I do wish her a happy birthday. Aging is not comfortable for her, bringing with the passing of years new realities of her mortality. She used to tell me how should couldn’t imagine not being here, no longer being among the living, experiencing the world and its marvels. Can anyone imagine that? I think that’s the futile point of religion, to seed our imaginations with a possibility of something after. I was surprised when she wrote about a friend who died recently that she would be swimming with another now gone South End swimmer: where? In a heaven she doesn’t believe in? Has faith appeared at this late stage?

Reading a fictionalized diary of a real woman (The Lost Diary of M), I came across this passage, a rumination about a divorced husband:

Do I miss him? I don’t miss him. But I miss what he meant. Maybe that is what we miss when we miss people—we don’t miss their bodies so much as their meanings, the promise of a future now lying dead in the past. It is the meanings that linger and cause pain deep in my heart, deep at night.

I don’t miss the reality of her, her off-limits body, her everyday censuring self. I miss the meaning of what was lost, abandoned in self-interest. Undoubtedly new meanings will evolve out of old loss, and the future of possibility will be brighter, even in these dark times. Let it be so.

R.A.B./RIP- 04/10/2020

Yesterday I learned late in the afternoon that one of my closest friends had died the evening before, alone in his Pacific Heights apartment, in circumstances not fully known. He had been battling lung cancer since last summer, enduring months of chemotherapy followed by debilitating radiation; he recently learned that these treatments had not eradicated the murderous cells and that more treatments were necessary to continue living. He was scheduled for a full scan on Monday–tomorrow–with his doctors’ prognosis coming on Thursday. Earlier he had told me, and other friends, that if more radiation was recommended he would refuse treatment. He accepted his condition, was at peace with it, and didn’t want more months of misery.

What we know is that he had a call on Friday at 3:00pm with one of his doctors. I had spoken to him the day before, on Thursday, and we planned to speak again Friday. Earlier in the day on Friday he texted me to say that after two Zoom meetings and then the virtual call with his physician, he would likely be all talked out for the day–breathing was increasing difficult–and that we could talk on Saturday. Saturday never came.

Did he hear bad news from his doctor, news that convinced him to throw in the towel? We’re not exactly sure how the end came. The investigating policeman told the coroner natural causes/probable heart attack. Apparently, according to the person who found him dead in his apartment, all the police really wanted to confirm was that it wasn’t Covid-19. All that person is saying–he’s one of his longest time (fifty years) friends and is 85–is that he found him in the bathroom and “it was ghastly,” and “I won’t describe it.” He said his old friend’s apartment–he lived in the same Pacific Heights apartment with stupendous views of the Bay and out the Gate for the past thirty-six years–was completely organized, nothing out of place, not a dish in the sink, phone positioned in the center of his dining table, and a file with the cremation documentation on his desk.

What’s heartbreaking is the thought of my friend alone, and isolated, due to the coronavirus, from anyone who could possibly have come to aid him, making this fateful decision in loneliness and despair, without any hope, or human comfort. Perhaps it was a heart attack. I want to think so. There’s no way to know. He will be cremated on Monday.

He was the second friend I made after moving to San Francisco, in 2008, and over the years he (together with the first friend I made) have been two of my three closest friendships. On my first Thanksgiving in a new city where I knew no one, he invited me to accompany him to an annual Thanksgiving dinner at Serenity Knolls, a treatment center where my friend had got sober the year before. He valued his sobriety with near religious commitment, and his community of friends at our Cow Hollow men’s group a much loved fellowship: a very special, and lasting bond, for many of us.

Elegant with no pretension, learned with no academic gloss, unfailingly kind, he was a mentor, guide, patient listener, spiritual adviser who doubted the existence of God, sponsor to many, friend to all. I was honored to be included in his own pantheon of closest friends, the others of fifty years or more. He was the only friend to give my then fiancé and I an engagement party. He was steadfast at my side when five years later she ended the marriage. He accepted my anguish with compassion and grace, as all three of my closest friends did, supporting me through a very difficult period,  That they could all be together at my farewell dinner, hosted by my third friend and his wife, is a joy I will always hold close to my heart.

His loss is deeply felt by many.

Today, when going about my routines,  I found myself thinking often, “what would Ray do?” While not a man of great formality, he maintained standards of dress and table manners worth emulating.  I will be sure to always use a sterling napkin ring, and the “good” dishes every day. Why save them, for what? Today is the day I’m living, not some time in the future.

RIP R.A.B.

Much love.

 

Sense of smell

A hint of roasting chicken leaked into my apartment this afternoon and my immediate thought was Oh good, I still have my sense of smell, I must not have the coronavirus, loss of taste and smell being an early sign of infection. I’ve left my apartment only once since last Saturday, mouth and nose covered, gloves on. The classes I teach are now via Zoom. I speak with my sons daily, friends often. Though alone, I don’t feel disconnected. It’s a comfort being on my own, doing what I want. A few days ago one daughter-in-law wrote to say I must feel relieved not to have to share self-isolation with my former (unnamed) wife. Indeed that would be alone within aloneness. One plus one only ever equaled one plus one. Never two.

My rhythm is day to day. Though I have classes scheduled for both the summer and fall terms—fall projected to be back in-person—these seem data points not life movements. I’m grateful for them, and enjoy my students and colleagues. Yet I have visions of great leaps forward, new awareness, new ventures, new possibilities that didn’t exist before. I need to move into these.

I want to paint again, give expression to this new life, dive deeply into who I am, free to be and act and reveal through images the dreaming of my thoughts. Pick up the brushes; start; anything; everything.

Arranging my new place has been delicious. Sam says it looks like every other place where I’ve lived on my own. Two ordinary rooms turned into a sanctuary. I’m pleased with the result. The caution is complacency, falling into what W.E. calls tranquilized obviousness. Too warm. Too comfortable.

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Though happily lacking any underlying conditions I’m in the danger age zone for dying from Covid-19. Is avoiding contagion, long term, even possible despite taking the ordinary precautions? Is every surface contaminated? Every package, every shelf in a store, every person on the street? I’m not obsessing over it, but the idea is there, every present—it’s become the always already there worry of our time.

Every morning, with a cup of freshly brewed coffee (preferring Six Depot’s Blue Velvet) I’ve been reading essays, W. G. Sebald, Guy Davenport, Bruce Chatwin…

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I never did this in the north-west corner of Central Richmond. No censure would have been forthcoming, other than the ever-present atmosphere of not-measuring-up. I realize now that what I felt was the way she wound up being, being herself, outside of herself, not overtly or purposely but innately, as much a part of her as her delicate skin and fine-boned body, the body she could not give, but felt invaded not shared.

Walking along Constitution Beach at 4:00pm, the sky filling with dark clouds, the air mildly chilly, the only other person I saw was a woman exercising her dog, a Vizsla I think. He bounded near the water line, and once ran up to me and I wondered whether to pat him on his eager head or was he a carrier, a carrier of sickness and possible death. Wearing gloves, I gave his head a tap.

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The early evening now is bright and Bennington Street is empty of cars and walkers. An empty Blue Line T train passes behind the opposite side of the street houses. I know no one in my neighborhood. Other than the upstairs neighbors she knows others on the street only as neighborhood acquaintances. She always said I too casually referred to people as friends.

Back then, in the days of that marriage (more than a year has passed since she told me she wanted to end it), I told myself that I was happy when happiness was fleeting—momentary times when the burden of being who she was fell away and the lovely person she could be was unfurled, slowly like the fronds of a fern opening in the morning dew. And like the morning dew, it was gone by midday.

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She says these are figments of my imagination. If others hadn’t experienced the same behavior, the repeated leavings, the repeated don’t-get-too-close-to me protective armor, if others hadn’t also observed the way she never said a kind word to me, held my hand, I might have wondered myself. Validation is cold comfort.

Night in Orient Heights, quieter than usual. Boston now has a 9:00pm curfew, although I don’t know how that’s enforced and have no intention to test it. No cars on Bennington Street, a few lights in the windows across the street. Even the street is mostly dark. Alone in my apartment I’m OK. I don’t miss her, though I miss the idea of her, the idea of easy companionship. What’s happening now is no longer part of the narrative. Chapter closed; the past in the past.

There are enough lies circulating in the world, this new world of untruth, that to live one is a crime of against humanity. One moral failure need not beget another. Let hers rest in eternity.

I hear another Blue Line T heading westward toward central Boston, likely empty, waiting for safer days. We are all waiting for safer days.

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