My Latest Letter to Fred (may he RIP)

Fred Pape died seven years ago. He and I exchanged around 300 letters with each other over our later lives. After his death I couldn’t stop writing to him for around 18 months. I still write the occasional letter, which is a way to maintain a diary or memoir.

I herewith share an edited version of my latest letter

Saturday, 17 September 2022

Eh, Fred,

Last missive was Monday, January 25, 2021.

I re-read what I had then written and find that the needle hasn’t moved very much, except that the Wuhan Flu is effectively behind us, and we are free to move at will. I will get shot #5(!) within the month ahead, just before I leave for a trip to the US&A to visit Andrea and Greg, (my daughter in Phoenix, Arizona and my son in Medford, Oregon).

The ‘Big Blank‘ is still ahead of me at, now, age 85. What does the future hold, and so what?

I am evermore inclined to regard my universe (that which I perceive and imagine) as do the folks imbued with certain Eastern Ways: an illusion. Maya is one name for this:

maya, (Sanskrit: “magic” or “illusion”) a fundamental concept in Hindu philosophy, notably in the Advaita (Nondualist) school of Vedanta. Maya originally denoted the magic power with which a god can make human beings believe in what turns out to be an illusion. By extension, it later came to mean the powerful force that creates the cosmic illusion that the phenomenal world is real. For the Nondualists, maya is thus that cosmic force that presents the infinite brahman (the supreme being) as the finite phenomenal world. Maya is reflected on the individual level by human ignorance (ajnana) of the real nature of the self, which is mistaken for the empirical ego but which is in reality identical with brahman. (Wikipedia)

Zen Buddhism, as you know, shows us that emptiness is form/form is emptiness.

I’m currently reading K. by Roberto Calasso. Here is a précis of the book:

What are Kafka’s fictions about? Are they dreams? Allegories? Symbols? Countless answers have been offered, but the essential mystery remains intact. Setting out on his own exploration, Roberto Calasso enters the flow, the tortuous movement, the physiology of Kafka’s work to discover why K. and Josef K.–the protagonists of The Castle and The Trial–are so radically different from any other character in the history of the novel, and to determine who, in the end, is K. The culmination of Calasso’s lifelong fascination with Kafka’s work, K. is also an unprecedented consideration of the mystery of Kafka himself.

My inexpert summary of one element presented in the book: no thing is what it seems simply to be, connected as any thing (any seeming-‘thing’) is on higher and lower planes with concentric circles of existence which ultimately cancel each other out or combine into a mythic whole.

What do I get from all this reading and pondering? A vague feeling of non-ordinariness. A feeling/sensation of the consciousness that there is a curtain between me and what may or may not be reality that I could easily push aside with a bit more effort than I have heretofore exerted. I seem not to be in a hurry to push the curtain aside, but the curtain seems ever more transparent so the pushing aside may not be necessary.

An inhibiting force, mild but present, is my feeling that should the curtain disappear, I may find that my relationships with other people may change in ways that I would currently find uncomfortable, undesirable.

I have been reading, also, the writings and biographies of the “Beat” poets and writers who emerged in the late 1940s and 1950s. Many of them pursued ‘enlightenment’ in India and Japan, and through psychoactive drugs. Perhaps some succeeded (I’m thinking primarily of Gary Snyder).

I have thought about this notion quite a bit and have the opinion that one doesn’t search for it, but one grows into the world where it may find you. There is too much ego in such a search. I remind myself of the Zen proverb: “Before Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After Enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

Well, Fred, this letter has transformed into a blog article.

Thanks for listening.

What to do with the rest of my life?

My father lived until a few days past his eighty-seventh birthday.

I am now 84, but actuarial tables suggest that, barring accident and reversion to past bad behavior, I could possibly achieve age 97.

I feel perfectly well. I am quite fit and healthy.
But I am a serious fellow, always have been,
And it seems time to set a general course for my remaining years.

There is a growing dissatisfaction with the way things are going.
I am too much aware of all the ills and distresses of the world.
These have always been with us, but now we have countless sources,
Filling unlimited, unavoidable spaces and pages
With all the terrors and injustices in the world,
And perorations on how things should otherwise be,
And what you and I should do about them.

Among his many admirable and a few frightening ways,
My father was someone who drank in all the injustices of the world,
Spewing vitriol around his home about the evil perpetrators.
But he tried to do something to ease his Weltschmerz,
A word his family often heard.

He did some creditable, palpable things in pursuit of Justice,
Something the gods of the Ancient Greeks reckoned was of paramount importance.
And Dad was, in essence, an Ancient Greek.
It was his mother’s desire and plan for him.

Conrad Pavellas Cleaning up the front yard Nepo Drive, San Jose Around 1995

Conrad Pavellas
Cleaning up the front yard
Nepo Drive, San Jose, 1995

But, in his final years, he turned to his garden, and to music, which was always with him for as long as his failing hearing would allow. Ludvig van Beethoven was his lifelong hero. There was always a picture of Beethoven’s scowling visage in his home.

I, too, now find the garden a place where a great Nothing happens. But, musically, I am more in tune with Johannes Brahms.

I am, in many ways, my father’s heir,
As Brahms was Beethoven’s heir.
But Johannes didn’t try to change the world;
He described it, poignantly.

Brahms was serious, and he was melancholy.
It was not a hopeless melancholy, for there is much joy
And power throughout his works.

Beethoven fought the Fates;
Brahms accepted them.

I spent much of my working life trying to make things right,
Sometimes succeeding.
But as time progressed, these efforts became exercises
In personal survival.

I have survived well into the years designated for Senior Citizens.
Some years before this attainment
I began writing about the world that I saw,
In poems and essays, and writings such as this.

I began reading all the books my father wished I had read, and more.
I began collecting and listening to all the music my father and I listened to,
And more.

I joined a book circle and remain with it, our meetings now ‘online’.
I started weblogs in which I discussed fiction and non-fiction books.
I was accepted into a writing group and retain many friends from this association.
I started to write memoirs, and stories, and novels, as well as poems and essays,
Many of which I published in my weblogs.
I self-published small volumes of short writings, mostly poems.

Now I am here.

One paragraph in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has stayed with me since 1975, an edited version of which is:

If we are going to make the world a better place to live in, the way to do it is not with talk about relationships of a political nature, full of subjects and objects and their relationship to one another; or with programs full of things for other people to do.  Programs of a political nature can be effective only if the underlying structure of social values is right.  The social values are right only if individual values are right.  The place to improve the world is first within one’s own heart and head and hands, and then work outward from there.  Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind.  I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle.  This has more lasting value.

Here is what I will do:

  • I will avoid “The News” as much as is possible.
  • I will let poetry and other short creative writings happen.
  • I now release myself from expectations regarding my two-and-a-half novels which are “in the drawer.”
  • I will continue, during the seasons which allow it, to work in the garden with Eva, a place where everything that happens, or doesn’t happen, is good.
  • I will continue to be with family and friends, as much as the current pandemic will allow, for without them, well…
  • Finally, I will continue to obey, as I have since reaching real adulthood, the universal imperative: “Clean up your own mess!”

On Entering one’s 85th year

The Indian Yogi Jaggi Vasudev, aka ‘Sadhguru’, tells us that the body remembers more than the ‘mind’ does, beginning at conception. By age 84 a body has experienced seven solar cycles and, more importantly, 1008 Lunar cycles. In the Yogic tradition the soul of person having lived this long will not, when released from the body, seek, or be eligible to be reincarnated elsewhere. “Seen it all, done it all”?

I correspond with a friend with whom I talk about such matters:

I am ever more saying to myself and others that I have written and spoken almost all that I feel the need to say—I am repeating myself more often. At age 84, still healthy and able (except for my hearing), I can expect, given family history, to live at least another 10 years, barring accident. This time before me seems like a Big Blank. I can’t see into it. I continue to contemplate this notion without concern or expectation—no hurry. ‘No hurry’ is also a phrase I have adopted for myself. I am also ever more interested in birds, and trees and children than in any of the current events screaming at me from various communication media…

He responded:

My father always had his belief in God. Earlier, he was very anxious about all others to have his belief or otherwise it would turn out bad after death (you know, devil and hell and so on). But after 84-86 he got so much more relaxed, had peace with himself and others. The last years concerning about the birds and look at the trees was enough.

So, the Big Blank is in front of me. I’ll just relax and let happen what will happen, all the while enjoying my walks with Eva, and feeling one with the birds and trees and children.

The Children

Fortunate are those who live in a neighborhood where there are families with young children. The designers and builders of our apartment complex had children in mind when they imagined, then created this neighborhood around 40 years ago.

There is a magical time in late afternoon each school day (including preschool, of which there are several within the neighborhood and close by) when the children appear with their parents and minders in the play area near to our apartment. A depression in the pavement by one of the little park’s retaining walls is almost always filled with water from the light rains and morning dew. Toddlers and jumpers and seekers with pails and shovels, all properly dressed for the wet, of course, surround and splash in this natural pond. Others are in the sand box nearby, their adults joining them in digging and building. Still others are sliding and swinging in the appurtenances usually found in playgrounds.

Ice hockey (is there any other kind, really?) is a national sport in Sweden. A paved area, where cars and trucks can travel through, has a portable net into which parents and children to try to place their air-ball pucks with plastic hockey sticks.

Sometimes, especially in warmer weather, there are so many children from ages infancy to around 10 that I feel drawn into the melee with my imagination, remembering times from my own childhood.

Today, Christmas Day, the weather has turned cold and windy, with some light snow and frost on the ground. The little pond is frozen over. As Eva and I tried to take our daily walk, but were defeated by the icy wind from the lake, we returned by way of the play area. Yes, there were a few hardy families there at around 11 AM, the children full of energy and delight at being free from the confines of walls. Such wonderful energy! I often feel children sustain me in my old age, encouraging me to maintain a cheerful aspect on life and the world.

Especially wonderful during this time of no large gatherings and no non-critical travel, are the communications from Eva’s children, some of them showing pictures and videos of their children, Sam being 7 months and Tage being almost two years old. And also my great-granddaughter Quinn, age 2½, in Arizona. How we miss being with them in person! How lovely of their parents to keep us almost daily informed of their progress through life.

It is a commonplace and almost trite to say—‘they are the future’. But there is no denying this truth.

It does help to keep one hopeful and cheerful to have children in one’s life and in the neighborhood.