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I make no claim of wisdom. In fact, the older I get, the less wise I feel. But I can claim, at the age of 70, to have amassed a life of experience. I have been through a lot, from the turmoil of the 1960s, divorce, near homelessness, the death both of a brother and of my late espoused saint. I have been both unemployed and had a successful career and traveled three continents. Finally, I have grandchildren and see with trepidation into the 21st century, beyond my time here. 

And it is that last that gives me pause. If there is one regret that haunts my senescence, it is that all the experience I have lived through can never be transmitted to the twin granddaughters that I love. Sure, I can tell them things, and perhaps some of what I tell them helps. More is surely ignored — I know I ignored the importunings of my elders when I was their age. It cannot be otherwise. When I was young, I knew so much; now that I am old, I know so little. They certainly see that in me, now that they are 18, headed off to college and know so very much. 

But it isn’t advice I am talking about. I am talking about the impossibility of transferring experience. From my brain, from my heart, to theirs, of for that matter, to anyone. A whole life of accrued sensation and false step, of battering and acceptance, of the shiftings of love and the devastation of failure, the afflatus of joy and the satisfaction of doing good work, remains bottled up inside me — and inside everyone. 

I am reminded in this of the soldier back from the war, with the thousand-yard stare, who can say in words what he has been through, but can never actually share the reality of it. The horror, the horror. So many, like my own father, a veteran of World War II in Europe, never talked about it. When he was old, I tried to tease it out of him. I asked questions about his war experience, but he always deflected. I know at one point near the end of the war, that 11 German soldiers walked out of the woods to surrender to him. But as far as he was concerned, he had no part in that. It was just something that happened while he was there. He avoided ever talking about the war and when pressed, made light of it, in a way that made it clear there was little lightness about it at all. 

Things of the magnitude of war and destruction cannot be adequately talked about. You had to be there. And having been there, you never wanted to be there again, even in recollection. 

I had a similar experience when my wife died. There is no way to express the enormity of the loss, or the singularity of the experience. There were many who expressed sympathy, and I greatly appreciated those words intended to comfort. But they cannot know what it was like. Is like. In no way. The only people I could truly commune with were those who had also lost a mate. They had been through it, too. They understood. It is a kind of brotherhood. 

The actual complexity and depth, the horror and devastation of it cannot be conveyed in mere words. The experience of it is different from language. It is the biggest event in my life, and remains so a year and half later. 

In the same way, all the years that have been poured into and out of my body and my psyche can not be expressed in words that begin to touch the heart of it. Language is a parallel universe, a train out of whose windows you may watch the world pass without having the need to experience it. The real thing is bigger, inexplicable, devastating, body-filling, rich, dense, multifarious and always connected, piece to piece in a larger and larger construction, which is me. Or you. 

It is the final frustration of life that all that history buried in my mind is stuck there, doomed to die when I do. In a way, all that learning I have amassed is ultimately pointless; poof, gone. 

I am aware of the irony: I made my living as a writer, and words are my only useful tools. But no matter, I have always felt the inadequacy of those ink squiggles on the paper. 

I am reminded again of those lines in Andrew Marvell’s poem, The Garden: “The mind, that ocean where each kind/ Does straight its own resemblance find,/ Yet it creates, transcending these,/ Far other worlds, and other seas…” 

The idea being that inside us is a world actually bigger than the outer one. It takes it all in and creates even further, making connections not obvious, building from imagination “far other worlds and other seas.”

“Annihilating all that’s made/ To a green thought in a green shade.”

And it’s the “annihilating” part that digs at me. I have no fear of death — after all, I was not afraid before I was born; non-existence is a neutral state (of course, like Woody Allen, I don’t want to be there when it happens). Like Herman Melville told Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have pretty well made up my mind to be annihilated.” But all that life, all that experience of which my cup overfloweth, will ultimately count for nil. That is the part that vexes me. 

I want to make the twins’ lives easier, happier, with less of the pain and frustration that comes to all of us. I want to impart to them the equanimity that age confers, but I cannot. No one can. All that experience is ultimately wasted in me, moiling about inside with no escape. No purpose, no benefit. It is life’s greatest frustration. And I feel it intensely.

RW ca 1975When I was young and just out of college, my ambition was simple: to know everything. I mean, to read and study, and do, and finally to be able to put together all the pieces into a single grand scheme: My own unified field theory. I was not daft, I knew at the time this was an impossibility, but I thought as a goal, it was at least a starting place.

peterson guideOthers in my graduating class had more specific goals — to become a doctor or lawyer or research scientist. Such goals required focus and specialization. They would have to learn all they could about law or medicine or pigeon behavior, but I would be purposely unfocused. I wanted to take in the whole horizon. I collected Peterson guides to learn the names and calls of all the birds, the names of trees and wildflowers. I read all the poetry I could find and all the history, too. Ancient, modern and otherwise. I had books on physics and astronomy, and I listened to all kinds of music and learned to read scores. I was in pig heaven.

encyclopedia brownDo not laugh. Of course this was all silly. But when you are young, you are an idiot. I was no exception, in fact, I was probably the the very model of youthful and ignorant assurance. It helped that I had a retentive memory. Or as I now put it: Facts stick because my brain is gummy. I developed something of a reputation, both as a know-it-all, and as “Encyclopedia Brown.” One girlfriend used to make spare cash by betting her coworkers that when I came to pick her up after work, that I would be able to answer a question they thought they could stump me with. “Who was the first secretary-general of the U.N?” “Trygve Lie,” I would say, and money would change hands.

These were sparse years: With no specialization, it was hard to find a meaningful job. I didn’t much care, as long as I had enough money to feed myself and rent a garret apartment. Recreational reading included the Encyclopedia Britannica and the Oxford English Dictionary. I was a vacuum cleaner.

I do not know where this drive to learn came from, but I have always had it. Others may learn for reasons of usefulness; I never thought about the pragmatic aspects of knowledge: The learning was the end itself. More, more, I wanted more.

You might point out that a vast accumulation of fact is not really erudition, and that merely knowing bits of fact confetti is not the same as understanding or wisdom. For me, back then, that was beside the point. I wasn’t concerned with wisdom, I just wanted to know everything.

I was lucky, I didn’t have to live with me. I’m sure I drove people nuts with my Cliff Clavin act.

Audubon's Mockingbird

Audubon’s Mockingbird

Time passes and it is now 50 years since I first entered college and took up the study of ancient Greek and the poetry of Chaucer. My memory is no longer so acute. I cannot always bring up the name of the Duchesnea indica or the Mimus polyglottos. But in the long course of years, I have absorbed so much minutiae that it has all transmuted into something else. I cannot call it wisdom; I’m still an idiot. But, at 68, I have accumulated so much experience, I have a very different perspective. The simple enthusiasms of youth have given way to the calmer, chastened complexities of a life both illuminated and deflated. I have no wisdom to impart, but I have observations.

RW at 67In the past, people talked about the wisdom of old age, but now that I am there, I know it isn’t wisdom, it is only the result of long years of witnessing human folly, of many, many head-buttings with the harder facts of existence, and having built up a vast treasury of our own personal mistakes, misunderstandings and imbecilities.

Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony has six movements and each originally came with a short explanation. After the first movement, the remaining ones are: “What the meadow flowers tell me,” “What the forest animals tell me,” “What Man tells me,” “What the angels tell me,” and finally, “What love tells me.” It is clear that no single one of these is sufficient in itself, but the whole presumes all. No single truth suffices.

I hope to present in the next several weeks my humble version of what Gustav loaded into his symphony. The things I have come to understand over nearly seven decades of breathing, seeing, tasting, feeling, dancing, hurting (both transitive and intransitive), and finally coming to some glimpse of loving.

University professors, if they have reached some level of eminence, are occasionally asked to prepare a “last lecture,” which subsumes all the most important lessons they have to give. This is a lecture that cuts through all the burly detail to undiscover the essence of what those details outline.

Me lecturingIt may seem the height of hubris to attempt such a “last lecture,” when I am not a tenured faculty member at an Ivy League academy, and make no claim to exceptional brilliance or wisdom, but the fact is that anyone who lives long enough has a longer view, and sees things differently from when youth fills us with self-righteousness and certainty.

Nor is this one of those inspirational harangues. I am not Mitch Albom and I am not dying immanently, like Randy Pausch. I do not expect to teach you how to be a “better” human being, or to make the world a better place, or disclose the secrets of a happier life. My goal is merely to see a little more clearly and to attempt to make sense of what cannot be made sense of.

In short outline, I have maybe 10 or a dozen themes to fill out, which I hope to do in the next few weeks in this blog spot. It is a challenge I have set myself. Have I learned anything?