Friday, March 21, 2014


Anna Quindlen's memoir Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake comes at an opportune moment in my life. Her reflections coincide with the author turning 60, which is about to happen to me. Like Quindlen, I have numerous friends so far past this big round number that I dare not whine to them about the prospect. Her thoughts are helpful in putting time into perspective.

Along the way she makes some worthwhile observations, among them Henry James's statement, "Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind, the second is to be kind, and the third is to be kind." To those polarized by mean-spirited public figures and contradictory interpretations of reality, being kind may seem foolish, wrongheaded, naive. "How can you say "be kind" to people who are f***ing up the world?!" they may explode. And yet, as we log more years in our skins, we find that nastiness and delight in the misery of others weigh us down. With the passing of Fred Phelps, Sr., the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, I was pleased to see how many of my social-media-friends declined to exult. Instead, we've hoped that the hate he devoted his life to has died with him, and his spirit is now at peace. And maybe without his vitriol, his followers will find better ways to spend their time. That's a lesson time teaches us: that resentment and ill-will take a greater toll on the person expressing them, than they ever can on the objects of that hostility.

I've come to see "Don't feed the bear" as a wise proscriptive rule for life - when someone is spewing invective, particularly from the remove of the internet, I strive to be calm, courteous, and to modulate my responses. I shake my head at how teenagers (and pre-teens) bully the weak, shy, different kids in their midst. Amplifying the tensions of adolescence just makes them harder to leave behind. Don't feed that bear.

Quindlen also observes, "...[W]e understand that being a parent is not transactional, that we do not get what we give. It is the ultimate pay-it-forward endeavor..." Indeed, life is not really transactional. While pregnant with my firstborn, I attended a no-cost meditation retreat, and on the last morning the teacher gave a talk on payment. He said some of us would "calculate our hotel bill" and pay what we thought our presence cost: meals, lodging, his time. But he cautioned us against that mindset. "This retreat has already been paid for. What you give today will enable others to participate. And for some of you, the most liberating thing will be to pay nothing, to free yourself from the conviction that you can pay your own way and break even with the world."

Timely advice. I'd thought the Hamlet character Polonius (father of Laertes and Ophelia) was wise when he said, "Neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend." That was me: I was never going to be in debt, nor have anyone indebted to me. I was going to sail through life unencumbered. Solitary. Free. Ha!

Life is about interaction. Give, accept, don't count the change. Withholding - our money, our time, our affection - ultimately walls us off. When you want to talk to someone who agrees with you 100%, pull up a mirror. Cut everyone else some slack. Listen, reflect before responding, and don't feed the bear.

And I still live by the blessing I offered a friend at his wedding: "May you have sufficient silliness."

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