Babies, Butterflies & Fatwas
Am sitting on a lovely little lake in New York state. My faraway family is reunited between Wordle and butterflies for a blessed week away. Just a few hours drive from Boston, and we are suddenly surrounded by a majestic heron, a bevy of butterflies and the repetitive reward of my granddaughter’s captivating smile.
“What will you do here?” asks my daughter, dropping in for lunch from NYC. Nothing, I hope. There is a stillness at the heart of the cicada’s song, that melts the lake into a mirror of trees and sky. Watching the lake gently glint in the sun with my just-walking granddaughter is not unlike sitting with my mother observing the bird feeder. Time breathes more deeply. Rhythms slow to summertime, and there is an almost visible aura to the moment. The decades ending in birds echo the decades beginning with butterflies. There is flight in the air all around.
I feel at the end of the middle, with my kids now fully stepping into the exhausting, challenging construction of a life. They are off and running, and we can only admire benevolently from a certain distance. It is their life now. Their choices to make and directions to take. I watch as my daughter crafts a career, my son becomes a father, my tiny grand-daughter takes her first steps and my mother says her goodbyes. The generations turn and we take our place in the cycle. In the background, history is rumbling.
I turned 61 this week, and I was born in ‘61. I can’t help thinking that adds some kind of special meaning to my year. Not to mention my birth day’s gift of the special Sturgeon supermoon rising over the lake in dramatic celestial celebration. (This in addition to the annual Perseid meteor shower that I have been blessed with from the beginning). I am now in the middle of many things – my family, its generations, my year at Harvard, adulthood. If adulthood starts around 21, I am 40 years in. If I live to the not-totally-unlikely-100 I’ve been writing about, I have another 40 or so ahead.
Middlehood & Memoir
A bit daunting when you start to do the math. All this, all over again? My mother thinks that 97 is too long. I’ll see, one day, if I agree with her. Another birthday gift, along with these incredibly cool Senegalese sneakers from my daughter-in-law, and a precious bottle of seriously-aged cognac from my daughter, was the latter’s recommendation of the NYT therapist-writer Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone. It’s an exquisite ode to middlehood and memoir, weaving the parallel narratives of a few of her clients into her own life story and through conversations (and the occasional dance) with Wendell, her therapist. It’s rare to combine the insight of the therapist with the power of a well-honed pen, and Gottlieb creates this art form and takes it to a sudden pinnacle. It’s as inspiring as it is heart-warming.
She quotes Wendell talking about her father in a sentence that resonated so deeply with me it took my breath away. “As your eyes are opening,” he tells her, “his are beginning to close.” It is a wonderful summary of this generational relay race humans play. If you are lucky - and loved and learning – you get a sense of awakening at this age. Just as the generation before you leaves the stage, hopefully with a kiss and a blessing. There is a slow sense of seeing a little bit more clearly - yourself, your parents, what microcosm you may think you control and the vastness you don’t.
This will be the 53rd instalment of the elderberries newsletter I started on my 60th birthday. It’s been one of the favourite things I’ve done in a year full of extraordinary gifts, new friends and barrel loads of ideas and learning. I’ve adored your emails and feedback and echoes. Thank you for writing and following and comparing. I feel like I have a supportive tribe walking alongside me through this time and age, rooting me on. Our weekly connection has helped me digest the often orgiastic feasting on intellectual goodies and the swirls of emotional family baggage and journeys. It forced a mindful pausing to try and grasp the accelerating passage of personal time amidst the huge, chaotic sweep of historical forces at play.
So many fearful forces. I cried at the stabbing of Salman Rushdie, an author too used to being hunted. Will the hate never die? After decades of hiding, someone finally got to him, in a place I know and love, that feels like family. Chautauqua. It’s a haven of exchange and civil conversation. I have sat on the benches of the 5000-seat open-air ampitheatre where Rushdie was about to speak for over 20 summers. I heard him there (brilliant) a decade ago to a packed-out crowd.
The Chautauqua Institution is a magical village on a lake in upper New York state. It has a 9-week summer season, where each week has a theme, at which a series of usually excellent speakers take a daily stab and offer a perspective. By the end of any given week, you’ve had an education. Last week’s theme was, ironically, “More Than Shelter: Redefining the American Home.” Rushdie was going to speak about the US as a shelter for persecuted writers. Before getting on the stage for the ritual 10h45 Morning Lecture, he’d been busy sending emails to try and find placement for endangered Ukrainian writers. He could have been a speaker in next week’s theme too: Profiles in Courage. He’s been a lifetime defender of a growing group – the educated intellectuals that populists and autocrats throughout history always make their first targets.
On the drive to the lake, we’d listened to a related podcast from Intelligence Squared, around Theresa May’s infamous quote that if you are “a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” Identifying, as do most immigrants, intellectuals, expats and exiles everywhere, as a citizen of the world, I struggle with the implicit judgements and political wolf whistles. Many who have moved have had no choice, like Rushdie. Their internationalism is steeped in survival, not choice. That’s why, one of the panelists said, “jews don’t have roots, they have legs.” Rushdie, with a Fatwa on his head since Valentine’s Day 1989, after hiding in the UK for years, emigrated to the US in 2000 and found a home and a degree of freedom in New York city. At 75, he’s badly wounded by this attack. My thoughts are with him. He is as much symbol as man at this point.
Like too many of our democracies, we too are in the middle. The swell of violence, war and intolerance is rising, like the heat. You can feel it start to affect your breathing. The generation that suffered the last global conflagration is closing their eyes. Will we open ours?
At the lake, we watch the next generation’s first steps. And wonder what she will see, between the butterflies and the bird feeder.