“We have reached the age when we can take some ironic pleasure in the knowledge of the triviality into which our lives have finally descended”. -John Williams / Augustus
“At some point we all have to come to terms with being a PIP,” said my long-time friend who has changed the lives of thousands through her poverty eradication work with women in Africa, through setting up a free health clinic for low-income folks in a very high-income town, and through her work in the AIDS community. She is a veritable force of nature with her ‘can do’ action-oriented approach to social problems and inequalities met along her rich and varied life.
While we are very different in almost all ways, we have known each other for many decades and have surprisingly found ourselves most recently, and for the first time, part of the same women’s group convened by a mutual friend. Like so many such groups began as Covid closed most forms of direct contact, we met initially by Zoom, once a month on a Sunday morning. Brunch time. This group continues to this day, now in person since most of us happen to be in the same time zone and place. We continue to deepen in our relationship with each other and whatever subject we take on for more in-depth inquiry.
If we pooled our group capacities, writer, strategist, psychologist, philanthropist, activist, community organizer, restaurateur, artist, we might well be able to conjure up some significant mischief or magic. The age spread from youngest to oldest is about 20 years. At first when asked to participate I felt a tad out of my league. One of the more introverted members, I accepted the invite due to the deep fondest I have for the woman who brought us all into her circle.
“What is a PIP,” someone asked after it was first mentioned.
A “Previously Important Person,” she said with a hearty chuckle.
This rattled me, and like a worm inside of an apple, started to make tracks that turns and keeps turning. Aging itself has the potential of bring us up close and personal with being a PIP. I have been a psychotherapist my whole professional life, with a passionate byline in all manner of creative endeavors. There were certainly many earlier years where the scope of my work had a large and wide reach, but there were many more recent decades when the work was quiet and deeply intimate involving only one other person in the room, rather than multiples in a workshop setting. That may have made it easy for me to let go of the ‘Important’ part since my stock was anyway low. But how about all the other P’s that life insists we cycle through, or at least visit from time to time, or often.
PAP. Previously Athletic Person, or in my case, during Long Covid, the prospect of being a PHP (healthy) was very real but thankfully not realized. Then there are the many others; beautiful, smart, relevant, central. The list goes on, but the common denominator is Previously.
We have all met those very laborious people who trap us at gatherings with tales of past glories, what they used to do, how important or relevant or needed they once were. We try to edge past them to the nearest big alcoholic drink or suddenly rush to greet the very person we had been hiding from the moment before. It is surely their way of coping with the losses of identity they are experiencing by not having that identity or status anymore.
How do each of us cope with our ‘previous’ is as important a question as what exactly is either waning or lost to us. Some like the person mentioned above cling to what they were. Some grieve and the grieving never ends. Some find vistas open from the spaces recently vacated by the loss. As they say, nature abhors a vacuum. I remember this great story about the artist Pamela Zagarenski, who created my favorite line of greeting cards. She had a decent job that she had done for 25 years, successful and only moderately miserable. She also had an intense bee allergy and almost died one day due to a sting on her third eye. She came close to dying from both the anaphylactic shock and the long complications that ensued on her way to recovery. In that moment of facing her death, she got it; impermanence. She quit her job and became the happy artist she was meant to be, creating a line of cards called SacredBee. We all have such stories, we know such people. We know those who lose their life partners and languish or die. We also know those who lose their life partners and find life is the beloved and flourish, whether alone or with another. I think the word is resilience, or that amazing human capacity to transform ourselves and rise from the ashes of our own griefs and losses.
Each loss we experience challenges our identity, or habit body or our social standing. We all cope differently. In the psychological trade that I used to ply it is called Second Order Reality. What happens, happens! What we do with it, what we make of it and from it, is as unique as each of us are, and this is what is ultimately important.
After my mother died, I had the unenviable but inevitable task of clearing out her wardrobe. She like me, loved shoes. I have few but love and wear each pair, she had many and there they lay living on after she no longer did. What was sad for me was picking up some of those gorgeous evening slippers with pointy toes, high heels that she had not worn for at least a decade or two or three, but couldn’t let go of. It reminded her of her previous life as a social/sexual woman from which she had derived much value. She devalued those homely comfortable slippers that she now had to wear in favor to those she no long could.
I too have clung, at least for a while to some waning aspects that I have found hard to let go of. Importance has not been one of them, but relevance has, beauty has, strength has, productivity has, health has, taut skin, slim body, to name just a few. Futile white-knuckled efforts to hold on, as gravity, time and the present circumstances of our current world make those very efforts absurd at worst, hilarious at best.
I have found the sweetness on the other side of many of these losses and some I’m still very much in process with. What spurs me to stay in relation to this process is the clear knowing that ‘previous’ is relevant for all of us, and that clinging is really not that attractive, nor that effective as a coping strategy.
It would seem as if ‘letting go’ is coming to terms with the Previous. It’s saying goodbye and gathering the residual goodness within oneself that that ‘previous’ had graced us with, rather than attempting to preserve or prolong, past its due date.
Each summer as we leave our primary home filled with art from all our travels, with rugs from my mother and grandmother, woven by women in Iran, or Turkey or Afghanistan some decades ago, to migrate north with the geese, we bow to the beauty of our home with its art pieces from around the globe and say goodbye. We live in a high fire zone of the Pacific Northwest and we never really know when the next fire might take out our town or our home, as it already has so many close neighbors. I tell myself that if our house goes up in fire, I would be able to build the house of my dreams, small, tight, net zero, simple. I have already contacted my favorite architect in town to tell him that he is hired, if our house burns. That is part of my coping strategy. Anticipating and planning for what might be. Truth is, I would be devastated and would have to go through all the layers inherent in that loss before the prospect of rebuilding a great little house in its stead would have any appeal at all. There are no viable short cuts to the grief of loss, of facing into the heartbreak of ‘previous’.
The west and it seems particularly the USA is obsessed with age, beauty, with success, relevancy and exceptionalism. The relief each summer as we plant ourselves on a remote island up in B.C. where people seem not to care too much about previous, is palpable. The corset of effort falls away in deference to showing up in small and close-in ways in daily life. It sounds simple, it sounds simplistic even. I find it neither.
My husband who had gone through an intense training to be a hospice volunteer, shared this very poignant exercise they had done during their three-day training. Each participant was asked to write down the five things they could not live without. Each thing to be written on a separate index card. You can try this same exercise as I’m describing it to you and see what your five things are, essential to your very life and sense of well-being. Hearing this exercise described prompted me to doing it, as I’m suggesting you do too.
I wrote with little hesitation:
Family and friends
Health (mental and physical)
Home (and beauty)
At this point you, and I, are still holding all our five cards close to our chest and unseen by any. Life, in the form of the instructor, goes to each person and randomly plucks one card from each person’s hand. You can close your eyes and do it with your free hand or ask someone close to you to just come and take a card. You look down in horror to see that one element is no longer part of your world. It is gone! If you are like me, you take a huge breath and try to imagine your life without one of these vital aspects. It feels devastating to even imagine, and so you rationalize that it will not happen to you, just to everyone else. Then you get more devastated because you have lived long enough to know that you are not an exception, and you have lived wisely enough to sense what it means for the rest of your life to be without that one card, and what it represents.
The instructor takes their time to go around the room, five times. Each time taking yet another card, then taking time to allow for each participant to feel its loss and to feel into the implications of that loss. Death is the empty hand, with no cards left to trade, negotiate or hold. PAP. Previously Alive Person.
Age usually involves one or more of these cards being compromised or taken. In many life situations we lose incrementally, rather than all at once, unless it is by death, divorce, fire, accident, severe illness.
This last year and a half on planet earth has seen three (of my named) essential cards taken or compromised. Billions around the globe have been negatively financially impacted through Covid, millions have been sickened or died due to Covid, and billions more have been cautious or scared of such an outcome, and every one of us has seen or directly experienced the devastations of our rapidly destablized environment.
It is no wonder that we humans are on shaky ground psychically. We are trying to come to terms with ‘previously’ both personally and collectively and it is so unsettling, we are acting out, jockeying for global advantage, throwing our remaining powers around. We have felt and seen our vulnerabilities in ways we had hitherto managed to collectively bypass. We feel our cards being taken and we are scared but don’t know how to speak the language of the vulnerable or the tender.
If you have seen many moons, you may look down at your remaining cards, play with projections, numbers and odds, and wonder what the future may hold for you, for your children, for your grandchildren, for the creatures, the critters, the oceans and the few remaining great forests.
Yet every day the sun still shines, most nights the moon still rises, sometimes obscured by smoke from the most recent summer fire, sometimes clear as glass and luminously fresh. That is a grand day and you get to say, previously the air was smokey, but today it is clear.
With love to you, no matter how many cards you still hold, play them with great heart.