Poetry the Universe Writes to Itself: Aging and the Gifts of Friendship

Friends can bring us back to ourselves. Over Thanksgiving with old friends, we each see ourselves in the others. Three of us have been friends for 57 years and we’ve come together for over 40 of those years to share the holiday together. We were freshman in the same college dorm at the University of Michigan. Our future wives entered our lives not long afterwards, anywhere from one to seven or eight years later. We see in each other how we’ve aged, faced threats and tribulations, pains, and losses, inspirations, and successes. How we are facing life now.

And it’s all out there for us to talk about. Right in front of us. Each friend with their own gifts and limitations. We give each other tips, perspectives to help us prepare for the next months, years, moment. We talk about illnesses, present and past work experiences, roof repairs, water pics, other friends, podcasts, music videos, movies, books, philosophy, and sleep. Sleep is so tenuous for half of us who, each night, have no idea how much or where in the house we will sleep. Nothing is assumed. We speak of dreams and family members. Deaths and losses. The threats to our world.

And then there’s the joy. So much to be grateful for. For the food, certainly. And sure, it’s an old stereotype, but all the men played football in one form or another when we were young, yet none of us attended a football game after our sophomore year. After a few years of college, it seemed so meaningless and violent. But sometime in our 50s, we began to pay attention once again and listen for scores. Especially Michigan v Ohio State. This year, we watched together, shouting and cheering. Even the women were drawn in by the drama and emotion. And then my wife and I had to leave early to return home. Ohio State was ahead by 3 points.

But about 3 hours later, still on the road, my wife checked her phone for the score. Michigan 45, Ohio State 23. We won. We actually won. We called our friends. What a celebration ensued!

And when we arrived home ⎼ we have 3 cats, but we couldn’t find any of them. They hide from our cat-sitter even though she feeds and talks to them. Sometimes, they punish us for leaving by not showing up. But this time, in 5 minutes or so, one emerged from the basement, one appeared by the door as we brought in the suitcases. Twenty minutes or so later, the third came up behind us, crying. They all cried for food and contact. And when my wife and I sat down later to eat dinner, they sat with us.

This year, something extra sat with us. There was a darkness in the house not attributable to the night. A warning in the air, or in me. How many more of these returns do we have? Aging is not about winning but presence. In the dark was a reminder to take in this moment more deeply. To embrace it as much as possible. To do everything I could to give back. This is all there is ⎼ feel it. Enjoy it. Be thankful for what we can be thankful for. Be kind, caring, even if it hurts. Pet the cats, love my wife. And maybe we will let more of the light in.

One thing I had noticed and shared with my friends is that part of me still thinks I have years in front of me. Part of me had always thought, if I was sick, I would get better. If I hurt, it would go away. If I couldn’t do something one moment, I could learn how in the next. But that’s not necessarily true anymore, and the assumption might be detrimental to my memory.

When a word eludes me, or something is forgotten that I should be able to remember, I get frustrated and might ask for help from my wife. And I imagine next time the word is needed, it will simply arrive in my mind. But it won’t arrive unless I remember my forgetting and teach myself new strategies. Aging requires learning. So much to learn.

Life is always in communication with itself, with other life, even if we forget or don’t recognize it. As Vietnamese Zen teacher and activist Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, we all inter-be. Without food, water, air, gravity, and hugs, without everything there is, we don’t exist.

We see a tree, a flower, a waterfall, a mother with a baby, a fox, mouse, or bear, and we feel something, and something feels us. Even as I write each of these words, each abstraction, the living being I write about lives in me. There are feelings, sensations, thoughts⎼ when I pay attention. We all know this. Yet we forget. We bury our awareness under projects, plans, and purposes. Thoughts. So, it’s good that our old friends bring us back from what we lost to what we have.

We must also find other methods and practices to bring us back to ourselves. David Hinton, in his wonderful book, Hunger Mountain: A Field Guide to Mind and Landscape, talks about how ancient Chinese poets found such practices. Many of these poets were Zen adepts who searched in their poetry for a practice to bring life back to life, to make whole what had been divided ⎼ to help them heal the split in the universe we can create in our minds with the beauty of words, intellect, and abstractions.

One woman, after war ravaged her village and killed her family, went to a secluded mountain, a wild place, and found a windy ledge to build a home. She at first wrote poems and read books. But then wanted a way to speak out of something larger than her individual self. So, she emptied her shelves of books. And each fall, she would collect dry leaves of evocative shapes and sizes and stored them in the boxes that once held scrolls, on bookshelves that once held a traditional library.

And when the snows came, she’d release the leaves one at a time, the leaf writing with its twists and curls in the air and on the snow, a poem. The universe, life, writing a poem to itself, one friend to another.


**If you live in Georgia, please vote on Tuesday, Dec. 6, to help protect your right to vote, the right for women to make their own health care choices, to protect the environment, Medicare, and Social Security ⎼ to help stop the politics of hate. Bring water, a photo ID, and friends. No matter where you live, you can help get out accurate voting information.

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