Caption (above): “Five of Cups” is a tarot card that often carries the meaning of emotional dejection, disappointment and sorrow over past events. The figure represented on the card has lost three of his cups. Two still stand, yet he fails to appreciate what he has left. A river flows in front of the figure, with a bridge leading to a safe destination, and yet he remains focused on the loss of his cups.
A few years ago I was diagnosed with a brain tumor which led me to a series of meetings with a variety of medical specialists. I was facing the prospect of enormous changes in my life that I hadn’t even begun to fathom. I remember clearly the consultation with a neurologist who told me flat out “You’re never going to feel any better than you do now.” It was an appalling thing to say and hear. I was outraged.”That’s not acceptable,” I shot back.
In the end, I settled on a neurotologist who had the good sense to let me find and accept the truth on my own terms. He gave me information as I asked for it, and in general embodied the wisdom (I only recently picked this up from my friend and big sister, the reverend Dr. Julia Speller): “Put it in a cup they can drink from.”
Fundamentally that first neurologist was right. These days I look back on the way I felt on the day of that consultation with a kind of wistful nostalgia. Now, I’d love to be able to count on feeling that good most days. I’m certainly not alone. Anybody who’s gotten old knows the feeling. And there are a host of souls with chronic conditions who have had to come to terms with their own new, unique and unsavory reality: what used to be called a “good day” is so much dust in the mouth.
It has nearly always been fashionable for the uninitiated to look at these circumstances from the sidelines and snipe, “get over it.” But as my friend, Stuart Stotts, so succinctly puts it in his new song: there’s “no moving forward without grieving.” Grieving is something that, culturally, we don’t seem to have much patience for. It happens at its own – sometimes glacial – pace, without regard for schedules or convenience. And we have, in many ways , created a world that is changing so fast that there is no time to grieve what it is that we are losing. But as true as it is that we can’t hasten grief, neither can we delay it without some pretty hefty consequences.
For myself, this last Covid year has, in many ways, been a gift. A gift of time and space for things like grief. Among other things, I am grieving not just my definition of a “good day,” but my father, my career, my relationship with music, as well as the loss of friends and friendships. Being able to take the time to process all of that has been extraordinarily healing for me. I will be able to move forward in a much better way because of it.
For the rest of the world 2020 was a grief pile-on. Covid swept across continents snatching jobs, incomes, friends, relatives and any basic sense of normalcy. Politically, people seem to have become addicted to being angry. The friends and relatives we haven’t lost, have stopped speaking to each other. We can’t even agree on what’s true anymore. On top of that, species are saying “bye-bye” at a pace unequaled since the Chicxulub asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. These are only some of the big losses, effecting us personally, that we have barely had time to register, much less come to terms with. All indications are there are more losses coming down the pike. I note that climate change is starting to really get revved up, for example. Denying the harsh reality of it all is a response that I totally sympathize with. See my opening paragraph for a great example. But, take it from me, it’s not a particularly effective long term coping strategy.
My life has slowed down a lot in the last couple of years and I’d like to keep it that way. But the sinking feeling in my gut says that it won’t be possible. Already I can feel the pressure to pack the calendar. To go places, see people, do things. Meanwhile the changes just keep coming faster and faster: technological advancements, viral mutations, environmental catastrophes, social norms – they’re all shifting faster than I can process them. We (I mean myself and you too) get older, not faster. The only solution I can think of is to throw up my hands and fall behind. This has always been the recourse of the old. And I admit it, I’m old. But make no mistake, even as our life expectancy increases, “old” is getting younger and younger.