Septuagenarian Reflections: Acquiring a Missing Sense of Awe

As an inquisitive child, I remember asking my grandparents about their lives – what it was like when they were young, particularly before they emigrated from Ukraine/Poland to the US. All were Jews who fled ever-present danger; unlike rules for game animals, you see, it was always ‘open season’ on Jews back then (is it my imagination, or is that happening again?). My paternal grandmother, Lara, came here at a very young age with no memories of the old country. What she did have – and did not reveal until very near the end of her life – was the knowledge that her seven older brothers all had been murdered by Cossacks around the turn of the 20th century. As history unfolded, this could be classified as merely a warm-up for Babi Yar and who knows how many other unrecorded similar atrocities..

My paternal grandfather, Abraham (né Avram) told me how, as a child, he used to help his father deliver grain in burlap sacks to Kiev on a horse-drawn cart. Part of the payment they received for their farm produce consisted of the emptied burlap sacks in which grain had been delivered – from which his mother made clothing. I, from the comfort of America in the 1950’s, remember thinking how different my grandfather’s childhood world was from the one he presently inhabited (a nice apartment in Newark, New Jersey) as he told me this story. I remember imagining that he must have had to make remarkable adjustments to life which had changed so radically (even though much for the better in most ways). This insight into the course of my grandfather’s life was unusual for me, given what I now realize about my young self. It turned out to be a harbinger of the “adjustments” that were in store for me in the course of my own life…

I don’t know if it was peculiar to my particular psychic make-up or a distinguishing characteristic of my generation (I was born in 1944), but, looking back, I think I must have been jaded from birth. What I mean is that, having spent my formative years in the shadow of mushroom clouds (we regularly did nuclear blast “duck and cover” exercises in public grammar school) – so to speak – I felt immune to any sense of novelty, awe, or wonder. From my perspective (although I never could have articulated it back then), the technological advances and social reverses which regularly occurred did so simply as a matter of course, as if it were simply to be expected. My childhood attitude bordered on one of blasé entitlement, and this was markedly discordant with what I just described thinking about my grandfather. It doesn’t make sense and yet my lack of awe or wonder persisted through most of my adult life – until recently. I spent much of my life longing to be transported spiritually by some irresistible, wondrous, awe-inspiring force (say, like God revealing his existence to me), while remaining ever emotionally unmoved – as almost an outside observer in my own everyday life.

As I write, I am tending the excellent wood stove in my family room. Whenever the outside temperature is below 25 F or if it is cold, damp and rainy, I like to have a fire. It may be surprising to hear me say that this is one of the most satisfying and reassuring activities I have ever done. I warms me, profoundly, and more than in the thermodynamic sense; the acts of starting and maintaining the fire and feeling its warmth are deeply reassuring and connect me, in an abstract, yet palpable way, to my ancestors. I have a vivid early childhood memory of my maternal grandmother, Blanche, saying “I have to make heat,” and taking me down to the basement of the second-story walk-up apartment in which she lived with my grandfather. There, she carefully shoveled coal into the furnace from a small ready pile kept near the furnace door. Not a piece was wasted; even the dust was swept onto the shovel and fed to the fire.

From this memory, I can easily generate abstract images of my earlier and forever unknown ancestors – at various times and places over thousands of years – sitting near a fire to warm themselves in what must have been brief respites from hard, uncomfortable, uncertain lives. Inescapable is the realization that had a single member of the lines of humans who were my ancestors not survived to procreate, I would not exist. There is awe for me, today, in that thought. Ancillary to it is the realization that our present ability to record ourselves in durable media may forever change how we see ourselves in the stream of humanity. Our lineal descendants will be able to see and hear us, their progenitors, on HD videos going back scores, hundreds, even thousands of years. Those sufficiently interested may well suffer from ancestor overload. I realized this when I came across an old photo of my grandfather Abe who, at about age 20, remarkably resembled my 3 year-old son.

Nowadays, as my physical wellbeing declines (no identified terminal illness, yet…) in ways I can no longer deny – as I approach my end – I find nostalgia, awe and a great sense of mystery in many things I used to take for granted. The technological progress I previously considered merely due, ordinary or mundane, I have come to see as near-miraculous. The advances my grandfather witnessed – from horse cart to jet airliner – pale compared to mine, from vacuum tube to printed circuit. And from horse-cart to printed circuits (each of whose count of transistor gates keeps increasing) or, for that matter, from the invention of the wheel to artificial intelligence – has happened in mere seconds, as measured in ticks of the big sidereal clock in the sky. This realization alone, this hint of the possibility of a glimpse of the immanence of God in the mind of humanity, outweighs a lifetime of blasé shrugs. 

Nowadays, one inescapable mystery of life strikes most every time I think back on the course of my own youth. It is often a lancinating psychic pain: how have I gone from then ’til now so incredibly quickly? It feels like it was only yesterday that I was a promising, innocent young boy with much to anticipate. How I long to go back and whisper some of life’s present wisdom in that scared little boy’s ear. But I am already an old man who developed few of his talents – and even those not much to my satisfaction – with nothing left to look forward to; all life’s milestones, so exciting in the anticipation, are past but one. Where has my life gone…? Where have those lively, innocent, hopeful faces of my childhood companions gone? Many are already dead and this somehow just doesn’t compute. I shrink from the thought. I look at the cast bios while watching old movies on TCM. Those magnificent men, those beautiful women, so vibrant, so full of life…  they are all dead and gone, every one. My life now often consists of merely running out the clock with some lingering vague hope for finding meaning, recognition, affirmation or love (of a more abiding kind than the lust I once confused with love). Does the fact that I have lived make any difference, I ask myself as I count down my life one 90-day prescription refill (really seven bottles of them simultaneously every three months) at a time? Will I outlive the next refill or will it survive me? When my light goes out, all existence – as far as I am concerned – will cease. That, too, is a mystery – one I find presently painful, awe-inspiring, incomprehensible.

Several moments of nostalgia recently rose to near-physical pain. Tiny excerpts from the tale of my life. Something led me to look on Google Earth at a sleep-away camp I went to for eight weeks for each of the summers of 1953, ’54, and ’55 – age 8 – 10. It was a scary experience to go from north NJ to NYC, then by train to Great Barrington MA, to Monterey by bus. It was an all-day trip, whose separation anxiety and motion sickness led me to vomit all over the bus floor even as we arrived at Camp Monterey for boys and sister Camp Owaissa for girls.. The stench of this episode lingered and did not improve my popularity. Such gustatory ejaculations were emblematic, it seems, of my childhood fears. The first day of kindergarten, my mother walked me the half-mile to school and left me with my class. The separation anxiety was so intense I vomited there, all over the bright, shiny yellow enamel table I shared with other children seated around it. Typical of my upbringing, I only recall being given a wash and clean clothes, but not the love and reassurance I needed to assuage the fear of being separated from my mother. 

But I digress, the point I wanted to make is that, notwithstanding the anxiety of getting to camp and staying there in real time, the memories of having been there leave me with truly heart-rending nostalgia and awe. On Google Maps, there remains not the slightest trace of the rather extensive physical manifestations of the camp. Not the bungalow in which we slept, the dining hall, stables, baseball fields, shooting range or the pine grove, the site of bonfires and marshmallow immolations. Neither were there the docks on the lake where I overcame many fears and learned to swim and water ski. The memory of water skiing, in turn, led me to recall my next-door neighbor, Larry, from Elizabeth NJ. Although a couple of years older, he was my best friend through most of my childhood. He was the water ski instructor at the camp (we first learned of it from him) and I had lost contact with him when I left for college. As was my style, sadly I know now, my friends were then disposable. I rarely maintained contact with any in a given school or locale after either of us physically moved on. I remember my dad told me he had heard from Larry about 30 years ago and that Larry said he would be glad to hear from me. Alas, even then, I was busy with life and never bothered to reach out. I have searched in vain for him on the web recently. How I would love to recall with him the times at Camp Monterey and the endless stickball games we played in our neighborhood! I can only see this trait in myself as a defect of character which is self-punishing. The longing and nostalgia engendered from this self-inflicted loss indeed constitute a form of ‘just-so’ retribution.

A similar longing took hold of me was I watched the movie My Fair Lady recently. My mother was an amateur ‘Borscht Belt’ performer along the lines of Ethel Merman. She had some talent, a powerful voice and a dramatic persona. She played leading roles in numerous local amateur and semi-pro musical productions, especially Gypsy. Anyway, my parents had a collection of 33rpm renditions of all the popular Broadway musicals, including My Fair Lady. I even went with friends to see a few of these productions live. Damn Yankees, seen at age 12, introduced me to the more-than-real, ‘larger than life’ effect produced by such artful shows. A rare moment of that elusive awe I longed for. I later took the great unrequited love of my childhood, Karen, to see Camelot with Richard Burton, Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet – the original Broadway cast (It did not make her love me). Again, a brief moment of inspiration, whose impact was lost on me since the entire enterprise was in service of somehow causing Karen to ‘love’ me; a manipulation, in short, which blunted the effect that experience might otherwise have had.

As with nostalgia for Camp Monterey and longing to recapture the magic of life which eluded me in real-time, I had the same longing while I was watching My Fair Lady. I think it is a mix of many emotional threads. These musicals display a completely different culture from the present. The sheer innocence and socially docile, amenable humanity of the time seems quaint, almost child-like compared to today. The simple decency in those musical dramas and the nobility of even the fallen characters, spoke of an untainted human condition – flawed yet hopeful – today warped beyond recognition. So I think we have lost something culturally in what is today required of entertainment. More personally, these musicals connect me to whatever small part of my childhood was not fraught with fear of not measuring up to my parents expectations; that gnawing sense that I was somehow responsible for their happiness and finding fulfillment by my performance on the stage of their lives. What a burden! And these lilting refrains provided a temporary balm, easing the chronic aches in the reality of family dysfunction. A glimpse of life and love as it could be. And seeing My Fair Lady today stands, magically, for the proposition that some values are, indeed, timeless – regardless of what our fake culture now insists.

I try to avoid the intense self-conscious moments of existential fear rooted in my childhood as best I can. I have never required the admonition ‘memento mori.’ To the contrary, what I need is a time out from recalling my mortality. The best antidote I have found is keeping busy. That is precisely why I failed at retirement 10 years ago. After a two month trial off of work, I received an offer of part-time anesthesiology practice and I grabbed it. I continue to do that on average about 6 days each month. As well, I am starting a second part-time job as a physician in a drug & alcohol rehab, where I will help detox addicts four weekend days per month (so as to not conflict with my anesthesia work). I do this simply because when I work, I become the task of doing my job and this affords me precious moments of ‘memento vitae’ – remembering life, unencumbered for a time with the intense consciousness of self (self-centeredness in recovery-speak) which is toxic in the large doses which I seem unable to escape when I am not working, reading or engrossed in a good movie (of which there are few made nowadays).

Speaking of addiction and recovery, somebody once told me she thought I was a ‘meanings’ junkie. Maybe that is part of my problem..

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