I hope there is no adult in this space who underestimates the importance of gifts of time to children. Even the seeming smallest can become a memory that lasts forever.
Several summers in a row, I stayed with my father’s parents. Since we’re Ukrainian, I called them Baba and Dido. One lazy Saturday, I came into the kitchen where I found Baba playing a card game called Solitaire. Seven piles laid out, stock pile in her hand, waste pile to the side. Cards coming and going, coming and going.
She was probably in her early 60s at the time. I was maybe 8. Eventually the Solitaire game ended, and then she turned to me and said, “Want me to show you something?” She reached for my hand and placed it palm down on the table. She put hers beside mine.
My skin was clear. Hers was speckled with liver spots.
With a mischievous smile, she pinched a bit of my skin, on the top of my hand. It made a tiny, pointy mountain of skin. She held it, and then let go. Instantly, the skin retracted to normal perfect flatness. But then she repeated this process on herself. She pinched her skin until it formed a tiny skin mountain, but when she let it go? Totally different story. The peak didn’t suddenly vanish. Slowly, slowly, her skin descended back to flatness. It was mountain mountain mountain getting smaller getting smaller getting smaller and then (almost with a groan) the skin collapsing back to normal.
I looked at her suddenly, and she smiled and said, “I’m old.” And I knew I was not old but one day would be; my skin would become just like that.
She got up from the table, made some instant coffee, and then asked if I wanted to play a game. Of course I did. She was one of the rare adults who ever actually played games with me. Other adults always seemed busy, or tired. But Baba made time for me. There were epic games of Scrabble. Epic games of Trouble.
A couple times I even won.
I’m thinking about Baba Makar this morning, as we explore growing up, growing older, and growing true. Three sub-themes in the larger theme of growth.
First there is growing up. Recently Paul Angone, creator of AllGroanUp.com—and he spells “groan” G-R-O-A-N–was videotaped talking with kids about what it means to be a grown up, what they want to do when they grow up, and how long they think it will take.
At one point, he asks a five-year-old, “What age do you think you’ll be when you move out of your parents’ house?” And the five-year-old replies, “I think I’ll be nine.” Paul Angone then asks. “So when you move out of your house at nine, how are you going to get anywhere?” and the kid replies: “Maybe my mom and dad will drive me.”
Being away from mom and dad is just not yet imaginable for this child.
And then there’s another conversation Paul Angone had, with a different child:
Paul Angone: Do you know how much a house costs?
Paul Angone: Do you think it’s like, twenty dollars?
Paul Angone: Fifty dollars?
Paul Angone: A million dollars?
Paul Angone: Higher? Five million?
Paul Angone stops the conversation there but you get a sense the kid could have gone on into the trillions…
What does it mean to grow up? It means a crossing a line and you can never go back. You cross a line and you can never go back to that place where independence from parents is inconceivable. You cross a line and you can never go back to that place where obliviousness about money is safe.
By the time Baba showed me the skin mountain game, she had blown past all sorts of lines. Both her parents had already died; she had been married for decades by then; she had had three kids and many more grandchildren.
Establishing one’s independency—however that looks—is the classic marker of growing up, but the only thing I’d add here is that it’s primarily an external marker, and a person can have this and still seem not very grown up. What’s really missing is character. As in: taking personal responsibility, prioritizing things of genuine worth over the relatively worthless, taking care of your health, investing in true friends, focusing on self-improvement, and being generous and giving back.
Baba had all these virtues too. She was grown up externally and internally.
She was also growing older. That’s the second dimension to growth in everyone: time’s relentless arrow, moving bodies from infancy and childhood and youth to young adulthood, middle age, old age, death.
The elastic skin of my child hand, vs. the not-so-elastic skin of Baba’s hand.
This is the part of aging that can seem so frightening. You lose a control over your body you really didn’t know you had until things start changing. At 46 my eyes could focus on print material just fine. At 47 something happened almost overnight and I began to be an ardent supporter of the reading glass industry. Readers in about six locations at my home. Readers in the car. Readers in the office. Everywhere: readers readers readers!
Aging changes our eyes and it changes our faces. Our feet get longer and get wider. Entropy happens to our arms and legs and elsewhere—a slow gradual decline into disorder. “Then come the creaking days,” says Ecclesiastes 12 from the Hebrew Bible. “Years creep up in which one feels like saying, ‘I have no taste for them.’ For the sunlight darkens in the eyes; dimmed is the light of the moon and stars; and the vision is patchy like a cloudy sky after the rain. The hands and arms, the guards of the house, begin to tremble. And the legs, like battle-tired soldiers, are unsure in their step. The grinding mills, the teeth, are fewer, and the windows of the mind fog up . . . “
Aging is not for the faint of heart.
So we must step up with heart. Writer Virginia Ramig tells a story about a friend’s aunt who had loved to paint ever since she was a child. Some of her happiest hours were those she spent creating colorful images on canvas. But as she aged, she developed macular degeneration, leaving her with only peripheral vision. She couldn’t see anything straight ahead. But she was not deterred; she continued painting. And then she had a stroke, the result being she couldn’t use her right hand and had only the left to work with. So what. As soon as she was up and around she began painting again, one-handed. “This,” she joked, “will be my abstract period.”
It is said, “It is not how old you are, but how you are old” (Jules Renard).
I want to be like the aunt who painted no matter what.
Actually, I want to be like my Baba, who was growing older and yet her spirit was one of the youngest I ever knew, because she stayed perennially engaged with her world, and her priorities were on target.
The creaking days of the body never have to translate into creakiness of mind, or heart.
But now there is a third and last thing I want to say about growing, which builds on the theme that aging is not for the faint of heart. Mythologist Joseph Campbell calls the human growth journey across the entire lifespan a hero story, and the aim in this is to be true to each changing circumstance we find ourselves in. To be born again and again through the fire of each existential challenge that comes our way, into our wholeness.
Aging isn’t for the faint of heart, but this begins at the very beginning, with the newly born vulnerable infant looking towards their primary caregiver for stability and consistency. Can the world be trusted? That is the first and largest of all questions. Or will the result be otherwise: an abiding sense of insecurity and anxiety?
Because even the best of primary caregivers fall short, already we can see that it’s not an all-or-none sort of deal. Some unfinished emotional business is the legacy of even the best of households. Therefore the growing true journey is not a straight-arrow line (like the physically aging journey) but more like the curving path of a labyrinth. One moment it seems we have emotionally progressed far beyond where we were but, in the next, the path curves back on itself and we are so very close to some trauma we thought we had long ago left behind.
Unfinished business won’t allow itself to be forgotten, until transcended.
It is a little like time travelling, but in a psychological sense. We are feeling fully adult and then something triggers the inner child who is still struggling with that first and fundamental question of trust. Suddenly and fiercely, in the blink of an eye, that inner child shows up in our emotions, as a flood of fear. Past and present coexisting in the same body, now.
The intensity can be shocking.
The best we can do is to accept this labyrinthine quality of our humanity, to listen to those still traumatized parts, to soothe and to love, to gather to ourselves people who care.
This is our reality, no matter how good our circumstances growing up were. But then we must ask: What about children whose young lives are impacted by injustice? When the state, as a parent in the largest sense, is abusive? Kids, for example, with their parents crossing borders to seek asylum in America, but they are put in camps and they are experiencing horrific conditions? What about Cleveland kids, traumatized by the -isms of racism and poverty and more?
The best we can also do, besides self-care, is to find our way to work for justice and a better world for all children.
Let’s do that, each of us, in a way that has integrity and sustainability.
But we continue on with the stages of the growing true journey. The infant grows into using its arms and legs and that means a beginning sense of exploration and independence. The need to baby-proof the entire house. The need to walk carefully because there are toys everywhere. The growth crisis in the child now becomes, Can I make a way in the world for myself? When I fall, can I know that I am still OK, get back up, and keep on keeping on? But if I am overly criticized and controlled, or if I’m not given adequate room to exert myself, shall I instead learn self-doubt and inadequacy?
The challenges unfold in predictable stages, says psychologist Erik Erikson, among others. New growth leads to new crises to be faced, on top of the old ones. Ancient hero stories like those of Gilgamesh or Odysseus—or recent ones like Star Wars or Harry Potter—are what culture gives us to try to wrap our minds around just how immense and intense our own personal hero journeys are.
The next growing true stage occurs in early formative years. When a child shows initiative, will that be received well? Or will they feel guilty when they put themselves out there? Will they feel like they are being a bother?
Between ages 5 and 12, the child is learning to read and write, to do sums, to do things on their own. Through the eyes of teacher and their peers, the world looks on and judges. Am I competent?, the child asks. Can I accomplish things? Can I win? Or am I judged as inferior, and wanting?
All these hard questions we must face, to grow!
Not for the faint of heart…
In adolescence, the child rapidly growing into a young person in the midst of other young people is figuring out their place in society, their role, their labels. Will the labels match what’s on the inside? Can I and we be true to self, in the face of ignorance and prejudice and bias? Will there be authenticity—or will there be confusion, a sense of lostness, a habit of plastering a mask on our faces others approve of but behind them we are suffocating to death?
On and on goes the labyrinthine hero journey of a spiritual being having a human experience. In young adulthood, shall it be intimacy, or isolation? In middle adulthood, can I learn to give back to the world and make it a better place than when I first found it, or will I stagnate as I clutch to myself all the gifts I have been given? In late adulthood, shall I look over my life and discover the goodness of its overall pattern and wholeness and allow this gratitude and wonder to heal me of all my regrets? Or shall my life end in despair?
Each and every one of us is in some stage of this profound hero journey of growing true. And the underlying Unitarian Universalist theology here is that of irrepressible Life at our core—the energy of I AM. I AM. Stand in the midst of a field of flowers and you can just feel this radiant energy of I AM. Sunlight beams it down. Lake Erie is a vast monument to this energy. And this energy is within us too. Our Seventh Principle says so.
This energy of irrepressible Life: it wants all of us to face our challenges courageously, to actualize our inherent worth and dignity, to finish unfinished business, to show the beauty of aliveness, to contribute to the work of justice to rid the world of bullies.
But to release this energy, challenge is apparently what’s needed. It’s like what the humble coffee bean needs, to reveal its marvelous essence and taste.
All those years ago, sitting at the kitchen table with Baba, I was boiling. Boiling in the hot water feelings of plenty of accumulated unfinished business and I was only eight years old. I was boiling in hot water feelings of mistrust, and of feeling like I was a bother. I was boiIing in hot water feelings like I could never win. I had no clue that I was already deeply into the hero-sized story of my own world—how I was Gilgamesh, I was Odysseus, I was Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter, fighting for my life.
Same goes for Baba, even as she was boiling in the much-later stage Erikson calls “generativity vs. stagnation.” And she chose to be generative with me, not stagnant. She never clutched tightly to herself all the gifts that she could give. She gave. Small things that made a big difference. Showing me the skin mountain game. Clearing the kitchen table, clearing away the distractions, sitting down and actually making time for me, playing Scrabble and Trouble with me, letting me win …. sometimes.
All the mythic hero stories culture tells us involve monsters, but whereas those monsters are usually exotic and magical, requiring light sabers and magic wands to fight, real life monsters are of the humble everyday. Exhaustion from schedules that are overbusy with the ultimately unimportant. Perfectionism that puts us on the treadmill and punishes us if we dare to get off. Pessimism that makes us doubt that our small acts of kindness and justice-seeking can make any difference at all.
These are just some of the real monsters that prove the mettle of us all.
And the real-life weapon that works against real-life monsters is loving, compassionate connection.
My Baba just paid attention to me, and attention is love.
She gave me a small story that has fed me and will feed me forever, with the largest of healing love.
May I and we leave such a legacy.