Oxymoronically, existence is change, or so say the sages. Without stability, meaning degrades to meaninglessness. In a series of letters, a father and daughter try to understand stability and change, love and loss, dependence and freedom, the parent–child relationship, and head and heart, as they consider an opportunity to write about migration as family history.
Hi Fran, I am writing to sound you out about something. Devika Chawla just put out a call for manuscripts about “migration” for a special issue of a journal she's taking over as editor. Given what's been happening in our family, I got the idea that maybe you and I could write something together. I mean, with our losses in recent years—Aunt Bonnie, Uncle Ted, Grandma, and Mom, Americorps taking you to Colorado and Peter to Texas, and my creeping decrepitude, we could write about migration as family change. Or is this too much of a stretch … Ah, hell, nevermind.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
I can't tell you how much it meant to me to be able to celebrate Peter's graduation by hiking and camping with the two of you. Mom would be so happy to know that we celebrated this passage as we did: together, out West, where it's clear that the momentum of your lives is taking you both, enjoying the beauty of Canyonlands by day and tucking in under the night sky, watching the stars and talking until we fell asleep, and waking to the soft light of high desert dawn. Thanks for being such a good big sister to Peter and daughter to me. As I age, struggle to rebuild life without Mom, and adjust to you and Peter establishing yourselves as independent adults, my greatest comfort is knowing that you care enough about one another and about me to want to be together like we were in Utah.
I hope you don't mind this directness about how I've been feeling. We are still trying to figure out how to live, not only with unimaginable loss, but also with unimaginable vulnerability, after Mom's passing. And difficult as it's been for me, it has been so much harder for you and Peter. I grew up surrounded by extended family and was an adult before losing people I loved. You and Peter lost so much in adolescence. Peter told me recently that he feels like I'm the only adult in his life. What must this be like for you two? I am trying to grasp what you are going through, and how I can be the father you need, despite my inexperience. That's the aim of this letter. But writing this way reveals my limitations and also my dependence on you and your brother. Although I'm confident that you are mature and strong enough to handle this, it's painful to see you outgrow innocence.
I've been thinking a lot lately about the insight that existence is change—the impermanence at the heart of Buddhist wisdom. We've talked about this, and also about the fact that enlightenment requires preparation and hard work (except for the lucky student of Zen). And even for those who reach Nirvana, challenges big and small persist (hence, the wonderful book by Jack Kornfield, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry1). Waves of change continue, testing even the enlightened, until life ends. Loss such as we have experienced is the reason I'm drawn to the promise of Buddhist insight. But the idea of letting go of attachment itself troubles me. Sure, it would be wise to let go of little things, but how could it be wise to let go of what is most meaningful? How can I let go of the loss of Mom even though it so often feels unbearable? Why would I want to no longer feel her absence in the deepest recesses of my being? How can I be untroubled in seeing you lose your innocence, even though it's the only pathway to adulthood and wisdom? How can I reconcile myself to the steady dismantling of our home as you and Peter move away, even though this is the only way for you to become whoever you will be? So, I struggle with the dialectics of stability and change, meaning and meaninglessness, and the sheltering familiarity of home and the staggering risks of a life worth living.
I am trying hard to tell you something that will be meaningful and helpful. And in doing so, I see the futility of the enterprise. You, Peter, and Mom have so often chided me for giving advice when what you needed and wanted was for me to listen. What a poignant reminder of Mom's absence, her boundless strength, patience, openness, and loving acceptance. So here we are, at the end of a letter in which I'd hoped—in the face of futility—to impart a useful life lesson. But I wonder if you could set aside that aim and see that, below its surface, I am trying to figure out what I know despite the ceaseless change that threatens to erode every insight. Rather than seeing this as lecture, see it as the offer of my open heart, and as encouragement for you to share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences with me as we navigate this constantly changing river.
I love you and look forward to anything you want to say, anywhere you want to go. Know I will always be with you even when I'm not.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
I am not sure what I was expecting to feel while reading your letter. I was anticipating emotions, sure, but I was struck not by the range of feelings but by the nuances of sadness it evoked. Thinking about what losing Mom has meant to you, reflecting on my own experiences, evokes the complex tapestry of sadness. I feel emptiness in losing Mom, the absence of the loving and protective person who gave me life. I feel grief as I try to understand incomprehensible loss. I feel anguish seeing your pain and helplessness knowing I can do nothing meaningful about it.
This, I suppose, brings me to another sort of sorrow. I am so sorry that you have had to change in these ways. Just as you say to me that you are sorry that I have had to experience the loss of a parent at such a young age, I too am sorry that you have lost a life-partner. No one should have to re-adjust, to re-plan, to re-contextualize their life without the person they chose to spend it with. Not like this.
You spoke of the sadness of seeing me grow out of my innocence. We both know that this is the normal way of things. We spoke some time ago about parent–child relationships shifting as we age. You reminded me that it can be difficult for a child to see her parents as people—individuals with vulnerabilities—who can be wrong. Reading your letter reminded me of this, not because you are wrong, but because you are vulnerable and because the nature of our relationship is shifting. You are not immune to loss, pain, and sadness. As your child, I find this is one of the most painful realizations. And as I become more of an adult, my love is calling me to care for your heart as you have always cared for mine. That is where the great pain comes from—the pain of not being able to spare someone else the deep pain you yourself know exists.
Finally, just as you pointed out when Grandma made a joke about the long-winded rabbi at Aunt Bonnie's funeral, there is humor even in the greatest pain. I must laugh at your inability to escape academia, even in writing such a personal letter. You are a compulsive academic, even when it comes to understanding your own loss. You have been drawn so strongly toward the lessons of Buddhism. Change is the only constant, attachment leads to suffering. So, I wonder, do you apply this philosophy to your losses because Buddhism has taught you to understand that life is change? Or are you attached to the comfort of a familiar and comprehensible rhetoric because it allows you to make sense of a world that is too complex to understand? Is holding on to the idea of the constancy of change a way to give order and meaning to entropy? Do these questions make any sense?
All my love,
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Your questions are astute. Reading your letter prompted me to look back at what I wrote. What strikes me about the emerging thread in our two letters, largely thanks to your last paragraph, is that we both intellectualize our feelings: me as someone serving a life sentence in academia, and you as the child of two lifers. Academic work eventually makes intellectual response an over-learned habit. And, for good and ill, the mind moves less like a hummingbird than like a skein of geese. I hope that you can feel your losses and come to understand them, not like an essay assignment, but as an organic piece of your adult self. Between the reality you face in writing to a hyper-educated dad, and my tendency to intellectualize, correspondence is probably not the best way for us to do emotional work related to Mom. Maybe all I can or should say about this for now is that I still feel her presence so strongly in every interaction, particularly with you and Peter. Although it is now over two years since her passing, I simply cannot grasp that she is gone. How could she be so profoundly present and absent? If you'll pardon the comparison, is this the emotional corollary of Schrödinger's cat?
I don't want you to worry about taking care of me. There may come a time when you must face my incontinence, but we are a long way from that, and like Moses, I may yet receive God's kiss. Although I appreciate your concern more than you can imagine, it's most important to me that you feel unfettered, free to pursue your dreams. I don't know if I ever told you this, but Grandpa and I were so deeply enmeshed that the only way I could get free of him was to live precisely the life he wanted for me, but to do so unhappily. I want you to be free of any such emotional encumbrance, free to grow where your own interests and values take you. And don't worry about leaving me behind. If you and Peter ever seem to be settling close to each other, I'll figure out a way to live nearby (probably closer than you'll want me to be J).
And here we are again at attachment and letting go. Meaning is impossible without some degree of consistency, but life is impossible without change. I don't think this means that meaningful life is impossible so much as that life and meaning are in irreducible tension. Perhaps the detachment of Buddhism has something to do with this tension. I probably will never achieve enlightenment because, it appears, I am not convinced that freedom from suffering is a worthy aim. Although I don't want to entangle you in my nonsense, I hope you embrace the tension between holding on to what is dear—because otherwise it cannot be dear—and letting go of bonds when life offers more of itself. And since we're on the subject …
One reason I have been thinking “out loud” with you about the changes we have been going through is that Devika Chawla is looking for essays on migration, and that has had me thinking about our family in lots of different ways. It has occurred to me that you and I might propose to write something together. Would this interest you? No pressure: I just thought I'd ask J
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
I am curious about your reasoning behind the statement “Meaning is impossible without some degree of consistency.” While we agree that life is impossible without change, I would like to debate the former point. Your Schrödinger's cat analogy was particularly interesting, and I have been thinking about it since receiving your letter. But, perhaps, these are conversations for another time.
You asked if I would like to co-author a paper for something Devika Chawla is doing. This has made me think about our previous correspondence, but it has me focusing in particular on my move out West. I hadn't thought of it as migration before, but doing so now has given rise to thoughts on three issues. I am curious to see what you think of each. Perhaps one will resonate with you, too, and we could make this the focus of the essay we write together.
One connection in my experience has been a migration in thought. Having changed high schools four times in four years, having moved a thousand miles from home for undergrad school, and then farther still upon graduating, I am no stranger to moving. As an adolescent, I remember being so wrapped up in what life would be like after I had moved. I was focused on all the ways my life would be different, what the outcome of each transition would be. The more mobile I am, and the older I get, the more I recognize that attachment to an outcome is a recipe for unhappiness. I am reminded of the phrase “It's not the destination, it's the journey.” My experience (and what you've taught me about Buddhism) assures me that this is true. I have noticed this migration in thought within myself over the past few years. I am less and less wrapped up in getting to a destination or a particular outcome, because (a) everything changes and no outcome is permanent, and (b) I can't control outcomes but I can control my reactions. With age, with experience, and with growth and change, I am more able to appreciate the journey. I now try to embrace the change and uncertainty as fuel for this intellectual migration.
I have also been thinking about how migration relates to aging. Our letters have me thinking of this primarily in the context of how child–parent relationships shift as we age. I have experienced a migration toward my own independence, but I also see myself moving toward more responsibility to give you and Peter my love and caring. I am not sure whether I would have arrived at this reflection without our correspondence about the essay you described. Did you ever see your own aging or your move from the Northeast to the Midwest as migrations?
The final, and perhaps most obvious, way I have been thinking about the theme of migration is in the context of my physical movement out West. I mention this last because I believe, despite being the most obvious connection, it is actually the result of the types of migration I've already outlined. Without some sort of migration in thought, without growing independence and trust in the journey, I never would have moved out here. Without the shifting, growing relationships I have with you and Peter, and the anguish it has sometimes caused, my move west would not have been nearly so meaningful. So, I see complications: I am comfortable with movement, with being unattached, with embracing experiences rather than outcomes. But I feel a lot of guilt about having left, being so far away from you and Peter. I suppose this has something to do with what you were saying about the tensions between life and change on the one hand, and constancy and meaning on the other. So, maybe I don't want to debate, but I do want to continue the conversation.
— — — — — — — — — — — — — — —
Thanks for your openness to the idea of writing something together. Your reflections are indeed the kinds of ideas we might pursue together. What I particularly like about the idea of writing an essay with you on this topic is that it will give us a chance to get to know each other in a new way, without us necessarily knowing where this will take us. I think that fits really well with your realization that the journey is everything.
I am glad, I guess, that you are aware of the tensions between freedom and connection (my ambivalence comes from knowing that this awareness makes for both a more meaningful and more trying life). This is what I meant to suggest in earlier letters. Without reliable relationships, meaning is ephemeral. Without freedom, movement, and change, there is no life. This is what I've been struggling with since losing Mom; in watching you and Peter move, grow, live; and in living the loss of my middle age. Letting go of attachment might be a solution for some, and it certainly has its appeal for me, but I can't fully embrace it without feeling like I am letting go of all meaning. And, as you said a couple of letters ago, maybe this is just my (academic) way of making meaninglessness seem meaningful.
Writing, verbalizing understanding, is itself an effort to wrest meaning from the noise and disorder of existence. For that same reason it's also a bit delusional, or so said Lao Tzu (whose first truth was “The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way. The name that can be named is not the constant name”2). I don't know if you ever saw the movie Annie Hall, but it ends with an apt joke: “A guy walks into a psychiatrist's office and says, ‘Hey doc, my brother's crazy! He thinks he's a chicken.’ So the doc says, ‘Why don't you turn him in?’ Then the guy says, ‘I would but I need the eggs.’”3 The point of the joke in the movie is that this is the nature of relationships: They're crazy, but we need them. I guess what I'm saying is that trying to hold on to anything is probably crazy, but we need the eggs.
Wish I had more (some?) wisdom for you, honey, as you move on with your life. I'll talk to Devika about whether she'll consider an essay we write together. If she's open to it, we should work out logistics immediately, so expect to hear from me soon.