The richness of life amidst challenge

I used to love going to Walden Pond for a summer swim with dear friend Guy Wallace.

We’d get together after work and drive the winding route from Brookline to Concord.

He’d drive close to the water and we’d don our swmming suits. I’d lift him from his wheelchair. We’d wade into the water until it was deep enough for him to start swimming, and off we’d go.

Afterwards, we’d sit near the water and talk as we basked basked in the late afternoon sun before the mosquitoes got too active, our bodies relaxed and our hair wet. The conversation slid easily from work to women to parents to disability to the law.

The knowledge that we were sitting near where Henry David Thoreau had stayed in his effort to suck all the marrow out of life gave me an added layer of pleasure.

Thoreau said he wanted “to put to rout all that was not life and not when I had come to die Discover that I had not lived.”

Like most, if not all, of us, I don’t know how much time I have.

But I do know that I receive every day reminders that I am firmly between the generations.

Our parents are coming to the end of their lives, failing and passing with increasing frequency. More of us are facing our own health challenges, and, in work, have somehow arrived at that place where we’re become less attractive to hire due to our experience, accompanying salary, and expectations of benefits and at least somewhat reasonable hours. Our children are in many cases out of our homes, if not yet fully launched into the world.

This past week alone one friend’s mother-in-law died, another had major surgery and a third had to decide within 48 hours whether to take a severance package or add a full job.

At an earlier point in my life hearing about these types of experiences might have prompted a comparative sense of, if not advantage, at least lesser hardship.

Now it’s different.

My friends’ trials elicit a simultaneous feeling of deeper connection to what could very well come to me at some point as well as a chance to learn from those who matter most. They also spark urgency to orient my life around doing and being with the people I love, to be open to life’s richness, and to savor the many gifts I am privileged to experience.

The richness comes from weaving a web of relationships based on the memory of shared experiences, the perspective that comes from understanding the earlier time in light of present moment of renewing connection.

I received a call late Friday night from Tsepo Mahlaba, a friend from South Africa I met more than 17 years ago, when I participated in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange program.

One of my exchange partner Vukani’s best friends, Tsepo treated me as a brother. He took me throughout the country to soccer games, parties, cow slaughters, and weddings.

He did so because he wanted to show his country to me and because he wanted to honor the love he and his enormous circle of friends had for Vukani.

He and his wife Mathami wed that year, as did two other friends.

We laughed and laughed as we reminisced about those days and where we were in our lives at that point.

We are old now, Jeff, he said. We are married and have children. Our parents are dying.

I don’t know about the first part, but agree with the second two.

Dunreith and I will travel to South Africa in late November to present at a conference about the trip we took with Dad in May to visit his hometown in Germany for the first time in 73 years.

The trip was something I had wanted to do for decades.

We will stay with Tsepo and his family before attending the conference.

It will be beautiful.

The richness also comes from working more and more to engage in substantial projects and leave something meaningful behind.

Last Friday marked the publication in Hoy and the Champaign News-Gazette of a 16-page, broadsheet supplement about demographic change in Central Illinois.

The most ambitious project we’ve done so far, it looks beautiful.

I’ve already found a number of mistakes and have identified many areas in which we can improve, and it is an accomplishment on a number of levels.

The richness stems from seeing new life, as we did when we Skyped with my brother Mike, his wife Annie and Matthew, their two-week-old son.

The richness comes from meeting and interviewing iconic figures like Dolores Huerta, the legendary labor leader who stood next to Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated, co-founded the United Farm Workers with Cesar Chavez, coined the phrase, “Si, se puede.”

Yes, we can.

The diminutive mother of 11 and grandmother of 68 has an unquenched passion for justice. She continues to travel all over the country to share her message that change is possible, but you must organize to make it happen.

I don’t see you retiring, I said.

She laughed.

Never, she said. This is too much fun.

The richness comes from bringing to fruition the deepest of desires I’ve held for many years.

In less than a month we’ll have a book and website launch event to celebrate the completion of the project I’ve done about learning from fourth grade teacher, mentor and friend Paul Tamburello at three distinct points over the course of three decades.

We’ll hold the event in the same school where I was a student and apprentice teacher and where Paul taught for 34 years.

We first talked about the book in 1999.

We’re completing it this year.

I don’t know if I will feel, as Thoreau aspired to do when he set out to stay near the pond where Guy and I swam so many times, when I arrive at the end of my life that I’ve sucked all the marrow out of my time on the planet.

But I do know that I feel profoundly grateful for all that I’ve experienced thus far, for the fullness that inhabits my days, and for the possibilities that lie ahead.


2 responses to “The richness of life amidst challenge

  1. Jeff, your entry above resonated with me. My term of office as an elected official in Meridian Township here in mid-Michigan ends in a couple of weeks. I don’t think of it as having sucked all the marrow out of life so much as having injected some healthy marrow into the community Frank and I chose to inhabit some 34 years ago when he was appointed mental health director of Michigan. Anyway, it feels pretty good to retire with the good will my fellow citizens express with smiles I receive everywhere from the post office to the local grocery store. I just hope I can be humble about it all.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, Lynn, and congratulations on your meritorious service to your community. You deserve all the smiles you receive.


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