Condition: Provisional

https://www.flickr.com/photos/rayandbee/5915105592
The Wheel of Life
Vigeland Sculpture in Frogner Park, Oslo

As I live through this COVID-19 pandemic, one phrase keeps popping up in my mind: the human condition. To me, the human condition is our imperfection, our inability to escape suffering, and that we live in a natural world indifferent to us. I keep reminding myself and my family that we are experiencing firsthand what can go wrong in a natural world that we thought we had mostly tamed. At the same time, our culture promotes an ethic of personal responsibility, suggesting that we have an influence on what happens to us. So what does it mean to be subject to the human condition but responsible at the same time?

Take my grandfather Nils Jacobsen’s life. In 1917, before the end of World War I and another pandemic, the Spanish flu, he brought his wife, Marthe, and two-year-old son, Alden, my father, from their farm in Norway to Racine, Wisconsin, where they hoped to build a new life. The 1920 census listed them living in a rental in Ward 8. They were still finding their footing. In 1926, Nils sold the family farm in Norway, which he inherited as the eldest son, to his brother.  It appears that life was going well in Wisconsin. Times were good! 

By the 1930 census, Marthe and Nils owned a home, a sweet bungalow that’s still standing, and they listed a second son, my father’s brother. But it was the start of the Great Depression. Soon after, Marthe died at age 51, and by the 1940 census, Nils, my father, my mother, my father’s brother, and my older sister were living in a rental flat. It was World War II, and the fishing on the Great Lakes had dried up.  My father and Nils struggled to find work they could do. Nils died in 1948, a bitter old man, as my mother described him. 

Not an altogether happy tale, but I suspect most families, if they dig, can find similar stories. How much of what happened was Nil’s responsibility? Maybe selling the farm? But surely not Marthe’s death, the loss of their home, and the loss of fishing for a living. I tend not to judge him harshly. Nils and his family lived through World War I, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the Great Depression, and World War II. As for Nils dying a bitter old man, I’d say he succumbed to the human condition

While Nils confronted the human condition writ large, until now, my own experience has been more personal.  After my second husband, Gary, died, I struggled, literally, for years with searching for meaning about his death.  I endured guilt that I had done something to bring this outrage on us, and I believed that if I could identify what I’d done, I could atone for it—I should atone for it. When I wasn’t feeling guilty, I was asking myself about the larger karmic meaning of his death—were the repercussions in our immediate world a way of balancing the scales, so to speak? I found no clear answers. 

Being a church-goer, I decided to take my pain to the minister, Pastor Rob. Pastor Rob didn’t like the idea of karma—that I bore responsibility for Gary’s death and, thus, for my grief.  He thought such thinking was where New Agers go wrong. Instead, he told me that Gary and I, like all humans, were subject to the human condition, which includes suffering. Neither of us had caused his death and I didn’t owe any atonement. Wow! I walked out his office feeling lighter, a new freedom. I still didn’t know the meaning, and in truth, I continued to seek it, but not finding it now felt okay. My search became part of my human condition. 

Later I learned about provisional existence. Viktor Frankl wrote that prisoners in concentration camps could not see an end to their suffering.  They could see no future so they lived a “provisional existence.” Pastor Rob had given me such an existence. I found no meaning, but I could live with that, provisionally, and keep looking. Frankl said something else that resonates with me in these times, that rather than me asking for the meaning of Gary’s death, I am being questioned by life and I need to find my own answer in my own terms.  In Frankl’s words: Each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life byanswering for his own life

So here I am, living in a world-wide pandemic. This isn’t the retirement I planned, stuck at home, worried about family, friends, and the world more generally. Worried about an uncertain future, are my savings withering so that I’ll be one of the people living solely on Social Security? Will we have a depression? What about my grandchildren, one in college who’s been forced to come home?  The other about to graduate into a precarious world, and there will be no celebration. I am being questioned by life, and how will I answer? 

I have choices. I can weather the pandemic, hopefully stay healthy, and go forward with what is available now.  I can support family and friends as they move forward, too. If my money’s gone . . . well, I’ll deal with that if I must.  My other choice, of course, is, like my grandfather, to grow bitter, that my glorious retirement has been denied me, that my plans have been slayed by a merciless nature. 

 Every day I take advantage of the one freedom still left, the opportunity to take a walk in the unfolding spring, oblivious to the havoc of a virus. It’s Minnesota, so it takes a while for spring to show its color, but because my life has so drastically slowed down, I linger on my walk and look for small signs of the turn towards spring.

One day I noticed tree stumps, and I walked along eagerly photographing tree stumps, which mind you, are presumed to be dead, cut off. But then I noticed that some tree stumps don’t quit easily. They make the best of things and put out new shoots of life. Now and then there’s a hollowed out-stump that couldn’t regenerate itself. But everywhere in nature there are examples of persistence. Think about those weeds we so fervently pull. 

I have my share of human arrogance, but I’m learning to accept the indifference of our world—some natural and some human behavior—it is the human condition.  But in fact, indifference is a condition all life faces, human, stumps, and otherwise. So I carry on, knowing that as I’m questioned by life, I can keep on putting out shoots, it’s on me to find my own answer. 

A picture containing photo, fence, showing, outdoor

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Later I learned that coppicing is a traditional method of woodland management that harnesses the ability of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. 

The Chair: A Parable for Our Time?

I have so many friends who have confided that, since self-isolating began, their homes have never been cleaner.  They are also going through the old piles of books, the mess in the bathroom vanity, and all the almost-used-up cleaning products under the kitchen sink.  Hoarding toilet paper has given me new enthusiasm for decreasing waste and insisting on using and washing microfiber cloths rather than discarding paper towels, as well as making our own disinfectant.  Okay, we are all going a little nuts.  My point is that we are really paying attention to how we are living — how we occupy our little space in this world and how we can conserve what we have. 

Which brings me to The Chair.  The story of The Chair is, in some ways, an elaboration of my previous post on decluttering and connects me to ongoing reflections about “stuff” that both contains emotions and occupies physical space.  It raises the dogged and still unanswered question:  What will matter most when my mental fog around the current situation lifts?

To begin: In 1969, I lived in New York, with two graduate student fellowships as my husband’s and my only source of income.  As a friend said about my husband, however, “You could fall into a sewer and come up holding diamonds”.  So, while having NO MONEY AT ALL, we lived in the most luxurious home that I have ever occupied – a sublet in a Columbia University-owned faculty building on Riverside Drive, complete with doorman, polished door handles, three bedrooms-plus-study, and a parking space – a parking space in Manhattan!   But, after all, it was New York.  It was the late 60s-early 70s, and there was lots of good stuff going on for free (or nearly free).

When we moved from our first apartment to the brief Riverside Drive idyll, we brought with us a bed, a sofa (which I reupholstered – my only and not particularly successful effort of that type), a desk/dining table — and The Chair. She was a slightly bulky but stylish piece, whose Peter Max screaming orange velvet upholstery was the probable cause of her deeply discounted price at Maurice Villency (a big step up from the Door Store, which provided our cheap flat surfaces).  It was also the dog days of summer in New York,  and no one in their right mind wanted to sit on orange velvet in a marginally air conditioned pre-war apartment.  The Chair was actually a designer’s effort to make mid-century modern meet American recliner.  It was huge – big enough that we could sit in it together (sort of….).  She was the chair of choice for reading.  She was, even with orange upholstery, much more reflective of who we thought we would become than the very unprofessionally recovered second-hand sofa. 

I didn’t know at the time that The Chair would move with me through all of the chapters of my life, including a divorce and a remarriage.  Recovered three times,  her last reincarnation (a rust and gold patterned fabric that cost a lot more than I wanted to spend) ensured that it would fit in with the bold colors that Dan and I chose to set off the ocean of quarter-sawn oak trim in our 1910 “four square” honeymoon house in Minneapolis.  We loved it.  It was the chair of choice for any visitor.  Our dog, Moxie, thought that he should own it (although officially banned from the furniture) and leapt up whenever we turned our backs….

When Dan and I moved from a three-story house to a bright loft-like condominium, it never occurred to me to leave The Chair behind, although full shipping pods went to each daughter and we left a few other good pieces behind for the lucky new owner.  We knew when we moved her that she was in desperate need of another facelift.  For six years, she hung on, increasingly out of place in a loft that was otherwise furnished with Scandinavian antiques, Dan’s exquisite one-of-a-kind “art furniture” that occupied his dreams in the winter and his time in his summer shop, and handmade wood pieces from Thomas Moser’s Maine workshop, one of which I inherited from my father. 

The new dog, Kasper, loved The Chair as much as Moxie, our previous dog did.  Her arms acquired an increasing patina of permanent grime.  I shopped for fabric with our friend Laura, who held out the incentive of her architect’s discount. I couldn’t let The Chair go….and I couldn’t figure out how I could make her fit.

Then, somehow, things changed.  As I hemmed and hawed over The Chair, it became clear that she held too many memories (in addition to being huge and heavy) to carry with me as I moved into retirement.  She embodied too much past without holding a promise of what the future might bring.  And, all of a sudden, Laura said, “I know what you can do – send a picture to OmForme and see whether he could recycle it into a completely different chair”.   Omforme takes good quality old furniture and reimagines it and Laura was so intrigued with the possibilities that she used her deep dive into the online fabric sphere to score enough fabric to seal the deal.  And she loved the result so much that I gave the chair to her (she paid for the redo) – with the stipulation that I could visit.

Now, here I am in Boulder in a tiny rental house that we furnished from Ikea and Craig’s List, unable to get back to our Minneapolis loft until the “don’t travel unless necessary” recommendation is lifted.  I am trying to carve out a different life in retirement, where I live with fewer attachments to “old stuff”, whether it is a physical object or a professional persona that has become almost inseparable from what is just behind it. The world is in a frenzy, where my intense desire to reach out on Zoom to everyone who has ever meant something to me punctuates the relatively silence of our house. We have no way of predicting what will happen in the next few months, and I screen the competing voices seesawing between doom and “back to normal by fall.”

I sometimes think that I have two choices – hang on to what I have (relationships, hopes for the future…) or really try to live day-by-day, curious about what life-with-less will be like tomorrow.  But it is not easy to let go, although hanging on requires a lot of the mental energy that I could put to other uses.   And I am not even sure what is most important to hang on to. 

As for The Chair:  In this new and even more uncertain world, I am glad that you showed me that I could live without you.  So long good friend.  I needed to let you go but I won’t forget you — and I am glad that you are safe