Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death. (Albert Einstein)
Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever. (Gandhi)
Conversations with Anna is a series of 5 posts outlining the decade long discussion of human spirituality between Anna McMahon, a resident at La Rosa Gardens Senior’s Residence in Ladysmith, B.C. and her former neighbour on Walker Ave., Ladysmith B.C. The posts represent an acknowledgement of the debt of gratitude that the blogger owes to Anna for her positive mentorship to the younger senior, the Reader, over the last decade. Quite simply, she has been an excellent model of graceful aging, still intellectually engaged in her mid nineties despite carrying many of the physical limitations that characterize old age.
The blog format * as with other digital media, encourages brevity and levity and is by nature lightweight, whereas the universal, timeless and unresolvable nature of the subject being discussed in these posts, human spirituality, suggests a treatise of some considerable magnitude. Consequently there seems to be is a disconnect between this medium and the epic message of the humanity’s search for transcendence. The remarks in these posts however, will only reflect the journey traveled over a decade of reading and discussion about the ways that we express our aspirations towards the Infinite. The posts are little more than an accounting of the books read and the fascinating lives of the people we discussed over the decade, with a few remarks on their salient features and the impressions they left on us. The posts will have some resemblance to the exercise given to elementary students after summer holidays to write an essay on “How I spent my Summer Vacation”.
How We Spent the Last Decade:
A Late Life Project
What started as a volunteer post retirement gesture to help a neighbour, newly diagnosed with macular degeneration and suddenly declared legally blind, would end in discovery. What started with the simple activity of reading a book would soon take a turn down a slippery slope and become a full blown passion: the exploration of spirituality and its many expressions throughout recorded human history.
The two participants in this decade long project, Anna and her Reader, were after all, nearing the end of our lives, both with chronic health issues, and prudence suggested that we should be cautious not to run afoul of our Maker “lest He returning chide.” Neither of us had the least intention to leave the straight and narrow to pursue what would become a decade long journey into the fascinating exploration of how humanity expresses and has expressed the notion of spirituality. But over time linkages were found between the books being read, our own life experiences as well as events in the news. These links, fueled by our own curiosity, would lead us from a straight, narrow and well beaten spiritual path of western culture to many paths less traveled. One thing, as they say led to another.
The two participants: Anna, a woman of considerable moral substance, inquisitive seeker after truth, octogenarian turned nonagenarian half way into the decade, still the possessor of a restless, probing mind, still cognitively intact, boasting a wealth of experience in sciences particularly health sciences, a nurse and nursing instructor, well read in world history and high culture, politically savvy, progressive thinker, long time strategist, operative and advocate for left wing politics in Canada
Anna’s reader: less endowed with age and experience by eighteen years, former teacher, cognitively engaged, at the outset spiritually confused, an enthusiastic and unapologetic dilettante, a passionate observer of all facets of the human condition, possessing the soul of a poet but lacking the ability and the portfolio to call himself a poet, boasting a wide range of rudimentary and unrefined skills, few of which are of importance, most of all, a grandfather by age, by stage and by conviction.
In addition, the two principals would like to acknowledge a host of characters who contributed to the surprising late life development of their characters and the expansion of their consciousness beyond the mundane concerns of everyday life in the senior years. The most important of these characters is God. Karen Armstrong, Neale Donald Walsch, Stephen Prothero, Norman Doige, Elkhonon Goldberg also provided us with many a delightful hour, tracing human kind’s many spiritual adventures and the spiritual concepts and religions that we have created to reflect and reveal our spiritual awakenings.
At the outset we displayed the wisdom of our combined 150 years of life experience by laying the groundwork for a rewarding continuing dialogue about spirituality. The elements for this foundational work were: mutual respect of each others’ opinions, open mindedness, and honesty. In the discussions between us and especially in the reading of texts, we were cognizant of the seductive beauty of language, but the sometimes treachery of meaning. We were thus aware of the inevitable ambiguity inherent in understanding and interpreting communicating through language. In an initial display of foresight we agreed to establish and maintain working definitions of terms as they appeared in texts that were being examined. This involved the careful use of the dictionary as well as the consideration of nuances that creep inevitably over time into common lexicon.
There were obstacles along the way that could have derailed the project. Fear introduced some insecurities: fear fueled by lifelong inculcation that a jealous, judgmental God would disapprove of any excursion away from ideas received, prescribed, handed down, sanctioned and monitored by religious authorities and institutions within the culture. Biases and prejudgements abound in the existing religious templates in all cultures. Many doctrines co-exist only with great difficulty. Schisms and rivalry among religions and within denominations are characteristic of all human societies and institutions. And free thinking in matters of spirituality is frequently discouraged, especially given the fragility of life and, in our case the relative proximity of death and the uncertain destiny of the immortal soul, if such an entity in fact exists.
The project being open ended in the initial phase, and expectations being modest, all the consequences beyond the act of reading to someone who was visually impaired and who appreciated the written word, would be largely unknown and certainly unintended.
The first book that the reader presented to Anna would set the tone for a decade of enlightening conversations.
*Post Scriptum: McLuhan and Marley: The Medium and the Message:
Consider the appropriate use of digital media like the blog to express subjects of heavy import. What does the medium “blog” do to the message of transcendence?
Bob Marley: “The power of Philosophy floats through my head, light as a feather, heavy as lead.” Is Marley simply taking an hallucinogenic trip under the influence of a psychotropic substance or is he making a comment about the medium and the message? Is he on something, or is he onto something?
What do you think?