#31: Grandpa Ed
On a life well-lived, full of wisdom and impact
A few weeks ago, I unsubscribed from The Marginalian, a newsletter that I adored.
I go through phases - cycles. I lose interest in a topic or an idea, stop consuming that information, experience a life event, and then return to the topic or idea.
On Tuesday of this week, I became aware that I would dedicate this week’s newsletter post to Ed, my husband’s grandfather, who also became my grandfather.
You may be wondering what does unsubscribing from The Marginalian have to do with Ed’s passing?
Bear with me, please.
When death knocks on our door, our sense of time warps. We break away from normal routines and habits, focusing all of our attention on the momentous life event that just unfolded in front of us, without our asking or our choosing.
And once the rituals and traditions conclude, once the busyness of travel and preparations and logistics are behind us, once the dust settles - we can just be with ourselves in solitude.
Solitude, in American culture, gets a bad rap, probably because of our obsession with productivity and efficiency - a culture that turns us into human doings instead of human beings.
As the British journalist and writer Oliver Burkeman says:
Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved “work-life balance,” whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the “six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.” The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control — when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.
Solitude is a critical part of the human experience. As the poet Rilke writes, solitude is an act of love from which creativity emerges:
Don’t let your solitude obscure the presence of something within it that wants to emerge. Precisely this presence will help your solitude expand. People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy. But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult, as is true for everything alive. Everything in nature grows and defends itself in its own way and against all opposition, straining from within and at any price to become distinctively itself. It is good to be solitary, because solitude is difficult, and that a thing is difficult must be even more of a reason for us to undertake it.
Grandpa Ed’s funeral weekend was a long and emotionally intense few days. I loved being surrounded by family and friends, and participating in traditions, but I was also eagerly awaiting some time alone - in solitude - to reflect, think, and write.
This post has been swirling around in my mind for a week now, and I feel more whole now that I can share my thoughts with this community - all 111 of my lovely newsletter subscribers - yes, that’s you! - who I am honored to get to share Grandpa Ed’s story with.
The eulogies for Grandpa Ed were beautiful and there is absolutely no doubt that Ed was a great man.
He was warm and hospitable, inclusive and non-judgemental, and a friend to everyone he met. He was involved with social justice movements, for women’s rights and LGBTQ rights, and he worked with the Chautauqua Soviet Union Program, an organization whose mission it was to foster humanity during the Cold War.
Ed was alive during a time when people were extremely loyal to the companies they worked for. He worked for 35 years as a metallurgical engineer for Westinghouse, focused on ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants.
He loved to travel and he once told me that he was grateful to Westinghouse for sending him on trips all over the world.
Ed was alive for almost all of 20th century - including the good times and the bad times. He inevitably faced his fair share of hardship, but he handled it valiantly, continuing to be a good person who lived by his values.
I am reminded of this quote from the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius, a homosexual man, who was alive epochs before the notion of LGBTQ rights:
Can what happened to you stop you from being fair, high-minded, moderate, conscientious, un-hasty, honest, moral, self-reliant, and so on — from possessing all the qualities that, when present, enable a man’s nature to be fulfilled? So then, whenever something happens that might cause you distress, remember to rely on this principle: this is not bad luck, but bearing it valiantly is good luck.
Now, this brings me back to where I started, when I told you that I unsubscribed from The Marginalian.
Sorry to keep you waiting. I promise that I’ll explain right now.
The Marginalian is a blog written by Maria Popova. She has been writing it for over a decade, collating thousands of pieces of content, entirely by herself.
It’s a very special and cherished corner of the Internet with 7 million readers a month.
Yes - you read that right. 7 million readers!
And I’m the idiot who unsubscribed…
The Marginalian is unique because it is an extremely prescient blog. In other words, it is timeless. In an interview on the Tim Ferriss show, Maria describes some bloggers as “churning out very timely content that expires in a few hours.”
Maria doesn’t focus on just in time information. She focuses on just in case information. She writes the content you need to read when life comes whooshing at you, without you asking or choosing it. She writes about how to handle momentous life events and how to start processing your emotions.
But, she definitely doesn’t play a guru. Not in real life, not on her blog.
No, no - quite far from it. Her gift is the ability to synthesize teachings from the greats who have come before us, so that we, ourselves, and on our own, or maybe together in community, can do the hard work of applying these teachings to our own life.
Maria shares wisdom, and wisdom is not easy to come by. You will certainly not find it in the news or in productivity or in technology or business blogs.
Wisdom comes from the people who came before us, sometimes thousands of years ago, whose teachings continue to make an impact not because of the specific events that happened when they were alive, but because of what these events teach us about human nature. Knowledge of human nature is a superpower.
We see a piece of the greats in ourselves - how they felt, what they thought, how they responded - and it triggers a response in us that if we pay attention, can be a powerful force that blesses us with the confidence and self-esteem to handle whatever life throws at us.
When death comes knocking, you’re not going to read a productivity or technology or business blog to help you process and cope with the cycle of life. That would be ludicrous - a distraction from feeling your feelings.
Although we can’t directly talk to the greats from hundreds or thousands of years ago, the universe instead blesses us with grandparents who carry wisdom.
If only we pay attention.
A close family friend gave a eulogy that encapsulates Ed’s wisdom. This is not an exact quote, but the message was this:
One of the last times that I saw Ed, he told me that we’re living in a momentous and pivotal time right now. Make sure to pay attention.
And as mathematician Michael Frame beautifully writes:
All moments of our lives are immensely rich, with many — perhaps infinitely many — variables we could notice.
We can view our lives as trajectories, parameterized by time, through story space.
We can never simultaneously view all of the possible variables; rather, we focus on a few variables at a time, restricting our attention to a low-dimensional subspace of story space.
What things will you be paying attention to this holiday season?
Take care friends, and Merry Xmas!
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