On June 3, 2019, I became 60. I had been dealing with this day every since I turned 59, and in fact, quite a few years before that. Only then it was different. Now it was for real!
I know many of the people who will read these words might shrug their shoulders and say," Sixty? Ha! No big deal, age is just a number, it's in your head." And they would be right of course, but for me the number 60 signified a new stage. It was to stand for the entry way to "Elderhood", a term that I found myself using more and more frequently since "bumping into the works" of Rabbi Zalman Shachter Shalomi, on the way to somewhere else. His "Ageing to Sage-ing" new paradigm concept hit me "Boom!", right smack in the stomach. I have known many a teacher in various disciplines, but this guy? He just cut right through to the core.
I have always been "big" on round birthdays, for some reason. When I was 10 it was all about baseball and Mickey Mantle, at 20 mostly looking for love and chasing the wrong girls. At 30 I was deeply into my MBA exams. At 40 it was a dad with young kids concerned with getting ahead on the job. But the "reflective spirit" of a lifetime led me to check into a monastery for the weekend at age 40. Age 50 was the biggie…I worked on that one for quite a while, ended up doing a 9 day vision quest in the south of England, 4 days of fasting in the wilderness. It was a tremendous experience that brought out so much from the depths, it was a time that my "vision for my future" was clarified and launched. My "second half" would be quite a different thing, as I saw it…
Yet, as my fifties started to wind down, it became clear to me that this "map" I had drawn up was quite far from the "territory". Disappointment set in. Some of it had to do with the fact that right at my 55 years of age, both my parents, nearing and exceeding the age of 90, began their steep decline in health and independence. Slowly but surely, I found myself having to juggle taking care of them with all the love and tenderness they deserve, with having to keep my self-employed and family life running. Thus, when 60 was approaching I gave myself a full year to find the right kind of "rite of passage" that would challenge and give me what I so desired: a way to review my life once again towards harvesting the wisdom to "earn my way", to deserve becoming an "elder".
I chose India. It and Nepal were the first stops on my journey to the East of nearly 5 years in my twenties, which deeply shifted the way I saw the world. The philosophies, psychologies, sprit and cultures of traditional East Asia took me to places I could never have dreamed I would end up in. I chose India as my place for a "Spiritual Journey at Age 60": I arranged to give a week of service in providing empowerment workshops for impoverished populations, I would undergo retreats in the spirit of some old and new "teachers", from Indian mythology to J. Krishnamurti, from yoga to trekking the hills, from reading several books at once to begin writing one- my own. To my delight, I garnered the support of all at home- the blessings of my wife and children, the encouragement of my clients, the support of the nursing home which assured me that my parents would be well-cared for.
Thus, on July 8th I was off. Thirty- five days. My passage was open…
Life is what happens to you, when…
We all know how that line ends up, don't we? "Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans", (John Lennon). But I feel another quotation hits home even more. I learned it from my father , Max (Mordechai) Dunetz , in Yiddish, when I was a child: "God sits above and plays below."
What I did not plan for on my long-awaited "Journey to 60" was the phone call I received from home less than a third of the way into my journey. It was my wife informing me that my dear father who was on his last lap before his 97th birthday, may be in his last days. I took the night to consider what to do, with my gut reaction being to stay and push on. It had been nearly 5 years of in and out of hospitals, emergency rooms and other types of crisis. One becomes a bid jaded, I guess. He always manages to make his way out the other side of these things. The night passed, little sleep on my end, another phone call comes in. This time I feel the shiver in my body. Time to turn back. My journey is now the other way around.
Twenty four hours transit through the night. I arrived at my father's bedside in Israel, he was unconscious and breathing laboriously. Eight hours later he was no longer with us.
My Father: looking back and looking forward
During the mourning period in Judaism (the 7 day "shiva" and the 30 day "shloshim"), one has the opportunity to reflect deeply. I did not need such a period, on one level, as my father had always been "present" in my life, even during those times when we were quite far apart. A remarkable man, he was. A Holocaust survivor, a partisan, a teacher, a writer, a community leader, a life that was lived in 5 countries. A life which impacted the lives of thousands of children and adults, a life which impacted my own in so many ways. Despite having had to endure the horror of having his mother, father, sister and younger brother murdered by the Nazis and their satanic collaborators in the Holocaust, my father refused to let his life be guided by hate. I recall that he often quote Hillel the elder from the "Ethics of our Fathers": "In a place where there are no men, be a man." His way was one of optimism and a belief in humanity.
Growing up in New York, I recall that I was often embarrassed that my father was not "really American". His English had a Yiddish accent. He read the newspaper while we were engrossed in the Yankee baseball came. He used to say that the Beatles were "crazy beatniks". Nu, what can you do…Before I left for my vision quest at age 50, my wife and I visited my parents for the Sabbath meal. I remember his reaction after I told him about what I would and would not be doing on my vision quest. He looked at me in complete bewilderment and said:" What is this Vision Kvetch!!!??" He turned to my wife Merav and said: "Are you allowing him to do this mishigas? (crazy thing)….oy, yoy, yoy, yoy…" Sometimes this would be his reaction to these kinds of things at other times it would be more pensive: " Oy, Ronele', Ronele', where do you get these ideas?...You are a real go-getter!" If my father only knew how often I wondered where I was going and what I was getting from things in life. After all, a lot of water has flown in the Ganges since those early days in New York.
I often wonder what my father would say about my pursuit of Eldership. We never got to chance to talk about it as he was already cognitively impaired by this time. Perhaps he might give me his blessing, in one way or another, or perhaps he might say something like, "Elder Shmelder, just keep active." Such was the man whom I loved and admired deeply my whole life.
So, Here I am…
So, here I am. I have made the passage but no "rites" to speak of. Can't say I don't miss them. Something went awry, somebody moved my rite of passage.
Or did they?
Suddenly, while writing these words it dawned on me that I may have been looking up the wrong tree.
Could this have been my rite of my passage? Could my father's passing been my rite???
I will never know. Lots of things in life we never know. Some things come through the back-door while everyone is gathering up front. That's why we can only understand life backwards but need to live it forwards (Kierkegaard).
Elder or Shmelder.