My One Regret

“You left little room for the growth of your interior lives, and as a result you left little space to enrich your friendship.”

That’s me at 70 talking with me at 40 years of age. 

“You moved so quickly from one activity to another, from one group of people to another, that all you could do after tucking the kids in bed was to collapse.”

When 40, I was busy getting my magazine off the ground, working 80-hour weeks. My wife Martha, 38, was busy serving on the St. Petersburg City Council during one of its most controversial eras. We both were busy as parents of David, Rachel, and Kathryn—ages 10, 8, and 5, respectively at the time.

My schedule today is different. The magazine is closed. Our children are grown and into their own careers and families. I no longer am trying to balance my hectic personal responsibilities with my wife’s equally hectic career of mothering, politics, social activities, and civic engagement.

Call me a hermit. 

As I reflect on the 17 years that Martha and I had to deal with Alzheimer’s, I often ask myself: “Have I learned anything that would have been good to know back in my 40’s—when we both were young, healthy, and active?”

As I turned this question over in my mind, I decided to write myself a letter… 

To My Dear Carlen at 40, 

We talked last week about the importance of releasing the heavy baggage of bitterness, anger, and anxiety—the need to forgive one another as well as others. So I’m not going to revisit that. 

Today, as I look at your busy, compressed schedule—and Martha’s—two things stand out. 

First, it’s amazing that you both were able to accomplish so much on so many different fronts with so many different people. That’s a good thing. 

Second, it’s clear from my perch today that the fallout from the hectic pace set by you and Martha at 40 isn’t a good thing. Too often you were ships passing in the night. 

Yes, I know, your busyness was not that different from many of your peers at the time. But I can’t talk about what went on in their lives once their front doors closed. 

I can talk, however, about the impact on our lives.   

And it took Martha and me too long to learn the importance of setting aside time to be quiet, to be still. In fact, we didn’t get the message until we were forced to—when Martha was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.

By being quiet, I don’t mean sitting still in church or in front of the TV, or even reading a book or voicing a prayer. Not that these are bad, but at some point each of us needs a clear glimpse into what’s going on in our heart and mind.

I see now that I needed time and space—emotional, reflective time and space—to let God’s Spirit work in me, healing much that the rush of life had trampled on. And to do the same with our relationship, Martha’s and mine.  

I needed to assess those things within me that were good and bad, and to discern without judgment or indictment. 

A meaningful way that I’ve learned to do this is through meditation. The kind of meditation I’m referring to has little to do with trying to clear my mind and heart of all thought and feeling. So far, after nearly two decades of meditating, that hasn’t happened.  

Yet the form of meditation I’ve found to work has elicited a humility within me that helps me embrace God’s silent, intimate presence. 

Many guides exist for practicing meditation. The point is, Carlen, to find an approach that works—one that you’re comfortable with—and stick with it. Meditation doesn’t replace your prayers, it enriches them. 

Martha and I followed an approach described by the late John Main, a Benedictine monk. I find him simple, authoritative, and deeply spiritual.

He directed his teaching not so much to other monks but rather to those of us caught up in the rush of careers, social life, and families. I share more about him and the need for such stillness here

“Meditation is a powerfully integrative force,” John Main wrote. “It offers the capacity to be fully open to reality. That’s all. It’s a very practical skill.”   

I remember when Martha and I began meditating together, not long after her diagnosis. We sat side-by-side on the living room couch, holding hands. I whispered the word that we’d selected, because I was unsure whether Martha was able to repeat it to herself. After several weeks, this practice began to quiet the turmoil within me. 

“Is this helping?” I asked Martha. 

“I think so,” she said, unable to explain further. But Martha appeared more relaxed and less confused. And that made me less desperate. 

We learned not to expect any clear insights from this twilight zone called Alzheimer’s. Yet out of these silent, shared moments, a deep, intimate bond arose within us. 

“This is different,” I thought.   

We’d done a lot of things together. We talked, watched TV, walked, and commiserated over coffee. Together we read books, the paper, and the Bible; we played tennis and board games; we danced and listened to music. And we shared meals, prayed, made love, went to church, and screamed at each other. 

But in our 25 years of marriage we had not sat together for any period of meaningful silence. We had not experienced this rich intimacy in any other setting.

And after Martha moved into the nursing home, I remember those moments of almost transcendent peace, which I share toward the end of an earlier post.

I suppose such moments could be described as some kind of psychological phenomenon. But that feels incomplete. The best way I can describe them is that I felt we were being drawn into a presence greater than us both. I felt we were being drawn into that presence we know as Christ.     

I’m not suggesting to you, dear Carlen at 40, that you and Martha abandon your commitments. But I suspect you would find your involvements to be much less stressful and more fulfilling if you were to carve out time to be quiet and still—both when alone and with Martha.

A friend shared with me this ancient verse from the Eastern Orthodox tradition: 

“Fold the wings of your mind.
Place your mind in your heart.
Come into the presence of God.”

This is the direction in which meditation continues to guide me.

I love you dearly,  
Carlen at 70

P.S. Next week is Thanksgiving week. Carrying on this conversation between me at 70 and me at 40, the younger Carlen has turned up a Thanksgiving gift. It is meaningful and brief.  

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