Living Life Well
By Jim Shere
For many years, a sign on the wall of my office kept the ancient reminder that “change is just the way things are.” The Greek philosopher Heraclitus had said “the stream where you had just set your foot is now gone— those waters giving way to these, and now these.” Now, after almost two decades in that cabin above Sonoma Creek, I’ve had to move my office into downtown Glen Ellen.
My mother used to tell me that every cell in our body is replaced every seven years, and so we are constantly changing— and yet the only way we can know ourselves as something coherent is by remembering who it is we have always been. Change replaces what once was with what will be instead; growth, on the other hand, keeps what was as the foundation of what will be. The future thrives when it can remember the past.
My grandfather’s grandfather, Robert Crane, left his father’s farm for the goldfields of California; he did well enough to sell his claim to establish a general store there, where he did even better. On his way back to Missouri he stopped by General Vallejo’s home in Sonoma; while there Vallejo changed his mind by recommending that he invest in California real estate instead— and so he purchased the western flank of Sonoma Mountain, from Crane Canyon to Gravity Hill.
His grandson, my grandfather, Charles Ellis Crane (whose middle name I share) studied physics at Berkeley, after which he took my grandmother farther west to the Far East, where he taught at the university in Canton, China, and where my mother was born in 1910. There are photographs of her dancing for the White Russians during those fervent, chaotic days of political turmoil and outright war. When his students were taken from my grandfather’s classroom and beheaded in the courtyard, he quickly brought his family back to Berkeley— where, within weeks, they lost everything they owned in the great fire of 1923.
My grandfather rebuilt, and then built several other brown shingled homes in the vernacular architecture that populates the Berkeley hills. His daughter, my mother— a restless young poet— dropped out during her third year at the university to join the artists’ colony in Carmel, where she waitressed, carved ivory cameo brooches, and hand colored photographs. Here she met my father— a roustabout Okie who had come out of the Dustbowl to Tortilla Flat, where he worked odd jobs including piecemeal for Steinbeck’s pal Doc Ricketts on Cannery Row.
During the war we moved back and forth, between the deeply contrasting cultures and landscapes of my parents’ families— my mother’s genteel, urban Berkeley, and my father’s subsistent, rural Oklahoma. After the war they bought an abandoned farm among the orchards and dairy lands here in Sonoma County, several miles south of Sebastopol. Things continued to change as we settled in; after a few years electricity was brought in from the county road, about a mile away, and the road to our home was eventually paved. (Curious folk will find the place mapped online as Shere Road in Sebastopol.)
When I began high school in town I discovered the public library— and eventually, among the many books there, I found the Chinese Book of Changes known as the I Ching. Fascinated, I asked my mother what she knew about it. She explained that it was an ancient oracle that mapped the elements of change, how they lead from one place to the next, indicating the direction to be taken. She reminded me of my grandfather’s frequent comment that life is filled with changes, and that it is for us to accept them rather than resist them, and to recognize ways change can help us grow.
The sea, my grandfather would say, is where the water ceaselessly rises and falls and yet remains in place, just where it has always been, all the while driving waves that perpetually roll across its surface, one after the other, toward the land. I learned this well when, once as a strong young man, I threw myself into the breakers at Timber Cove for an ocean swim and got myself caught in the undertow. I was spun and pulled tumbling and sinking in the grip of deep waters. Salt water stung my eyes and filled my nose and mouth, and I thought that I would drown— until something in me remembered not to struggle but to rise instead to the surface, and to allow the waves to carry me forward to the land.
The university I attended in Berkeley was not the same as the one my grandfather and my mother had attended; I found it too had changed, over and over.
My grandfather had listened to Jack London touting socialism from his soapbox at Sather Gate, and my mother had frequented cafes and coffee shops with the bohemians and left-wing radicals of the Thirties. I found myself caught up in the changes of the anti-war, anti-establishment Sixties. Each generation at Berkeley changed things, pushing society along in a certain direction.
The Austrian psychiatrist, philosopher, and Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, is best known for his book Man in Search of Meaning, in which he describes the human need to make sense out of what seems a random and chaotic— and therefore dangerous— world. We can ask why certain events take place, but “why” asks two entirely different questions: the etiological question about what caused events, and the teleological one about their purpose. This demonstrates the relationship between the constant recycling of particles in place and the waves of meaning generated by their dance.
I believe depression is a tedious sort of despair brought about by the loss of meaning and purpose. By stepping out of the solipsistic box of rumination into a consideration of what it is that troubles us, we may recognize possibilities in a different, greater world— in which, not unlike Alice’s looking-glass, the object becomes the path. “Life is filled with changes,” I can still hear my grandfather say, resting in his LazyBoy and slowly pulling at his pipe, “it is for us to discover the direction that they indicate.” In his lifetime he had seen many changes, as have we all, but he kept his belief that progress takes place when disappointments are exchanged for discoveries.
Living life well requires letting the changes flow— not asking them to stop but rather letting them rise and fall in the stream of what may sometimes seem a meaningless and random turmoil of life. We can rise to the surface, out of our struggle in their grip, and allow the waves they generate to carry us forward, helping us to grow in a meaningful way.