This is Getting Old [Shambhala Sale Edition]
Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity
New/Red dot to underside. A warm and funny collection of essays by the author of the Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi, on the sometimes confusing, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious condition of being a woman over sixty. It includes a letter of gratitude to her bones for serving her as well as they do; observations on the paradox of finding herself both an orphan and a matriarch following the death of her mother; musings on her tendency to regret missed opportunities; confessions of her fear of going blind; celebratory advice on regarding "senior moments" as opportunities to be in the here and now; thoughts on how not to be afraid of loneliness and how to honour the inner tomboy; and inspiration for considering everyone as one's grandchildren.
"Aging is the biggest issue facing me and everyone I know. This book is poignant, funny, and spot-on, and I am tremendously grateful to Susan Moon for writing it. I love this book!" Sylvia Boorstein.
"A sweet, mellow, funny, wise, sad, and deeply affecting book. Susan Moon's essays are so disarmingly honest, so personal and plain, that they will make you forget what an astonishingly rare and profound achievement this is." Norman Fischer.
"Susan Moon's stories are wonderful companions and guides as I go about my ordinary life." Maxine Hong Kingston.
Read an extract of this title
THE OTHER DAY, as I was filling out a form, I couldn't remember my social security number. I made a running start at it several times, but I couldn't get past 0-1-3. 1 had to look it up on last year's income tax form. To reassure myself, I recited the books of the Old Testament in order, without a pause. My great aunt paid me two dollars to learn them when I was ten, and they've stayed in my head for over fifty years. She said it would come in handy to know them by heart, and so it did, though not in the way she had expected.
Of course, memory loss is a normal part of aging. I bet Buddha sometimes forgot where he put his bowl down in his later years. But normal or not, it's inconvenient, even disabling. It hurts to forget what you used to remember. More than once I've had to enlist a friend to walk the streets with me, looking for where I parked my car. My mind, like my bladder, is shrinking with age so that it doesn't hold as much at once.
I now put people in my Rolodex by their first name if I think I'm going to forget their last. (This will only work as long as I can remember the alphabet.) Forgetfulness eats away at people's names starting at the end, so that sometimes I find myself clinging to the first letter of the first name like a person at sea hanging onto a splintered piece of the mast.
Last week I saw a man I know in the checkout line at the grocery store, a man whose name began, I felt sure, with P. Paul? Peter? My mother had a line for such a situation. "Hello! I can still remember my name! Can you remember yours" But I prefer bluffing, so we chatted about paper versus plastic, and as I wheeled my cart away from the checkout stand I heard myself say, "Nice seeing you, Parker." It's a retrieval problem. Sometimes, if I stop worrying about it, the name walks casually out of the attic of my brain. "What's the big hurry?" the name says. "I was coming."
My mother went through a period of time when she said she couldn't remember ordinary words. She began writing them down-after she did remember them-in a little notebook that she carried around with her. Catalog. Vascular. Pollen. She thought she might be able to look them up when she needed them.
Now it happens to me, too: I know there's a good word for the thing I want to say and I can't get hold of it. If somebody else says it, I know what it means, but I can't seem to get it on the hook and reel it in, to put it in my. . . What do you call those wicker baskets that fishermen use?
And it's not just words, it's objects. Going through airport security at Midway Airport in Chicago, I was stopped because of some butter knives in my carry-on bag. (I don't generally travel with butter knives, but I was delivering these from one relative to another.) When the security officer decided I could take them on board, I heaved a sigh of relief and marched off to my gate, leaving my laptop behind in the gray plastic tray. I didn't realized what I'd done until the next morning, when I sat down at my desk to do my e-mail. After a few days of frenzied phone calls, I got the laptop mailed back to me. Now my name and contact information is on a sticker on the outside of the laptop.
When I had a particularly bad spate of memory problems last year, I got scared. For a couple of weeks, it seemed as though I forgot something serious every day, like leaving my purse in the shopping cart in the grocery store parking lot. (When I went back to the store an hour later, the cart was right where I'd left it, with my purse still in it.) I forgot simple things, too. I put a tea infuser into a cup and poured in the boiling water, but I forgot to put the tea leaves into the tea infuser first.
I went to see a psychologist about my cognitive functioning. He was over sixty himself, and first we reminisced about the sixties-the sixties, not our sixties-which helped to put me at my ease. Then he had me repeat strings of numbers and words, and he showed me a list of words printed in different colors of ink and had me name the colors as fast as I could. I did very well, he told me, "for my age." This was reassuring, though for your age has a sad ring to it, like, "You look good for a woman your age."
He told me to forget about the unimportant things that just clutter up the valuable space in my brain. And he said, "The best thing we can do for our brains at our age is to take a nap for half an hour every afternoon." It's a great idea; one of these days I'll make it a habit.
The visit helped me to accept that some memory ioss is normal. It's what's happening. I used to think I was pretty smart, and now I am given the opportunity to let go of that identity. I have a different brain now, but as long as I'm grasping for the mind that I had twenty years ago, I suffer.
Then, too, there's the remembering. I may not remember the last names of lots of people I know, but I remember seeing my father standing in the doorway of our apartment in Chicago, looking like a stranger in his brown army uniform and hat, silhouetted against the light from outside. I must have been about two and a half, and he was going off to the war in the Pacific.
The older you are, the more of your life is in the past, the further back it goes, and the more historical your memories become. It's part of the job description of an older person to tell stories about the times that are gone-about what it's like to have your father disappear into a war, for example. Or about stepping off the Greyhound bus in Biloxi, Mississippi, forty-five years ago, to work on voter registration, and being greeted by the sheriff saying, "Now don't you be causing any trouble in our town, young lady." History's not what really happened-there's no such thing. It's what people remember and tell each other. But it's good if you don't go on too long.
One of my heroes is the late Studs Terkel, the great oral historian. It was important to him to get people to tell their stories, because, he said, "We live in the United States of Alzheimer's. People have forgotten their own history."
Sometimes I tell a story more than once, forgetting that I've told it before, especially when I'm talking to my children. I try to remember to say, "Stop me if I've already told you this," because I know from listening to my own mother how annoying it is to sit through a story you've heard before, pretending to be surprised at the punch line. Well, actually, it's only annoying if you remember the story, and this is one reason why old folks should hang out together. When I tell my old friend Bill a story for the second time, it doesn't matter because he's completely forgotten the story. This is called "beginner's mind."
Needless to say, I also remember terrible things, mistakes I made long ago. I remember throwing a wooden clog across the living room at a man I loved (and missing, fortunately). I remember crouching in the hall closet behind all the coats, with the door closed, so my children wouldn't hear me weeping.
Memory is plastic. What I remember isn't necessarily what happened, and how I remember it changes, depending on my changing focus of attention.
The body memories, like how you button a button, seem to be the last to go. A longtime dharma sister has advanced Alzheimer's and is no longer able to come to the Zen center to practice. But she did come, for a long time after she'd forgotten how to manage her life. Someone from the sangha would pick her up at home and bring her to morning zazen (Zen meditation). She didn't know where she was going or why, or who was helping her. She had to be guided from the car to the Zen center, and she had to be helped into her priest's robes. But once she was inside the zendo (meditation hall), the forms of her thirty-five years of practice were held in her body. I was moved to see how, during service, she was right on track, manifesting dignity and devotion. She recited the Heart Sutra from memory along with everyone else, she bowed when it was time to bow, and she exited the zendo when her turn came, greeting the abbot with a gassho on her way out. Outside the zendo she was lost again.
It's disturbing. Sometimes, driving along one of my familiar routes, I suddenly can't remember where I'm going. Then I'm in a dark place, even in broad daylight. I keep driving, slowly, hoping I'll remember where I'm going before I get there. So far I always have.
Zen Master Dogen, my favorite Zen master, wrote, "To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things." What does he mean by forgetting the self? Could forgetting my social security number or where I parked my car be steps in the right direction?
Once, twenty years ago, before I was "old," I had a strange experience. I woke in the middle of the night and I couldn't remember where I was. That wasn't the strange experience-it happens to most of us from time to time when we are traveling, as I was. But on this occasion, I couldn't remember who I was, either. The loud crack that had awakened me still rang in my ears; it might have been a door slamming in the wind, or a bowl breaking in my dream, but whatever it was, I fell through that crack into a dark space of not-knowing. I asked myself, "Where am 1?" and then, shocked, "Who am 1?" l lay in bed, waiting. For a frightening split second, I didn't know anything about who I was. I couldn't even have told you my name. Then my eyes grew used to the dark and I made out the window curtains. Ah! I recognized the room, in a family house by the sea, and everything, my whole impermanent life, fell into place. I wonder if that moment before the remembering is what it's like to have severe dementia. Or is this what Dogen was talking about?
If I lose my memory, will I stop being me, or is there a me beneath the memory? Is there a look in my eye that will stay no matter what I forget? The thing is, I don't have dementia now, so worrying about it is a distraction from being present in my life, taking good care of myself, and focusing my attention on what's important.
I believe that Dogen is talking about forgetting self-concern, and as I grow older, I notice what an excellent time it is to practice this kind of forgetting. It's all about letting go. I can forget about accomplishing all my ambitions-it's too late for that. I can forget about "making something of myself," a telling expression. Sometimes, for a moment, I taste the relief of letting this self fold gently into the next self, moment by moment, like eggs into batter.
It's time to forget some things and remember others. As a matter of fact, the planet needs all of us human beings to remember our history, and to remember our own accountability in it. History is a process that we keep on making out of the stories we tell each other about the past.
Before written language, or before most people had access to written language, people had only their own brains in which to store their knowledge, and so they were much more dependent on their memories than we are today and they gave their memories more exercise. Buddha's disciple Ananda, for example, had a particularly prodigious memory and recalled every single thing he heard Buddha say. He passed the teachings on after Buddha's death, and for centuries, the monks and nuns of the sangha recited the sutras to each other until they were finally written down.
The printing press made shared memory available to more people, and the Internet has further democratized our cultural memory. If you forget the books of the Old Testament, you can look them up. But there are still some things that the Internet can't remember for you, like where you parked the car. And the stories of your life-they aren't on the Internet either. How it was, for example, to be sitting in bed nursing your newborn baby when you learned on the TV news of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
Oh, by the way, it's creel, that wicker basket for fish.