Becoming and De-becoming

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been hobbled with a broken foot. I was carrying on quite well (perhaps too well) until I went to what I thought would be my last appointment with the orthopedist – looking forward to leaving the office with my cumbersome boot under my arm and destined for the trash bin. Instead, I was told that my foot hadn’t healed; we would have to give it at least another month and see what was happening. I did not take it well.

It is true that I have osteoporosis. I take calcium, eat a ton of yogurt, and exercise regularly, but my genes and my age have caught up with me. My body is breaking down and taking longer to repair itself. Eventually, of course, it will be beyond repair (some might say that it has already gotten to that point). In the course of my daily meditation, I repeat the five recollections (Upajjhatthana Sutta), the second of which is “I have a body which is subject to aging and decay; I am not beyond aging and decay.” I have been repeating these words for years, but somehow I don’t seem to want to believe them. None of us does. And yet, none of us is beyond aging and decay.

I have referenced Hermann Hesse’s Hymn to Old Age before, and I recommend it heartily. There was a critical article about Hesse in a recent New Yorker – even the title was negative: “Herman Hesse’s Arrested Development.” Hesse did try to catch the soul of the young, and this review emphasizes such works as Demian and Siddhartha, but neglects The Glass Bead Game – or, more accurately, points to it only in that it includes young men living celibate lives in perpetual school. Unfair, I think. Hesse wrote prose and poetry into his old age; The Glass Bead Game (particularly cited when Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize) was published when he was in his sixties and has much to say about being old and being young. The compendium of his words in and about old age which I reference above is a treasure.

In any case, Hesse has this to say about the process of “de-becoming” – a term I have come to appreciate:

For the task, desire and duty of youth is to become, and the task of the old man is to surrender himself or, as German mystics used to call it, ‘to de-become.’ One must first be a full person, a real personality, and one must have undergone the sufferings of this individualization before one can make the sacrifice of his personality.

And this, again, reminds me of Buddhism, where “becoming” is not always a good thing, while Nibbana or “extinction” of desire is indeed to be wished for. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a great Buddhist scholar and translator puts it like this:

In the end he must choose between the way that leads back into the world, to the round of becoming, and the way that leads out of the world, to Nibbana. And though this last course is extremely difficult and demanding, the voice of the Buddha speaks words of assurance confirming that it can be done, that it lies within man’s power to overcome all barriers and to triumph even over death itself.

Like it or not, as we age we are “de-becoming” what we used to be – body and mind. It is a sacrifice that we make whether we do so willingly or not. But perhaps the measure of a Hesse’s “full person” is that one can surrender willingly, even joyfully. I have not gotten there yet, but the forces of nature are working on me.

This week’s piece of fiction (“May 12, 2036”) is an exercise based on Jorge Borges’ short story “August 25, 1983,” wherein the great Argentinian writer imagines meeting himself in the future on his own deathbed. (He died in 1986, so was off by three years.) It is an intriguing story and a good model. Read my story if you like, but please do read the Borges. And try the exercise yourself.

Narratives of Old Age

Are real people fictions? We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual worlds are highly coloured and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when the story becomes a scripture? When we can no longer recognise anything outside our own reality? – from Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects

Jeannette Winterson correctly points out that it is necessary to “have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day.” We all have narratives that we tell ourselves, for which we provide mental commentary as we move through our days. But what happens when our stories veer from reality? What happens when they become “scripture” for our consciousness, leaving no room for change or adaptation? And what happens when we get old?

What kind of story do we tell ourselves about getting old – if we tell ourselves that story at all? We tell ourselves stories about other people getting old, but we think we are all somehow… exceptions. My mother thinks she is the only person who is not “old” in her memory care facility. “This place is full of old people” she sneers with disdain as she shuffles past her peers down the long corridors. People put off going into retirement villages, elderly housing, assisted living, because those people are so old. And we say it with the same sneer that my demented mother uses. No young people ever complain about going away to college because the people are so young. (Although would you want to move into a dorm again with a gaggle of eighteen-year-olds?)

It is of great note that people of a certain age always claim to feel like they are younger than they are. A favorite conversation topic is divulging with our peers what age we feel like inside – 20? 15? 35? Surely not our real age – not 67 or 75 or 82. We think there is something wrong with our skin, our bones, our hearing because it is not what it used to be and because it does not match our mental image of ourselves. Sometimes I wonder if there is an acceptable story about getting old.

Jeannette Winterson says that we understand each other through “an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” In our culture, the stories of old age we absorb from others are mostly stories of denial or hostility. “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Do not go gentle into that good night.” But here we sit with our old bodies and our minds that sometimes can’t remember the name of that woman across the street.

Virginia Woolf (who never got very old herself) demands an acknowledgment of the “great wars which the body wages with the mind.”  Woolf concedes that such honesty will not be easy: “To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth.” Woolf also acknowledges that age itself changes our perception of the entire world: “If you are young, the future lies upon the present, like a piece of glass, making it tremble and quiver. If you are old, the past lies upon the present, like a thick glass, making it waver, distorting it.” Is age itself distorting our ability to tell ourselves a real story, a meaningful story?

What would a true and helpful story of old age be? Would a more reasonable narrative of the body’s weaknesses save us from the wasted energy of railing against every demonstration of those very debilities? (I am currently hobbling around in an orthopedic boot protecting a broken foot. It is temporary, but trying my patience and my story about being fit and active – but more on this next time.) If we could get past disdain, would we find some value in old age – a refuge, perhaps, from the competitions and expectations of our youth? Again, I ask all of us (old or young), what is our narrative of old age? And where did it come from? Other people? From our younger selves? Are we brave enough to tell a new story?

And while we are at it, we might also examine the story of the past. Old age is a time (and often has time) for reflection. Does our past match the story we were living at the time? There are still lessons to be learned.

This week’s story is “Playing by Ear,” about the stories we absorb through our auditory functions. Think about it.

Eden

Many dementia patients – including my mother – revert to the past. In my mother’s case, she escapes to a time before she had a husband or children. Experts in dementia say that age eighteen or nineteen is often where such patients end up. She looks for her parents, for houses and gardens she lived in long ago. Wonderful places. Gardens of Eden where she has no worries, where there is no shame or aging or death. And perhaps we are all looking for such a place. Perhaps we are all trying to return to Eden.

Before the era of progress, all of western culture looked back to Eden. Man had degenerated from the original Eden, from the original Golden Age. And so had the earth. Erosion of mountain peaks and the shortening of the life span from the amazing Biblical ages pointed to a world in the state of slow but continual degeneration. But then, somewhere along the line, we started to look forward rather than back as a civilization. The shift on the macro level, however, has not seemed to make a difference to the old demented person who is sure that her mother is waiting for her somewhere with a bowl of warm tapioca pudding.

Admit it. We all do a little of this backward-looking – we all remember Christmases that had a special glow or a magical childhood hiding place. We all, sometimes, want to return to Eden. But it can’t be done – or at least not easily. James Baldwin put it best:

Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden. I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both – Giovanni’s Room.

In order to go back, one has to toss aside all that has been accumulated through the years. Renounce it. Religions say that this is one way to come to fulfillment:

The purpose of all valid spiritual disciplines, whatever the religion from which they spring, is to enable us to return to this native state of being – not after death but here and now, in unbroken awareness of the divinity within us and throughout creation… that state, is the Eden to which the long journey of spiritual seeking leads…. (E. Easwaren)

And some say that to grow up, we must leave Never-never Land behind us. In the old and confused, though, it is perhaps a safe haven. They go back to what doctors sometimes call a “reminiscence bump” from earlier life. Faced with physical and mental infirmity, the specter of death and the loss of a familiar world, these elders can go back in their minds to the haven of their youth. And perhaps we should be glad they can.

Where (and when) was your Eden? And have you tried to get it back through effort and acquisition (buying a house like the one you grew up in) or by renunciation? Have you forgotten it? Or are you one of Baldwin’s heroes who can acknowledge it and yet move on?

The story for this week (“Back to the Garden“) is not about elders, but it is about those who are facing the end and the garden where things start and things stop. It is also a tribute to Joni Mitchell and her exhortation in “Woodstock”: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”

Notes on Faust

I just came back from visiting my mother in Memory Care. A few days spending time with patients in various stages of health and dementia has gotten me thinking about Faust again – about the Faust legend in general terms and what kind of Faustian bargain we might have made and be making for the miracles of life extension.

Spengler called Faust the fundamental myth of Western Civilization and this myth has been tackled by great authors from Marlowe to Goethe to Mann to Bulgakov. In case you have forgotten, Faust is a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in return for knowledge, power, wealth. Faust supposedly traces back to an historical figure in early 16th century in Germany, and was kept alive because it struck a deep chord in those who heard it or read it – in farcical plays, in fireside tales, or in early chapbooks.

“Not enough Fausts are written. Everyone should write one,” said Ludwig von Arnim in the early 19th century. In fact, we all write one with our lives. For what are we willing to sell our souls? I, in fact, wrote a “Faust” novel a few years back (the prologue to A Kind of Joy or An Essay with Characters is here), and the exercise forced me to think about this question and how other authors have dealt with it. Marlowe’s Faust asked for magic, Mann’s wants to create great musical compositions, and Goethe’s wants never to be bored. The Faust I created was a woman, and she wants the opposite of what Goethe’s Faust wanted – my fictional Faye wants contentment, peace. For that she is willing to sell her soul. But that is a story, a thought experiment.

If the Faust legend is the central myth of Western culture, of the Enlightenment, then what has our culture bargained for? Like Goethe’s hero, we surely don’t want to be bored; one might wonder what we have sold our attention for. And we don’t want to die. In most of the Faust stories, the protagonist gets twenty-four years before the soul must be handed over. But twenty-first century people do not want to die at all, and has continually increased life spans until our bodies often last much longer than our minds. Science may solve this problem, but don’t count on it. And thus we keep building “Memory Care” facilities to house our bodies, and we keep uploading our pictures and memories to the cloud to ensure that they are not lost forever. I don’t have an answer. Science has done wonders in eradicating disease (think of polio vaccine!), disability (think of cataract surgery!), and the debilitations of old age (think of hip replacement!). It has also made many deadly diseases into simply chronic ones (think of insulin!). But it has not yet enabled our minds to function as long and well as our bodies do.

In the end, most fictional Fausts learn their lesson. Sometimes they lose their lives and souls (Marlowe) and sometimes they recant and the author rescues them at the last moment (Goethe). It doesn’t really matter. The important point is to consider what we sacrifice in life for what we receive. It is easier to think about the rewards and not the payment, but there is that unavoidable moment when payment comes due (Goethe notwithstanding). My mother has lived far longer than her parents or grandparents, but finds herself in a mental state that they never had to experience. Our planet has afforded most of us in the West lives of comfort and plenty, but now our seas are rising and our summers are stifling. Faustian bargains are traditionally with the Devil, but perhaps we could think of the Devil as representing our more impulsive nature, of the tendency to favor immediate gratification over the long-term good. In any case, it is an interesting problem to think about.

Faust might be an especially good legend to contemplate in our old age. In Goethe’s version, it is the old mythological couple, Baucis and Philemon, who stand up to the land-developing, greedy Faust. They refuse to sell out and move from the remote bungalow and thus anger Faust: “Their stubbornness, their opposition/ Ruins my finest acquisition.” Needless to say, they lose (and die), but they will forever stand on the moral ground. In the remoteness of old age – past the time of ambition and acquisition – maybe we can see the ramifications of the Faust myth more clearly  than our children. It is worth thinking about. What did you sell your soul for? What would you sell your soul for?

Parabola and Long Tails

I wrote earlier in this blog about Dante’s vision of life as a parabola, which goes up to the “perfect age” (thirty-four according to Dante) and then starts down again. Life rises on one side and falls on the other, ending on the same level where it began. And so, as it falls, it passes through some of the same horizontal levels passed through on the way up – something that intrigues me, but which I will come back to.

If life for Dante was a parabola, I have wondered whether – seven centuries later – the shape of life has changed. Children (and mostly I mean well-off children) now seem to have a longer childhood. They stay at home longer, marry later, have children later. On the other side, old age is often very long indeed in the modern era. Medicine and technology have allowed life to be extended again and again, until the tail just lengthens and lengthens. Without judging whether this is a good thing or not, it surely changes the shape of a life. My mother, for example, has been old for a very long time. She has had multiple joint replacements and cancer surgeries, but is remarkably healthy as she approaches ninety – except that she has severe dementia. Scary dementia where she is sure that people are watching her, harming her, planning all manner of evil. And this could go on for a very long time. For better or for worse, old age seems to have developed what statisticians call a “long tail” – rather than dipping down precipitously at the end (think parabola), it tapers off as more and more is lost, and yet the heart goes on and so does some form of life. Where Dante saw the symmetry of a parabola, are we now seeing something else?

I like playing with the symmetry of Dante’s parabola. Over my desk hangs a nineteenth century depiction of the stages of a woman’s life – more an arc than a parabola but the idea is the same.

As I noted in my earlier post, the parabola gave me an idea for the structure of a novel which would pair points on the upward movement with corresponding points on the downward slope after the “perfect age” is reached. (Here is an interesting exercise – when did you reach your “perfect age”? Or aren’t you there yet? What is the difference between Dante’s perfect physical age and the perfect spiritual/mental age?) My novel is about two-thirds complete and will soon join its companions in my bottom drawer, but I thought I would post an excerpt. In order to illustrate and test my thesis that there are correspondences between the same point going up and coming down the life cycle, the novels pairs (fictional) diary/journal entries from the same woman, often on a common topic or theme.

The title of the novel is Hummingbird Wars and the excerpt includes two chapters/paired journal entries. In the this selection, we have a young mother being introduced to exciting new technology as the world opens up to VCR’s and personal computers in 1985. At the descending point on the parabola, the same woman in 2005 is nearing retirement, learning yet another version of the operating system at the office, and wondering about the true value of the internet, cell phones, and social media. If you are my age, you will recognize this woman (both the older and younger version) and her thoughts and concerns. If you are younger, you might wonder how your views of technology will change as you enter the long tail of old age.

Journaling in Old Age

Old man, old woman – it is not too late to start keeping a journal! I started to keep one conscientiously at age fifty-three, and I only wished I had done so earlier. These blogs are often an outgrowth of a journal entry, but the document, the content, is not my journal’s main value; it is the process of keeping a journal that is critical.

Like any good habit, keeping a journal is easy once you etch it into your life – scientific literature says this takes three weeks, but I would give it a few months. I started by disciplining myself (I know discipline is out of favor, but nothing worthwhile is ever done without at least a pinch of it!) to write a certain number of pages each month – ten single-space pages at font size 12. That has not changed. I often write more, but never less. And if I fall behind, I have to make it up by the last day of the month. In the early years, this often meant a lot of rubbish on the 31st! You do not have to write every day, but it’s easier to establish the habit if you do. I put in the date, skip a line, and proceed to discuss what I am reading, how I slept, what I am afraid of, surprised at, hopeless at figuring out. Give yourself lots of leeway. If all you can manage is a history of the day before or an agenda for the day ahead, so be it. Believe me, this will change!

You will find that having the journal to write slowly changes the way you view your life. You will catch yourself marking passages in books to transcribe (a journal works as a wonderful commonplace book) or trying to note exactly what someone says to you (pay attention!) so that you can record it in your journal as accurately as possible. More importantly, you will be turning your life into a narrative – your narrative. Not a Facebook narrative. (Can those people really be so happy? No way. They are either deceptive or deluded, maybe both.) Not a blog. You are not writing to impress anyone (and you should decide up front that you will not share). You are writing to try to narrate your own life. Susan Sontag said that “in the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” Take your only opportunity to tell your own story.

I’m in my fifteenth year of doing this. I wish I had always done it – how edifying it would be to be able to look back on how I felt about being a new mother (scared and overwhelmed), how I navigated divorce (scared and overwhelmed) and then remarried (happy and overwhelmed). But the feelings I just put in parentheses are remembered. And we only have to have someone send us an old photo of ourselves or compare reminiscences with our siblings to realize that memory isn’t always completely reliable.

And (with my parentheses) I have just described another benefit (they are endless). You can look back a few months or years and see what you were worried about, what you fretted over – and recognize that those things have just evaporated. They either never happened or were not half as bad as you feared. There is a life lesson. There are many such lessons that we cannot learn anywhere but from our own experience – and experience not reified in words is hard to recall, difficult to grasp, and susceptible to psychological manipulation.  And the “search” function in Word gives me the ability to ascertain when I had a root canal (and sometimes even to settle arguments).

The document itself is a mixed blessing. For instance, there is the problem of what to do with all of this sensitive material – especially as I get older. I am not sure I would even want people I loved to read my daily thoughts (once in a great while you get angry with almost everyone), or have to decide how to dispose of them. I print out the journal monthly for vague reasons that may have something to do with the strange satisfaction of seeing the record of my life turned into copy, hole-punched, and piled up in loose-leaf binders in the closet. But I do spend time thinking about the appropriate moment in my life for a bonfire. But again, these problems are outweighed by the advantages.

So, try it. I recommend it and so do many wonderful writers and thinkers. The product is valuable. Salman Rushdie cautioned us to “never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things — childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves — that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.” But it is really not the product that is the most important. It is the process. The daily exercise of trying to make sense of your own life. Is there a better way that you could spend your time?

I am not posting a story this week, but if you want a smile, try Rich Schram’s blog at funreadsbyrichschram.blogspot.com. I particularly recommend his “Sheetrock Ballet.”

Answers?

My generation spent our young adult years being fascinated by all the new technology cascading to the market. We knew television from our youth, but soon it was color television, then there were VCR’s and cable TV, video games, there were computers in the office and then computers at home – and then the internet and cell phones arrived! Scanners, digital pix, e-mail, social media, texting, news on demand, ipads, smart phones, search engines – all of this was a long way from the US Postal Service and the Encyclopedia Britannica. We were fascinated, seduced, enamored, and then we were… suspicious, and sometimes overwhelmed.

I remember the first time I was exposed to a spread sheet program (Lotus 123) and realized those ledgers and blue and red pencils could go out the window. But the initial joy was followed by the realization that the answers we got from the spread sheets were only as good as the data and formulas that we put into them. The word processors produced gorgeous copy – error-free with justified margins, but the content was if anything diminished by the speed with which it could be produced. We learned the acronym GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. We found that we could reach anyone in the world from our cell phone or computer, but that there weren’t that many people we wanted to talk to. (Remember Thoreau? “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate!”) Google answered our questions, but we weren’t at all sure what questions to ask. Maybe Picasso spoke for all of us when he stated that “Computers are useless. They only give you the answers.”

Of course, computers and rational people can answer what are called convergent problems – ones with definitive answers that are the same across time and individuals. How do you build a bicycle? How far is it to the sun? But what are the important questions? For you? For me: “What should I do? How should I live? And (as I got older): Why haven’t I figured this out before now?” Ah, but maybe the problem is a blind belief in rationality itself and that we (or our computers) can “figure it out.” The best literature is written about the big questions of life. I just finished Richard Powers wonderful Prisoner’s Dilemma (and see here for a description of the philosophical problem for which the novel is titled) and the question that Powers asks is “what, if anything, can one private citizen do to make the shared scenario less horrible?” This is a great question for our time. A good exercise in reading is to attempt to ascertain what questions the author is asking and what – if any – alternative answers are presented to these interrogations.

Questions and answers. For all the rationality of Socrates, he is surely better at questions than answers. And wisdom literature of the religious variety is not much for definitive answers. In the Bhagavad Gita, we open with Arjuna asking Krishna why he must engage in battle. Krishna tells Arjuna that it makes no difference, in the end friend and foe are the same, and that Krishna himself is both the sacrifice and the sacrificer. Try to figure that out rationally. Arjuna learns a level of acceptance – “You have dispelled my doubts and delusions and I understand through your grace,” says Arjuna finally. “My faith is firm now, and I will do your will.”

Job asks God three questions: “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” “How can a man be just before God?” and “If a man die, shall he live again?” As far as I can see, God never answers any of these questions. After trying to argue rationally with his friends and with God, poor Job comes to the same conclusion: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” God also takes Job’s “friends” to task for thinking they had “figured things out” and for giving Job false information. These friends end up needing to make big sacrifices and have Job intercede for them to stay on the right side of the Big Guy. The Book of Job and the Bhagavad-Gita are stories of acceptance, not stories of answers.

Computers have both absolute rationality and answers; it might appear that both are, in many ways, useless. Like Job’s friends. Computers give us answers, but answers – especially easy answers – are something of which we should be very suspicious.

But the questions, the questions are important. How do we interrogate our own lives to avoid GIGO? What are your questions? Think about it. And when you decide on your questions, run them through Google for a laugh.

This week’s story, “Don’t Eat the Pink Ones,” has more mysteries than answers, but it is appropriate for the end of the blueberry season.