Was She Someone?

In the beginning of Penelope Lively’s wonderful novel Moon Tiger, Claudia, an “old ill woman” in a hospital bed, tells a nurse that she’s “writing a history of the world.”  The nurse is dubious, but asks the doctor later, “Was she someone?”  The doctor looks at her record, which includes illnesses in various parts of the world and notations about her books, and says, “Yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably.”  She was someone… probably.

Claudia could be any of us.  We are  no longer identified by our work (although some of try to hang onto our titles and accomplishments); many of us are no longer identified by place (almost all of the seniors we have met in North Carolina came from somewhere else).  Our families might identify us as Nana or Grandma – but we are no longer the heart of anyone’s family.  Our appearance has changed, the culture around us has changed, and some of us have children who seem to have metamorphized into someone different than the offspring we raised.

In Buddha’s teaching, there are three principal “signs of being:” Change, suffering and non-self.  Buddhism posits no self (anatta) in the sense of a permanent identity; this follows, of course, from the first “sign of being”: change.   How can we hang onto a permanent identity in the face of relentless change?  If you are old, this is a query you have put to yourself many times.

Western thinkers have been much taken up with the subject of personal identity.  In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke tried to connect what he called “personhood” with consciousness and memory:

For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that that makes everyone to be what he calls self,  and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things: in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being.  And as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person.  (II: xxvii: 9)

 Linking consciousness and memory to identity is problematic in relation to old age, when changes in the physical self and mental forgetfulness may both challenge any assurance of continuous identity.  In addition, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain our sense of identity when it is not acknowledged by those around us.  But I am an esteemed professor with an academic title, thinks the old man whose physical therapist has just called him “Georgie.”

Not only our bodies, but the physical world around us has changed also.  Things we thought were solid, have proved disposable.  My mother, in her eighties, was heartbroken when the child of some former neighbors e-mailed her to tell her that the house that her husband and father had built by hand just after I was born had been demolished to make room for a McMansion.  I cursed the person who shared that information with her, nevertheless it was the truth.  Houses change, cars change, neighborhoods change, culture changes, even the landscape is changing.  There is nothing to cling to.  Attachment to anything, even personal identity, is the source of dukkha, suffering.

In his old age, Jonathan Swift, who had thought much about identity and age, would sit and rock and say, “I am what I am, I am what I am.”  Perhaps what Swift was trying to remember in that mantra was that he was a popular author, the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, one of the leading minds of his age.  But when he passed a mirror, Swift exclaimed, “O poor old man.”

But, back to Moon Tiger.  The last words of Lively’s novel tell us that Claudia has died and focus on what remains:

And within the room a change has taken place.  It is empty.  Void.  It has the stillness of a place in which there are only inanimate objects: metal, wood, glass, plastic.  No life.  Something creaks; the involuntary sounds of expansion and contraction.  Beyond the window a car starts up, an aeroplane passes overhead.  The world moves on.  And beside the bed the radio gives the time signal and a voice starts to read the six o’clock news.

We live with “objects” and leave them behind; yet, as I have noted, even objects change.  I have been thinking about houses these days – perhaps the most intimate of objects which we live with as we “inhabit” them.  This led me to reread (rereading being one of the great joys of old age) the interregnum in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Ray Bradbury’s poignant and scary story, “There Will Come the Soft Rains.” The title of the latter comes from a wonderful poem by Sara Teasdale in which are the memorable lines:

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

All this inspired my short story, “The Beach House,” in which the house does seem to wonder about the people, people who become attached to a house – an object, which in itself is healthily detached.

Amnesty for Amnesia

We have all been deeply schooled in the value of “letting go.”  My Centering Prayer group talks often about “letting go and letting God.”  “Consider the lilies,” says Jesus in answer to two questions about anxiety: “… which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?”  OK, right. “Letting go” is also a pervasive theme in Buddhist meditative practice; I cannot tell you how many dharma talks I have heard on the necessity of letting be and letting go.  “If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace,” says Ajahn Chah, and I believe him.  The problem is that I still have not been able to let go the of big things, while I am “letting go” of little things constantly.  And I don’t like it.

I let go of small things all the time – mostly names, but sometimes words.  I also let go of objects (reading glasses) or the reason why I walked into the kitchen. The most strange and aggravating thing about these little “forgettings,” these “senior moments,” is that I know the word or answer is buried somewhere in the folds of my grey matter, from whence it eventually surfaces – long after the moment when I need it.  Sometimes it teases me – I can remember that the name starts with an “S” (Sara?  Sally?) but still cannot produce the correct name when we meet up in the grocery store.  It is like when you wake up at the tail end of a dream – you try to grasp it but… it’s gone.  And then, while you are brushing your teeth and not standing in front of a woman trying to remember her name, the answer floats back into your consciousness.  “Stacy,” you say to yourself, “that woman’s name is Stacy.  Where was that name when I needed it?”  Where indeed?

These are small lapses, but it is not an inconsequential matter to me.  My mother spent her last years in a nasty sort of dementia, so every time my brain fumbles, I start to hyperventilate.

It bothered Elizabeth Bishop too, but she turned her lapses into the wonderful poem, “One Art“:

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Losing things is an art; it’s going to happen, so we might as well get better at it, “accept the fluster.”  Bishop’s poem is bittersweet, pairing the need for acceptance with the letting go of keys, names, places, and the grief over things that are permanently gone.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Philip Larkin seems to take the letting go of memory as a blessing; the past is what gets in the way of future happiness.  Funny and cynical, in “The Winter Palace” he longs for the peace of an empty mind:

And [I] am starting to give offence by forgetting faces
And swearing I’ve never been in certain places.

It will be worth it, if in the end I manage
To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage.

Then there will be nothing I know.
My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.

Billy Collins at least has a sense of humor about it:

It is as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones. (from “Forgetfulness”)

Amnesia and amnesty both come from the Greek word amnestia – meaning oblivion, or forgetting.  Amnesia means “complete or partial memory loss” and amnesty means “a general pardon for offenses.”  Now, it is somewhat paradoxical that I have been working hard at “letting go” for years, and yet – when my brain is ready to part with something, albeit something as trivial as where I hid the extra key, I panic.  Silly.  And, I have been assured that these minor memory lapses are rarely a prelude to true dementia (from the Latin dementia, meaning “out of one’s mind”), which is defined as a condition characterized by progressive, persistent, severe impairment of intellectual capacity. Some self-amnesty for amnesia is in order. Clearly, I need to pair Bishop’s advice about learning the art of losing (“it isn’t hard to master”) with Larkin’s assurance that the less cluttered my mind is, the better.  And add a dash of Collins’ humor.  I just wish I could choose what my mind lets go of.  There’s some stuff I would really like to get rid of, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

I have written several other blogs on letting go and memory – if you are interested in the topic you might try “Whispered Words of Wisdom” or “Dementia, Creativity, and Forgetfulness.”

Margaret Atwood – Young Babes and Old Babes

Margaret Atwood – Young Babes and Old Babes

Margaret Atwood, now eighty-three, recently published a story, “Babes in the Wood” (in a book of the same name), about two old women staying at an old family cabin on a lake, far into the woods.  It’s a good story about sisters and memory and the limits of things; I recommend it.

Mostly, though, it reminded me of another excellent Atwood story, “Death by Landscape,” which Atwood wrote in her younger days and about very much younger people.  Although the story is framed by an elderly woman (Lois) looking at artists’ renditions of the Canadian wilderness on her living room wall, it is about two teen-age girls, who go to camp together in the summer.  On their last outing, the two good friends take a walk to an overhanging cliff, and while on a “bathroom break,” one of the girls (Lucy) disappears, never to be seen again.  The woods are combed by men and dogs, theories abound, and the camp director – desperate to find a scapegoat and save the reputation of her camp – even insinuates that the other young girl (the old woman of the frame of the story) might have had something to do with it.  Even into her old age, Lois surrounds herself by pictures of the Canadian wilderness.  All her life she has felt an empty space, an “echo” where her friend Lucy used to be.  Lois imagines her turned into one of the trees in the landscape, for what could have happened to her?  She lives in the empty space in Lois’s mind and in the landscapes on the wall:

Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is.  She is in Lois’s apartment, in the holes that open inward on the wall, not like windows but like doors.  She is here.  She is entirely alive.

In “Old Babes in the Woods,” two sisters at the old family lake cabin are also preoccupied with people long gone. They have come even though they really can’t handle it – water must be pumped, firewood scrounged, and laundry drying (“toasting”) on the dock falls into the water and must be retrieved.  Wading in the water, trying to pick up clothes with her toes, Nell says to herself: “You old ninny, you really shouldn’t be doing this… One of these days you’ll break your neck.”

Unlike the young girls in the wilderness, the old women in “Old Babes” mostly know how the story comes out.  Parents are gone; spouses deceased.  They are left with ageing bodies in a disintegrating cabin – and everywhere there are reminders of the life they lived and the people they lived it with.  And, unlike the earlier story, there are messages that these people have left behind.  There are notes in the cookbook and on the kitchen walls in their mother’s handwriting: When feeling down in the dump – go for a brisk walk!  These many years later, her daughter reminds herself that she is no longer capable of a brisk walk.  Nell finds a note that her husband folded up with the mosquito netting for the instruction of future occupants.  The messages are both about continuity and  about inevitable change.  The husband knew that he might not be the next one to use the netting.  He is gone and Nell treasures the note from the past – “a cryptic message from the dead.”

There is no mystery in the second story – or the only mystery is time and what it brings.  The two old ladies watch the sunset every night because it is the “best way of predicting the next day’s weather…That plus the barometer, though the barometer isn’t much help because it almost always says “Change.”  And change is what always happens, and yet it surprises us. The two sisters find themselves wondering why the cabin is not designed better for old age:

“He [their father] didn’t intend to get old,” Nell says.

“Yeah, that was a fucking surprise,” Lizzie says.

Well, yes, it is a fucking surprise.  But here we are.  We may not be trying to vacation in an old cabin with minimal conveniences, but we are trying to live in a world that has gone on without us.  Mysteries, for the most part, have been resolved.  We know whether there was a happily ever after or not; we (generally) know how we ended up.  Most of us are not still looking for missing friends in landscapes, partly because missing friends have a way of showing up on Facebook.  But while there may be no mysteries, we are still mystified:  How did we get old?