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.