“Of hitherto I have but piled up words, bought books, and bought some small experiences, and builded me in libraries; now I sit down and read.” Pierre, Melville 121
“I guess you’ve always got to be ready to try something new.”
I said this with silver needles poking out between my toes and from the creases of my elbows. I said this without thinking about it. I said it because everyone says it. I said it to the woman beside me who had most of her needles sticking out of her head and ears. I didn’t expect a response. It seemed a given – sort of like saying “it is what it is” or “tomorrow’s another day.”
“No, you do not.” The needles quivered all around her head, but there was no waver in her voice or in the tilt of the chin. “No, indeed you do not,” she repeated. And, since she looked fairly at home in her mane of quills, I did not think it likely she was referring to acupuncture.
Why had I spoken at all? My mouth drooled words from the twofold anxiety of a new situation and numerous puncture wounds. And I am surprised I did not let the comment go. I usually would. I am not a confrontational person, which has often turned out to be a pity as more confrontation might have rescued two marriages and the relationship with one of my siblings and my deceased father. But, it was not so much what this woman said, but how she said it – with confidence but not insistence. And, of course, what she looked like. Even without the halo of silver spines, she was an interesting-looking character. Pleasant, in a weird way. White hair pulled back into a messy bun, clear brown eyes, and a missing tooth in the upper right. The canine was gone. Was she waiting for a bridge? I sighed.
“Well, the world is moving so fast, sometimes it seems everything is new. I know acupuncture is old, but I’ve never tried in. Headaches. Chronic headaches.” I lifted my foot so she could see the distribution of the weapons of my healing. Although my pain was in my head, apparently this had no relation to where the needles went in. I could deduce nothing from my neighbor’s puncture-patterns. I waited to hear what condition brought her to this particular magic mountain. In vain. Her eyes and mouth were peacefully closed.
I watched our dominatrix, Vivian, circle around to each of her victims every ten or fifteen minutes. I lay back and listened to her murmuring with other clients and tried to formulate some coherent and intelligent question to ask about my treatment. This was difficult, as no rational process had brought me to this place (“What is community acupuncture, anyway?”), but sheer desperation. Headaches, degenerating from violent migraines when I was younger to persistent, daily headaches for the past ten years, were what brought me here. Trying something “new” at the age of sixty. The woman on the recliner next to me was definitely older. And definitely did not mind looking it. No sign of make-up or hair coloring. No manicure or pedicure.
Vivien was now with a much younger patient on the other side of the lady with the naked hair and nails. They were talking about the new Hobbit movie. Vivien turned to my neighbor. “Cathy hasn’t seen the movie, have you? Doesn’t go to movies. Bet she read the book though.”
Cathy opened her eyes and smiled. “Love Tolkien. Just read The Hobbit again last summer. Wonderful.” She stared in front of her as if she could see Bilbo trotting by on his pony in the distance.
The younger woman said she hadn’t read the book, but she liked the film so much she might give it a try. On the other hand, she reflected, she might wait until she had seen the sequels, so the book wouldn’t be a spoiler for the movies. Cathy and I caught each other wincing at this and a little camaraderie seemed to be taking root. Enough, anyway, to make me feel like taking another foray into her territory.
“You don’t like movies?” I turned my head toward Cathy, being careful of my bristly limbs.
“I like movies. I just don’t go to new movies. Thank goodness for DVD’s though.”
“You don’t go because they’re new and new movies are generally crumby or don’t go because you don’t like movie theaters – or both?” I could understand the second. For all their cushy tiered seating and extravagant snack selection, new movie theaters unfortunately attracted a new kind of audience, an audience which could not differentiate between watching films on the couch – where they could talk to the screen or their neighbor or chomp nachos to their heart’s content –and watching in a communal setting.
“Well, there’s that – but, I decided a few years ago I would dispense with new movies. New books. New gadgets. New recipes. Best decision I ever made. For one thing, it limits decision-making. Although that’s not why I did it. No, not at all. But it’s certainly has been a side benefit.”
My daughter, Jessie, who thought I was a stick-in-the-mud, would love this, I thought. And yet…
“Aren’t you afraid of missing… something?” I tried to think of an end to my question as I asked it – missing what? Knowing what people were talking about when they discussed the new Hobbit movie, discovering green olives were really not a good addition to roast chicken? What?
Vivien had pulled folded back Cathy’s blanket and was removing a needles, counting silently with her lips, presumably to make sure there were none left behind to furnish an unexpected surprise the next time her client sat down.
Cathy sat up and started to put on her socks and sneakers. She shook her head and looked at the linoleum for a moment. “Afraid? No. I started it to it partly so I wouldn’t be afraid. And it worked.” She stood up straight in her bright blue tunic and reached in the pocket of her black pants for some silver earrings. She kept a steady gaze on me while she put the hoops through her ears, and certainly did not look like a frightened woman. “Good luck with your treatment. I have no idea why it works, but it does. For me, at least.” And off she went, leaving an empty chair for the next person who was desperate enough to spend an hour being stuck by needles while surrounded by strangers. I was confused. What was she talking about at the end, what “worked”? Acupuncture or her philosophy of life?
Cathy’s replacement was a school bus driver with a bad back who did not want to be there, but had a wife in the waiting room serving as a prison guard. He moaned and groaned and couldn’t believe there was no television and what was he supposed to do with himself for an hour? I closed my eyes to discourage verbal complaining, but still had to listen to sighs and moans. I wanted to think about what Cathy had said. I wanted to think about what it would mean to stop hitting the Enter button – living a life of out with the new and in with the old. A life of reassuring repetition rather than puzzling novelties? Or maybe just a boring horizon of the status quo?
Of course, I didn’t quite know what Cathy meant, how she defined her terms. She didn’t go to the movies, but did she watch new movies when they came out on DVD? Did she use a cell phone and if she did, did she turn it in for a new model when her contract was up? How about her computer? How about cars? And clothes? Friends?
On the other hand, how nice not to try to winnow out the real books from the bestseller list, not to worry about how long the lines were going to be at the new movie, to not to worry about whether the new recipe from the Times was worth the price of the ingredients or the hours in the kitchen. No more learning new computer applications or worrying about whether the new iPad was over-priced for the value it would add to your life. Sounds good, but what would you read, think about, talk about? What would fill the gap? Would there be a gap?
My thoughts, always obsessive, kept cycling through two themes. The first rotation started with the memory of a hike I had taken a number of years ago at the site of a gorge in upstate New York. I had a friend visiting and I took her out to show her one of my favorite trails. We had a fine tramp out for a couple of hours, but when we decided it was time to go back, Karen was completely nonplussed that the only way to return (as far as I knew) was the back the way we had come. No loops. No alternatives. Just reverse direction. Karen found the prospect of retracing our steps incredibly boring and could not believe I did this on a regular basis. I pointed out to her that the landscape, the forest, looked different going in the opposite direction. What I did not tell her was I found comfort in frequently hiking the same trail, back and forth, taking a path and wearing a path. It was an irresolvable difference in our perspectives. Was Cathy’s attitude toward life similar to mine toward the trail?
And then there was… Dante and his metaphor of life as a parabola. Each person spends the first half climbing up until they reach the epitome of our lives. I was certainly long past what Dante would have considered the peak, and – in fact – I think he posited the peak at around age thirty-three, the age when Christ supposedly died. It wouldn’t have done for the Son of God to start decaying, or so Dante reasoned. In any case, the rest was all downhill. We round the top of the arch, and zoom. Down we go.
The concept of downhill is an interesting one too. It can mean easy – as in, “it’s all downhill from here.” Or, it can mean things are getting steadily worse, as in “the stock market is in a downhill slide” or “Uncle Benny has gone downhill since I saw him last.” And, of course, Dante’s famous downhill trek was into the Inferno (in the middle of his life). Albeit, he later climbed back out to Purgatory and even Paradise. But that was another metaphor. It was the parabola I kept coming back to.
Actually, a the downward portion of a parabola is not the exact path you trod, but a mirror image set ahead in time – and reversed in direction. Revisiting the trajectory in height if not in exact time or space. Revisiting the points on the curve. The Buddha had his first intimations of what enlightenment might be when he thought back to a moment as a very small child sitting under the shade of a rose-apple tree. He spent his time under the Bo tree revisiting and recapturing that moment and the rest of the life helping other people do the same. Reaching back for those early feelings of contentment and belonging, through all the accretions of our upward trajectories. Hiking the trail back from the other direction – up the mountain and back to the bottom again. “Now we maun totter down, John, / And hand in hand we’ll go; / And sleep the gither at the foot, / John Anderson my Jo. And sleep together at the foot, John Anderson, my jo.” So says Robbie Burns; we all trod back down the mountain for auld lang syne.
Besides Karen and her aversion to repetition (with sidebars to Dante and the Buddha), the other thing I kept thinking about were the stories of long term prisoners in solitary confinement and how they kept their sanity. Often, they did it by going over and over minutely things that they already knew, things from their past. They reviewed musical scores in their heads, recited poetry, traced dates and reviewed the plots of novels they had read. Jorge Borges wrote about a fictional prisoner who used nine years to review everything he knew, and in this way he came “into possession of that which was already mine.” How can you come into possession of what you already know? Maybe by stopping trying to learn new things, to layer over the old knowledge with thick glazes of the new. I remember someone telling me a story about Louis Agassiz, who was famous for memorizing all the scientific names for fish and their parts. When Agassiz came to Harvard, he decided to put his prodigious memory to work to remember the names of all the students, at which he proved very successful. However, one day he realized in memorizing undergraduates he had started to forget the fish. He immediately gave up on the students. There is certainly some kind of lesson there.
I have been constantly amazed when I sit down to read a book I know I have read or watch a movie (even when I can remember the occasion of my first viewing) at how little I remember. Some of it often comes back as the plot progresses and as my mind is sparked by isolated points of recognition, but not much. Not much at all. Of course, there is an unfortunate tendency for the mind to recall who done it halfway through a murder mystery. I have found most good books can be read at seven year intervals, and really great books can be reread anytime.
So what exactly was Cathy doing and what did she mean by doing it so she would not be afraid? Did simply sticking with the old well-trodden paths make her more comfortable, less fearful? Or was it something more?
Something more, I thought. One of the things snowballing technology and proliferating media had meant during my adult life I was always racing to keep up. Surely, with on-line news and all, keeping up was easier, but there was so much more to keep up with. It was a trial. I often thought the major challenges of my working life were learning new computer systems. And now, then there is the fear it will all pass me by. That I will lose the race, and become like one of Gulliver’s Struldbruggs who lived long enough that language has evolved to the point where they couldn’t even talk to people the people around them. It was already hard to converse with young people. Young people, who are interested in new things. Things I know little or nothing about. Most of my conversations with young people involve either getting advice on how to operate my already sub-standard technology, or exhorting them to read old books or see old movies I know they will never read or see.
I waited and mulled for a week until my next acupuncture appointment, but Cathy was not there and when I asked Vivien, she said Cathy had been there the previous day. Sooner or later I might run into her, but I decided it was really up to me if I wanted to start, to make my own ritual, my own rules of the order – a provisional novitiate of eliminating the new. A season of giving things up. A Lent in preparation for ending up where I started. A celebration of the Advent of old age.
I decided to start where I always started – with books. No new books. There was the question of unread books already in the house or on my Kindle. Those I deemed to be permissible. It was also going to be kosher to read books I did not own as long as I had read them before.
Fiction was not going to be so much of a problem; I was almost inevitable disappointed with contemporary fiction. New non-fiction was often no more satisfying, but it held the promise of answers. Of the beliefs inculcated in my youth, the only positive creed I retained (for I internalized all of the negative ones about myself and about the world) was a faith in books. Books held answers. My father built his first house out of a precious book called Build Your Dream Home for Under $5,000. I remember my childhood family standing around a book-built fireplace waiting to see if the smoke would, in fact, draft up the chimney. And it did. I used books to learn to knit, cook, raise children (thanks, Dr. S!) And to save my soul. I had long since graduated from the Bible, but I meditate and have read countless books on Zen, Buddhism, meditation, the Bhagavad Gita – you-name-it. The hope is that this next book will bring enlightenment. And since the market of people like me is great, there is always a next book. I read many of them, and all I garner is an outlay in time and money and a temporary escape from doing the things these books recommend. Yes, reversion was definitely worth a try. Buddhism put a high value on our own experience and emptiness. I would be thrown back on both. No new books. Same with movies. News (I was hopelessly addicted to NPR) was going to be minimized to once a day on the radio and the Times on Sunday.
Purchasing was going to be limited to replacement items. Truly, I probably could live the rest of my life with the clothes in my closet, but it would be permissible to replace things, and particularly shoes, as they wore out. The same with household items. New bed sheets when the old ones developed holes, but not until. No new recipes and no new cookbooks. Ditto with technology – when it didn’t work I would get a new one in kind. And no new music.
Music was harder than it would seem. I could (and wanted to) feel complacent allowing myself with almost any of the classical composers – at my age I had probably heard the pieces before. I could forego buying anything new, and rely on classical radio and an occasional CD from the library. But I played the piano and still took lessons after all these years (it was one of the skills I could not successfully learn from a book). And my next lesson was coming up. I had just finished learning (as far as I was capable), the last movement of a new (to me) Mozart sonata. And now I was going to tell Emma I was not going to let her make new selections for me. We were going to travel backwards to things I had played before, and play them again. Work on them some more. No more catapulting through the canon with no time left to revisit old battle sites. Actually, my conversation with Emma started my interaction with others on my temporary conversion from the universal ideal of progress to a personal regress.
Emma accommodated me, but clearly did not understand. My husband seemed to understand and was more than willing to accommodate me, particularly if it meant I spent less money and bothered him less about going to the movies. My adult children thought I was crazy, but that was nothing new. Mostly, I did not give too many details and almost no rationale. You can’t explain what you don’t entirely understand; it was the working out of a hypothesis, not an established opinion. When someone recommended a new book or movie, I would nod as if I were considering it. I did not ask for new recipes, but took them when offered and then filed them away. I stopped shopping on-line, as nothing in my closet or house looked like it was going to actually wear out for a very long time. The local librarian who regularly supplied me with book recommendations looked disappointed when I explained, my friends were confused, and on-line merchandisers (or their cyber sales team) just seem to keep upping the enticements to “return.” I am returning, I want to tell them. Back to the beginning.
The funny part was the two greatest skeptics were my younger daughter (surely still on the upward trajectory) and my elderly mother (twenty years further down the hill than I). Sally thought this project (like most of my life) sounded pretty boring. And the reaction of Mom should not have surprised me as she was appalled when I had one of my molars capped in gold rather than the less dependable but more cosmetically-pleasing white plastic. Mom is convinced one can feel one has lived only by forging full speed ahead as long as is physically and mentally possible. Do not go gently into that good night. Because it’s not a good night, I guess. Her aggression toward aging often resulted in broken bones, frustration, and more than a little confusion. But Mom is convinced it is a battle worth fighting and would love to enlist me in her cause. She has picked her metaphors: the only way to treat life is to knock it down, force open its gullet, and pour in as many experiences as possible. She would have no part of “nothing new.”
And while I did not experience Sally’s dreaded boredom, I seemed to have more time on my hands. I wasn’t racing through books, eager to get to the next one on the pile. Far less time on the internet. Far less speculation about things in the future. But a great deal of time spent in inventory. I went through my closet and figured out what I owned that could be pressed into service to vary my wardrobe. I stood in front of our bookshelves and made lists of books I wanted to read again. I weeded out the cookbooks, shedding the impulse buys and never-used gifts. I ransacked the cabinets where we kept our CD’s and vinyl. And I spent several afternoons trying out old piano music to see what I wanted to revisit. And slowly, my thoughts turned from the future – what might happen, what needed to happen, what was about to happen, what I wanted to happen – to the past. Old books and music conjured effortlessly and relentlessly conjured into my mind the times of my life when they were important. Chopin’s nocturne’s brought back the sadness of a marriage gone sour; Bach’s inventions overwhelmed me with the tender and scary feeling of having a newborn sleeping nearby. Anna Karenina reminded me of the life situation which had led me to that book the first time. Emotions were evoked, but tempered by decades of time. I was sliding down the other side of the parabola.
It had been at least two months since I had seen Cathy, but I kept up my appointments and kept my eye out. I was not at all sure my “retro” program was anything like hers – but I would have loved the chance to compare notes and thank her. Finally, one clear cold February morning, I walked into the dreamy room full of soft new age music and recliners and saw a woman with the halo of spikes across the room. But the long white hair was gone and she was considerably gaunter than I remembered. But it was definitely Cathy. I knew Vivien often treated people going through chemo; I had gotten the recommendation from someone who had come here during their cancer treatments. But my friend Chris had survived, thrived. Cathy didn’t look so good. She appeared to be sleeping so I took a spot as close to her as I could get and kept an eye out for a chance to talk to my mentor.
Vivien came and did her thing. The room was too small for me to ask her any questions without being heard, so I just waited. About mid-way through my term of incarceration, Vivien went over and murmured to Cathy as she pulled needles and rearranged shawls and blankets. When Cathy rose, I carefully (with great deference to my needles) sat up.
“Cathy,” I hissed. She looked surprised, but came over. I was not sure she remembered me, but she listened with interest as I outlined the project she had inspired. It was not the look of a self-satisfied guru, though. It was a look of resignation, acknowledgement. It was a tired look.
“I mostly just wanted to thank you. It’s not so much that looking back is good; it’s that I am expending so much less energy by not reaching forward all the time. Nobody except me seems to understand it – but, of course, you do. Falling. Rather than climbing up the ladder, I’m gliding down the slide.”
Cathy smiled for the first time. “Chutes and ladders. Played that with my kids. The chutes were supposed to be the bad part. Glad it helped you.”
“One question though. You said it helped you not to be afraid. Afraid of what?”
Cathy looked around her for something to sit on and pulled over the stool that Vivien used to do her thing. She clearly had little strength.
“I started this by trying to figure out why I was so scared of dying.” She gestured at her bald head and we both sat silently for a moment. “Then, I realized what I was afraid of: missing out on things after I was gone. The thought that things would go on without me was devastating. So I decided to practice, to turn around. Face back in the direction from which I had come. And, like you, I found that it wasn’t so difficult. Nice, in fact. It has made a difference for me. I’m glad it’s helped you. I really am. I don’t discuss it much. I don’t even remember talking to you about it. But I am glad it worked for you.”
Cathy got up and pulled her shawl around her and fixed knit cap on her scalp. She carefully found a part of my forearm without needles and gave it a pat. And then she left.