Sunday, July 06, 2008

Learning How To Grow Old

I had a delightful conversation this morning, getting to meet a rather remarkable teacher.

After church this morning I went next door for the scheduled social event, but I sheepishly admit it was mostly to snack on a few of the baked goods and grab a quick coffee. Usually I’m a chatty and friendly enough character, but this week I’ve been pre-occupied with some clouds on my horizon, and feeling therefore under a shadow, not really much in the mood for socializing.

Soon after I was establishing myself in my little corner, a frail older woman was escorted over to my table by one of the younger women hosting the event. By her body language I understood that it would be appreciated if I could keep the elderly guest company during her brunch. Which I dutifully did.

And boy, talk about being at the right place at the right time, meeting just the right person: I got all the lessons I realized I've been needing, delivered as clearly as if they were wrapped in a box with a big ribbon around it.

My unexpected dinner companion had a mind that was as sharp as her body was frail, and I left over an hour later with my mind bursting with good advice and my life enriched by seeing such a great example of how to live the life we're given.

What an active person: she was still an eager student, still memorizing poetry, as a hobby, and casting around for another language to start learning, to add to her French, Spanish, German and Latin, on top of her native English. She explained her philosophy about keeping the mind exercised, and the good that it does us in doing so. She was a widower, yet like my own grandmother who outlived her husband by a good twenty-five years, she was kept in good spirits through continued contact with her family, enlarged now to include many grandchildren. The pain of a terrible loss had been balanced by an eventual great gain, and therefore there was much to find to smile about.

Same with her studying; she made light of how one’s mind can so easily forget names or dates, as new gets piled on top of the old. So long as new memories keep coming, it’s not so bad to lose track of some of the older ones they seem to replace. This was of particular comfort to me, since I’ve been noticing all too clearly of late that my memory is frankly not what it used to be; lately I’ve been reflecting on when my mother starting fretting about losing her memory, when she was my current age, and I see now I never truly understood the depths of her frustration until I recently started sharing the same fate. There may not be anything we can do to stop it from happening, but there was a way demonstrated to me this morning, of learning to bear it with grace and good humor.

Lest it mistakenly seem like I was captive to a lecture, let me quickly add that she asked many questions of me throughout our long conversation, often leaning forward as she would inquire, "what do you think about that", so that her personal observations could be tested against my own experience. It was more important to her to learn what’s right, than to learn that she was right. If only I could develop more of that kind of curiosity... well, maybe now I can, now that I see how successfully it contributes to keeping the mind sharp.

I was probably most impressed to hear of her ready acceptance of computers into her life. Most people past a certain age are intimidated by them to the point that they simply declare they are too old to learn such new tricks. But she was, completely knowledgeable about the internet, as one example, seeing how wonderful a means of communication it was. I can only hope I will be as courageous when I reach her age, in embarking on learning new things when I know going in to them that I will be doomed to spend a lot of time struggling to get a handle on them. It’s all a matter of standing back and adopting a long enough long-term view, so that the good lying wait in the future can be seen to tower above the struggle of the present. Given the trouble I’m having this year with adapting to a bewildering (for me) barrage of new technology at work, here was a teacher that came along at just the right time to give me the little boost I most needed.

There’s much else I could add, such as the incredible series of coincidental areas of interest that we shared. Maybe I’ll put some of that in another post, someday, on the prevalence of coincidence in life, as compared to fiction.

When I debated on even going to the after-church event this morning, given how downcast my mood was at the time, I never could have imagined I would be leaving it as empowered as I ended up becoming, thanks to the renewal of enthusiasm I picked up from my new acquaintance. Goes to show that no matter what the circumstances, we can just never "know" what the future has in store for us.

Maybe that’s the hardest lesson to learn of them all… To age with humility.


Anonymous said...


I've never had that kind of discussion at Sunday morning coffee.

Maybe it's me....

Dag said...

Walker, it could well be that you do have conversations like this often but that you haven't recognized the significance of them at the time.

I meet people across a strange spectrum of people that would shock most people, settled as they are within the routines of the day and a personal life, I meeting people who are at the ends of Human experience, good and bad; and often the ones who fall in the middle and say things of not much note are the ones who let slip some profundity that catches me unawares, sometimes later, even years later, changing the course of my life on the spot of epiphany. I see things in terms of a developing mosaic, a load of black tesserae falling into place and illuminating nothing at all by themselves, but in hindsight giving context to the golden single spark that would have been lost without the contrast to give them place and meaning otherwise. In that, I love getting older.

Like you, I walk across worlds, and have done so for years. It's not easy. Often it's frightening and lonely to be "out there" with no familiarity and no place of ones own. Still, it is the world of men who are real if different from me, and I gain over time in spite of the losses of a settled existence.

I have a beautiful 19th century lithograph of a huddled family on a plateau, a family frightened and cowering, looking to strange worlds they know nothing of and having to face the future in that strangeness. The caption is something like: "They were exiled east of Eden, even unto the Land of Nod."

And here we are, friend: Still making our way back home.

Sometimes I'll hear a bit of conversation and pack it away for later, forgetting where I heard it first, and then, some quiet time unpacking my mind on a quiet day, there will be that oddity and that treasure I hadn't noticed when I got it. Ahhh.... Beauty. And sometimes horror.

All of it makes a picture, and that picture is of the person. It changes daily. Since you're walking you'll have time to consider and to allow the picture to mature slowly, deeply, and maybe in dimensions beyond anything you can imagine now. You might well be unrecognizable to others in a short time, presenting a person so different that your friends today won't know you at all, and you'll have to move on and find others, if you can, to share your life with. It's tough. Lots to lose.

You might well be stranger in a strange land forever, never really making it to where you had hoped to end. But in all that time you'll have made the journey that brings others to where no one could have gotten without you.

Tough life, this.

Eowyn said...

I've held off on commenting to this post. Mostly because it moved me so. One wants one's words to add to the thread, rather than proclaim some selfish opinion designed to garner attention.

But this is wonderful. Full of wonder -- wonder-full.

Charles Henry is so eloquent. Dag is so insightful. Together, you put so much into perspective. Add truepeers to the "troika," and you are such a force.

I guess I might be accused of being a groupie, after a fsahion, LOL -- but I'd wear that badge with pride.

Yes. People who survive have stories to tell, that we need to hear.

Charles Henry said...

"People who survive have stories to tell..."

That's a very fitting way of putting it, Eowyn, I like that. She does choose to survive: it is clearly a choice, a choice committed to, followed up on, and consequently achieved.
(and thank you very much for the compliment..! It's intimidating as all heck to write alongside Dag and Truepeers, so I will take much encouragement from your words of appreciation)

Walker, I would like to echo much of what Dag said. Sometimes a meeting, not just from weeks ago, but from years ago, will trigger some insight about the one you're undergoing at the moment, as one might discover that a triangle is really a pyramid... suddenly there's more than meets the eye.

For me it's usually some ever-so-small detail that shifts my perspective entirely, not the crashing of cymbals but more like the tingling of a little bell, like the sound a microwave makes when the meal is finally cooked. Then as you look, you suddenly see, finally perceiving what it was that had been incubating there for all that time.

From listening to, talking with, and reading Dag and Truepeers over the last two years, I've definitely come to realize how my getting smarter involves me also "getting dumber", in the sense that we discover through adding to our knowledge, how much empty room there was upstairs for us to fill.

We're always in a state of becoming...