Yesterday I took a walk on Lucy Vincent. When we got to the pond I had a sudden flash of a distinct memory.
So many years ago every weekday morning, I would ride my bike early, leave it in the parking lot, walk the beach to the pond, swim across and back, walk the beach again, return to my bike, and take the hills home. I stood at the pond’s edge and almost started crying. I said to my husband, How did this happen? I will never do this again.
It happens incrementally. First you find yourself holding onto the railing going upstairs. Then you realize you have to push off to get up off the couch. Then you notice instead of carrying the three grocery bags from the car to the house you have to carry one at a time.
Mostly you acknowledge these changes and you don’t sit shiva for them. “Hey,” you say to yourself, “it comes with the territory.”
Soon you don’t even remember a time when you sprung out of the chair, ran up the stairs, carried your bundles and your kid and your king sized duvet cover from the cleaners all in one strong arm. It all happened like watching molasses pour (you notice I didn’t say spill) out of the jar. It’s a gentle kind of shift.
I remember Ram Dass (my teacher) saying in America we have an aging problem. Most of us are living in urban areas where we are exposed mostly to the projections of the human mind. We are rarely in nature enough to be part of the cycles of birth, death, and aging.
I have friends who remember the moment they felt irrelevant, that walking down the street, they saw how people looked right through them. One girlfriend said she felt like a walking lamppost. Everyone I knew was dying their hair, getting personal trainers, buying hipper clothes, and eating kale for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It was so easy to get caught in our culture’s models of an aging society and a youth mythology.
I remember the story Ram Dass told of turning 60, and how all his western friends were shaking their heads in a kind of despair like, “Oh no, you’re getting so old.” And then when he went to India, one of his friends up in a village in the mountains said, “Ram Dass, you’re so gray. You’re looking so old.” And at first, Ram Dass’ reaction was typical, “that’s terrible, I really must look horrible.” It took him a minute to realize the tone of his friend’s voice was one of respect and delight, that he’d now become one of the elders in the society. His friend was actually saying, “Oh wow, you’ve done it. You’ve grown old. How great.”
In his lectures about aging, Ram Dass talked about the suffering we have the minute we pit ourselves against nature, against change. And he asks us to see “old” as another label trap.
I am not living in an urban center — nature’s all around me, and I know “old” is a label trap. And that the minute I cling to something that no longer exists I invite suffering.
Late last fall, after a particularly windy storm, when all the trees were barren and winter was right around the corner, I saw one lone leaf holding on to a branch for dear life. The thing was almost pure white and it looked like an antique piece of lace. I got up close and thought it was the most beautiful leaf I had ever seen. Of course, I could have seen it as a dead leaf whose days were numbered. The metaphor was not wasted on me. So there I was yesterday, with my memory and the metaphor. And I knew I had a choice.
I thought “I’m almost 82 and I just walked the whole length of this beach.” I could be miserable that I’ll never revisit that bike, walk, swim the pond routine again, or rest in gratitude that I’m an antique piece of lace.
Just hangin’ in.