Neither young nor old

…some reflections on transitions and transience

dandelions small

When I was young, I thought of age as something “out there” somewhere. I had my healthy, active, young self, with all the things it could do. And I knew that some day, if I were lucky enough to live so long, I would have an old self, with a different set of possible activities. I pictured her with snow-white hair, sitting in a chair. That didn’t seem so bad.

But what I hadn’t foreseen was the nickel-and-diming process of loss that marks the transition between being young and being old. This was for some reason a surprise. About age 40, my near vision started to go. In my later forties, I blew out both knees doing a steep downhill hike with my daughter. With my 50s arrived digestive problems, tendonitis, shoulder issues, and a decrease in my ability to bounce back from illness and injury. And I don’t want these. I feel it’s too early to be that relatively content–and profoundly different–“old self” I’ve imagined in my mind’s eye! So I tend to take each of these breakdowns as an affront to the integrity of my “young self.”

Everyone wants to give (or more likely, sell) you advice about how to stay young. There’s not nearly so much advice out there about how to go about the process of getting old. Yet in our Zen liturgy we recite

I am of the nature to grow old.
There is no way to escape growing old.

We say the same thing about having ill health, and about death. I love this part of the liturgy–though I understand why some people have the urge to get up and leave the first time they hear it! You might take it negatively: “This bad thing is going to happen to you, and there is no way out.” But I hear it another way: “Growing old is not, fundamentally, a problem. There is no need to fight it, or feel that you are failing in some way when it happens.”

And I keep on having to face this truth afresh. I find that deep down I tend to shelter a fantasy that, sure, I’m getting older, but I’ll be one of those amazing people. I’ll be one of those who hikes high mountains at 80. I’ll be one of those who dispenses words of wisdom at 90. I especially noticed that I had been telling myself this story recently, when I got the results from an MRI, administered in relation to some lingering post-viral problems I’ve been having. As an aside, the note reported that the white matter in my brain had “mild chronic microvascular changes which are not uncommon at this age.” In other words, they saw the very early physical signs of  age-related dementia. Aging is real. It’s happening. I am not escaping it.

And it’s not a problem. It’s being human. It’s being part of this vast universe of life-and-death, arising and passing away.

I may have done my last high-mountain hike, given my knees and energy level. I’ve likely  danced my last vigorous swing dance, given my shoulder problems. Perhaps my best work is behind me. These are losses, painful and and potentially bitter ones! What I have found most helpful in facing these losses is to face directly into their bittersweetness.

My first notable experience with this practice was many years ago when my son was in kindergarten. We lived just a few blocks from his school and I got a lot of joy from walking him there in the morning. Then, a few weeks before school let out for the summer, I discovered that we would need to move. Knowing I’d be unlikely to be able to walk him anymore after that happened, I keenly felt the coming loss of this treasured time. So I decided to enjoy the walks to the max during those last weeks. As a result, I have sweet memories of that time and no lingering regrets.

Recently, just the day after the death of activist priest Daniel Berrigan was reported in the newspaper, I happened upon the following quote from him in a Zen book:

These many beautiful days cannot be lived again.
But they are compounded in my own flesh and spirit,
and I take them in full measure toward whatever lives ahead.

Reading these just after his death, I reflected that perhaps his beautiful days have also been in some way compounded into our flesh and spirit, to be taken by us to many lives ahead.

The way I understand it, this “taking…toward” is not just about creating nice memories, and storing them to bring out on bad days. That might be helpful, but only goes so far. It could, in fact, be harmful. We might store up bitter regret along with those memories, or live in the memories instead of our life as it is. As I see it, our “beautiful days” are not just our pleasant and easy ones. Our experiences are “compounded” into our brains, our muscle tissue, our posture, whether we want them to be or not. Our hard and painful experiences become embodied, as well as our joyous and pleasant ones. But by facing directly into our experiences, by really being present to them, we create something well worth “taking…toward.”  By thoroughly burning them up with our presence and attention, we don’t store up toxic left-overs in the form of ignored or rejected or embittering bits.

One of the most wonderful people I ever had the opportunity to work with, my sometime co-editor and co-author Marianne Ferber, was more than thirty years older than me. Her life hadn’t been a bed of roses: Her Jewish family fled Eastern Europe to escape Hitler, and I met her after the death of her much-beloved spouse. But she told me, when she was in her eighties, that while she did not hold any particular religious belief, she practiced gratitude.

What is ever lost? What is ever gained?  I’m writing this on a gorgeous spring morning, and I intend to take a walk later on. Tapping my computer keys. Looking out at the red blossoms. My human life and your human life. Completely and incontrovertibly transient, and yet never truly gone.

Author: julieanelson

Julie A. Nelson is a Professor of Economics; a writer on gender, ethics, economics, and ecology; a dharma teacher in the Boundless Way Zen school; mother of two grown children; and an avid dancer.

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