Friday, May 23, 2014
Last week for my class in the School of Social Work, I was videotaped doing a practice intake interview with an actor who pretended to be a client. The actor, "Jake," was an attractive African American man in his sixties. He had a remarkably deep voice and a lively demeanor. I enjoyed talking with him.
After the interview, students were given DVDs of the interview so that we could see ourselves and reflect on our performances. I did not see what I expected to see.
My portion of the video begins as I walk into the room, my back to the camera. As I watched myself from the back, a perspective I have seldom seen, I thought, “I look pretty good.” I was surprised that, though I’ve walked with a cane since brain surgery, I still looked like an athlete. This pleased me.
Then the video showed me as I turned around—painfully slowly—placed my cane on the floor, retrieved my notes and said, “Hi. Should we just start?”
“Oh my God,” I said to Ann who watched beside me on the couch, “I look so old!”
Though I suspect that I should have been paying attention to what I said, I only noticed my appearance and my movements. I looked and sounded like an old lady: I wore my glasses too far down on my nose; my neck looked thin and too taught; I moved and spoke ridiculously slowly.
When I asked “Jake” questions, I drew out the words as if I were a 45 on the old turn tables but the speed is set at 33. (Just the analogy makes me sound old.) There are long pauses between “Jake’s” responses and my next questions or comments. Jake’s voice is deep like rivers; in contrast, mine is high and whistling like a breeze in the reeds.
This is not the first time that it has occurred to me that I am aging. In March, I turned fifty, and a couple of friends gave me poems that marked my age:
The Billy Collins poem Lou brought is titled, “Forgetfulness,” and perhaps that’s all you need to know. If you need to know more, one stanza reads:
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
It is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
Not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
Yes, I have struggled with word recall since brain surgery, but it’s hard to tell what struggles are due to the fact that those nice people cut into my brain and what struggles are just the natural struggles of aging.
My friend Marion—whose fiftieth birthday was some years ago—gave me a poem about women at fifty. It begins
who have lost the blossom of youth.
These women who have laugh lines and looser skin….
These women of fifty…
Later in the poem, the poet (Helene Kass?) writes,
Their creative force is no longer present in pert breasts,
rather the well-hung fullness of ripened fruit…
Yep. Well-hung fullness. Looser skin. Granny glasses. Freckles that are pooling together to become age spots. Yep. I’m a woman of fifty.
I’ve always felt old for my age, and with neurosurgery and radiation in my forties, I’ve aged even more. I’ve known my mind has changed, but my looks?! Sure, I walk with a cane and struggle with vision and hearing, but it had never occurred to me that I look older. And yet, I do. Of course.
I remember previous moments when it has struck me that I am moving into older generations:
When I was first teaching at the age of 22 in Dallas, and my students were reviewing Watergate for an American History test, they catalogued the details dully. Watergate was my first political memory, and I couldn’t believe how dull they made it sound. “Watergate!” I shouted at them. “This is Watergate! Watch the news every night! The president has lied! The president is resigning!” My students bowed their heads back to their notecards and continued studying, and I remained with my passionate memories of a time that had become to them what the Battle of Hastings was to me: a date to memorize (1066), full of dry bones and dust.
The second time I noticed that I was aging was in an elevator at Pacific Place, a hip downtown mall in Seattle, as one teenager defined an “album” to another as “a thin, round, black disk that people used to listen to music on.”
More recently, I told my eleven year-old niece Lucie that there were no computers when I was her age. She paused for a long time while she tried to understand what I was saying, and finally she said, “You mean laptops?”
Yes. I have become older. I come from record players and rolling down a car window with a crank and telephones attached to the wall. I walk with a cane; I have low vision; I go to sleep by nine, and I nap in the afternoons; I forget appointments; I cannot figure out how to change the channel on the t.v.; I cannot drive; I am slow.
And yet, oddly—or perhaps not so oddly, I’m happier than I was when I was younger. I no longer rush to get at many things done as possible before breakfast. I no longer think I need to marry a good man (who might be hard to find). I no longer wonder if I am okay.
I love my days. I love a simple dinner on a sunny evening on the deck, the flowers reaching towards the sun and the raspberry buds turning from white to the fruit’s red. I love reading poetry and talking with friends who want the world to be a better place.
Like the poet Max Erhman says in “Desiderata,” my birthday poem from my high school friend Eagle White:
I am a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
I have a right to be here.
What a relief it is to feel that I am okay and that I belong. And as an old lady, I can be odd and it’s quaint, so I visit my “flying box,” my poetry exchange, daily. Today, this gift from a passerby came to me:
Joy is Entering the River. by Ghalib
For the raindrop, joy is in entering the river -
Unbearable pain becomes its own cure.
Travel far enough into sorrow, tears turn to sighing;
In this way we learn how water can die into air.
When, after heavy rain, the stormclouds disperse,
Is it not that they’ve wept themselves clear to the end?
If you want to know the miracle, how wind can polish a mirror,
Look: the shining glass grows green in spring.
It’s the rose’s unfolding, Ghalib, that creates the desire to see-
In every color and circumstance, may the eyes be open for what comes.
And so I move through my days: my gait slower and my gaze more strained but open for what comes.