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“Affirmation,” by Donald Hall

“Affirmation,” by Donald Hall

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
These Evening Bodies That We Wear

These Evening Bodies That We Wear

These Evening Bodies That We Wear

Yesterday evening, instead of spring cleaning, I was doing some fall trashing of old magazines that had gathered under tables in dead stacks, a heap of paper. Paging through a few of them, I stopped at the following poem I might have missed before. It read exactly as I felt last night, stiff from sitting, dizzy with a drift of glossy paper. The poet caught my aging body in its October nightdress.

Evening Poem by Alice Oswald

Old scrap-iron foxgloves
rusty rods of the broken woods

what a faded knocked-out stiffness
as if you’d sprung from the horsehair
of a whole Victorian sofa buried in the mud down there

or at any rate something dropped from a great height
straight through flesh and out the other side
has left your casing pale and loose and finally

just a heap of shoes

they say the gods being so uplifted
can’t really walk on feet but take tottering steps
and lean like this closer and closer to the ground

which gods?

it is the hours on bird-thin legs
the same old choirs of hours
returning their summer clothes to the earth

with the night now
as if dropped from a great height

falling

 


 
Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
More Poetry

Do You Remember Barbara

“Remember Barbara,” begins a wonderful poem by Jacques Prevert about love and war: the Second World War and the destruction of the French port, Brest; the love of Barbara and the desolate loss of that love. It reminded me of my friend, Barbara, and the Alzheimer's...

“Affirmation,” by Donald Hall

To grow old is to lose everything. Aging, everybody knows it. Even when we are young, we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads when a grandfather dies. Then we row for years on the midsummer pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage, that began without harm, scatters into debris on the shore, and a […]

Impermanence Is the Source of All Continuity

Impermanence Is the Source of All Continuity

Mighty or Not, We All Fall Down

Published on LionsRoar.com, March 8, 2012

The first I saw of the oak were its raw roots crusted with mud and tilted up into the air so that the whole root ball projected six or eight feet above my head. It was a massive valley oak, its great trunk sprawled out on the ground to a length the equivalence of two railroad cars. It had been raining for weeks and a night wind had brought this ancient elder crashing to the valley floor. How many centuries had this old oak stood, spreading its arching limbs above the grassy undergrowth? It would already have been an old tree when the Maidu harvested its acorns long before European settlers first stood in the cooling shade of its summer leaves. And I, such a latecomer with such an abbreviated life, can only look and wonder at the demise of something so long-lived. Nothing lasts forever, does it?

But I’m lately struck by the realization that impermanence is the source of all continuity. Nothing survives to live another day but that impermanence propels it onward. It is impermanence that underwrites the everlasting.

Carcasses of these old trees lie all about me here in the woods, strewn on the forest floor by storms of past years, just as my life is strewn with the carcasses of things and people I’ve loved -fallen friends, a mother, father, brother; a whole county of farms and small towns buried under malls and subdivisions. I’ve somehow outstayed so many and so much that my very survival is sometimes felt by me as an affront to the fallen. This toppled oak is just another instance of the natural law of impermanence. But I’m lately struck by the realization that impermanence is the source of all continuity. Nothing survives to live another day but that impermanence propels it onward. It is impermanence that underwrites the everlasting.

If you walk in the woods, you can’t help but observe how a fallen tree eventually rots away, leaving a legacy of enriched forest soil where something new springs up in its stead. The same thing’s been happening on the street where I live. Several aged widows have passed away, their old houses subsequently occupied by young couples who have fixed up the old structures and proceeded to house new families in them. In a neighborhood where we were all growing old, infant strollers are going up and down the sidewalks once again. Impermanence is midwife to the newborn, new life springing from the womb of the old. Things rise and fall, rise and fall. In all that goes down, there lives a going up. This is reassuring when you’re witnessing the end of something.

Many years ago now, I awoke in a room I’d rented at the rear of a stranger’s house. It was my first morning in these unfamiliar quarters after having moved out of my home of twenty-four years at the request of my wife who no longer wanted to be married. She’d apparently fallen out of love. The closet in this rented room of mine was mostly occupied by someone else’s clothing, with just enough space left for what little I had of my own. I’d thought to bring hangers and so set about to hang up my things in the portion of the closet allotted me, but it felt intrusive of these stranger’s clothes that my clothes must hang next to his. Besides, up until a few hours before, my clothes had hung in a closest of my own in the second story bedroom of a house I’d built with my own hands. That was where my clothes belonged. That house was home, where my son and daughter had grown into adulthood.

Things rise and fall, rise and fall. In all that goes down, there lives a going up. This is reassuring when you’re witnessing the end of something.

A fallen tree never rights itself nor will I ever go home again and see my clothes hanging neatly in a closet of my own design and familiarity. So where’s the quality of continuity in a circumstance like this? The continuity exists in that you don’t get the next moment until this moment passes. The future, any future, depends on the demise of the past. When a relationship fails, an uncharted space opens up in its absence. The rejected husband’s future lies in his coming to terms with a stranger’s closet and a life of unforeseen options as yet unknown to him. The tree falls and rots fully away, but seedlings of future promise come to occupy the vacuum left behind.

For all its distress, a failed relationship, a lost job, a missed bus or mortgage payment beckons an unavoidable beginning. When my wife asked me to move out, I felt pretty miserable at first. A colleague of mine at the college where I taught had been divorced five years earlier and he assured me that I could expect to suffer for “at least three years” as he apparently had. He did me a big favor with that forecast, because I thought it over and decided that I had no intention of relegating the next three years of my life to continuing misery. Instead I got curious about what I might make of my new circumstance. Of course, I didn’t know at the time know what I would make of it, and that fact itself was energizing. One thing I can thank my wife for is that her decision to go it alone resulted in the same for me, and made of me a traveler in new territories and relationships.

Well I’m much older now and remarried. I have my routines, but life has never lapsed back into the merely predictable or familiar. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and I like having it that way. Ageing is itself an agent of impermanence. The flesh gradually atrophies and the bones ache a little, signaling the end that is to come. I’m discovering aging to be an interesting uncharted territory to journey in. It’s not that there’s no distress at all in growing old. Most of us can reconcile ourselves to running a slower 10K as I have had to do, but struggling to walk up a set of stairs or involuntarily peeing in your pants might be quite another thing. But I’m curious to see what will come with old age, and I’m not planning to make myself miserable by resisting its advance.

I dreamt the other night that I was in an underground shelter, a large concrete space with stairs leading up to the street. There seemed to be some sort of threat present like that in a World War II air raid shelter where neighbors huddled in anticipation of falling bombs; only in the dream the threat was somehow more generalized and vague in kind and origin. It wasn’t clear what the threat was or where it came from.

Except for one old wrinkled woman, thin with pinched lips and brittle gray hair, I was the only one there. I was old myself. The old woman stood facing me, and for all the ravages age had wrought upon her, her eyes, looking into mine, were remarkably clear and present. We were the only two people left in the world so far as either of us knew. “Are you afraid?” she asked. “A little,” I said. “I think I’ll just rest awhile,” I added. I lay down then and stretched myself out on a blanket seemingly spread there for just this purpose. The old woman stood over me for a bit, and then said, “I think I’ll rest too.” She lay down on the blanket alongside me where we stretched out together in some sort of uncertain anticipation of what was to come. I had the sense we would never rise again. Then this stranger of which I had no prior knowledge curled up to me and lay her head on my shoulder. I held her close, and together we gave birth to a moment as dear to me as any I’ve ever known.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
The Dalai Lama’s Perspective on Aging

The Dalai Lama’s Perspective on Aging

Featured image: The Dalai Lama visits a patient at Westmead Hospital in Sydney in 2013. Photo Rusty Stewart/Dalai Lama in Australia (DLIA).

In April 2013 the Dalai Lama met scientists at the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland to participate in a conference on aging: “Living and Dying in Peace – Crossed Perspectives on Aging.” Below is a summary and some highlights from the talk, excerpted from the article about the conference, Conference on ‘Living and Dying in Peace’ at University of Lausanne.

“From the individual’s point of view, if we train from a young age on a mental level, developing our analytical ability, the mind will remain alert. I’ve noticed that people who do this may face physical decline, but their minds remain clear and alert. From the family point of view, affection and support are important.”

The first question put to His Holiness imagined a young boy asking his grandfather “Is it a good thing to grow old?”

His Holiness replied:

“I think it depends on what kind of life you have led, whether your life was meaningful and of benefit to other people. The grandfather might say time keeps moving on, eventually we all become old. One day, although you are young now, you will be old too. This is a natural process. He might say I’m fortunate to have lived this long, but I’ve not wasted my time and I’ve gained some experience of how to live.

“On the other hand, if he’s filled his time with sensory pursuits and dedicated himself, for example, to sport, he might say I can’t hear properly any more, can’t see properly – it’s all become hard work.”

His Holiness with his mother, Diki Tsering.

The first presenter spoke about increasing life expectancy and different categories of older people, the ‘young old’ who are still active and the ‘old old’ who are increasingly frail. He asked: “How can we age well when our physical abilities are declining?” His Holiness answered that an important factor is your state of mind. Whether your mind is calm and peaceful depends not on your being knowledgeable, but on whether you are warm-hearted. Inner peace automatically gives rise to trust and friendship. On the other hand suspicion, mistrust and lies mean you end up alone and unhappy.

“From the individual’s point of view, if we train from a young age on a mental level, developing our analytical ability, the mind will remain alert. I’ve noticed that people who do this may face physical decline, but their minds remain clear and alert. From the family point of view, affection and support are important.”

Asked how to deal with dementia in the old, His Holiness replied:

“I don’t know, because I have no experience, but I believe showing affection is very important. You can show affection without having to rely on words.”

He speculated about how memory declines, noting that while you tend not to forget faces, remembering names is difficult and because of the concepts they represent there is terminology that you never forget. He wondered whether we forget names because they have no meaning, whereas terms with meaning are much easier to remember.

Asked how to deal with dementia in the old, His Holiness replied:

“I don’t know, because I have no experience, but I believe showing affection is very important. You can show affection without having to rely on words.”

A question about spirituality prompted him to try to define the term, wondering if it means looking for meaning in life and the world; a collection of visions and values that are beneficial to ourselves and others. Because there could be spirituality linked to religious faith and independent of it, he suggested that people who have no faith might derive benefit from secular ethics. Otherwise, they are prone to come under the sway of destructive emotions. He stressed that just as it is wise to take care of our physical health, we also need to take care of our emotional well-being and proposed a programme of emotional hygiene.

University of Lausanne Rector Dominique Arlettaz welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his opening address at the conference on “Living and Dying in Peace” at the University of Lausanne in Lausanne, Switzerland, on April 15, 2013. Photo/Jeremy Russell/OHHDL

The discussion came round to the role of the aging in society. His Holiness recollected a programme in Stockholm in which old people were brought in to work in kindergartens. They took part in the care of young children, played with them and told them stories. He said that there is great potential for mutual benefit in such activities. The children liked the presence of the old people, who in turn were re-energised in the presence of children. His Holiness joked:

“When I talk to young people it makes me feel young, but when I’m talking to old people I wonder ‘Who’ll be going first, you or me?’”

His Holiness said that his discussions with scientists, educationists, social workers and other concerned people lead to the conclusion that we need a system of values that contributes to the basic happiness of all members of society. Such a system could include techniques for training the mind. Education is the avenue for change. Education is the way we can change the course of humanity. And he suggested that ancient Indian knowledge about the mind and emotions as preserved in literature belonging to the Nalanda tradition could make a valuable contribution to this.

When pressed to recommend ways that the elderly who have not trained themselves earlier in life could begin to change, His Holiness said he doubted that there was an effective method, pointing out that such methods need to be adopted when we are young.

After a leisurely lunch filled with conversation and discussion the conference resumed. Asked to respond to the statistic that a majority of people die in hospital His Holiness surprised the panel by saying that if you die in hospital it means that all efforts to save your life have been exhausted, so there will be no room for regret. On the other hand he agreed that doctors and nurses need to treat their patients as beings with feelings of pleasure and pain, rather than as inanimate machines brought in for repair.

When pressed to recommend ways that the elderly who have not trained themselves earlier in life could begin to change, His Holiness said he doubted that there was an effective method, pointing out that such methods need to be adopted when we are young.

Commenting on whether warm-heartedness is a natural function, he said:

“Yes, our lives begin in our mother’s womb and her physical touch and expression of affection are essential to our healthy growth. This is the basis for our later development of a warm heart.”

To questions about helping the old or sick to die, he said we have to investigate why they wish to die. We have to use both compassion and wisdom to assess what is the best course of action. He said that in Buddhist practice helping to end someone’s life is permitted if it will benefit them in the long run, but again compassion and wisdom are needed to make the judgement.

He was asked whether it is important to train ourselves to meet death, and if so, how to do it.

“Death will come because it is a part of life,” he said. “People who avoid the very words old age and death will be caught unawares when it comes. In some of our meditation practice we visualize the process of death and the associated dissolution of the elements every day, so that we may be prepared for the actual event. For those who believe in a succession of lives, death is just like changing your body. If you have led a meaningful life, when death takes place there’ll be no need for regret.

“Training depends on the individual’s ability. One approach is to develop awareness of your dreams. If you can train yourself to recognise that you are in the dream state and take control of it, you can have a deeper experience of the dissolution of the elements that take place during the process of death.”

When it came to questions about rituals associated with death, His Holiness was firm in asserting his scepticism about the efficacy of rituals in the process. He conceded that if they were conducted by someone with experience and understanding they may have some benefit, but otherwise he doubted they would be of much help.

“Death will come because it is a part of life,” he said. “People who avoid the very words old age and death will be caught unawares when it comes. In some of our meditation practice we visualize the process of death and the associated dissolution of the elements every day, so that we may be prepared for the actual event. For those who believe in a succession of lives, death is just like changing your body. If you have led a meaningful life, when death takes place there’ll be no need for regret.”

Coming back to the meditative practices that in effect rehearse the process of dying, he mentioned that he goes through them himself four of five times a day. In this connection he talked about meditators who remain in posthumous meditative equipoise after death. These are cases in which brain activity and the heart have ceased and yet the body remains fresh for several days. Over the last 50 years he is aware of 30-40 cases like this, including that of his Senior Tutor who stayed in such meditation for 13 days after he died. Science has as yet no explanation of this phenomenon, while the Buddhist explanation is that it involves the existence of subtler levels of consciousness. Although the heart, circulation and the brain have stopped, it is only when the subtle consciousness departs that the dying moment is reached and the decay of the corpse begins. (DalaiLama.com)

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 250 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
Still Growing

Still Growing

A Girl keeps GrowingSometimes it takes a bit of apparent nonsense to return us to the pith of common sense. This year being the century and a half marker of Lewis Carroll’s Alice, that wisdom struck me again. As Alice ate the cake she kept growing. “Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice (she was so surprised that she quite forgot how to speak good English.)

Who has not found a curious loss of good grammar growing older? Who has not gone blank with the spelling of a word?

As Alice grows like a telescope, she pities her distancing feet, wondering who will put on their shoes and stockings. She tells her poor little feet they must manage the best they can. She vows to be kind to them though for “perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go!” And so when our feet or legs don’t work as well as they used to, perhaps we might take Alice’s lead, staying flexible and just trying to manage them as best we can.

And as to the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’, listen to Father William.

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “as I mentioned before,
And have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door —
Pray, what is the reason for that?”

“In my youth,” said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
“I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment — one shilling a box —
Allow me to sell you a couple?”

“You are old,” said the youth, “and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak —
Pray, how did you manage to do it?”

“In my youth,” said his father, “I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life.”

“You are old,” said the youth, “one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose —
What made you so awfully clever?”

“I have answered three questions, and that is enough,”
Said his father. “Don’t give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick you down stairs.”

Lewis Carroll

humpty-dumpty

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.
In Our Dotage

In Our Dotage

As I left the front door this morning, I saw the moonflower folding on its vine. A whiff of regret swept over me for the subtle and seductive scent dissolving, the green sepals forcing that purest white leaf inward. I stopped myself and looked hard at the dying flower, that single moonflower lasting but one night: its dying form had its own beauty.

I saw I had been missing something by not stopping, not looking hard. I sensed there is a morality in every moment, a moral obligation to be present, not just to the sensuously pleasing but also to the sensuously unpleasant (and what often upon closer look has a peculiar beauty despite the tired tread of age).

As W.H. Auden (pictured below), an old master himself, wrote, “About suffering they were never wrong, The Old Masters: how well they understood…how everything turns away quite leisurely from the disaster.” No one particularly likes to look at the ravages of age head on with the exception of doctors or scientists who study them.

The poet Wordsworth wrote about aging in a poem about a different flower from the moonflower, about a small celandine that stopped him as he walked through the woods.

“…But lately, one rough day, this Flower I passed

And recognized it, though in altered form,

Now standing as an offering to the blast,

And buffeted at will by rain and storm.

I stopped, and said with inly-muttered voice,

It doth not love the shower nor seek the cold;

This neither is its courage nor its choice,

But its necessity in being old.”

The moonflower and the celandine both fold and fray not with courage or choice but by necessity of age, like those of us who live long lives. Yet that aged stance, that “offering to the blast” whether straight, hammertoed or with walker or wheelchair, that stance takes courage.

If we don’t look hard, we will miss it, we will miss them. The word dotage signifies not just dottiness or feeblemindedness but to dote, to give attention. Our older ones deserve to be doted upon.

 


Coral Tree In-home Care provides caregivers, old-fashioned kindness, and neighborly support to older adults who want to live at own home safely, comfortably, and as independently as possible. Since 2010 we’ve helped more than 350 families in Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, Newport Coast, and neighboring Southern California communities live safer, happier lives.