Alive Until You’re Dead
I haven’t devoted an entire newsletter to just one book in a long time, and won’t do that here either, but Susan Moon’s Alive Until You’re Dead: Notes on the Home Stretchis worth a special shout-out.
Synchronistically, I began reading the book while waiting in the orthopedist’s office for an assessment of whether it was truly time for a hip replacement. Reading Susan’s account of having both knees replaced in her early 70’s and six months later walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain was completely inspiring. Not a rah-rah “you can do it!” kind of inspiration. A deeply wise, here is how you become aware, and accepting, and working with, and go ahead and do what needs to be done, choosing to do so with joy and gratitude.
Susan explores many of the dilemmas and mind-traps that arise when getting older and becoming frailer; many quotes from the book below to illustrate and illuminate.
One chapter that particularly resonated with me in the very moment of reading it was Sue and friends calling themselves the Sorting Sisters, or sometimes the Stuffragettes, as they met by Zoom one Saturday afternoon a month to supported each other de-cluttering, sorting through the accumulated possessions and memories of a lifetime .
The “death-cleaning” is an act of basic courtesy to those who will have to pick up after us, and is the creation of a simpler, less cluttered environment to bask in now while you are still breathing…and friends get to know each other in a tender way, as a side effect of the sorting, though to call it a side effect is to understate the case. The sorting could be a side effect of getting to know each other.
Indeed, as I have been de-cluttering in my transition from retirement to Renaissance and have been supported in my sorting by my friend Marianne who recommended this book to me in the first place, we’re finding that the bonds of an already 25-year friendship are deepening to the unspoken understanding, we will be there for each other until the very final letting go.
Examples of Sue’s Observe, Accept, Let go, Adapt applied to other dimensions of aging and staying alive while you’re alive.
It’s hard to get old. Some things get easier the longer you practice them, like parking the car or peeling a potato, but not getting old, because the longer you do it the older you get. There are losses, big and small – of physical strength, of proper nouns, of a sense of direction, of keys and reading glasses, of bowel regularity, of your driver’s license, of hearing, of loved ones. Some of us lose more than others, but everyone loses something. Everything keeps changing, as Buddha repeatedly pointed out, and just when you’ve adapted to one loss, you can get side-swiped by another. And yet…each morning, you wake up into an unused day, neither wilted nor dented. An old person’s life can still be a fresh life.
[decline in cognitive functioning:]
I’m trying to notice with my mind what’s happening to my mind, while I still can. I want to bear witness to my own decline. Dispassionately. Wait, I’m going to dispense with the word decline. I’m going to bear witness to the changes in my mind.
My vocabulary is shrinking rapidly. What’s that word for forgetting words? That’s what I have. Buddha said that wise speech has three qualities: it should be true, it should be beneficial, and it should be said at the right time. He forgot to mention a fourth requirement: you need to have the words for what you want to say.
There’s nothing new for me about forgetting proper names, but now they are leaving in droves. Worse yet, the rude commons nouns are joining the proper ones in the exodus. Just the other day, I couldn’t think of the word for skylight. Skylight???!!! I was standing in the attic with the contractor, pointing helplessly at a place in the roof. “How soon will the…” He seamlessly filled in the word for me, and blushing, I finished with “be installed?”
I’m a writer, and it seems that the tools of my trade are being taken from me. Why is this happening? Is it my fault for cooking with aluminum pots? I’m worried. Can I be dignified and forgetful at the same times? I’m looking for a path with dignity, somewhere between bluffing andwWhining. A straightforward path of observing: this is how it is right now.
[on living simply:]
In Buddha’s time it was easier to know if you were stealing. You knew where the thatch of your roof came from. You knew who made your clothing. Your food was mostly locally grown, and you took your water from the stream or village well. Now the sources of our food and drink and the necessary materials of our lives are from invisible sources. We might be stealing without knowing it.
The teak trees that were cut down to make the furniture on my back porch – were they truly offered, or were they taken from protected forests? The labor of the women who made the jeans I’m wearing – was that labor truly offered, or was it from sweatshops where women work in exploitive conditions close to slavery? At this point in human history, we can’t always avoid taking what is not given, but we can try to live as simply as possible.
[more on living simply]
Old age is also a time for downsizing ambitions and dreams along with material things. Not only do I accept the idea that I will not travel to the amazing ruins of Machu Picchu before I die – something I actually used to want to do – but I’m now quite satisfied that I will not be spending vast sums of money on being cold and uncomfortable and suffering from altitude sickness. I don’t look for ecstasy anymore; a walk by the bay with a friend is wonderful enough. Yesterday we watched a great blue heron promenade with long-legged dignity along the water’s edge. It was quite exciting.
P.S. from Linda: It’s true. I’ve taken to walking a nearby bay trail with my hiking poles, part of the “pre-hab” for the possible hip surgery. And a great blue heron promenading along the water’s edge with long-legged dignity is exciting!
[while meditating near a rushing stream:]
I saw that I’m actually not nobody. I’ve put a self together over my long life, with the help of my genes and good fortune and everyone I’ve ever met, and I walk around in this self, impermanent and at the same time real – friendly, conflict averse, curious, self-deprecating, sincere, wanting to love, wanting to be loved. I saw that it’s a good-enough self for everyday life. So give yourself a break, Sue – it’s okay! What’s more this self, while real, is not the whole dear; my buddha nature is there underneath regardless – a big self beyond liking and not liking.
[gratitude for the many, many people who shape our lives:]
I’m here because of all the teachers – the first-grade teacher who taught me to read, the sixth-grade science teacher who taught me the ten-point scale of hardness from talc to diamond, the high school and college teachers who helped me love Shakespeare and George Eliot. Come to think of it, Eliot and Shakespeare are themselves my ancestors, as is everyone who handed on the culture that shapes my consciousness without my even knowing it. I’m talking to you now, thanks to the Homo sapiens who first used words, and their descendants who kept passing the language along until it got to me – language that organizes what I see and hear: dark, light, square, round, soft, and loud.
[gratitude for the gifts from others, cont.]
I need to take good care of my human body because, whether or not it’s the fruit of former lives lived by me, it’s definitely the fruit of former lives lived by others. My life is the fruit of all my ancestors’ lives, and my life is the fruit of the lives of the cows who gave the milk that made the yogurt I had for breakfast this morning, the fruit of the live of the unhatched chickens in the eggs, of the carrots and beans, and even the fruit of the fruit, the organic strawberries I put in the yogurt.
[Getting old is about practicing love:]
Loving is something an old person can do at least as well as a young one. Bad short-term memory can’t keep me from loving. Not knowing how to get to the knitting store can’t keep me from loving. What I really want say is that whatever else I lose, I’ll be okay as long as I can love.