Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Curiosity and Satisfaction

My brother David walked around my garden noticing things with a camera in hand.
Weekends feel different to me even though it’s been fourteen years since I had a regular job and weekdays were workdays. Still I have an ingrained expectation that Saturdays are for leisure, fun, projects, and opera; Sundays are for honoring God, nurturing my spirit, and being with family. So it was that one recent Saturday morning I picked up a New York magazine and began to work the crossword puzzle. I was zipping through it until suddenly I hit an intersection of clues that I couldn’t navigate. I called Robin’s house to ask if they knew a five-letter word for fungi for fermenting. They’re into all kinds of cooking and beer making, so I thought I was going to the source. However, Tammy didn’t know and Robin was out walking. After ten or fifteen minutes of trying this and that, and filling in a few letters, I discovered the correct answer just as the phone was ringing. Robin was inviting me to come on down for a cup of tea. When I arrived I said to them both, “Oh, by the way, the fungi for fermenting is yeast.” Robin dove for his one-volume encyclopedia, which he keeps at hand, saying, “I thought yeast was bacteria.” In seconds he was reading aloud about yeast (which is indeed fungi) and when he finished we all had the satisfaction of knowing.

After tea, I took Nigel for a long, leisurely walk, letting him set the pace. When he stopped to sniff a particularly bushy weed, I didn’t give the leave it command, but waited until he was ready to move on. In the spirit of mindfulness, I studied Nigel as he continued his investigation, noting especially that his tail was still as he made a careful nasal examination of the leaves, and then it started slowly wagging as, with his head down, he followed the trail through a little opening in the foliage to a clearing just inside the edge of the woods. There he must have found the mother lode of scent. His tail wagged at full speed, his little body was on stiff-legged alert, his head moved rapidly back and forth, and, nose to the ground, he was sniffing out the interloper or at least gathering a full dossier. When he finished he turned to rejoin me with a quick step. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I’ll admit that I thought his whole demeanor radiated satisfaction. Now he knew! My mind left the woods for a moment and raced down the hill to Robin and Tammy’s little house, and I smiled at the thought of Robin’s wonderful curiosity (defined as a strong desire to know or learn). Their house is full of reference books, and in addition, Robin makes good use of his ability to find on-line explanations for almost anything.

There is, I believe, a direct line from mindfulness to being aware to noticing and from there to curiosity. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who is the foremost exponent of mindfulness, describes the process as “the ability to be aware of what is going on inside us and around us.”* I first knew of this wise monk from the Vietnam War protest movement and recognized his name when it came up during the meditation aspect of the Jon Kabat-Zinn stress reduction classes I took in 2005. (Kabat-Zinn built his program on the healing power of mindfulness.) I immediately bought several of Nhat Hanh’s books and studied them. Although they provided a clear description of the practice, I found it difficult to still the many thoughts that bounced around in my head like popping corn. After many months of trying to be mindful both during periods of meditation and in daily living, eventually it clicked into place and became a part of me.

Keeping yourself aware of right now reduces the stress of revisiting regrets from the past or anxieties about the future.  As you stay present to the moment you notice more, and the practice will then increase your compassion for others, for the Earth, and for your own surroundings. One of the psychological pitfalls of aging—especially if you live alone—is a preoccupation with your own health and wellbeing. I have discovered that practicing mindfulness counteracts the focus on my physical issues by providing ongoing information about my body, how it works and what it needs. Instead of worrying about that nagging pain the middle of my back, I am aware when it starts and consciously relax my shoulders.

Here’s an example of how this approach works. First thing each day—after I’ve stretched a bit and had a glass of water—Nigel and I go out for our early-morning constitutional. The progression of mindfulness begins by first bringing my awareness to my self in this moment, taking in personal information: how I’m walking, where I’m looking, what thoughts are clamoring for my attention. Then consciously letting go of that investigation, I turn my mind to right now. I am aware of Nigel’s presence and any debris on the road that might cause me to turn my ankle, but I’m also mindfully sensing the day: the coolness of first light, the smell of moist earth, foliage, cigarette smoke lingering in the air after a car passes with the window open, a whiff of skunk. I hear the sound of the river as it rushes over the rocks, and near the meadow I notice the raucous tattoo of the crows and the obbligato of the songbirds. Sometimes I hear the wind or a rooster waking up. Even with a conscious effort to stay in the moment, the mind can absorb an amazing amount of data. All those observations, fully noticed, keep me from focusing on the pain in my leg, my sadness over the recent death of a friend, the state of the economy, or the latest mass murder. There is a time and a place in my life for the contemplation of such issues, but not while I’m out walking or later eating my breakfast with awareness and appreciation for the food.

In my first years of retirement my schedule was just as full as it had been on the job and I kept right on multi-tasking. I’m not quite sure how one applies mindfulness in the workplace except perhaps task by task. I came to this discipline after I had given up externally-oriented busyness to take care of Bill. When he died I was plunged into my own long illness. It was during that lonely time that I discovered this new way of being.

Curiosity has always been part of who I am, and I too make good use of my dictionary, encyclopedia, and the speedy on-line services of Google. Now even though my weekdays are mostly filled with household chores and keeping myself healthy, exercised, and nourished I have plenty of time to look things up and still accomplish enough to make the weekends still feel special. One of the gifts of aging is having more Saturday-kind of leisure to learn and to know, and Sunday-kind of motivation to expand that curiosity to the spirit.

* Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being, Berkeley, CA, Parallax Press, 2008.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Being Old, Staying Vital

My three-year-old great-granddaughter Roslyn stood pushing her body tight against me as I sat in a straight-back chair. My hand rested on the edge of the dining table as I chatted with her mother. Suddenly I became aware that Roslyn’s small forefinger was slowly tracing the raised blue lines on the back of my hand. When she finished she looked up at me and asked, “What are these?” I told her they were veins and explained their purpose. Then I took her hand palm-side up, saying, “You have them, too.”  But when I turned it over no veins were visible, just the cottony feel of a well-padded little hand. So then I explained that when you get old your hands get thinner and the veins and bones are more visible.

After they left to go back their rented vacation cottage, I studied my hands. They looked outsized at the end of my thin forearms. The veins, knuckles, and some of the bones stand out like bas-relief where my flesh has been diminished by time. They look old.

One of the oft-repeated mantras in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s stress reduction program (see my post from December 6, 2011) is that even if you can’t eliminate the stress in your life, you can control your reaction to it. That same dictum is just as true for old age. I’ve been applying it a lot lately as I faced both a mysterious breathing problem (fortunately of short duration), and an equally mysterious issue with my right leg (not the one with the replacement). The search for causes and possible connections forced me into a series of diagnostic tests with a variety of technologies. At the end of the experience there was no definite diagnosis for either problem, although many possible causes were crossed off the list. What remained were the mystery and the discomfort of my leg. Now as I wait for the appointment with the orthopedist I’ve been grateful for the Olympic games and the down pillow cushioning my thigh as I watch the action from my recliner.

As problems that relate to aging multiply, I’ve been trying to notice what makes me feel young in the face of old age.

On one side of my mouth, there is currently a hole where soon there will be a bridge with a new tooth. Last March a crown fell off, and the broken stub of the molar was extracted. I’ve been chewing on the other side of my mouth ever since. Last week, I lost another crown, this one the chewing side. Now I have to wait until the dentist returns from vacation to have it fixed. Alas my refrigerator and my shelves were well stocked with crunchy summertime fare. Tammy took my shopping list of soft foods to Greenlife Grocery in Asheville, and I experienced a very youthful joy once I had so many good choices of food requiring minimal chewing. “Aha!” I thought, “Solving problems makes me feel young.”

The dock for my iPod died; it’s the device that allows me to listen to books while using my vibrating vest. I wanted to get a new dock and also needed some auxiliary speakers for my computer. The vast array of technological options to solve such problems is daunting to me, and I had two issues at once. Nothing can make me feel old faster than being out of my ken, trying to make sensible choices. I sought help from Robin who was in the midst of a busy time with his work, but promised to tend to it. A couple of weeks went by before he called one morning to ask a specific question about my needs. He was ordering something for himself and said he would select appropriate items for me at the same time. They arrived in two days, and I was practically giddy with childlike excitement. Two age-related problems solved: with the new iPod dock I can be informed or entertained while I clear the fluid from my lungs, and when I miss Washington Week in Review on Friday nights, the next day I can actually hear it on my new computer speakers without straining to catch rapid-fire comments. Currently I am listening to a book that Robin chose, which explores creativity and the brain functioning that supports it. My mind has been stretched, my funny bone tickled, and my curiosity aroused by all Robin’s book choices. Listening to them makes me feel young, and this one in particular gives me a sense of being back at DePauw University where I studied psychology almost sixty years ago. The science of the brain has made many quantum leaps since then.

Robin’s audiobooks also make me feel vital, and that is really what I want and need. I’ve already had my shot at being young and remember some of the miseries I experienced on my way to maturity. The word “vital” comes from late Middle English by way of the Latin vitalis and describes the animating principle of living beings, and the definition is full of energy, lively. That’s it, that’s what I’m seeking: staying vital in the face of immutable changes.

Roslyn blessed my hand by noticing it and by the touch of her finger as she traced the bulging vein, gently and without guile. She also started this train of thought that is taking me in a new direction as I continue my quest to live fully in the moment as young children do. After all, awareness begins with noticing.

To My Readers

This blog site was set up to help market “Decrescendo,” the memoir I wrote and published in October 2010. After a few months of posting weekly essays on subjects related to the book, I began to write about my life and thoughts. Until my husband Bill died, I had never lived alone. Suddenly there I was: a single woman, adjusting to a very different kind of life. This is my ninety-seventh post. The weekly traffic ranges from 50 to 150 hits, plus the dozen people who subscribe by e-mail. Writing this blog is an important part of my life, and from the response of readers, I gather that others find the essays interesting, stimulating, and entertaining. A couple of you have suggested topics for me to consider in future posts; I hope to tackle these ideas eventually.

For a variety of reasons, including diminished energy in my own decrescendo years and the stack of unread books and unfinished projects that call to me, I have decided to change my schedule to twice monthly, publishing in the evenings on the first and third Tuesday. I’ll continue to announce the posts on Facebook. This new schedule will enable me to spend a little more time thinking about my subject and perhaps going a little deeper in the writing process. I hope you’ll continue to drop by and tell your friends when you like what you read. 

Thank you for your feedback and support,
Donna Jean