This Old, Ramshackle Heart

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One of my brothers turned 65 the other day. He didn’t make a whole lot of it. He became eligible for Medicare; a friend bought him a really nice golf club; lots of family and friends called. But it hit me as a milestone. 65 is a special number. Some people still think of it as retirement age, even though most people I know don’t subscribe to the fictive notion of retirement—despite the fact that one’s powers will eventually decline to the point where work will be pointless. 65 is also one year older than 64, of “When I’m 64” fame. It gets you to thinking.

Although my brother is ten years older, I’ve always regarded him as young. We’re close and he’s the one who set me on the path that led to my practicing mindfulness, so I’m ever grateful for that. I think of us in those early days, when meditation was a new discovery, and how freeing that was, once you got the hang of it. I think of us in even earlier days, when I would sleep out in a tent in a friend’s backyard down the block and he and one of my other brothers would come up the alley tapping a cane and eventually sneak up on the tent and scare the bejesus out of us. We shrieked. We loved it. How could that same brother now be 65?

My brother’s birthday fell on a Friday, so that placed it in the middle of long-honored ritual for me. On Fridays, after a little break in the late afternoon, I return to my work studio and spend a few hours there into the evening. It’s a contrarian time. When it’s party time for many others, time to celebrate the end of a dreaded workweek, I abide in the den. The phone almost never rings, there are few e-mails and no drop-ins from down the hall. Only solitude. I often sip a drink. It’s a reflective time. I take stock of what’s gone down and what’s coming up. I tie up loose ends, take care of neglected communications, call an old friend, call a new friend, and sometimes I just ponder. This week I thought of my brother. Do I really understand aging? It’s so damn gradual, creeping along in its teeny increments, and yet it’s relentless. And we know where it’s all headed. Ouch. Aging hurts.

On the weekend, I took the opportunity of a rain-free day to bring out lawn furniture from the basement. I noticed how worn it is, how long we’ve had it, the rust. It’s a little shabby and so am I, but I’m of an age now when thoughts of replacing things don’t come so easily. Make do. Why bother. I’d always wondered why older people didn’t replace slightly ramshackle things. Now I know.

In the basement, I stumbled on old toys and stuffed animals from the years when we raised our children. They’re out of college a while now, and one of them has children of her own. They’re trying to get a toehold in a new, uncertain, and not so optimistic world. It’s not very easy. I get a tinge of pain in my heart thinking of them. They’re not here and also I can’t do so much to help them now. I honestly don’t know what they ought to do. I’m too old for that pretense now, but I care just as much now as I did in the days when I could put a band aid on their knee or calm them with a hug and a gentle hand smoothed across their head.

One of the things I appreciate about the mindfulness revolution is that more and more people have the opportunity to find the benefits of letting their attention settle—at work, at home with their family, in a car, on a bike, teaching a class or being in class. It really does make everything better when you can fully be there in mind and body. Occasionally, though, I will hear someone say that mindfulness is about being in the present and giving up thoughts of the past or the future, or that mindfulness is about getting away from thoughts and focusing on our breath or another object of attention. In fact, the beauty of mindfulness is that it allows us to take in—all-at-once, in an instant—the texture, tone, and content of what’s happening in the mind, without having to dwell on it and kill the moment. Neuroscience is increasingly showing us how much we can perceive in split-second total apprehension. (See David Eagleman’s work with drummers and how they can perceive beats in millisecond increments or recent research that celebrates our ability to “instantaneously grasp.”)  That’s the miracle called mindfulness.

What I love about genuine mindfulness is not that it obliterates thought or enshrines a present free of memory or anticipation but rather that it allows air and space around anything that arises, so thought is not solid. It flies and it flows. It’s not a big big deal.

In that way, when emotions emerge, as you ponder this aging body and the steady slippage of time, you can fully feel your heart breaking, and like humpty dumpty, all your king’s horses and all your king’s men will not put it all back together again. And that’s just fine. Happy Birthday, Neil.