My first teacher once held up a teacup …
and said, “See this? It’s already broken…” Then he went on to say that every form is fleeting and has an expiration date. Teacups will eventually get lost or broken. Flowers will too. So will people we love, and um, us too.
It’s hard to take that in. It’s hard to actually believe that everything that looks so solid is actually temporary, or, if you do believe it, what to do about it. Sometimes I am so aware of the temporariness of life — that Matt will die, that Izzy will get old in five minutes, that I am already older than I was last year, not to mention ten or twenty years ago. The other day I read an interview with a woman’s health doctor and she defined mid-life as being between 45-65 years old. Oy, I thought. Where does that leave me? Have I officially, with my next birthday, entered old age? (And if I have, oh well. What a glorious old age this is!)
But anyway. This morning, I read an article in the New York Times about Liz Smith, the once-famous gossip columnist, who is now 94 years old.
“I am in search of Liz Smith,” she says. “After a lifetime of fun and excitement and money and feeling important and being in the thick of it, I am just shocked every day that I’m not the same person. I think that happens to all old people. They’re searching for a glimmer of what they call their real self. They’re boring, mostly.
“I’m always thinking falsely, expending what little energy I have, believing every day I may just rediscover that person. I try to be all of the things I was, but it inevitably fails. I don’t feel like myself at all.”
And I thought, “But but but: Liz, you’re alive. You’re breathing. You have another day on planet earth. Think of all the people – two hundred thousand of them - who died yesterday who would have willingly changed places with you for the chance to take another breath, witness a sunrise, see their children one more time.”
And - I had a lot of compassion for her, for all of us, who keep thinking that the past was better, and that if only we could go back, recreate a moment, an era, a particular age, life would be grand. (Some of us don’t want to go back but we keep waiting for the future when everything will be great. Same thing. Past/future: stories in our minds).
It’s hopeless. It’s crazy-making. It’s like me wanting to go back to when I was sixteen, in that white voile dress with the black lace detail. Or to the time I met Matt and we took that walk on the beach in Santa Cruz near Surf Sushi. Or last year, when we saw the whales. Or last week when we saw the white egrets and before we found out that our friend was dying of cancer. Wanting to go back to anytime at all is the same as saying, “No. Not here. Not now. I don’t like it. Take me out of the only thing I actually have, the only thing that’s real: the present moment.”
Part of the deal of having a body is that like teacups, they are physical forms. They get old. Sometimes they break. None of us are the same as we were last year. And it’s never too late to pay attention to that. To be aware of what it’s like now, at this moment, here. Because whatever story you tell yourself about those days, that time, you are leaving out the details. What it felt like to be sick then. Or be lonely. And even if it was one hundred percent positive (which is unlikely), it doesn’t matter because it’s gone, over, kaput. Can’t go back.
In that same Liz Smith article, she says of the apparently fabulous past, “I was always climbing, burning up with ambition…” which of course makes me wonder if climbing means having your sights set on where you want to go to the exclusion of where you are now. If burning with ambition meant that she was so focused on what was going to happen when she got where she wanted to go that she missed the little things that were happening along the way.
In being so focused on the future, we train our minds to not notice the present. And when we get to where we thought happiness was waiting for us, we haven’t learned to take it in, notice it, because we’ve trained ourselves to be ahead of ourselves. To want and not to have.
The real question is: Now what? If we can’t go back and the future isn’t here, what do we do? We pay attention.
I know, I know: Attention sounds like such a meager antidote for longing for the past or believing that the future is where your life will truly begin. But attention is everything. Attention to what you do have, not what you don’t. To what you can find, not what you lost. To what you have enough of, not what you lack. Attention to this breath, this sip of tea, this day, this night. These stars, this crooked smile, this moment.
Even if you are tired, even if you are sick with the flu or your back aches, there is still a part of you that can show up to this breath, this sensation in your right foot, the chirp of this bird. There is a lavish, riotous world in here and out there if you take even a minute away from the noise in your mind to notice it.
In this way, with even the barest of attention (and really what do you have to lose by doing this?), if you are fortunate enough to get to be ninety-four, you won’t have missed what was in front of you because you were so busy looking ahead of you or trying to recapture what has already passed.
These are the good old days. Don’t miss them.