As I stumble through these years with my mother, I find myself fearing the mystery of my own old age. Who among us knows what it will be like, or how we will deal with it? I try to pick up clues as to how to traverse whatever is thrown my way. What are the differences among those who reach the end with life and joy still in them, and those who are depressed and negative about pretty much everything? Do we have a choice?
Maybe what this experience is about for me, is to practice being the person I hope to be when someone needs to care for me. I want to be the one who makes my caregiver—family or stranger—feel enriched by, not dragged down by, caring for me. I want to be the one who accepts what life throws my way, and finds joy in the midst of it. I want to avoid becoming constipated (which is what I wrote about last week). How does that happen? And when does it start? Is it too late?
I can’t know if it’s too late for tomorrow; but I can influence today. I can practice being the person now that I want to be in 30 years. Karen Maezen Miller, my favorite Zen blog priest, says whatever we practice we will get very good at. In her book, Paradise in Plain Sight, she writes: “Why is it so hard to relax? Because you’ve been practicing stress. Why is it so hard to feel good? Because you’ve been practicing feeling bad.” That explains why Mama is so good at fear, focusing on ailments, guilt, negativity, and low self-esteem. (And love for nature and family, and compassion for people “less fortunate” than she.) She has been practicing for a lifetime, a very long lifetime.
I have finally pulled the air-tight plastic box full of hundreds of letters my father wrote to my mother during WWII off the shelf in the storage room and begun reading them. They provide a riveting picture in my father’s well-chosen words of what it was like for a lover of the natural world to live in 1942 New York City while reluctantly learning the ways of the military. (I’ve only begun to read them, chronologically.) And it tells the one-sided story of my mother in the beginning of their relationship. Although I am reading between the lines, she seems to have been practicing at 26 to be the person she still is now. (And the patterns I saw years later in their relationship were forming even then; but that is another story.)
In her old age, my mother is more the person she has always been. If she has always looked at the dark side, the world is blacker now. When I imagine my self in 30 years, do I want to be more sarcastic? More impatient? Less compassionate? Quicker to anger? More self-centered? Quicker to be hurt by others? Because those are things I am practicing. Or do I want to dream? Listen? Be happy? Live in the moment? Be joyful? Be accepting of and adaptable to what is? And I want to be able always to find things to talk about other than what ails me. Some of those are also things I practice, others not so much.
If I practice being the person I want to be in 30 years, I will also be the person now that I want to be for my mother. Will that change her? No. Will I be who she needs me to be? Probably not. But I can be the person I want me to be. I can breathe through the nonsense, smile through the pain her words stab me with, let go of the frustration about who she is and the wishing she were different. It has nothing to do with me. I can forget the stories I tell myself about our old relationship. It is finished. I can stop trying to understand why she is the way she is and asking myself how I can fix it for her. I can accept her as she is.
The future is mystery. I don’t know what will be thrown my way or how I will deal with it. It doesn’t matter until it gets here. Miller says, “In Zen, we don’t find the answers, we lose the questions. Weed out the confusion that comes from trying to understand. And don’t worry, you’ll always encounter what you need to know when you need to know it. So go ahead and forget this too.”
Rather than “Not Becoming My Mother,” I could title this post “Becoming Myself.”