Amidst all the chaos and disaster in the world, I’ve been musing on the following…
It seems to be common knowledge that old people tend to recall their childhoods with increasing vividness; and as their short-term memories become spotty, images and sensations from many decades ago seem crystal clear.
I know this is true for me. My memories of sixty-plus years ago—usually appearing on a time schedule entirely their own—are more frequent and, as time goes by, more achingly sharp and beautiful. I’m happy to say they also seem to be gaining in strength against their more familiar siblings—my long ago (but never very absent) memories of loneliness and fear.
(*I want to stick a qualifier in here… The people I spend most of my time with, most of them of an age with me—and who I admire tremendously—spend their lives very much in the here and now—and enjoy themselves immensely. I doubt they get all dreamy about their childhoods. Of course I don’t know for sure but that’s how I see them. And as for myself, I’ve always spent too much time living in the past. Having said that, I think, still, something I’m saying here might strike a familiar chord with some people…)
Old age—the approaching end of things, the terror of the final dark, of the great nothingness. For some it’s a new beginning, not a full stop, just a pause, departure with a new arrival on the horizon; one of many incarnations. There’s surely comfort in believing that. But at least for this incarnation, for the body and mind and self you’ve known for all these decades, it’s coming to the time that Raymond Chandler called The Long Goodbye.
Somebody in the advertising business—I think it was sometime in the Seventies—came up with the term “The Golden Years”. Well, no matter how diligently you’ve labored to keep your mind and body healthy, there is no way to avoid the steady accretion of mortality’s steady nibbling away at your abilities and strength.
Life doesn’t begin at Sixty or Seventy. Maybe a new way of living begins—a time of deliberately slowing down, becoming more reflective and less grasping; maybe doing things you never had the time to do when you were required to be bound-to-the clock responsible every minute. But never-the-less, whatever new path you choose, you can’t—no matter how hard you might try (and most of us try pretty hard)—you can’t avoid knowing, at some level of consciousness, that every step you take could be your next to last.
Of course, it’s not all fear and trembling; there is also a kind of relief, a sense of falling-away of heavy burdens that comes with this understanding and acceptance. At least this is what I’ve heard from some people and what I’ve felt occasionally in myself.
But as I said before, I think it’s unusual. Most of us feel the fear and that drives us to live even more in the present that we have left—that seems only right and natural.
…Childhood memories… So vivid and real-seeming that they appear, not so much like memories but almost as another, parallel life that never slipped away in time, but kept me company as I glided, rushed and labored through the several decades of my every-day existence.
These memories present themselves as images and sensations; the shining, just washed and waxed hood of a car, smelling fresh and clean, reflected in the late morning sun; the feel of a marble, cool and smooth, held lightly between my thumb and index finger, just before I’m ready to shoot; the breeze, tender and alive as it brushes my skin and ruffles my hair (even with a crew-cut).
In these vivid moments of recall, it always seems to be summer, my favorite time—everything is warm and bright and filled with wonder. The quality of these memories is clear and pure, an essence of being that remains after being pressed through the rough screen of years of fear, anger, yearning and regret.
Is this all an illusion? And specifically, is it all just a reproduction or a carrying forward of the illusions of childhood—where “real” life is only dimly comprehended because you are (if you were lucky) relatively free of real responsibility?
I don’t think so. I wouldn’t call them illusions—despite the relative lack of responsibility, the breaks they may have cut you just because you were a kid and the fairy-tales you may have been read at bedtime. No, not illusions, but really just a distinct perspective, framed in a simpler way—just as “real” as any perspective you have at any later time in life.
And even if a child’s limited (not based on “reality) perspective could be called an illusion, what do we call the intricate layers of deception and self-deception that seem to determine most of our actions as adults; unthinking patriotism, greed, lust, narrow, exclusivist bigotry and race and gender hatred—all of which we can see in this present time of political frenzy.
There are many religious and spiritual teachers whose wisdom often calls upon us to engage the real world of facts as clear-eyed adults, but at the same time urges us to feel and perceive the world with the pure heart of child.
What I saw and heard and felt when I was a child was as real to me then as anything is to me now. If you’ve had kids, or taken care of kids in some fashion, you know that their fears and joys—what they perceive and think and dream about, is just as real to them as your adult thoughts and feelings are to you. The one big thing that separates the children from adults (as much as anyone is an adult) is the awareness of the end of things. When you’re a little kid, providing you don’t live in a time and place of severe poverty and danger, you just don’t understand the concept of death.
These memories have the feel of a destination—a place I can return to when the place I’m in now no longer exists. Of course, it’s very likely that this is really an illusion; just one more version of fearing death and then imagining a heaven or some other other-worldly paradise after death—a reaction to the cycle of life and death that seems almost universal among human-kind. But for me, at the very least, there’s something in these memories that contains eternal verities—a place where love and joy are the dominant forces and life is full of possibilities.
I wonder if I’ve earned this return trip—even if it is merely a journey in my mind? Have I paid for it by being a responsible adult; by doing my job as a man, a husband, a father, a friend, a hard worker? No—not nearly as much as I should have.
But does this failure to have completely fulfilled my responsibilities disqualify me from getting a passport and taking this journey? No, I don’t think so. This is one trip that nobody has to pay for. Just growing old, no matter how well you did that, qualifies you to cross the border (and ask for asylum). The destination awaits you, even though it may not be a place on any temporal or spiritual map but only state a mind. It was always there, is always there—perpetual and welcoming, just one more natural turn in the great spinning wheel of eternity.