I watched a documentary recently, “Alive Inside”, about people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia or impairment, including just getting old, and was profoundly moved. In an odd way I recognized myself which was nothing short of sobering, to say the least! While my mother endured Alzheimer’s some years ago, quite frankly it was not that identification that was so jarring to me. Rather, it was the sniffing out of my own slow leak from a sense of my former self. This was not because I have any more “age associated memory loss” common to being in the early 60’s than the next person. Instead it seems I may be both blessed and cursed with taking my substantive ‘temperature’ of who and what I am and want at a plethora of life stages. It’s almost as if I’m being dogged by some form of conscious interior evolution. Drat!
This past year I have come to observe a kind of tiring, a rejection of that turbo charged daily living that prevailed in my younger years. Having ‘put it all out there’ from ego-driven ambition, the idealism and naiveté of youth, and the drive to prove myself as a consequence of insecurity, I have felt spent—and for more than a year, actually: probably about six or seven!
There’s a down side to outgrowing the above stage(s) of course. While it provides a measure of much needed respite, a kind of inertia creeps in when chucking so much stimulation: inertia or a filling time with illusory often trivial tasks that hide the loss of authentic robust and energized living can result. It seems this downsizing of an over-stimulated lifestyle has come at a price, and not just for me but for others I’ve observed as well.
Now, I have made LOTS of change in my life, some of it wise and some of it foolish although I didn’t know so much about the foolishness at the time. This reflection is probably no different from most people’s on the planet. Still, it is sobering to consider one’s life in retrospect. The rearview mirror-gazing looms large in the accountability department, revealing subterranean conflict that requires a piercing examination, some of it horrifying, some of it funny. Yes, funny. One better be able to laugh at one’s self if for no other reason than to reduce the freight that bad choices contain, especially choices one still feels stuck in. Sometimes, I swear that state feels so dense, so swallowing, I can almost hear a sucking sound. Awful.
Enter a conversation recently at breakfast with friends, one of whom said he was mad at his dad for shrinking (my word not his) from his former robust self. I remember, too, being really angry at a friend who I felt had done the same thing: a brilliant woman with a PhD who got stuck after the death of her husband. From where I sat it seems she was mired down in an over-attachment to the only thing/person that defined her and identified her greatest reason for being. It had always been obvious to me she had her own reason for being.
What I have come to know now is that my friend’s inability to move forward in recapturing the best parts of herself, separate from any identification from spouse, previous profession, or lifestyle (including the energy of youth) happens far earlier than any single event. Rather, a single catastrophe may mask a cumulative pattern of avoidance brought on by the event itself thereby serving as a tipping point that exposes some character defect yet to be resolved, worked through, transcended.
I see this dynamic at play from my own previous inability to resolve or change certain behaviors or problems in my life. It is glacially slow and subtle, this interior evolution thing, right up until it smacks you around and you either shrivel up and die (not always a literal death) or mutate and overcome the problem. This occurred earlier in life when my miserable marriage reached intolerable proportions, as well as when I was forced (thank God) to confront my inability to stop drinking on my own and had to seek help to stop. This kind of confrontation occurred again when faced with a tumor-sized polyp triggered in part by DNA, but also certainly by a lifetime of doing work I grew to hate. I remember my surgeon describing the tumor as “angry.” And, yes, I had been angry; for years and years and years, suppressing it without ever truly addressing it.
But back to the documentary. “Alive Inside” shows old people, dementia-riddled people awakened to some sense of their former selves by listening to music that once moved them. It is a powerful and beautiful thing to see as they leapfrog over a lifetime of who-knows-what-kind-of-unresolved-avoidance-riddled crap, arriving at something elemental and basic in their souls. They are enlivened by the beat and rhythm of life traveling to their head and heart by an iPod filled with music meaningful to them. For those of us boomers who still struggle with unresolved crap, this film offers hope not just for aging parents and loved ones but for ourselves as well. After all, sometimes a person may reach the end of all they can do in a lifetime whether the body continues on or not. And with modern medicine keeping us alive longer and longer, it’s hard to get off the planet these days. This does not mean, however, one has to shut down all faculties, including joy and connection with others which provides the most meaning to all of us.
Oddly, I’ve long had a fascination with old people, a fascination, curiosity, and identification as if recognized from a former state and time. Yet, as I witness my current reluctance, even resistance in avoiding entrenched crap in several areas, I have a new appreciation, even compassion towards those individuals unable to change one more thing, to transcend one more problem. It is hard, this aging process, of which the body’s role is the least of it!! Body breakdowns are a nuisance, yes, but it’s the deeply emotional, psychological, and spiritual wear and tear that really takes its toll. And like so many things, it is easier to notice this dynamic in someone else before we see the slow leak within ourselves.
So as 2015 approaches, I hope to take stock of that which I am able and willing to change in my own life and accept and surrender that which I am not. Part of this (we can call it a New Year’s Resolution) involves summoning yet more strength and courage to look at the really hard, shitty stuff honestly, which is no small feat.
And the other part? I’m pledging to listen to more music, main-lining it if necessary, as well as do more things that invigorate me, animate me, and massage my heart. I’ve even started a list of songs to share with my son just in case I get Alzheimer’s. He’ll know what to do with it. And if I never lose the mind, I will have at the ready a plethora of spiritual ‘nutrients’ that will enliven me for the rest of my days.
For anyone interested in the documentary “Alive Inside”, it is available on Netflix, a portion of which can be viewed on www.musicandmemory.org: Henry. I highly recommend watching the entire film. It’s an eye-opener.