Time with a Cat

I was yielding to the insidious tendency to dwell on my advancing age, as it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore the reminders of my deteriorating appearance and function. The inevitable end was quite clear, only the timing and manner remained hidden. It was tedious to “count one’s blessings” rotely, as a palliative to this recurrent ennui. There was only one thing to do: take a walk.

Not a long walk on a short pier, as I heard the saying in Brooklyn so many years ago, but a walk in the fresh air along an arm of Stockholm’s big lake Mälaren, despite the day being overcast and somewhat windy.

There was no new life to celebrate: the grasses, bushes and trees had spent their flowers, the birds were well over the nesting period and the lake’s edges were cluttered with the detritus of careless humans and the decay of the lake’s biota. I had no direction to go in, so I sat on a bench facing the lake.

I brought no book or writing material. I needed to be intellectually naked, to be open to the fates, unprepared for evaluating and rationalizing.

One of the neighborhood cats wandered by, the sleek gray one. It looked briefly at me, sniffed at a few nearby plants, and then gracefully jumped onto the bench. It sat near me and gave itself a few licks and scratches as it faced the sun with me. I remained passive but observant.

It stretched a wonderful cat stretch, walked the few steps between us, slowly and confidently, then sat in my lap. I am no stranger to cats; I immediately assumed the role required of me. I petted and stroked and scratched the cat exactly where and how he or she needed, and we were bonded for a short but timeless period.

The warmth and the feel of the cat were familiar to me. Visions of my youth, when I lived with cats, flowed over and through me. I remembered my parents and sister, especially, and then my children and a former mate. These memories morphed into others, just as a dream progresses. I felt as if I carried a great museum of memories inside me, but it didn’t seem as burdensome as it sometimes does. Perhaps I dozed a bit.

The cat eventually had enough of what I was offering, unwound itself from my lap, walked over the bench a short way and dropped to the ground without a backward glance. The communion was over. I went to the supermarket to buy groceries, and then back home to perform household chores.

the weight of the world
grows heavy with time
but not with a cat

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Thoughts on Aging and Death

Tim McMurdo and I worked together in the mid-1980s and have kept in contact, periodically, to this day. He has stayed in California; I have moved to Stockholm, Sweden.

Late last year Tim and his wife were on a Baltic Sea cruise and stopped in Stockholm for part of a day, so we met to look at each other, now thirty-five years since we first met. I had not yet met his wife, but we have been ‘friends’ on Facebook, so we were not strangers.

I have always enjoyed Tim’s way of perceiving and reacting to the world. It was a treat to be with him and his wife for several hours. We talked about “life, the universe, and everything,” before, during, and after lunch, until they departed.

Oaks on Bernal Hill, San Jose, California

Tim later sent this to me from California:

Ron,

Some thoughts on aging.

I’ve been thinking lately that the older I become the more life seems to be a dream, an illusion, like being unstuck in time. It passes and I don’t know where it has gone or whether I’ve really been there.

I recently looked at a slew of family pictures and saw the differences in all of us that have taken place so rapidly. We live in an extended moment but time collapses everything and we are not aware of how fast it takes place.

Pictures of Mom and Dad, Jim, Galen, Nana, Aunt Alice, Auntie Mim, Uncle Hal, Jan and Burke, Snoozie, all of those we loved, now gone. Weren’t they just here yesterday? Where did they go? Did they ever really exist? Do we exist?

I don’t feel like things have changed that much, but they have. My children are 27. I just held them at birth. This is not a dissociative reaction state. I am centered in person, place, and time. But somehow, I feel like we are hurtling toward some end—some final climax of life and I haven’t the slightest idea of what it has really meant.

I did my job in nature’s eyes. I leave two children in the world. Putting my genetic material into the future generation means I’m a howling success to nature. But as an individual, I’m not sure whether I really matter or whether a little piece of my consciousness will survive death. To nature, none of that matters.

Maybe our perceived ‘higher’ level of human existence is just a self-deception. Just a way to convince oneself to stay alive. And it takes living long enough and without day to day distractions like looking for a mate, navigating a marriage, raising and supporting a family, having a career, to realize there is really nothing external that gives our lives value.

With all of these gone now, I wonder what the purpose is?  Is there some level of spiritual enlightenment that we are now supposed to reach?  Some intuitive understanding of existence beyond our superficial acknowledgments of what a good life should be?  If so, how do we find it?  I’m not really sure.

Slainte and Happy New Year.

Ron to Tim

Tim, deep and worthy thoughts. What is reality, really?

May I post these ponderings, either for attribution or anonymously, in my “Being Old” blog?

Tim to Ron

Yes, of course, with or without attribution, ok by me.  I’m thinking more about these things although as you can see, I have no clear ideas about them. Just thinking.  Would appreciate your thoughts and perspectives as well.

But death is what I can’t make sense of.  Just for our lives to end, and that’s it?  Never to know that we even existed?

A paraphrased line between a Bolshevik revolutionary and a Russian nobleman in a novel I recently read goes like this: “Count Rostov, why are we afraid of the darkness? After all, from the darkness we came, and to the darkness we shall return”.

So simple, and just to accept those words would make our struggle to understand so much easier. That there is nothing, other than this sliver of light we come into and then leave, that life has no intrinsic value.  But, this is unsettling to me. I have some intuitive sense that it’s not that simple.  It’s much bigger than anything my feeble mind can understand so I trust myself to it. A childlike belief that there is something more. Probably wishful thinking but it makes me feel better. Just faith in some greatness of nature that is hidden behind a veil.

Interesting…  how similar our thoughts are about the relentless onslaught of time [I had included this poem in my email to him]. With it comes wisdom, humility, beauty, peace, and love of life. The clarity of mind compliments of the entropy of the body.

Well, Chris is calling me to go out and work in the yard. Back to reality.

Best,

Tim

Ron to Tim

Subject: Death, where there are no taxes

Tim,

A worthy subject, one I admit I think more about these days, but without any sense of dread, just impatience—so much yet to experience!

I read books which touch on the subject. D.T. Suzuki, Alan Watts, and others who bring to us the Eastern way of looking at things. As Suzuki points out, we in the West are always engaged in subject/object, dualistic perceptions, and answers.  My growing perception is that there are no edges to anything, including ourselves, except by convention so we can move around in the world for our various purposes. Where do “I” physically begin and end? One nanometer beyond my skin? No, I say, and here is a metaphorical approach to the answer.

Take the great oak tree which has been “alive” for two hundred years. It was previously alive as an acorn that fell from an older tree. It will eventually fall and enrich the soil as it decomposes with the help of various smaller organisms, including the slime-mold, for which it is food, or lumber, or other useful stuff.

While it was “alive” It produced countless acorns, some of which successfully took root; most of the others became food for animals or the small, hungry organisms in the welcoming earth. While “alive” it shared its body and branches and leaves with other living things: birds, insects, mosses, fungi, some of which were in a symbiotic relationship with it.

Without taking this picture further, I see life as a continuum, not an either/or proposition. You are blessed to have participated in the creation of children. Other who don’t so create still have a role to play. Here’s an article I wrote that is somewhat congruent on the topic: The Holy Zygote.

Back to the “I” who will “die.” Who is this “I?” You know that Buddhists and others have a different view of this than do we westerners. Alan Watts asserts: “there is no ‘I’ which can be protected.”

I may write a haibun on the subject, using the oak as the focal point. Thanks for the stimulus.

Ron

Fallen oak, Bernal Hill

Mature Man Enjoys a Smoke- Part II

The words in the caption above present an obscure allusion, visible only to me until after I offer the reader an anecdote of the hours leading to the event alluded to.

2002-01-07-fred-at-dianes

Fred “burns one,” San Jose, California, 2002, representing Part I of “Mature Man Enjoys a Smoke”

The day started with a visit to the walk-in emergency medical facility at the Karolinska Hospital. They opened promptly at 8 A.M. I had had no breakfast, except, of course, coffee.

After questioning me, poking and prodding me, and extracting and examining some of my bodily fluids, the professionals at Karolinska said I needed a specialist at the Danderyd Hospital which is located around five English miles north, near the end of the Red Line of the Stockholm Subway system at Mörby Centrum. But, a taxi was provided for my use, at no direct charge, and I had a 30-minute window to get the day’s first nourishment before the taxi arrived at 12:10 PM. I purchased a lonely sandwich from the hospital cafeteria and ate it while waiting outside.

At Danderyd, bodily fluids were again offered and extracted, then a very long wait in a crowded, busy medical department until after dinner time when another professional poked and prodded and questioned. The conclusion: I was to get a CT Scan of my abdomen (it turned out ultimately to be some inflammation, easily dealt with).  More waiting. Finally, at around 9:30 PM, the scan was done, and I had at least an hour to wait until the results would be known. (It turned out to be four hours, but “that’s not important right now.”)

I took the opportunity to travel one station north to the last stop at Mörby Centrum to find food vendors that might be open at 10:00 PM. Few were, but Mörby Grillen was.

Mörby Grillen-1

Mörby Grillen

Now to the nut of this story.

I took my 150-gram hamburger, with its over-size sesame-seeded bun and a generous portion of pommes frites, to the seating area outside the grill where several tables and chairs were available.

It was a pleasantly cool evening with no discernible breeze. I sat and amazed myself by consuming the burger in short order. All the trimmings were included in it. Now sated, I attempted to address the “French fries.”

Seated at the next table was a man who captured my attention as I picked slowly at the frites. He reminded me of my late high school pal Fred, pictured above.

My first impression is that he was thoroughly enjoying his cigarette.  He sucked shallowly on it, looked at the remaining length of it, considered it closely, perhaps admiring it as an old companion (as Fred similarly did with his cigs), and then he took another drag, not hurrying this great pleasure.

His similarity to Fred seemed ever more apparent: Height, age, clothing, general manner, and posture. Fred would be my age now, 81, if he were still around; I regret deeply that he ain’t.

The man was around six feet tall, dressed neatly in tan/beige pants and a similarly colored light jacket, Fred’s usual attire when abroad (I couldn’t see the man’s shirt). He manner was that of a person not in a hurry. His posture was as erect as his upper back would allow (widower’s hump?); Fred also stood erectly.

Where this man differed from Fred in appearance is that he had a short, full beard, not too carefully trimmed, but not disorderly. Also, as he finished his meal of coffee and tobacco and started away, he moved with great care on joints that seemed reluctant to move quickly or fully.

I suddenly received the impression the man might have been a retired sailor, a merchant seaman or fisherman who use his body as well as his wits to accomplish his tasks. This is where Fred was different: he was avowedly sedentary unless confronted with an automobile or other machinery in need of mechanical or spiritual attention.

I imagined that this man, now having walked well away from me, and Fred, and I, could have had a good conversation, with stories to share and perceptions to confirm or debate. And, we could sit in silence with each other in the knowledge that we had seen much of the world and that only fellows our age could fully appreciate the depth and breadth of each other’s lives.

Gone is the child

Gone is the child
That young man
I remember so well

Eighty years of living
Some of it hard
Some of dangerous

Much loving
Much heartbreak
Much fear

Music
Marriage
Children

Schools
Jobs
Betrayals

Successes
Failures
Recoveries

Years fall into the abyss
Friends, family disappear
Leaving tearful memories

But new friends, family appear
I cherish them and every moment
Even as the memories travel with me