into the mystic…6-13-22

Maybe this musing about the mystic is spurned by current loss.  Beloved mother-in-law of fifty years.  Did we really first meet when I was 19?  Matriarchal moon holding six siblings in her orbit, so many grandchildren, great grandchildren.  And now, the shape of this long-standing constellation shifts.  A few days later Robert Ansell passes, steadfast partner to Gabrielle Roth.  Did you know he was a high power criminal attorney in NYC?  Until he met Gabrielle.  Until he ditched all that, dived head first into playing bass drum, deeply supported her in the work.  She had that effect on people. The wheel turns again as the next aging generation steps up to the plate.

And I suppose that includes me.  The evidence as such softly blankets my existence.  And there it is again: I catch myself making a repeating request.  “Please don’t ask me the ‘when’ question.”  As in, “What year did we take that trip to Mexico?”  Or “When did we last paint the house?”  Or “How long has it been since we’ve gone to Yosemite?”  Or “What year did your uncle pass?”   I totally remember all these things happening.  Please, just don’t ask me when.  Because my senior memory function has alarmingly shifted over these last couple years.

Is it pandemic-induced?  Is it a natural aging process?  Is it more dire than that?  I really don’t know.  I just have this sense of sailing off into the mystic.  Of existing in a space unbound by time.  As if all memory has been surreptitiously moved into an un-catalogued container.  What happened last week exists right next to what happened last year.  A story from my fifties cozies up to a thirties story.   1970?  1990?  Who knows?

Rest assured:  this has nothing to do with my brain’s ability to function in other ways.  I drive my car like a champ.  Curiously, I take patient histories, plan treatments, create home videos more fluidly with each passing year.  I listen to and catalogue new music like a pro.  I’m masterful in the kitchen.  I could go on.  But this strangely altered relationship to time.  What choice is there but to sail off into the mystic?  Surrender to the reality of memory that shifts like desert sand.  Give up on time as an organizational constraint.  Thrive in this revised zone.  There’s a breath of freedom here.

But I am a meaning-making individual.  And I wonder what to make of this in the big picture of a life.  Well, of course, there are neuroscience facts.  For every decade after age 50, the brain loses 2% of its weight.  But this is also true: some cortical neurons become more abundant after maturity, actually continue growing in healthy old people.  In an essay entitled Memory: Short-Term Loss, Long-Term Gain, James Hillman postulates that the “gathering of old images to the exclusion of recent events seems imposed on the aged, as if the soul insists on this review.”

Well now…this sweetly rings of meaning.  My brain no longer auto-pilots into organizational mode.  At 2% loss per decade, something has to go.  But how about those new cortical neurons?   Here’s the poetic way Hillman frames what they are up to:

“Life review yields long term gains that enrich character by bringing understanding to events.  The patterns in your life become more discernable among the wreckage and the romance, more like a well-plotted novel that reveals characters through their actions and reactions.  Life review is really nothing other than re-writing—or writing for the first time—the story of your life, or writing your life into stories.  And without stories there is no pattern, no understanding, no art, and no character—merely habits, events passing before the eyes of an aimless observer, a life unreviewed, a life lost in the living of it.”

Wow.  This just rings true.  Perhaps we break free from tracking the mundane so that we might probe the past.  Make order from the myriad wild and strange events that transpire over a lifetime.  Let go of the details that no longer serve.  Surrender to the truth of what remains.  Take refuge in the privilege of arrival at the dock: of art, of pattern, of understanding, of character. If this is the journey of sailing into the mystic, I’m a grateful passenger.