By Ann Burack-Weiss
You’d think they’d let up by the time you reach your 80s. That all you need do to keep yourself going is to keep yourself going. But no; everything you hear or read pushes you toward new horizons.
That thrill of completion that I feel when finishing the Sunday crossword puzzle (well, all but three small words) is meaningless. It does not spark those neurons or create new pathways in the brain; all it does is deepen familiar ruts.
Worse, it is a solitary pursuit. Surely dementia and social isolation are brewing in the toxic waters of my comfort zone.
Old folks are repeatedly told to heed the siren call of the untried that, from the beginning of time, has lured humans from their caves into the sun of enhanced existence.
Learning Chinese in the company of elderly peers would be just the thing.
Or I could put aside the knitting of one color, one pattern scarves that I’ve enjoyed since the age of 18 – an activity that is especially pleasant on long winter evenings cuddled on the couch listening to the classical music I’ve enjoyed just as long.
Better to join a class in needlepoint. It takes lots of different colored threads to construct a tapestry – you must keep your wits about you in order to keep them sorted, threaded and hitting just the right spot all the while chatting with others engaged in the same task.
They mean well, the young dears. It is just that they are afraid of their own senescence. Neuroscience offers hope. And yes, I’ve seen the graphs, read the papers. I know enough about research to agree that the findings are statistically significant.
But it’s a long way from statistical significance to my apartment, to my life, where I have to say that the findings are not significant at all.
You see, we are often afraid. The unknown is only filled with wonder if you feel power within you to grab out to it and turn it to your uses.
We are afraid as young children are afraid – so much in life they don’t understand, can’t control. The things that hide out in the shadows and can pounce at any time are particularly scary when they are alone in the dark. So they ask for glass after glass of water, ask to hear the same story the same way over and over. Skip a page in the book, change a few words and they get upset.
Ours is not a second childhood – for we know full well the names and workings of what is hiding in the shadows. We do not imagine animals escaped from the zoo to hide out under our beds (as I remember doing at the age of four) but the bed itself springing steel sides pulled up high over which tubes ferry fluids in and out of our bodies.
We do not imagine that our screams won’t be loud enough to reach powerful adults who can come to our aid. We know the limits of the powerful adults no matter how caring they might be.
So like children, we cannot see change as a learning opportunity, a chance to face our fears and triumph over them. Instead, change strips us of all sense of certainty, of control, leaving us quaking in its wake; strips us of our memories and the sense of self that they reinforce within us.
The Sunday crossword puzzle I am working on today holds vestiges of every puzzle of my life, everyone who was around me on those long ago Sundays – the places I carried it with me during the week to fill in a clue or two; the people – so many no longer here – with whom I exchanged passing references to its difficulty or ease or cleverness of theme.
The long scarf on which I rip and redo as often as I move ahead, and the music that accompanies it, go all the way back – first, my room at home, then a college dormitory room filled with smokers and bridge players where, doing neither, I found my place and many happy hours with the knitters.
Those last months of pregnancy with each of my now middle-aged children when I surprised myself by branching out to blanket, sweater, and bootie sets – enough even to gift to others.
So I’ll stay right here. Comforted by the familiar, buoyed by memories. Relaxing? Lolling? No, wallowing – that’s the word I’m looking for, wallowing, in my comfort zone.
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