My library of books on ageing, death and dying numbers in the hundreds, most of them collected over the past 25 years. I've never cleaned out the detritus so quite a few that were not worth the effort to read still hang around on shelves.
Even so, no matter what interests me at a given moment in regard to those subjects, there is always someone within all those pages of the worthy books who knows more than I do or can say it so much better than I or who is wiser than I could hope to be.
Now and then, I pull out a book at random. Earlier this week, it was Still Here – Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying by Ram Dass, a man I had first encountered when he still called himself Richard Alpert and, with Timothy Leary, studied the therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs at Harvard.
(You remember LSD, “Tune in, Turn on and Drop Out,” etc. from the 1960s, don't you? If not, you'll find a brief overview of Ram Dass's life at Wikipedia.)
He first attracted my attention with the psychedelic work and I never stopped reading him thereafter.
Flipping through the book this week, I stopped at a chapter about how our roles in life change as we grow older. He opens one section on dwindling interest in sex with a wonderfully funny frog story that is so good it would be enough by itself for today's blog post. And so I'll tell it to you verbatim:
”An older man is walking down the street one afternoon when he hears a voice saying, 'Pssst – could ya help me out?' He looks around but there's nobody there.
“He starts to walk on, and again he hears, 'Pssst – could ya help me out?' Once again he stops and looks around, and again, there's nobody to been seen. But this time he looks more carefully, and happens to glance down at the sidewalk, where he sees a huge frog.
“Though he's a little embarrassed to be talking to a frog, he asks: 'Did you speak to me?'
“Much to the man's surprise, the frog answers. 'Yes, indeed. Could ya help me out?'
“The man is intrigued and asks, 'Well, what do you want?'
“The frog replies, 'Well, I'm under a curse. If you would kiss me, I would be freed of the curse and I would turn into a beautiful woman who would love you and serve you. I would care for you, warm your bed, and make you so happy!'
“The man stands there for a moment, reflecting, and then picks up the frog, puts it into his pocket, and walks on. After a few minutes the frog says, 'Hey! You forgot to kiss me.'
“And the man says, 'You know, at my age, I think it might be more interesting to have a talking frog.'”
Isn't that fun twist on the old kiss-a-frog story? I must have read it when the book was published in 2000 - I know because the story is highlighted in yellow – but it was as fresh this time as if it were brand new to me. (So much for my memory.)
Ram Dass takes off from there to discuss how we feel our diminishing sexual passions as a loss and wonder, perhaps, who or what we are without those feelings.
”Well into my 50s,” writes Ram Dass, “I spent a great deal of energy on my sexual appetites, and on appearing sexually attractive to those around me. The older I became, however, the less power that sexual currency seemed to wield.
“People seemed to treat me differently – they treated me with less desire but more respect, and at first this shift around ambivalent feelings...
“These regrets lasted for a number of years before I was able to settle down and relinquish the self-pity of the past.
“When this finally happened, I was amazed by how much more time and attention I had for other things in my life when the trumpets of sexual desire quieted down.”
That happened to me too, exactly so, and to other women Ram Dass spoke with who, he writes,
”...report confusion, if not distress, over how the culture views them once their roles – as sex object, wife, or mother – are taken away. As one woman said to me, 'I'll walk down the street, and nobody even sees me. I feel like I don't exist anymore.'”
I went through a long period – years – feeling just like that woman; I have even used the same words to describe it. Gradually, I came to accept and enjoy my place as an older and then old woman. (Writing a blog about what it's like to grow old for many years certainly helped.)
But that is a personal accomplishment, not a cultural one. Ram Dass notes that given the state of American society, younger people are not going to spontaneously ask for our insight and wisdom. It was 20 years ago he wrote that and not much has changed since then.
However, as I've discovered over many years of reading him, Ram Dass often has another answer:
“Aging consciously, we will naturally begin to manifest those qualities that our society needs in order to survive – qualities like sustainability, justice, patience, and reflection.
These are qualities that can only come from the space of dispassionate perceptual Awareness which age invites us to explore.”
“Awareness which age invites us to explore.”
At the risk of breaking an arm trying to pat myself on the back, I think this is what I have been doing, or trying to do especially since my cancer diagnosis, and it has been three years of the most productive and satisfying of my (inner) life.
Does any of this strike a chord with you?