During a recent visit to Mammoth to see my mother, she dropped a box of Milton's Multi-Grain crackers in the kitchen. She lost her grip on the rectangular package and it fell, dislodging five or six crackers which skittered and broke on the floor.
Mom, 92, was upset because where she was standing, the mess looked overwhelming and one requiring a substantial effort to clean up, an effort for which she had not bargained.
I helped — it’s the least I could do, she’d fed me all weekend and I am her son — but it made me think about an article on aging I had read by Adam Gopnik called “Younger Longer,” in The New Yorker.
In the course of his research, the 62-year-old Gopnik went to the AgeLab at MIT and put on AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System), or the sudden aging suit, to experience what it must feel like to be a much older person.
“The suit includes yellow glasses which gives a sense of the yellowing of the ocular lens that comes with age,” Gopnik writes, “a boxer's neck harness which mimics diminished mobility of cervical spine, bands around elbows wrists, and knees to simulate stiffness: boots with foam padding to produce a loss of tactile feedback and special gloves to reduce tactile acuity adding resistance to finger movement.”
The first thing that happens, Gopnik said, is you get mad.
“The suit bends you, slows you and every task becomes effortful,” Gopnik said.
Reaching a mug on a high shelf takes all you have and more focus than you realize. Everything becomes difficult. There are no gimmes among once simple tasks.
“The concentration that each act requires disrupts the flow of life, which you suddenly become aware is the happiness of life, the ceaseless flow of simple action and responses, choices all made simultaneously and without effort,” Gopnik says. “Happiness is absorption and absorption is the opposite of willful attention.”
Think about a weekend when you have nothing planned and you can float from one task to another, making it up as you go: You fill the bucket that holds the dog’s water, sweep the patio with your new cedar broom, clean your bike, put a hose on the dead spots on the lawn, trim the plumbago along the white fence and wash the car.
An hour has gone by. Maybe two. Who cares. You’re flowing like jazz.
In addition to the sense of accomplishment, there is the freedom to move forward, change course, circle back. Being free to move is a source of joy. Moving without thinking, even better.
“I’d like to go kayaking,” Mom said.
When your 92-year-old mom says she wants to kayak, the answer is yes. We drove the old Ranger truck with two kayaks in the back to Twin Lakes.
Mammoth is glorious. A big winter has left water everywhere, flowers in the meadow and air, perfumed and cool. It’s heaven.
“The kayak only weighs 30 pounds,” Mom said, as we backed as close to the lake as we could.
She always has had a tendency to downplay the difficulty of physical things like hikes and the steepness of any given ski run, but maybe this is the new Mom because the kayak seemed light even for someone who is donning his own age suit.
I walked the kayak to the water’s edge, where Mom stepped and wiggled into it. She worked at it, but she made it. I handed her the paddle, gave her a push and she glided away and disappeared, heading south on the lake toward the waterfall.
A large mountain shaded the opposite side of the lake. A duck looked for insects in the mud in front of me and then paddled away into an ever expanding V. A father and his young son floated by in a green, inflatable kayak, the son being rooted on by his teenage sister sitting in a folding chair on the bank. The wind blew through the pines and made music, the kind that brings your soul to rest.
As Mom paddled away, I thought of “Crossing the Bar,” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:
"Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,"
An hour later she came back so I’ll have to save that poem for another time. She spent 15 minutes in her kayak, gathering snarled fishing line from the bushes close to where she had pushed off.
One stroke flowed into the next and one task into another. For a moment, the age suit was gone. She was free and sometimes that’s all we can ask.