A while ago when I turned fifty, with my comedic bent of mind, I launched an hysterical reaction to my new age. And so my memoir, The Shelf Life of Ashes, began. Humor was a fine place to start, but over time I felt the tug to connect with the phenomenon of aging in a visceral way--to study it, to comprehend that aging, dying, death--was going to happen to me.
I got a job working as a companion to the elderly, and around that time, weekly phone calls from my mother started raining in, importuning me to “come home,” to help and comfort her in her decline. The myriad treks between the coasts offered a feast of zesty writing challenges -- the contentious, sad relationship with my adoptive parents; adoption itself; Christian Science and the whirl that such a religion sets in motion; the arbitrary nature of identity; the challenge of finding one’s work. The backbone of the memoir, though, became the stories of the elderly clients for whom I worked, and the stumbling toward rapprochement with my ailing mother.
Mine has been a peripatetic life, and my writing life has followed. I think about the relationship between these two--my life and my art, and how each has shaped the other. Starting in my twenties, I moved around a lot, and even when I settled down, over thirty years ago, in Seattle, WA, I moved a lot there, too, sampling many neighborhoods, with here and there lengthy interims in rural havens – Gold Bar, WA; Lopez Island. Recalling this makes me think about my travels among literary forms. In Philadelphia, I wrote and studied poetry (C. K. Williams, Jerald Stern), and published and taught and gave readings. There, I also started a theatre with a friend (The Wilma Project), and inflicted long and unperformable musicals on our bemused fan base. I did requisite time in the crucible of The Writers’ Conference, encountering such practitioners of the craft as Patricia Hampl, Rosellen Brown and Peter Matthiessen.
I framed my book’s exploration of aging as “the Quest to find The Map of Aging Well.” Was there one? Not an elixir, but a guide? Does the set-up--a comic quest, destined to fail – offend the sincerity of spiritual exploration? I feel undeserving to call my memoir a spiritual journey, and to attempt to illustrate aspects of the Buddhist Dharma, albeit in stories; thus, obliquely. I’m neither a Dharma teacher, nor a Buddhist scholar, and so I do not have credentials in that regard. Nonetheless, that is what interests me most in my writing – the deep-as-can-go explorations of life’s tough spots in the context of spirituality.
I am a pilgrim forever setting out, a naïf, but with robust curiosity.
Of course, as I think about it now, the map is the perfect image for one who professes to wander. The map momentarily grounds my flights of fancy; flags me down to the level of city-dots, park-icons, highways, bodies of water, to chart a course through them. My map through the landscape of aging was crude. Inaccuracies abounded; failures of imagination, too. But that didn’t negate the value of the quest, or the questions unearthed. The quest, destined to fail given the players, was no less rich for that.