Living in the Moment
- This is an article that wasprinted in the 7/8/09
NY Times that I think is well worth sharing.
It's longer than most of the posts we see, but
very interesting and with unique content.
Living in the Moment
By Elizabeth Kadetsky
My sister and I had inklings of a slow atrophying
of my mother's mind, perhaps of her very self,
before she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease
in April, 2008. And yet, strangely, I'd also
noticed around that time she'd seemed to be more
"herself." So I felt oddly reassured at the news.
The diagnosis seemed to explain something about
who my mother was, perhaps who she'd been most of
my life. Due to its seeming genetic component, we
believed the type to be early-onset. It could have
started when I was still a kid.
Yoga citta vritti nirodha yoga is the cessation
of the fluctuations of consciousness. This,
from Patañjali's "Yoga Sutras," was the first
piece of a classical text I memorized when I
trained to become a yoga teacher. Perhaps
paradoxically, this also seemed to describe what
had been happening to my mother.
My mother was a fashion model by profession. Tall
and imposing, dark eyed, with eyebrows like an
eagle's La Belle Française, they'd pitched
her at her earliest modeling agency, in Boston
in the 1960s. In person until not so long ago,
her beauty was so formidable as to make people
nervous, though in the pictures an endearing,
long-lashed prettiness offset her severity.
How this translated into her role as a mother
was how little she needed to say to intimidate
us to submission. Rather, she gave us her look
accompanied by a baring of long, red-painted,
manicured fingernails. We got her message. That
is to say, she was a woman not of words but of presence.
Today, at 69, she has less of that charisma she
has been diagnosed with the disease in its early
to middle stages. But she has at least as much of
a quality that I, earlier, modeled myself on, and
later came to admire in her: a quirky, rather
peculiar nature that could be summarized as an
insistence on living in the moment. By concentrated
meditation on the moment and each moment that
follows, the yogi gains sacred knowledge. So these
days, I sometimes believe I am not so much losing
my mother as communicating, more and more so
exclusively, with that side of her that exists only
in the present.
There was a tic our mother had when we were
young. My sister did a hilarious and not-so-nice
imitation. You'd ask her a question, and she'd
peer at you with her black imperious eyes.
"Sapristi" an empress her boyfriend from the
time re-named her. She'd stare for five seconds,
ten seconds, maybe a minute. Thinking. Or maybe
forgetting, you never knew which, until she would
finally respond, but often with an unsatisfying
answer. "Well what do you think?" Was her
prepossessing demeanor just a cover for her
trying hard to remember the question?
Today that's what she does. She sits still until
it comes back to her, that train of thought, that
question she was supposed to answer until, more
often now than not, it doesn't come back to her
and she keeps staring, lost, it seems, in the
present: anaditvaim time, existing from eternity.
Alzheimer's is about living in the present. To
exist outside of memory is to occupy the moment
wholly. For instance, my mother quit smoking
around the time of her diagnosis. As she explained
it, she'd have the urge to smoke, would forget to
light up before she got her hands on the pack,
and so broke a 50-year addiction. It seemed the
craving no longer got stuck in her memory circuits,
and so easily fell away.
Another lifelong habit she fell out of around
this time was yoga. I was disappointed, because
I'd begun my own study, when I was 19, at her
encouragement. Her quitting owed to a drug
prescribed at her memory clinic that may or may
not staunch the progression of the disease
Aricept that has the side effect of muscle cramps.
The cramps seemed to be exacerbated by her practice
of a low-impact, mostly made-up, often-done-in-bed
sort of yoga. After a while, though, she forgot
about this contraindication and got back in the habit.
Sukha / dukha, I also learned in yoga life
contains pain and pleasure; by cultivating detachment
from both, the yogi observes both their beauty
and hardship without allowing either to overwhelm
experience. Watch, observe, knowing you can't control.
I am not the first person to make this connection
between the loss of certain cognitive brain
functions and a yoga-like ability to occupy the
moment. Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who
wrote a book detailing her experience of a stroke
that temporarily wiped out the language and other
functions of her left brain, describes the
right-brain-left-brain dichotomy as dividing
thinking about the present in the right
hemisphere and thinking about the past and
future in the left. The left hemisphere, she
says, is responsible for "that ongoing brain
chatter." The right brain, in her rendition of
it, collects data through the senses "and then it
explodes into this enormous collage of what this
present moment looks like, what the present moment
smells like and tastes like, what it feels like
and what it sounds like."
During her stroke, Bolte Taylor experienced what
it would be like to operate entirely from the right
brain. "Because I could no longer identify the
boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive.
I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it
was beautiful there." She refers to this state of
mind as "La-La Land," she says in a recorded lecture.
"Imagine what it would be like to be totally
disconnected to your brain chatter that connects
you to the external world . I felt lighter in my
body . I felt this sense of peacefulness. Imagine
what it would feel like to lose 37 years of
emotional baggage. I felt euphoria."
"I'm getting wicky," my mother says, a sort
of joke with herself. She seems to be practicing
non-attachment: vairagya. We are out to lunch
on her block in Long Island City. She uses the
made-up expression a lot now. "I'm getting really,
really " she pauses, as if seeking just the
perfect, onomatopoetic evocation of her mind state
"wicky." She laughs, a little nervously. "It's
weird. Your mother is really weird. All I can do
is accept it."
I don't remember my mother ever speaking much in
complete sentences. She spoke with her long limbs,
her elegant fingers and body. Today, she sweeps
her arms across the café and looks at me with a
weighty expression, hums a little, and then
stares as if I am supposed to have understood
her meaning precisely. She perhaps believes she
has been explicit, though she also has long
thought we three she, my sister and I could
read each other's minds because we were psychically
intertwined, probably through many previous
lives. "I just don't understand. I think I have
to go to the doctor."
She is describing post-smoking weight gain, I have
more or less surmised.
Before I knew my mother had Alzheimer's, I
attributed many of the qualities I now associate
with the illness to her mystical bent. People
described her as "loopy," or "spacey." Sometimes
I bore a smoldering bitterness: she didn't seem
to know or care about the doings of teens in the
frenetic city. She could also be willfully ignorant,
and this goaded me too.
Today, what I think about more often is whether
the lessons that both of us have internalized
through yoga can help us understand, and accept,
what is happening to her. I think about this
a lot one day at lunch a month later, when it seems
her language problem has gotten worse. I do most
of the talking. She says "Wow!" and repeats
questions: "Where is that?"; "What are you teaching?";
"Do you have a boyfriend?"; "Wow!"
After a while I get frustrated and hold up my cell
phone to suggest to her I'm going to do some business.
"Do you mind?" I ask her.
She is staring blankly out the window. "Noooo!
I love to spend time with you." But I find it
unnerving to have her so close as I do the things
I am accustomed to doing alone. I notice the
barristas looking at us funny. But she's O.K.
What's my problem? She used to counsel me as a
kid: What does it matter what they think of you?
You're never going to see them again, and even
if you do, so what?
In yoga I've also learned flexibility physical
and mental. If a muscle seizes up, just wait,
it will relax keep stretching or flexing. If
you feel a mental reflex to resist something,
just sit with it, the reflex will pass. This is
indeed why people sometimes counsel yoga to treat
addictions. Wait before you act or don't act
as the case may be. You achieve much once you
stop telling yourself you can't do things.
After a while I pull out some color swatches
I've been carrying around for my paint job.
Last time I did this, five years ago, it was
already frustrating to hold a conversation with
her due to memory loss, but she'd helped me with
color. She stared at a shade and came up with
a hundred words to describe it. She always had
remarkable perception. Peaches with mint. Nostalgic.
Today she doesn't have many words: Bright.
Depressing. Dark. Grayer. She doesn't seem to
be connecting; her eyes veer out that window
while I continually draw back her attention,
until after a while I give up.
"All I can do is say this is the way it is,"
she says, as if to reassure not just herself
but me. "I can go on long walks. I can enjoy
myself. I just can't talk to anyone and make
much sense. I walk, smile at people. You can't
tell, can you?" she asks, finally.
The truth is, not really. She is still gorgeous,
tall and not close to fat even with her post-smoking
weight gain, her black hair barely grayed. She
looks ten years younger than her age.
I hug her. She's dying bit by bit, I think. What
does it matter what people think?
"No. Not really," I say.
Elizabeth Kadetsky, a writer and yoga instructor,
is the author of "First There Is a Mountain,"
a memoir. Her fiction has appeared in the Antioch
Review, Best New American Voices, the Pushcart
Prize anthology and other publications. She is
currently a visiting writer at Penn State
University's creative writing program.
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