On Getting Old

It has been a very heavy winter, and we could all do with something to smile about. I found something that made me smile and thought I would share it with you. The lighter side of Albert. This article was written for Zen Gong some time ago, I think when he was in his seventies.


I grow old, I grow old
Shall I wear the bottom of my trousers rolled?

So you want me to write about getting old. I do not know why you ask me to do this kind of thing. After all, I am only a beginner and I don’t know much about the subject. Furthermore, as far as I can remember, this is the first time that I have got old. But the little that I do know about the subject impels me to say that if the alternative were not so dubious I would tell you, “Don’t do it.” For one thing, there is no future in it. For another, it really is not for sissies. I remember once Philip Kapleau, as he lowered himself gingerly into an armchair, – he was over eighty at the time – groaning, “Whoever said, ‘Grow old with me the best is yet to be’ must have been about 21.” Either that or it must have been said by a seventy-year-old guy on ecstasy.

Let me share some of my discoveries about getting old. For one thing getting out of bed in the morning sometimes feels a lot like getting out of a train wreck. They say that if, after the age of fifty you do not ache when you get out of bed then you are dead. Let me tell you, after the age of seventy, sometimes when you get out of bed you wish you were. Another thing is that bits start falling off. I have already lost parts of my eyes to cataract operations, many of my teeth and a hip. It’s true that they gave me replacement parts, but somehow they don’t seem to work quite so well as the originals used to.

Another problem is that no-one does things as well as they used to when I was young. The kids are a lot more unruly, fruit no longer tastes like fruit, you can never find a sales assistant when you want one, and you just try getting someone on the phone; one of my fingers has become arthritic pressing all the buttons. In those days bank managers called you “Sir!” doctors made home calls and the policeman was your friend. There was even a song that said, “If you want to know the time ask a policeman.”

Just think. When I was young we had all the time in the world. We could even read a book from beginning to end. We did not have TV, the Web, cell phones, computer games, or e-mail and yet we remained perfectly sane. An airplane was something you rushed out of doors to see, and it was only the local doctor who could afford a car. No washing machines, refrigerators, microwaves, or telephones, disturbed the peace. No Big Macs, no pizzas, no TV dinners! Central heating was unknown as was air-conditioning. We had no i-pod, i-mac, no DVD, VCR, CD or even Hi-Fi. I remember a teacher telling me that the developing industries to get into were electronics and plastics, and although I nodded wisely it took me quite a while before I knew what the words even meant.

Another thing is that for an old person the world has a lot more living people in it. For a twenty-year-old anyone older than thirty becomes invisible. In fact, I remember a movie that was, I think, playing in the 60’s, in which anyone older than thirty was sent off to a happy farm, where they were fed on happy pills to keep them out of the way.

You know when you are getting old when

  • It seems that every other week you are having another birthday.
  • When the real meaning of “Happy returns of the day” strikes you for the first time.
  • When you find yourself in the middle of a room wondering why and how you got there.
  • When you start talking about one thing and end up talking about something quite different.
  • When an elderly lady gives you her seat on the metro.
  • When you no longer save Xmas wrappings for next Xmas.
  • When your doctor looks like a teenager.
  • When you do not buy green bananas anymore.
  • When doing up your shoelaces is the major accomplishment of the day.

A very well known koan is the one where a monk goes to a master and asks, “How can I get away from the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter?” If he had been an old monk he might well have asked, “How can I get away from the aches in the morning and the pains at night?” As you probably know the maser said, “Go where there is no heat in summer and cold in winter.” ‘Oh!” replied the monk, “Where is that?” “When in summer, sweat; when in winter, shiver.” So where do we go to find where there is no ache in the morning or pain at night?

I remember when, during my last trip to England, I visited my old aunt. She was ninety-three years old at the time, living on her own and fiercely independent and during the past couple of years had kicked out two social workers who had come to help look after her because they got in her way. She had been recently discharged from hospital after suffering a touch of food poisoning. In the latter part of her life, she had been back and forth to the hospital several times for various ailments and certainly knew the aches in the morning and the pains at night. I asked her, “How old are you, aunt?” “Ninety-three,” she said. “How old do you feel?” I continued. Without a pause, she flashed back, “Twenty-one!” and gave me the most beatific smile. I know just what she meant.

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