Our son came back to Charleston last week for his wedding here on Saturday. He and his bride live in Ottawa, Ontario, so we don’t see them often, but for years when he has been home, he and I have often gone to Caw Caw County Park for long walks.
We walked there first when he was 5, before Caw Caw was developed as a park, thanks to a friendship with Danny Shelton who was looking after the property.
Since that first time, with good companionship or alone, I have walked the paths of Caw Caw well over a hundred mornings or afternoons, most of those after retirement. I know almost every stumble in the path and some of the alligators by name. I’ve observed great blue herons and wood storks stalk through the swamp, watched white ibis flash in the air like waves glistening in the sun, written a dozen poems while sitting on a bench by the tidal creek.
Thanks to Caw Caw, I’ve learned something about paying attention to the place where I am and what’s happening around me with no compulsion to make anything happen.
Of course, it’s different every time: Some interesting thing never noticed before, different birds showing up, an alert water snake in the canal, a view down an ancient lane in just that sun. These small things draw me back again and again. I am glad they do. Why?
Instead of piling on new, exotic adventures to stimulate my life, Caw Caw helps me learn to process my daily experience slowly, intentionally and carefully.
“Bucket lists” drive us to new (pre-planned) thrills and sensations or they fill in gaps. There may be a place for that if we can afford them. (Bucket lists can often be expensive holidays.) But they don’t coax us to slow down to where this succession of experiences can be reflected on and savored, letting their subtle flavors season our lifetime of experience. We need the kinds of experiences that slow us down for real savoring.
That’s what I mean about Caw Caw. You may have a different place, a stretch of beach or a certain spot in the mountains, a city park or your own backyard garden that does the same thing for you. It’s a “slow” place that lets you really taste it. And doing that helps you to taste the rest of your life, too.
There may be a reason why these contemplative places are more important to us elders than far-flung bucket-list places. When our minds start slowing down, as mine has, they may be more suited to thinking long thoughts about things grown familiar.
In earlier “working” years, when did we have uninterrupted time for long thoughts? When raising children, you have minute-to-minute responsibilities that demand attention. People in business are busy processing information and making decisions. Teaching and health care, in fact, most occupations, require constant attention, and working people get tired.
Where’s the time for contemplative thinking? Younger brains require and value agility, not patience. Older brains slow down to let our thoughts catch up. But the slow brain may be the wise brain. It can deal with topics more suited to slower, maybe deeper, thinking that is reflective, nonpurpose-driven, full of imagination, connections and sometimes even insight.
The slow brain can deal better with “accumulated experience,” ones gathered over a lifetime that sometimes have a thread connecting them. For elders, recollecting experience is not a mere pastime. Remembering and reflecting on accumulated experience could be the most important business of mature age. Erik Erikson’s lasting contribution to psychology is the way he staged human development through the life cycle, including old age.
In the “mature” stage of life, as he called it, our great work is to face the tension between achieving ego integrity and falling into despair. We face that challenge successfully by careful, graceful reflection on our accumulated experiences: accepting ourselves in spite of our mistakes, forgiving ourselves for unfulfilled dreams, acknowledging our successes and saying yes to the life we’ve got. If we elders aren’t doing that, despair may be nipping at our heels.
That takes slow thinking; it’s not done quickly. And it is terribly important. As Daniel Klein says, “Tying our experiences together in a personal history is a way we find meaning in our lives.”
Of course, you don’t need a particular place like Caw Caw to do that. But I think it helps to have slow places or slow activities that don’t “excite” us but teach us a better quality of attention as we age. They help in our great work of recollection.
I recall a story a member of our church told me many years ago. A music therapist, he was working with a young boy with such severe ADHD that he had to be institutionalized.
Alone in a room with a piano and the boy literally climbing the walls, my friend played fast, wild music in step with the boy’s frenzy. Gradually, he slowed the music down and the boy slowed down. And when he moved into one of Chopin’s calm and lovely etudes, the boy stopped his frenetic activity and then sat down beside him on the piano bench.
Surprised, the therapist asked, “How does the music make you feel?” And the boy responded in the first complete sentence they had ever heard him speak: “It makes me feel quiet inside, and I remember who I am.”
Elders should look for places and pursuits that help us feel quiet inside, for the important work of remembering who we are.