“Rouse Yourself and Pay Attention”

I used to hear admonishments like this in my high school English class. Miss Morgan was a fine teacher who brooked no nonsense in her classes. Edward and I used to sit in the back row and he’d draw detailed pictures of hot rods and race cars. This did not go down well: Morgan demanded close attention and once kicked us out of class.

Kids like me sometimes flouted the rules and conventions of school learning. This would often persist even into my college years. Finally, for most of my later life, I learned the value of attention, concentration and focus. That’s how one learns about the world and masters a subject, after all.

Now in my later years I find it hard to pay strict attention to a number of things, some of them formerly precious and engrossing. Listening to music can be absorbing or boring, depending on my mood or its former involvement in my life. Sometimes a piece that I loved no longer appeals or moves me as it once did. Is my memory disengaging? Why have I lost interest?

Yesterday I put on an old and valued CD of Mahler’s 9th Symphony, a long and meditative piece that evokes thoughts and feelings of death and dying. Not quite up for that, I quit after the first two movements which dealt with lighter things. I play regular poker with good friends but often lose my concentration on a hand and the game. I came to realize I really don’t like poker but don’t want to lose contact with my buddies.

Getting old means you sometimes lapse out of boring conversations—or ones you just choose not to hear. Getting old means that more conversations fit into this category. Namely, how interested are you in another person’s travel stories? How much more repetitive carping about Trump et al. can one attend to? How much local gossip?

I talked about some of these withdrawal symptoms in this post. Here, it seems to me a function of how memory changes as we age. The specter of Alzheimer’s is often in the back of one’s mind. NIH says in fact not to worry and offers this comparison:

Normal agingAlzheimer's disease
Making a bad decision once in a whileMaking poor judgments and decisions a lot of the time
Missing a monthly paymentProblems taking care of monthly bills
Forgetting which day it is and remembering it laterLosing track of the date or time of year
Sometimes forgetting which word to useTrouble having a conversation
Losing things from time to timeMisplacing things often and being unable to find them

In our later years, memory often becomes the source of much pleasure, contemplation and resurgent knowledge. This is not a withdrawal into the past. One’s memories can enrich the present and permit you to detach from matters that have less meaning in your new life.