Tuesday, December 30, 2008

getting out of a rut

In the late-1970's, while I was in graduate school, I began a tradition of recording all the "first" things in my life over the previous year. In the beginning those lists were quite long. I was traveling to and living in new places, doing new things, meeting new people, experiencing new relationships, learning new skills.

Then at some point in the mid-1990's I stopped. I don't remember why -- although it wasn't because of a lack of new things in my life. In the mid-1990's I got married (and acquired a dog as well as a husband), was denied tenure, got a very different type of new teaching job, moved to a different state, became a co-author of a textbook, bought a house, went from having 3 cats to having 15 cats. Thinking about it in retrospect, I suspect that what happened was that my attitude about new things changed. While most of the changes in my life were positive, I began to crave stability and routine. I stopped experiencing change as an adventure, and started experiencing it as disruption.

So now I find myself, more than a decade later, in a rut. It's not that new things don't happen -- quite a few new things have happened (many of them in the form of challenges to health and well-being), but I've lost some of my mental and emotional flexibility for accommodating and adapting to change. I find that it much too easy to slip into mind numbing, addictive activities (simplistic computer games, watching familiar, formulaic television), rather than engage in the kinds of human interaction, and creative activities that once absorbed me. [Blogging has been one of the few exceptions to this -- thank goodness].

My concern about breaking free of this rut has grown, over the past six months, as I have observed (through daily phone calls) my mother's descent into senility. She has growing difficulty retrieving the names of common place things (the other day she could not remember "TV") and familiar people; she is unable to remember huge chunks of her past (and has constructed odd stories to replace what she has forgotten); she has lost skills and knowledge about things like food and cooking that were once her primary area of expertise (she will ask me how to prepare a common food, and I find myself telling her the things I originally learned from her); but most troubling of all she cannot cope with new situations and new people, cannot remember new information; so she becomes paralyzed in the face of the health and daily life crises that now beset she and my father on a weekly basis, then, angry and frightened of people who need her to make decisions -- yet refuses to relinquish any decision-making power to her children or doctors.

However, avoiding change, being intimidated by the new and different, retreating to a life of routine is nothing new for my mother. She has always been the kind of person who avoided challenges, and clung to the familiar. When faced with the necessity of travel, she dealt with the experience by obsessive planning, rigid schedules, and carefully mapped itineraries.

I have read that keeping the mind active, experiencing new things, accepting challenges, engaging in social interaction and creative activity are ways to slow, if not completely prevent, the loss of cognitive function. So this is my resolution -- to get out of my rut. I vow to do new things as often as I can (even if its just to drive through unfamiliar neighborhoods); to spend my evenings on creative tasks (and if I must watch TV, then let it be with a crochet hook in hand as I did when I was younger); to turn away from the computer when possible to interact with humans face to face; and when at the computer, to use the time for creative writing, exploration, and interaction rather than mindless game playing; and to go back to chronicling my new experiences (both positive and negative) accepting them as adventures and challenges rather than obstacles and trials.

I've already made a good start in the past four days: I took a road I've eyed for 12 years and discovered the county golf course (beautiful!), cooked eggplant for the first time (was always intimidated by the instructions), contacted a neighbor to borrow a pot and took time to chat, crocheted a nice cap for a friend, called a friend I don't talk to nearly enough, and wrote a poem to post.


Qaro said...

Wow. Great post, great idea. Good for you!

(Oops, I almost wrote "brain elasticity" which conjures up such a silly image!) I think a problem might be that you're good at lots of things so it might be hard to think of something new to explore?
Cooking is a great idea. (Not saying anything about your skills there, just it's a big area to explore!) How is your stove?

"I find myself telling her the things I originally learned from her" is one of the most poignant sentences I've ever read.

My son is sitting next to me, waiting to get on his MySpace. I just gave him a new catch phrase. When he gets back to school he's going to ask everyone "How is YOUR stove???"

We have to go to Pittsburgh to check on my dad. Talk to you soon.

Sue said...

Our new stove is great! We took your advice, and got a nice new ceramic top stove. My husband hasn't stopped cooking since it was installed (back in September if I remember correctly).

Hope you find your dad feeling better. Is he out of the hospital? I don't know if I ever mentioned, but I lived for seven years in Johnstown, PA and visited Pittsburgh often. Lots of interesting things.

Qaro said...

Ha! I'm good for the economy! : )