This is one of those rare books that had me in tears one moment and laughing out loud the next. Susan Moon is a marvelous writer with a great sense of humor and deep insight into life. She’s also a longtime Zen student and now a Zen teacher, a grandmother, a photographer, a writing teacher and the former editor for many years of Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. This collection of personal stories juxtaposes her own aging with the death of her mother and the birth of her first grandchild. Woven into all of this rich material is an inquiry into the larger questions of life and death, identity and wholeness, and what it means to be a human being.
“I was never planning to get old myself,” the author writes. “I was hoping to live through plenty more birthdays, but I wasn’t planning on getting eroded in the process.” But sure enough, erosion happens. Moon beautifully captures the experience of aging without either denying or wallowing in the hard parts. “It’s a constant process,” she says, “letting go of what you can no longer do, and stretching yourself to do what you can.”
She goes backpacking in the Sierras, takes a hip-hop dance class, stays alone in a remote cabin, dyes her hair bright red. One day she and her granddaughter Paloma are “taking a walk around the block to look for ladybugs,” and Paloma in all innocence adopts “a stiff-legged gait, not bending her knees at all,” and then says, “Look Grandma, I’m walking like you.” At first the grandmother is taken aback: “Was my stiff old walk really that obvious?” But then she sees herself anew through the fresh eyes of a child, realizing that “as far as Paloma was concerned, there was nothing wrong with it; it was just my way of walking.”
Moon captures the uncertainty and terror of growing old. She writes about losing her vision and facing the possibility of going blind as her father did from detached retinas, a partly genetic condition. She finds her way through all of this with wisdom, humor and acceptance. She also has the courage to expose and write about her own doubts, uncertainties and struggles with loneliness. She even includes a piece about her experience some years back with serious depression. It is rare to find a mature student or teacher who will talk openly about such experiences, and I am grateful for those who take the risk. There are so many false ideas floating around about depression, such as “if only one would meditate enough, it would go away.” But for Moon, meditation actually seems to make it worse. Through this struggle with depression, she finds her way to a form of practice that works for her.
One of the most powerful chapters in the book is the unflinching account of the death of her mother. At the age of eighty-four and nowhere near death yet, Moon’s mother, Alice, is in a car accident in Chicago. She ends up in the ICU with a breathing tube, conscious but heavily sedated. Moon perfectly captures every nuance of this situation, the rawness of old age and death. Of her mother’s death, Moon writes: “She birthed me twice: the first time when I was born, and the second when she died.”
The author is an elder now herself, on her own. Her parents are gone, her children are grown, she doesn’t have the life partner she has always longed for, and yet, she is “alone with everyone” and “completely held” by the entire universe.
Susan Moon’s writing has an intimacy, an aliveness, that I very much love. I was there with her on every page. I felt completely let in to her world, the beautiful parts and the dark shadows. I highly recommend this book to readers of all ages; and for those of us over the age of sixty, this book will be a true friend on the final adventure.