Most of my life, my mind has raced. While I was physically present, in my head I often was thinking about something else, half-attending, listening for what I had to sock away in short term memory while filtering many of the other signals and information that flew past my head. Way back, in first grade, my teacher reported, “I found that Betsy reads well in a second grade book, but has almost no comprehension of what she has read, so we gave this up for now.” To which my mother wrote back, “We’re reading aloud to Betsy more frequently so this may help the comprehension too. She’s had much less reading aloud than our other children. Her Dad is reading Oz books now.” (Thank heavens. Reading the L. Frank Baum series is one of the most important memories of my childhood.)
About seven years into my career, when I first began to achieve some success, a leadership styles assessment found that I was seen by others as analytical, decisive and self confident. That was the positive side of the coin. It also found that I was seen as detached, determined and independent. I was a woman on a mission, more focused on what I had to get done than building relationships.
Fast forward 17 years. Before I left corporate life, another battery of personality and leadership assessments found something quite different. According to the 16PF Fifth Edition Personal Career Development Profile (yes, that’s a thing), my personality was found to be most aligned with people who are most interested in “helping” professions, particularly counseling. “Are you interested in counseling,” the consultant asked.
“God, no,” I thought. I wouldn’t have the patience for it. But I wondered, how does someone change from “detached” to “receptive” and “attentive to others”?
Experience. Age. Or both.
I find myself doing what I often do — thinking about my Dad. Looking back on his aging process, I accelerate it in my mind until it resembles time-lapse photography, those film sequences that capture a plant as it transforms from a seed that germinates, pushes a green sprout toward the surface, shoots up toward the sky and blooms.
Memory is like that. I look back on the father of my childhood, adolescence, adulthood and now middle-age and I piece the images together until they become a narrative arc.
It was hard to get Dad’s attention when I was young. He looked distracted in most of our old photos, uncomfortable, often unsmiling. It wasn’t that he hated having his picture taken. In college snapshots, he looked relaxed and confident, maybe even a bit full of himself. In my childhood, he barely tolerated the ritual of the family photo. His mind was somewhere else.
Fast forward 70 years. Dad sat at my kitchen table savoring his coffee and the morning newspaper. When we conversed, I had his full attention.
His mind worked vastly differently in his nineties than it did in his twenties. When asked a question, he would pause for some time. In a social situation, well-meaning people might try to rescue him by filling the void with chatter.
But if you waited and watched, you could almost see his thought process. He would consider the inquiry, mentally find the correct file cabinet, and eventually the right memory. Sometimes, the answer would escape him for a while and he would say, “I’ll come get you at 2 a.m. when it comes to me.” When he stopped worrying about retrieving the sought-after tidbit, it often emerged as if by its own volition.
What would once have taken seconds took minutes, maybe even hours.
In today’s “New Old Age” column in the New York Times, Benedict Carey writes, “(T)he larger the library you have in your head, the longer it usually takes to find a particular word….” Accumulated knowledge, vocabulary and expertise, Mr. Carey reports, represent “crystallized” intelligence, which some scientists suggest actually grows over time, while “fluid” intelligence (short-term memory activities like remembering a phone number) shrinks.
I find this heartening. Every “woman of a certain age” I know complains of the annoying tip-of-the-tongue syndrome and short-term memory failures that seem to move in about the time we are finally rid of the equally annoying biological systems that plagued us from age 12 on.
This summer, I will start a Masters in Fine Arts program in creative nonfiction. Part of me is mildly terrified to engage with a group of students whose median age is likely to be under 30. No doubt their fluid minds will quickly digest the volumes of reading that come with the territory. While I try to remember them.
Dad is again my guide and mentor. His love of people — and literature — only grew as he aged. I don’t think it was just the easing of daily demands that enabled his internal life to flourish. Something happened to his patience. Something happened to his ability to savor, appreciate and feel gratitude. Something happened to his depth of understanding.
I’m praying for something like that to happen to me.
[Author’s note: One of my friends messaged this photo to me. Thanks, Kristin Warren Vandersluis!]