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  • Karl Thunemann

The Lesser Pea in this Pod

In a dim room, you might mistake them for siblings. They must be related, but only distantly. Nevertheless, some thesaurus editors see fit to list them as synonyms. I have to wonder what those editors have been smoking.

I wonder what I have been smoking. This epistle means to be all about impermanence. And yet that oh-so-close relative, mortality, repeatedly muscles onto the stage. As we get older, it gets worse. In the co-op where I live, we have a group called Being Mortal, inspired by the book of the same name. Consider some other synonyms. No one has thought of starting a group that might be called On Being Evanescent. As its meaning is “tending to vanish like vapor,” that might be a good group for Taoists, given the Tao’s affinity for mist. Perhaps a good way to put lipstick on impermanence. How about this group—On Being Ephemeral? I don’t think so. Something about this word stinks of the dismissive. Do we want to wrap ourselves in this particular cloak? I think not.

But sigh, I have escaped the temptation to start this epistle with a presentation of my credentials for discussing mortality, which are pretty damn good. Nice sidestep, Karl. Now I must turn away from my friends at Merriam Webster and talk about Impermanence—oh, please, let’s do make that lower case—okay, impermanence.

The Buddhists are all about impermanence, but the rest of us—even those who follow Buddhist authors—are not so focused. Yes, as the Buddhist say, we won’t take anything with us. But we tend to shrug it off. Oh, yeah, impermanence, as if it were so baked in we can scarcely taste it.

Did I even think about impermanence before the corps of specialists at the regional county hospital diagnosed me with mild cognitive impairment? That was a little more than two years ago, and the process of evaluation prompted me to pay attention. My memory was not merely slipping: it had turned ephemeral, galloping away as if on steroids. By the time I went in for neuropsychological testing, I had decided to start this blog. I brought a copy of my first entry along to the appointment, hoping it would be read and I would be seen as a person. The psychologist read it and said he liked it. He even said he recalled speaking to me years earlier when he called the Alzheimer’s Association with some question and I took the call. Ah, in those days I had an excellent memory! But of course I could not remember that call. Even now, I cannot summon his name. I felt I flunked the neuro tests, but the doctor refused to go there. I still had strengths, not simply weaknesses.

Did I even think about impermanence before the corps of specialists at the regional county hospital diagnosed me with mild cognitive impairment? That was a little more than two years ago …. My memory was not merely slipping: it had turned ephemeral, galloping away as if on steroids.

Time to pause here and hazard a comparison of mortality and impermanence. I grant that mortality is a process, but it comes to a climax with an exclamation mark. Poof! You were here a moment ago, and now you have vanished. Let’s set aside an afterlife or reincarnation, as they cloud the obvious with complications. Impermanence is far subtler. You were here yesterday. Today you look the same, but may be weaker, slower, more likely to experience incontinence. Is it just a bad day, or an ominous trend on a graph? Most of the time you can set these worries aside and make up a mantra as a sort of consolation. Life is still good. But when impermanence occludes something we value—say our vocabulary and facility with words—it stops being part of the wallpaper. First we try reining it in, but if that does not work, we try to accept impermanence as part of the status quo. *

It ushers itself in by degrees. Unless, of course, you have a stroke or heart attack. These are what we call game changers. Nearly everyone I know has the frequent experience of entering a room and suddenly wondering, Why did I come into the room? The other day I walked into a room and felt a difference in this familiar twinge. What was I after? Turned out it was not even in this room, but in another. This is one reason small apartments are best.

I took nearly two years to get this blog online, but in that interim I was writing posts almost as if I were back to writing daily editorials. That was thirty years ago! I seemed to have found a new literary niche. And I found new ways to deploy my memory. Once the blog was launched and the deadlines rolled forth, somehow I found it easy to write new epistles. I knew what to do, even if I found myself doing it in the middle of the night. And then—

Suddenly I hit a roadblock. I was already thinking about impermanence, but in a theoretical way. My confidantes raised questions about a couple of draft epistles, and I wasn’t sure how to respond. I had to set them aside. For one thing, I grasped that my friends were being critical, but I could not recoup what exactly they suggested as a tonic. I went on a walkabout. I wasn’t sure what week it was, and I missed a deadline. A self-imposed deadline, but still galling.

And I had to admit this feeling was not as new as it seemed. As I started the blog, a doubt nagged at me—unarticulated at first, but nevertheless present—that the blog would not prove a permanent solution. I tried to fool myself with elaborate perambulations. The medium of a blog was less likely to overwhelm my diminishing capabilities. I was lowering my sights. Surely I could carry on indefinitely. But still I was slipping. At first I did not sense this difficulty in the blog itself. But it became clear when I tried to work the puzzles I had adopted to stay sharp. I kept working them, and setting them aside, unfinished.

So, what now? I have survived the walkabout. I am not intimidated by the blog. I have a lengthy list of topics that I intend to write about. I am writing one at this very moment. Tap, tap, tap. But I had better put that list in writing. In the realm of impermanence, there are few safeguards to keep things from slipping away. I think of little changes I could make to forestall the onset of disorganization. Here, Karl, be more methodical about meditation. Establish a well-defined routine, Be more conscientious about following a regimen that encourages better sleep. Find someone to help me select and monitor all the medications and supplements I am taking.

And, lest I forget, I must learn to chill. I remember the years I was working at the Alzheimer’s Association. The head office almost always sent a feed written by someone living with Alzheimer’s. Week after week, these writers would share remarkable insights into their experience. And then, inevitably, they would wind down, and disappear. They had Alzheimer’s. This was the nature of the disease. Its impermanence is a juggernaut.

I do not have dementia. I do have mild cognitive impairment, whatever that is, exactly. I can slow down and watch. Pay attention. Learn more about the nature of impermanence. And share what I learn with readers.

Just a week ago, I took notice of a remarkable maple tree outside my study, across the driveway. I was talking to a friend on the phone, not poring over the computer. This tree is not large, but on this particular day it was refulgent with the glories of autumn. It had mass, a brilliant yellow tinged with red. Every leaf seemed sharply defined. When I looked at it in the afternoon, the effect had changed, subtly, but it was on the other side of its peak. And every day it slips a bit further. A great mass of its leaves litters the ground below. I can see through it now. Its mass has become ephemeral.

I have lived here for seven years, and this is the first time I have truly observed this tree. I attribute that to the pandemic and social distancing. I sit in my room talking to friends I haven’t seen in months, talking and looking outside at the tree. What could I learn from this tree? It knows how to hang loose with impermanence. Of course it is cyclical, whereas to my eye, impermanence is more like a one-way slide into oblivion. Still, may I learn to emulate this tree, taking one step at a time.


*My principal reader bristles when she sees me writing about “you” and “we” instead of addressing “me.” We are not all the same, she points out. I agree. Writing about you and we when I could or should be writing about me is one of my distinctions.

† The morning I finished this epistle, I sat down to work the Ken-Ken puzzle that appears in the Seattle Times. It had been suggested by a doctor after I complained that I didn’t care for the website she had recommended, Once I learned to do the “hard” puzzle, it became a staple of my belief that I was resisting the inevitable decline of my brain. This went on for more than a year until this facility gradually waned and disappeared. But on this morning, I solved rather quickly. I resolved to come back the next day to establish a new trend. But my capacity had dissolved. I quickly got lost in the puzzle, and could not find a solution. Still, I think I will keep trying.

BLOGGER’S NOTE: This epistle comes with a companion piece, “Lunching with Miss Otis.”


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