Mary Metzger – An American Babushka in Moscow: On Arriving at One’s Otherness.

Tai Chi photo
Photo by llee_wu cc

If there were an adjective that would describe my personality for most of my life it would be “intense”. My old grandmother who raised me dealt with it by letting me explode out the door with the dog and cat in the morning, and then sitting or standing nearby watching me as I ran across the fields and through the woods all day. Sometime just before sunset she would bring me in. She treated me with a saint’s patience and a calmness that was the essence of her being. “It’s nothing. It’s nothing,” was the mantra she repeated to me when my world went askew. I don’t know what the effects on me would have been if I had been raised by another person in another way.

Almost from the moment I arrived at school my teachers began telling my grandmother that I had something wrong with me; I was just a little too “high strung”. I was what might be called an electrified child. As no one had yet discovered “hyperactivity disorder” I was instead diagnosed as having St. Vitas Dance, a medieval term for a condition in which the patient twitched and fidgeted. My grandmother knew very little English and so she sent her daughters down to talk with the teachers. My Aunts listened patiently and then told my teachers “There is absolutely nothing wrong with her.” My grandmother’s girls were astounded by the fact that anyone should even suggest that there was something wrong with me. Somewhere along the way my teachers, disregarding the fact that I didn’t speak English at home, decided I was also “mentally retarded” and ignored me. And so, I ran – ran in circles in the house when the weather was too bad to run the fields, and shook with excitement when I discovered something new, and trembled with rage when I was frustrated, and was mostly exquisitely happy.

But it was all that intensity, all that energy that gave me an advantage in life: If I could not sit still, I could and did play sports all day long. I was a good athlete. It turned out I wasn’t retarded; in fact, once I learned English, I was quite good with words, and all that physical intensity turned out to have an intellectual component. Filled with intense feelings I wrote moving essays, overcome with passion I wrote poetry, stimulated by ideas I became an intellectual. When it came time to work…I worked tirelessly….took tremendous joy in doing whatever it was I was doing. I had boundless energy to share with my children, my love was ferocious, my passion did burn.

And as I became old, I watched the energy drain out of the lives of my friends; as they slower and lazier, I continued to bounce along in my hyperactive way. Although I did not have the energy I once had, I still had more than enough to write and work and clean house and cook and travel around the world. Well into my fifties I still did sixty hours of physical work a day in my business, at sixty I continued to hit the clubs and dance into the wee hours of the morning; at 70 I could say I had visited fifty foreign countries. By 71, I had enough free time to write and lecture, and began to publish.

And then at 72, I took up Tai Chi. The Tai Chi I studied was not the slow, rolling motion Tai Chi that one sees elderly Chinese citizens doing in large groups in videos about life in China. It was a more physically demanding Tai Chi using swords and fans, poles and paddles. Warrior training. Physically, it was the best thing I ever did for my health in my old age. The aches and pains from old injuries disappeared, my gait improved, my speed and range of motion increased, and I could keep on moving along in life.

But in the process, psychological changes began to happen. I don’t know how else to explain it save to say, I began to disengage from life. The more I did Tai Chi, the more I wanted to do it, and the more physical I became, the less “intensity” poured out of me. Everything appeared to mute. Even though my lectures seemed to have the same influence on people, I did not feel the same energy when I gave them. What I had to say seemed not so important. When I wrote political pieces they were well received, but I found myself quite distant emotionally from both my topic and my audience. Whereas before when I was in love, the intensity of that love would move me to write fierce poems. Now, my love poems are so calm, the love in them a soft slow caress. The emotion I feel when I write them is close to kindness. The greatest reward I glean from my love is simply the sight of the other person.

In the past, when I achieved something, I reveled in my achievement. I wanted to crow. I still have “achievements” – publications, invitations to speak, students who access great achievements because of my teaching, but none of this really seems to matter much. I think myself foolish to regard them as achievements to begin with. I feel how small, how inconsequential I am, and it makes no difference to me.

I feel myself more and more each day, pulling away from life. I feel as if the strings that bind me to this world are being cut. My connection to my ego is weak. My connection to others is simpler. I am neither happy nor unhappy. As my grandmother once said, I now say to myself, not to calm myself down, but because I know it to be true: “It’s nothing”. Really, it’s all nothing.

I am a trained philosopher and hence know better than to fall prey to what Hume called a “spurious assumption” – the human psychological propensity to pass from what one perceives as an effect to the idea of its cause; Just because b follows a, does not mean that a caused b. Both my increased practice of Tai Chi and the loss of my emotional intensity could have been caused by other things. But really, whatever caused me to lose the intensity that has been the hallmark of my life doesn’t matter much. It has happened and, as much as I miss my old self, which was so emotionally entangled with the world, there is a great deal to be said for arriving at the understanding that it was all really nothing. It is not only not such a bad thing to become the opposite of one’s self, it is quite in keeping with dialectical logic.

Mary Metzger is a 72 year old retired teacher who has lived in Moscow for the past ten years. She studied Women’s Studies under Barbara Eherenreich and Deidre English at S.U.N.Y. Old Westerbury. She did her graduate work at New York University under Bertell Ollman where she studied Marx, Hegel and the Dialectic. She went on to teach at Kean University, Rutgers University, N.Y.U., and most recenly, at The Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology where she taught the Philosophy of Science. Her particular area of interest is the dialectic of nature, and she is currently working on a history of the dialectic. She is the mother of three, the gradmother of five, and the great grandmother of 2.


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