Short Benediction for W. S. Merwin

The poet W. S. Merwin died yesterday at the age of ninety-one.   My favorite Merwin lines come from his poem “Air” :

This must be what I wanted to be doing,
Walking at night between the two deserts,
Singing.

Think about it.  The desert we come from and the desert we are headed for.  Meanwhile, sing.

Poets are influenced by other poets, and when I read “Air” (written in 1963), I hear an earlier poem (1895) by Stephen Crane:

I walked in a desert.
And I cried,
“Ah, God, take me from this place!”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”
I cried, “Well, But —
The sand, the heat, the vacant horizon.”
A voice said, “It is no desert.”

This, by the way, was from Crane book of poetry The Black Riders,  which the poet said he liked far more than his very successful novel, The Red Badge of Courage.

But this is a homage to Merwin, who actually wrote a poem called “For the Anniversary of My Death“:

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

If you were to write a poem or a letter to commemorate the anniversary of your death, what would you say?  Here is another example from Frost’s “A Lesson for Today“:

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

And then there is this from Stevenson’s “Requiem“:

This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Go back and read Merwin and then think about the anniversary of your own death, the epitaph for your stone, a summary of your life.  But please read Merwin, who gave us words to help us sing between the deserts.

 

My Grandfather’s Clock

I had the song, “My Grandfather’s Clock,” tick-tocking in my head this morning. A metrical earworm. The ditty tells the remarkable tale of a mechanical device (which actually needs regular winding!) that lasts ninety years – it was “bought on the day” the man was born and only stopped when he died. Do you know it? It was a favorite in New England first grades and with barbershop quartets. (Johnny Cash even recorded it.) Apparently there are many verses, but here is the verse and chorus that I remember:

My grandfather’s clock was too tall for the shelf
So it stood ninety years on the floor
It was taller by half than the old man himself
But it weighed not a pennyweight more

It was bought on the morn on the day that he was born
It was always his treasure and pride
But it stopped, short, never to go again
When the old man died

This song is said to have given the name of “grandfather” to such clocks. Not sure that is true – I’m beginning to think you can find any fact you want on the internet (as well as its contradiction). But it seems to have been written by Henry Clay Work – an American who heard a similar story when he visited an English pub in North Yorkshire.

Anyway, the timepiece went on “like clockwork,” only being asked to be wound every night (the old version of recharging), and kept perfect time for the duration of the old man’s life. What do we oldsters possess which has served us all or most of our whole lives? Surely nothing mechanical, I would guess. How many radios, cars, televisions, alarm clocks, have we gone through? Technology may be laboring to extend the life of humans, but machinery/equipment is expendable. And more and more so. If its obsolescence isn’t built into its very design, it is soon deemed outmoded by “better” technology that we surely much have to keep up with. And don’t try to get parts for a thirty-year old oven. (The EU, as well as some states, is actually considering legislation to make appliances last longer and be easier to repair.)

And then there is the Marie Kondo craze, spreading the credo to ditch most of our “stuff” and keep only those things we love, the things that spark joy. The result has been a bonanza for thrift shops and Salvation Army stores as people unload their accumulations – and how long before it is replaced? Do we also take the advice to love and take better care of what we have already? And not to abandon it for the newest version or fad?

People my age who are beginning to think about down-sizing or moving to an old age holding station (let’s call it what it is) all have one complaint – they have too much stuff. And, often, the stuff they prize – grandma’s china, Aunt Ruth’s silver, the gigantic wardrobe that’s been in the family for years – no one in the family wants. Who would polish silver these days when it could be melted down to buy a new iPhone?

What does this mean about how we view our environments? Does cultural disposability as it relates to our objects somehow also seep into the way we treat the world around us – our environment, other people? Just a question to ponder. The grandfather clock was dependable and long-lived because it was well and durably made, but it was also reliable because its owner remembered to wind it every night. And to oil and polish it occasionally. To pay attention to it. And deeply appreciate it.

Anyway, writing this post has finally gotten the song out of my head. If you want to read a piece of my fiction about one woman’s attachment to her chiming clock (and other things), try “Playing by Ear.”

Ripeness and Readiness

In an essay on “Late Style in Beethoven,” the philosopher Theodor Adorno starts out with this comparison of old age and fruit:

The maturity of the late works of significant artists does not resemble the kind one finds in fruit. They are, for the most part, not round, but furrowed, even ravaged. Devoid of sweetness, bitter and spiny, they do not surrender themselves to mere delectation… and they show more traces of history than growth.

Putting aside the specific discussion of “late” creativity (a subject I will come back to in a future blog, surely citing Adorno’s essay, Edward Said’s On Late Style, and the fascinating Old Masters and Young Geniuses by David Galenson), I am more interested in the simile presented, comparing age to ripe fruit. It is a trope often used; Cicero repeatedly compares old age to ripeness (maturitas). But, in true old age, our fruit is beyond its peak (as much as we would like to think otherwise). It is often dry, withered. It might even start to ferment.

Shakespeare considered the issue of ripeness and indirectly compared it with readiness. In Hamlet (surely the story of the tragedy of youth) and King Lear (a tragedy of old age), in precisely the same point near the end of the play (Act V ii in both cases), we are faced with the conclusion that either readiness is all or ripeness is all. First (in 1603 or thereabouts) we hear the young Dane:

HAMLET: We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.

Readiness connotes preparation, and a proactive stance toward a situation. Hamlet may dawdle, but he finally is ready to do something. He has agency over the readiness.

In Lear (five or six years later), it is not the title character that proclaims that ripeness is all, but Edgar, talking to his blinded and despairing father Gloucester:

GLOUCESTER:  No farther, sir; a man may rot even here.

EDGAR:  What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure
Their going hence, even as their coming thither;
Ripeness is all: come on.

GLOUCESTER:  And that’s true too.

Men must endure their going hence, even as their coming thither. This is interesting, because (like many of us I would guess) my young “going hence” was even more angst-ridden than my late life “coming thither.” In the scene above, Gloucester wants to go no farther: A man may rot even here. Surely we will grow old wherever we are and, yet, his son encourages him to keep going. And the paradox is that Gloucester, poor blind, disillusioned Gloucester, recognizes that both things are true. And that’s true too. We must age and yet we must go on. It is of note here that when Nahum Tate bowdlerized the Bard to produce an upbeat version of Lear in 1681, it was Tate’s happier version that ran almost steadily until 1838. And in Tate’s unauthorized edit, the line about ripeness just disappears. Apparently, we are more willing to accept the demands of readiness than the inevitabilities of ripeness.

Yves Bonnefoy writes that ripeness and readiness are “the two irreducible attitudes. One the quintessence of the world’s order, the unity of which one seems to breathe; the other, the reverse of that order….” Ripeness connotes a passive passage of time; readiness signals a capacity for action. And, as Gloucester says, both are true. However, the readiness of old age has to be in the context of ripeness, even over-ripeness or decay. There were only five or six years between the writing of Hamlet and the appearance of Lear. Both are tragedies. Both examine a portion of the arc of life – one going up and one coming down. And both have something to teach us, perhaps, about balancing action with acceptance.

For many years, I attended a Great Books week in the summer; we read six works in advance and discussed them with the same group over six days. It was terrific and I would heartily recommend it. At one point I tried writing a novel about the experience – but after a few hundred pages, I did not think it was worth completing. I did, however, complete a chapter in which the group discussed King Lear; I attach a draft here. If you haven’t read the original lately, you might want to revisit the story of an old person who thought he had it figured out.

Baby New Year and Old Father Time

Happy New Year! The time of year prompted me to consider the image we have of an old man for the old year and a baby for the new year. The old man of the lapsing year often is conflated with the “grim reaper,” making him more than a little threatening. But generally, the ancient one (and he has gotten so old in only one year!) is just handing off a lantern or an hour glass to the babe with the admonition, perhaps, to make the most of the new life, the new year. As the light gets stronger and the days get longer, everything seems to renew. Soon the sap will be rising.

And we are swept up in it in this rebirth of the year. All us old people are making resolutions, showing up at the gym (this is always the most crowded time of year for exercise facilities and doubtless good intentions are very profitable), going on a diet, enrolling in a conversational Spanish class or some other vehicle of self-improvement, and yet – we are still old. The year is new, but we still need that cataract surgery, our arthritis still aches. Nature recycles through the seasons, but as individuals we – get old. The media tells us today is the first day of the rest of our life (and this is surely true enough), and yet we enter into it with the old body, the baggage of memory, and the parameters of circumstance. None of that changes as the year rolls over and the old man hands the lantern to a baby new year.

We want it to be otherwise. Psalm 103 tells the faithful that “[the Lord] satisfies you with good as long as you live, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” As in the image of the new baby and the old year above, I got to thinking about what this promise really meant. The eagle appears approximately 34 times in the Bible and is often associated with renewing strength. One remembers the emotional passage from Chariots of Fire, when the Olympic runner Eric Liddell, who refused to run on Sunday, reads to his audience from Isaiah 40: “But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.”

Apparently the eagle was thought to actually be able to renew itself; the persistent legend is that at about age 50, the eagle can make a decision to fly to a special mountain where its beak, talons and feathers renew themselves after about 5 months. Certainly a five month hiatus for most fifty-year-old humans would renew some of us, so maybe we can take something from that. But the eagle thus allegedly garners another 10-20 years of life. Birders and scientists say the legend is not true, but eagles do often go through a severe molting at about five years and can look pretty scruffy for a while – until their new feathers come in and they are “renewed.” Many think that is the source of the legend. In any case, there it sits in the Bible to inspire us to a new birth, to renewal.

None of this is new. Man from time immemorial has complained that Nature renews itself in ways that the individual man cannot. (I know, I know, the scientists are working on it!). Hopkins complained on a spring day that:

See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build—but not I build; no, but strain,
Time’s eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.

We get reprieves. Good doctors replace our hips, we recover from illness; good fortune gives us a better day now and then. But our bodies are not a renewable resource in the long run. (A lesson often learned too late, as some of what we suffer in old age is the result of youthful mismanagement of this precious resource.) Hopkins ends his poem with a plea for renewal of another sort. “Send my roots rain” he pleads.

In an earlier post, I wrote about “Second Growth,” quoting from Emerson’s journal about Thoreau’s observations that “men may have two growths like pear trees.” But the growth in pear trees is physical; any second (or third) growth human beings have has to be mental, spiritual. And this growth is within the old body; with this dichotomy there must be some sort of conciliation.

This is also the season of Epiphany. (See my story by that title in this month’s fiction. It is a little sentimental, but it is a Christmas story, after all.) In depictions of adoration of the magi, artists from Fra Angelico to Rubens often portrayed the wise men as of different ages: young, middle-aged and old. According to the apocryphal legends, the oldest was Melchior, Balthazar was in the middle, and the youngest magus was Caspar. Apparently, epiphanies are possible at any age.

Perhaps the best we can do is to follow the advice of Andre Gide: “Know that joy is rarer, more difficult, and more beautiful than sadness. Once you make this all-important discovery, you must embrace joy as a moral obligation.”  Perhaps the reconciliation of body and soul involves the willingness to accept the moral obligation of joy, even in diminished circumstances. Meanwhile we, with Hopkins, pray for sustenance for our roots.

Becoming and De-becoming

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been hobbled with a broken foot. I was carrying on quite well (perhaps too well) until I went to what I thought would be my last appointment with the orthopedist – looking forward to leaving the office with my cumbersome boot under my arm and destined for the trash bin. Instead, I was told that my foot hadn’t healed; we would have to give it at least another month and see what was happening. I did not take it well.

It is true that I have osteoporosis. I take calcium, eat a ton of yogurt, and exercise regularly, but my genes and my age have caught up with me. My body is breaking down and taking longer to repair itself. Eventually, of course, it will be beyond repair (some might say that it has already gotten to that point). In the course of my daily meditation, I repeat the five recollections (Upajjhatthana Sutta), the second of which is “I have a body which is subject to aging and decay; I am not beyond aging and decay.” I have been repeating these words for years, but somehow I don’t seem to want to believe them. None of us does. And yet, none of us is beyond aging and decay.

I have referenced Hermann Hesse’s Hymn to Old Age before, and I recommend it heartily. There was a critical article about Hesse in a recent New Yorker – even the title was negative: “Herman Hesse’s Arrested Development.” Hesse did try to catch the soul of the young, and this review emphasizes such works as Demian and Siddhartha, but neglects The Glass Bead Game – or, more accurately, points to it only in that it includes young men living celibate lives in perpetual school. Unfair, I think. Hesse wrote prose and poetry into his old age; The Glass Bead Game (particularly cited when Hesse was awarded the Nobel Prize) was published when he was in his sixties and has much to say about being old and being young. The compendium of his words in and about old age which I reference above is a treasure.

In any case, Hesse has this to say about the process of “de-becoming” – a term I have come to appreciate:

For the task, desire and duty of youth is to become, and the task of the old man is to surrender himself or, as German mystics used to call it, ‘to de-become.’ One must first be a full person, a real personality, and one must have undergone the sufferings of this individualization before one can make the sacrifice of his personality.

And this, again, reminds me of Buddhism, where “becoming” is not always a good thing, while Nibbana or “extinction” of desire is indeed to be wished for. Bhikkhu Bodhi, a great Buddhist scholar and translator puts it like this:

In the end he must choose between the way that leads back into the world, to the round of becoming, and the way that leads out of the world, to Nibbana. And though this last course is extremely difficult and demanding, the voice of the Buddha speaks words of assurance confirming that it can be done, that it lies within man’s power to overcome all barriers and to triumph even over death itself.

Like it or not, as we age we are “de-becoming” what we used to be – body and mind. It is a sacrifice that we make whether we do so willingly or not. But perhaps the measure of a Hesse’s “full person” is that one can surrender willingly, even joyfully. I have not gotten there yet, but the forces of nature are working on me.

This week’s piece of fiction (“May 12, 2036”) is an exercise based on Jorge Borges’ short story “August 25, 1983,” wherein the great Argentinian writer imagines meeting himself in the future on his own deathbed. (He died in 1986, so was off by three years.) It is an intriguing story and a good model. Read my story if you like, but please do read the Borges. And try the exercise yourself.

Narratives of Old Age

Are real people fictions? We mostly understand ourselves through an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others. The so-called facts of our individual worlds are highly coloured and arbitrary, facts that fit whatever fiction we have chosen to believe in. It is necessary to have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day, but what happens when the story becomes a scripture? When we can no longer recognise anything outside our own reality? – from Jeannette Winterson’s Art Objects

Jeannette Winterson correctly points out that it is necessary to “have a story, an alibi that gets us through the day.” We all have narratives that we tell ourselves, for which we provide mental commentary as we move through our days. But what happens when our stories veer from reality? What happens when they become “scripture” for our consciousness, leaving no room for change or adaptation? And what happens when we get old?

What kind of story do we tell ourselves about getting old – if we tell ourselves that story at all? We tell ourselves stories about other people getting old, but we think we are all somehow… exceptions. My mother thinks she is the only person who is not “old” in her memory care facility. “This place is full of old people” she sneers with disdain as she shuffles past her peers down the long corridors. People put off going into retirement villages, elderly housing, assisted living, because those people are so old. And we say it with the same sneer that my demented mother uses. No young people ever complain about going away to college because the people are so young. (Although would you want to move into a dorm again with a gaggle of eighteen-year-olds?)

It is of great note that people of a certain age always claim to feel like they are younger than they are. A favorite conversation topic is divulging with our peers what age we feel like inside – 20? 15? 35? Surely not our real age – not 67 or 75 or 82. We think there is something wrong with our skin, our bones, our hearing because it is not what it used to be and because it does not match our mental image of ourselves. Sometimes I wonder if there is an acceptable story about getting old.

Jeannette Winterson says that we understand each other through “an endless series of stories told to ourselves by ourselves and others.” In our culture, the stories of old age we absorb from others are mostly stories of denial or hostility. “You’re only as old as you feel.” “Do not go gentle into that good night.” But here we sit with our old bodies and our minds that sometimes can’t remember the name of that woman across the street.

Virginia Woolf (who never got very old herself) demands an acknowledgment of the “great wars which the body wages with the mind.”  Woolf concedes that such honesty will not be easy: “To look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer; a robust philosophy; a reason rooted in the bowels of the earth.” Woolf also acknowledges that age itself changes our perception of the entire world: “If you are young, the future lies upon the present, like a piece of glass, making it tremble and quiver. If you are old, the past lies upon the present, like a thick glass, making it waver, distorting it.” Is age itself distorting our ability to tell ourselves a real story, a meaningful story?

What would a true and helpful story of old age be? Would a more reasonable narrative of the body’s weaknesses save us from the wasted energy of railing against every demonstration of those very debilities? (I am currently hobbling around in an orthopedic boot protecting a broken foot. It is temporary, but trying my patience and my story about being fit and active – but more on this next time.) If we could get past disdain, would we find some value in old age – a refuge, perhaps, from the competitions and expectations of our youth? Again, I ask all of us (old or young), what is our narrative of old age? And where did it come from? Other people? From our younger selves? Are we brave enough to tell a new story?

And while we are at it, we might also examine the story of the past. Old age is a time (and often has time) for reflection. Does our past match the story we were living at the time? There are still lessons to be learned.

This week’s story is “Playing by Ear,” about the stories we absorb through our auditory functions. Think about it.

Eden

Many dementia patients – including my mother – revert to the past. In my mother’s case, she escapes to a time before she had a husband or children. Experts in dementia say that age eighteen or nineteen is often where such patients end up. She looks for her parents, for houses and gardens she lived in long ago. Wonderful places. Gardens of Eden where she has no worries, where there is no shame or aging or death. And perhaps we are all looking for such a place. Perhaps we are all trying to return to Eden.

Before the era of progress, all of western culture looked back to Eden. Man had degenerated from the original Eden, from the original Golden Age. And so had the earth. Erosion of mountain peaks and the shortening of the life span from the amazing Biblical ages pointed to a world in the state of slow but continual degeneration. But then, somewhere along the line, we started to look forward rather than back as a civilization. The shift on the macro level, however, has not seemed to make a difference to the old demented person who is sure that her mother is waiting for her somewhere with a bowl of warm tapioca pudding.

Admit it. We all do a little of this backward-looking – we all remember Christmases that had a special glow or a magical childhood hiding place. We all, sometimes, want to return to Eden. But it can’t be done – or at least not easily. James Baldwin put it best:

Perhaps everybody has a garden of Eden. I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or: it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both – Giovanni’s Room.

In order to go back, one has to toss aside all that has been accumulated through the years. Renounce it. Religions say that this is one way to come to fulfillment:

The purpose of all valid spiritual disciplines, whatever the religion from which they spring, is to enable us to return to this native state of being – not after death but here and now, in unbroken awareness of the divinity within us and throughout creation… that state, is the Eden to which the long journey of spiritual seeking leads…. (E. Easwaren)

And some say that to grow up, we must leave Never-never Land behind us. In the old and confused, though, it is perhaps a safe haven. They go back to what doctors sometimes call a “reminiscence bump” from earlier life. Faced with physical and mental infirmity, the specter of death and the loss of a familiar world, these elders can go back in their minds to the haven of their youth. And perhaps we should be glad they can.

Where (and when) was your Eden? And have you tried to get it back through effort and acquisition (buying a house like the one you grew up in) or by renunciation? Have you forgotten it? Or are you one of Baldwin’s heroes who can acknowledge it and yet move on?

The story for this week (“Back to the Garden“) is not about elders, but it is about those who are facing the end and the garden where things start and things stop. It is also a tribute to Joni Mitchell and her exhortation in “Woodstock”: “We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”