Last Poems

In my old age, I am interested in those who have entered this territory before me.  I want to know what they were thinking as they approached the end of their lives.  I have always taken a lively interest in looking up how old a poet or novelist was when they produced a work I am impressed with (thank you Wikipedia!).  But I am especially keen to scout out last poems – particularly when the poet lived long.  Or at least to my age.

We do, of course, have the last poems of shorter-lived people like John Keats, Robert Louis Stevenson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or Rupert Brooke.   But I want to hear what poets have to say after a long life.  There are some collections to look at in this regard (like Harold Bloom’s Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, which is excellent), but the real joy is to ferret them out yourselves.  If you have a beloved poet or novelist, read what they wrote in their old age.  I will discuss last novels in another blog, but last poems are interesting enough to keep you going for a while.

In fact, more than a few novelists turned to poetry in their old age. Thomas Hardy gave up writing novels after the bad reception of Jude the Obscure –  George Eliot  did the same thing when her reading public spurned the remarkable (and recommended) Daniel Deronda.  And there are some poets that turned to religion in their old age – T.S. Eliot, W. H. Auden and Siegfried Sassoon come to mind.

But in looking at poets who have meant much to me over the years, I am particularly taken by those last poems that seem to say that, old and wise as they may have become, the poet has never found the answers – but seems to have found the ability to hold the unknown with great equanimity.  Denise Levertov’s final book of poetry (published after she died at age 74) is entitled The Great Unknowing: Last Poems.   The great unknowing…   And in it we find “Ancient Stairway”:

Footsteps like water hollow

the broad curves of stone

ascending, descending

century by century.

Who can say if the last

to climb these stairs

will be journeying

downward or upward?

“Who can say”?  Clearly no answers, but some comfort in the hollowing of footsteps.  I once worked at a college which occupied the old Springfield Armory buildings – in the wood floors were foot-shaped depressions where operators had stood at wood and metal lathes making rifles for decade after decade.  I would stand in those footprints and take a strange comfort in wondering about the dimensions of a life that went before me and in whose vacancy I was now abiding.

Among Robert Frost’s last poems is “In a Glass of Cider”:

It seemed I was a mite of sediment

That waited for the bottom to ferment

So I could catch a bubble in ascent.

I rode up on one till the bubble burst,

And when that left me to sink back reversed

I was no worse off than I was at first.

I’d catch another bubble if I waited.

The thing was to get now and then elated.

Frost is not wondering about whether we are ascending or descending, he is sure we are doing both all of the time, and only hopes that we “get now and then elated.”  There are no answers for Frost either, as noted in a couplet he wrote in his old age entitled “An Answer”:

But Islands of the Blessèd, bless you, son,

I never came upon a blessèd one.

 

This, by the way, is not a new sentiment in old age for Frost – you will find it again and again in his early poetry (e.g. “Happiness Makes Up in Height for What It Lacks in Length”).  In the very first poem in his very first volume (“Into My Own”), he warns us that if we tracked him down after many years:

                                    They would not find me changed from him they knew –

                                    Only more sure of all I thought was true.

And then we have Thomas Hardy, another poet who says, at the end, that his views of life have not changed much.  He gives us  a poem (“He Never Expected Much”) on the occasion of his eighty-sixth birthday.  (Hardy died at 87.)   Here it is:

Well, World, you have kept faith with me,

Kept faith with me;

Upon the whole you have proved to be

Much as you said you were.

Since as a child I used to lie

Upon the leaze and watch the sky,

Never, I own, expected I

That life would all be fair.

 

‘Twas then you said, and since have said,

Times since have said,

In that mysterious voice you shed

From clouds and hills around:

“Many have loved me desperately,

Many with smooth serenity,

While some have shown contempt of me

Till they dropped underground.

 

“I do not promise overmuch,

Child; overmuch;

Just neutral-tinted haps and such,”

You said to minds like mine.

Wise warning for your credit’s sake!

Which I for one failed not to take,

And hence could stem such strain and ache

As each year might assign.

But, please look up the last poems of your favorite poet. And if you are interested in reading more about the poetry of age, you can read this prior blog post and look at my ever-growing list of poems about old age. Meanwhile, here again is “Last Things,” a story I wrote a few years ago when I was pondering what to make of the end of things.

What is the Place of Longevity?

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place.”– from Martin Luther King Jr.’s last speech

Lately, the place of longevity has been in politics.  Joseph Biden has just been elected to the presidency at age 77 (about which I am thrilled for reasons that have nothing to do with his age).  Up to this point, the oldest age at which any President had left office had been 77 (Ronald Reagan).  Over the years the median age of election to our highest office has been 55.

Joe is not the only one.  There will be a regular old folks home in the capitol.  Nancy Pelosi is 80 and Mitch McConnell is 78.  The three of them will probably hold power together over the next couple of years (barring an upset in the Georgia senate races).  What does it mean when old folks are in charge?  I am a great believer in the value of old age, but what exactly should be the place of longevity?

Most workers tend to retire in their 60’s if they can afford it.  The average age of retirement in the United States is 62, with 64% of the working population retiring between 55 and 64.  Retirement cannot be mandated (with some exceptions – the military for example). In 1978, mandatory retirement ages below 70 were made illegal; in 1986 Congress got rid of mandatory retirement ages altogether.

And I know what you’ll say: 70 is the new 60, 80 is the new 65.  Maybe.  We stay alive longer; medicine can fix our hearts, open our blood vessels, and replace our arthritic joints.  And in the old days (before the 19th century), it was deemed inappropriate to quit just because you got old.  In that era, age was not a legitimate excuse for retirement from the English House of Lords; men were not free from conscription until they were 61.  King Lear is a parable on the problems with retiring too early (or at all).  Dante condemned a Pope to Limbo because of what he called “The Great Refusal” – retiring from the papacy because of age.  Plato did not think anyone was even fit to rule until they were at least 50, and he gave no retirement age.

So, I’ve been thinking again about what it means to have the old folks in charge.  Over a decade ago, I was mulling this over as I wrote a novel (The Last Quartet) about a world where a flu (yes, indeed!) killed off everyone except the very old (who had gotten the first round of vaccinations) and the very young (babies who were born with some level of immunity).  I tried to imagine old folks raising children and building a new world from the ground up as the loss of almost all working people meant that technology and infrastructure fell apart.  (You can read a short story I wrote as an abstract for the book here.)  In my imagination, the old folks rose to the occasion; they had no choice.  And the young knew no other world, so they accepted the leadership of their extreme elders.  At least for a while.

But, back to Washington and the leadership there.   I do not have the energy that I used to have, and clearly our current leaders do not either.  More, they did not grow up in the same world as most of their constituents.  They may have wisdom (some of them surely do – others I’m not so sure), but wisdom is exercised through careful consideration and not the hectic pace of daily agendas and crises.  Aging gracefully is, in itself, a kind of wisdom.  I think of Jimmy Carter as a model of this. 

In Galenson’s wonderful book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, the author divides the more capable among us as either conceptual geniuses who do there innovative work early (think physicists) or experimentalists, whose work is the product of the slow accretion of learning, experience and reflection.  The latter group does their better work in later years.  Where does politics fit into this model?  Or, one might ask, who in politics has any time for reflection and the slow accretion of learning?

In any case, we are about to witness the oldest leadership this country has ever seen at the same time that we are living in an age when change has never been faster.  You know by now that I think the old have much to offer to those around us, that old age can be a wonderful time of life.  But there are limits.  In the daily reminders or reflections of Buddhism, there is this: It is the nature of the body to decay and grow old.   We can deny it; we can push ourselves.  We can do well within the constraints of our age.  But it is a constraint – both to ourselves and our ability to relate to those around us.  And then there is the question of why we are seeing such longevity in our leaders; it could be they feel they have much to offer, but it could also be that power is sticky and difficult to shake off.  Or to want to shake off.  But elderly they are, and we will see.  I wrote my novel as a thought experiment; we are witnessing a real experiment.

In The Last Quartet, I was also thinking about the ability of the old to pass on wisdom, rather than knowledge.  You can read the prelude to that book here, but you need to come to your own conclusions.

Air Travel During Covid and Mount Pisgah

We recently took our first flight since the pandemic started.  Not a good idea.  We are still sitting out a self-imposed quarantine period so we don’t inflict our recklessness upon the neighbors.  The trip left me with great compassion for the workers who have no choice – flight attendants, security workers, people who must travel for business.  Never a casual air passenger, this time I worried not at all about strange engine noises, but panicked as the man behind me kept clearing his throat.   I see no way they can make air travel safe.  We did what we could (practically pickling ourselves in hand sanitizer and hiding behind scarves and masks); it will be a few days before we know if it was enough.  The incubation period of Covid ends for us on Election Day.  An uneasy time in many ways.

It was not a completely abysmal experience, though.  We had not flown in a long time; I was newly awed by the view from on high.  From my window seat, I could see the contours of land brought into geometric definition by the hand of man.  I could see cars like rolling BBs and houses like sprinkled confetti among the autumn foliage.  I could see the top sides of the clouds and imagine the rain that was falling away from us rather than on us.  It gave me the long view; I thought about Moses.

We live on the edge of Pisgah National Forest, which contains Mount Pisgah.  The forest and the mountain were named for the mountain in the Bible from which Moses saw the promised land:

And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea, And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar. And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.

Moses sees the promised land but will never get there.  But seeing it seems to be enough; knowing that his people will thrive in the land of milk and honey presumably gives him solace.

Martin Luther King referenced the same Bible story in his “I Have a Dream” speech:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

These two speeches assume that while the speaker may not be around to see how things turn out, things will definitely be OK, that times on the other side of the mountain will surely be better.  We old folks are always trying to look over the top of the mountain to see what things will be like for our children and grandchildren.  For the times we will never live to see.  But what if what is on the other side of the mountain is not better; what if it is worse?  What if the view from the mountaintop fills us with fear rather than inspiration?  This is not just about politics (although that is heavy on my mind these days), but about climate change and environmental degradation, about the lack of economic opportunities for younger people, about the stranglehold of technology on the lives of us all.  I have high hopes for my grandchildren as individuals, but I tremble for the world they will live in.  Do I want to live to see that world?

One of my heroes, Leonard Cohen, died the day before the U.S. election in 2016.  Go back and listen to “Democracy.”  I remember thinking that I was glad he did not live to see America delivered to isolationism, fear, and studied ignorance of both the scientific and the moral.  I am eager to see what happens next in the world; to resume life after the enforced quiet of the pandemic.  But do I really want to see what is on the other side of the mountain?  Can I really believe the long view is better?  Much hinges on this election – including the view from the mountain.  Moses was reassured by God; Martin Luther King was inspired by the progress already made.  I want to be reassured and inspired.  I want the view to be comforting.  I want to end my life believing that things are getting better. 

My husband and I climbed Mount Pisgah a few times after we moved to North Carolina five years ago.  I must admit that the wooded slopes of the milder climate here do not give the panoramic views we used to get from the bald tops of New England favorites like Mount Monadnock.  And I am getting older.  The last time we reached the peak of Pisgah, I realized that although I can go long distances on gentler slopes, the scramble up is getting too much for me.  So I am probably never going to see that view again.

And I will probably not see the Promised Land.   When I was young, it looked like things were getting better.  Civil rights were being granted, women were welcome in more places and professions than ever before, the rivers were actually getting cleaner.  I came into this life on a hopeful note.  I pray that I can go out that way.

This week’s fiction, “Going Down is the Most Dangerous Part,” takes place on Mount Monadnock.  Enjoy.

Some (Unspoken) Thoughts About Old Folks and Reading Aloud

I recently read an article about the value of reading aloud for memory.  For both children and old folks, material listened to was retained better than text read silently; words we read aloud to ourselves were even more likely to be retained then words read to us.  Old people in particular benefit from this differential, retaining about 20% more when reading aloud.

In the beginning, almost everyone read out loud. (By the way, aloud is the formal and proper term; out loud, however, has come into common use and is apparently here to stay.)  “Listen to this tablet” said the writer of a message inscribed in clay.  The first real record we have about reading silently comes from Augustine, who described how singular it was that Saint Ambrose read without moving his lips.

When written literature was in short supply or only a minority of people were literate, much reading aloud imparted the content of books, newspapers, and pamphlets.  Many 18th century books were largely read aloud by family groups around the fire in the evening.  Now, of course, almost all adult reading is done silently.   We lost something.

Human culture started with an oral tradition, and old folks have been particularly affected over the ages by the shift from an oral tradition to widespread literacy. Before general literacy and availability of books, older people were more valued for their experience and history.  How to plant the crops or tend a baby was information that we got orally (and sometimes loudly) from people who had done it before.  I remember my own grandmother taking umbrage at my mother’s attachment to Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care – which contained advice that did not always jive with earlier custom.  My mother stuck to Dr. Spock; I wonder if my grandmother felt less valued. 

Also, when literacy did start to take off in the eighteenth century, it was usually the young who learned their letters first.  This often meant that offspring of the household – the children and grandchildren – could read the new broadsides and chapbooks that their elders could not decipher.  We could imagine that, instead of tales told around the hearth by the oldest member of the group (the member with the longest memory and the most to “tell”), the literate were now reading to the illiterate.   Imagine a grandmother having to rely on a grandchild to write her will or to read to her the latest popular broadsheet.  We might think of the relation between young and old these days in relation to technology.  Who hasn’t relied on a younger member of the family to set up their computer or teach them how to stream a movie?  But also, who of my generation does not remember the joys of being read to by Nana or Grandpa, in those days before competition from TV’s and iPads?

Reading aloud is akin to thinking aloud, and we all know the value of spoken thought in clarifying our minds.  Often, I can ponder a problem or decision mentally for weeks without coming to any conclusion.  What helps most at that point is a long talk with a trusted listener.  There is something about having to frame the issue in communicable terms and tones that illuminates the question in ways that unexpressed thought cannot.  Of course, writing about such things help too, but you lose the ability to use vocal inflections and to monitor the facial responses of the person listening.  You need a really good listener to do this well, and when that is not readily available, writing and then reading one’s words aloud to yourself (or your cat) is the next best thing.

 Confession, too, seems to work better when it is spoken.  There is something about putting the words out in the world that helps to dissipate them.  Churches now often have a scripted group confession prayer that is intoned in unison by the congregation.  While this is somewhat purgative, it does not force us to enumerate and enunciate our specific failings.  Perhaps they shouldn’t have gotten rid of those confessional stalls.

There are other benefits of reading aloud.  For one thing, it precludes skimming (my great vice).  And for a writer, the process of reading one’s own work out loud is invaluable – both to catch simple errors and to feel the tone of a piece.  I have been in writing groups that circulated pieces ahead of time and then had meetings where we only critiqued the writing; my current group reads the pieces out loud at the meeting and sends along the critiques later.  The reading aloud makes a tremendous difference.

Reading aloud is also a bonding activity.  As we peruse the Sunday NY Times at the breakfast table, my husband and I take turns reading interesting tidbits to each other.  He tires of this before I do, but newsprint is dull and rarely elicits the laughs, groans, or shrieks that oral delivery of the news can bring.  It allows us to express the emotions elicited but usually unexpressed as we ponder the events of the world, and to do it communally.

You might want to revisit my story “Playing by Ear,” and try reading it aloud.  Or read anything aloud today – to yourself, to the canary, to someone over the phone.  You will remember it better and appreciate it more.  You will exercise the speaking apparatus that is probably atrophying a little in these times of little social interaction. 

Vollendungsroman, the Apocalyptic, and “What Are You Going Through?”

I have written several times about a genre called the Vollendungsroman – novels about becoming old.  There is also a particular category of stories about people who are confronted by a terminal diagnosis, well aware that they are facing death and living through their “end times.” I don’t know whether there is a specific label for such writings.  (Readers, help me with this!)  Anyway, there are some very good examples out there, and I recently read a new one.  It was What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez.  Here is the thing that is different about this novel: it combines a story about age and the end of a life with the prospect of the universal end of life as we know it.  The microcosm and the macrocosm, both facing apocalypse.   Think about it.

The book opens with the narrator going to a lecture by a man who has written an important piece of work about the irredeemable damage humans have done to their planet.  It ends as the narrator stays with a  friend who is planning to end her own life before the final assault of the cancer that is killing her.  In between, there is clear contemplation of aging, death, and disaster.  The latter are on levels – from runaway global warming to a terminal cancer diagnosis to an overflowing bathtub.

One might question whether the prognosis for the earth is really as apocalyptic as is presented by the speaker in the first chapter, but no one can debate whether death is apocalyptic for the dying individual. (Even if one believes in an afterlife, death is still the end of this life, life as we know it.)  And it is not apocalyptic as in the warnings of Jeremiah or Jonah, where the purpose is repentance.  It is more like the irreversible prophecies of Cassandra, which no one believed but were nevertheless true. There is no real hope for the terminal patient.  The question is how is one – one person or one people –  to deal with the reality of the situation.

I have written elsewhere on the pre-Enlightenment view that the human body was a microcosm of the macrocosm, the world – both of which were decaying from their Edenic self.  The earth was growing old and decaying and so – once we had reached the peak of our life cycle at 33 – were we.  Not the view of infinite progress that the Enlightenment drew, but, rather, apocalypse all around.  Was it easier to die knowing that the world was dying too?

What Are You Going Through,  the title of Nunez’s novel, comes from an essay by Simone Weil.  She quotes it as the magic question in the search for the Grail and says that “the love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’”

Henning Mankell asks and answers this question in a memoir he wrote just before he died.  The author of the terrific Wallander mysteries and also a theater producer and a crusader for the rights of the oppressed, Mankell was given an “incurable” diagnosis of lung cancer in 2013 and died in 2015.  His account is called Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human BeingA human being, one particular human being.  Quicksand is a record of Mankell’s thoughts as he goes through chemotherapy and the realization of his mortality.  He chooses, however, to dwell on the positive, the gifts that life has bestowed on him.  Although he is only 65 upon his diagnosis , he realizes that he has escaped his end many times and has had a far longer life than many people on this planet can expect. While he admits that death is always an “uninvited guest,” he puts it in perspective:

…if, like me, you have lived for approaching seventy years, longer than most people in the world could ever dream of, it is easier to become reconciled to the fact that an incurable disease has taken over your body.

Maybe.  The Bible only offers us three score and ten, but we have come to expect more.

Once Mankell tells us how he has come to terms with what has happened to him, he does a kind of life review, dwelling mostly on high points of his life.  It is not the rituals of our culture, the technical progress, nor political movements that he dwells upon; it is the wonderful people he has met who rise up despite the obstacles that civilization erects in front of them.  It is the joys of creative interaction. The book ends when chemotherapy has given him a “breathing space” (which turned out to be brief).  He says this:

I am living today in that breathing space.  I occasionally think about my disease, about death, and about the fact that there are no guarantees when it comes to cancer.

But most of all I live in anticipation of new uplifting experiences.  Of times when nobody robs me of the pleasure of creating things myself, or enjoying what others have created.

Mankell’s is a kind of gratitude journal for his life.  I hope when my final diagnosis comes, I can be so positive.  And before then, I can more often ask myself and those around me, “What are you going through?”

I recommend both these books about dying – one fiction and one non-fiction.  Neither takes us to the utter brink; no one who hasn’t been there can know and those who go over aren’t around to write about it.

For a little comic relief about aging (and you might need it at this point), this week’s story is “Closing Time.” Its title is homage to the wonderful song about the end of the party by Leonard Cohen.  Enjoy.

The Age of Grandmothers

Grandmothers are getting older.  My mother was 47 when her first grandchild was born and around 54 when her last one was born.  I had my first grandchild at 57, and they are still being born (please stop!).  Many of us waited longer to have children and many of our children are putting off parenthood even longer.  In fact, the average age of first-time grandparents has increased two years just since 2011.  Granny will, indeed, be the white-haired old lady with her knitting if this continues. What does this mean?  Having just come back from a week visiting my daughter, who is a single mother of a two-year-old and a newborn set of identical twins, I can report from the field.  My daughter is about to turn forty.  She is exhausted – and Nana (that’s me) is thirty years older and well beyond exhausted – after just a week. 

Do this exercise.  Think of your grandmother(s) at the time you were six or eight.  And then calculate how old those ancient women seemed to you at the time.  Of course, the grandmothers people my age had were different in many ways.  Most of them kept their teeth in a cup in the bathroom (who can forget the first glimpse of that!), used gossamer hair nets, and never even learned to drive a car.  But, for a moment, think about their numerical age.  They probably weren’t all that old.

There were always some grandmothers who were older, especially those whose middle-aged sons divorced their wives and started to procreate all over again.  But now, there are lots.  Our health may be better than our grandma’s was (we exercise and take our vitamins), but still we are definitely…older. 

This means a number of things.  We are not as energetic.  We are further away from our own time of caring for infants; an era of bottle sterilization racks and Dr. Spock has long since been replaced by disposable supplies and a long list of internet sourced dos and don’ts.   At my daughter’s house, she and her sitters used an app to keep track of feedings and diaper changes for the newborns.  I screwed it up.  I struggled with how much to ask of a pampered (adored) 2½ year old.  When I asked him to be quiet because I had finally gotten both his brothers to sleep at the same time, he showed me how loud he could scream.  I bit my tongue and went to get up the wakened baby.  He is a healthy two-year-old after all, and doing what two-year-olds do.  And I am an old lady remembering what it is like to do battle with a toddler.  Needless to say, in every battle with the little guy, I lost.

For I have forgotten.  I live far from my children and grandchildren, so I do not have the everyday experience of heating formula or distracting a toddler.  I re-learned a lot in a week.  I also fell in love with the eyes of babies who looked up at me with trust as I fed them their sustenance.  Would they remember my face years from now?  Will I look vaguely familiar the next time I visit?  I succumbed to the joy of a little boy who was learning to ask questions and was discovering the thrills of a garden hose.  I watched my husband, with whom I have never had children, cuddle, and converse with tiny babies, and show a little boy how to use a screwdriver.

And there is a vast difference between a grandchild in theory, a virtual grandchild, pictures of a grandchild, and one in the flesh, close to your flesh.  Zoom just does not cut it.  Caring physically for my grandchildren reminded me that my ties to my own children were born of those moments when I held them, wiped their faces, changed their diapers, and told them stories with words they could not understand – but that they seemed to listen to anyway.

Of course, it was all complicated by Covid-19.  My daughter lives in a college town, and the students had recently returned.  We mostly stayed home.  We drove two days to get there and brought our food, so we didn’t have to eat at restaurants, but there seemed no alternative to rest areas for bathrooms.  All the states we went through had signs on the rest areas requiring masks to enter; not even half of those who did enter were wearing masks.  We are home now and still waiting out our self-quarantine.  But it was well worth it.

There are many dilemmas stemming from how far many of us live from our children and grandchildren.  And by the time we consider moving close to them because we may “need” them as we begin to “fail,” our children will be preoccupied with orthodontic appointments, soccer games, and gymnastic lessons for their offspring.  And there is the problem of stepfamilies.  Almost no one in my parents’ generation was divorced or remarried, but in an era of blended families, whose children and grandchildren should you move close to?  And how do we get our children to let the little ones call their stepfather Grandpa?  These were not issues my parents faced.

Our cohort was sometimes labeled the “sandwich generation” as we had children, elderly parents, and jobs – often all at the same time.  But the generation following us is even more likely to be in this predicament.  And because of distance and age, they are not getting the help from their elders that some earlier generations got.  I sympathize.  For them and for us.  But mostly I am just tired.  And glad I went.

I have a couple of stories about grandmothers – you might try “Snickerdoodles” or “Common Enemy.”  I have an idea for a new one, but have not written it yet.  Still recuperating from my trip.

Wisdom and the Rose-Apple Tree

I have spent a considerable amount of time speculating about whether we get wiser as we get older, and – if so – can that wisdom be communicated?  But what if the end of learning, of trying, of experience, is to simply realize what we knew in the beginning?  Stay with me.

After the future Buddha had pursued years of ascetic training and sacrifice, he was still not enlightened. He asked himself whether there might not be a better way.  Immediately he had the memory of sitting as a child under the shade of a rose-apple tree watching a ploughing ceremony his father was participating in.  He remembered the relaxed joy and communion his younger self felt with the world around him and immediately knew that this was the way to Enlightenment – back to that simple childhood awareness.

I recently came across this quote from a Japanese Zen master (thank you Tim Miller) who was writing just a few days before his death about how he had finally come to faith and resolution about life:

One might ask if it wasn’t just an accident that I came to faith after engagement in strenuous study, but I would say it was not an accident. It was essential that I should do it this way. My faith has within it a conviction that all my self-power efforts are futile. But in order to be convinced of this futility of self-power, it was necessary to exhaust all my intellectual resources and get to the point where they would not reassert themselves. This was a most strenuous business. Before I reached the end of it there were quite a few times when I thought I had acquired a religious faith. Yet, time and again my conclusions were shattered. As long as one tries to build up a religion on the basis of logic and intellectual study, one cannot escape this difficulty.

This idea that one only understands by “giving up” or looking back to what one knew before one started comes up again and again in wisdom literature.  We could recall the motto of Socrates:  “I know only one thing–that I know nothing.” One might think of Job, who tried to figure God out, only to be struck down in simple awe at the end.  Or Saint Teresa of Avila who entered joyful trances as a child by twirling around with her brother chanting “Forever, ever, ever” – a level of contemplative ecstasy she only came back to in later life. But it would seem that we must go through the process of trying to get there.  But (and this is one of those big buts), then, we must step back.  I have often talked about the value of quiet and reflection in old age, and maybe that is the purpose of such reflection.

Then there is my friend Spinoza.  Spinoza wrote an entire book (Ethics) trying to use the geometric/logical method to figure out the nature of man and the best way to live.  It is full of axioms, propositions, and postulates.  It is a great book.  But in the end, we get this: “The greatest striving of the mind, and its greatest virtue is understanding things by the third kind of knowledge.”  And what is the third kind of knowledge?   It is intuitive knowledge.    And yet, the last paragraph of the Ethics cautions us: “If the way I have shown to lead to these things now seems very hard, still, it can be found.  And of course, what is found so rarely must be hard.”  So it would seem that Spinoza agrees with my Japanese monk – study hard and then – step away?

One of my favorite pieces by Spinoza is the manifesto he wrote as he started out as a young man.  It delineates what he was looking for (“knowledge of the union existing between and mind and all of nature”) and how he is going to live and work as he gets there (great rules of life).  As far as I can tell (and I am no Spinoza scholar), he followed those rules and tried to find out how humankind fit into the scheme of things. He studied hard, thought much, and wrote it all down.  But he ends up by talking about intuition.

Here’s a story.  When I went back to piano lessons as an adult, I told my wonderful teacher that I loved to play but had no ear and was almost incapable of memorization.  After a few lessons, he told me I was mistaken – he had been watching me play and said I seldom looked at the music.  I did not believe him.  I believed – to some extent still believe – what I was told as a child.  You have no ear.  Maybe the trick is to clear away things we were told, not keep adding to the logjam of debris in our minds.  To let go.  Clear the decks.  Get back to the rose-apple tree.  It’s not easy though.

Fiction reading for this week is a new story, “Reflections,” which thinks about ways that our younger selves can (sometimes) pull us back to our centers.   It is about physical reflections and mental reflections. Enjoy.

Covid-19 and the Generational Wars – Part 2

As I listen to the debates about opening schools and universities, I ponder again how this pandemic pits young people against old.  It is a struggle that is going on in households (I want to go to the party! cries the teenager), in extended families (have the grandchildren been quarantined safely enough to allow me to visit? asks Nana), in communities (can we safely open the schools? frets the school board), and on a national and global scale.  Opening the schools provides a good window into this conflict.  Children are less at risk, but how about everyone else they come in contact with?

Having tried to Zoom with my grandchildren (where did he go?), I know that distance learning is not a great way to teach the young.  I can’t even imagine how the teachers do it.  I think children need to go back to school.  But they need to go back safely.  I think old folks need to be protected.  We need a culture which values everyone, and the stock market is not the measure of all success.  I may be an old lady, but apparently all the idealism hasn’t been beaten out of me quite yet.

Some few of you may be members of the “greatest generation,” who lived through the Great Depression as young children and then fought WWII.  I give that honor to my elders; I was a boomer baby.  But during WWII it was the young (male and female) who went off and fought, staffed the field hospitals, went into the munitions factories.  They were defending the old, who stayed home and planted victory gardens, kept track of food coupons, knit gloves and sweaters for the troops, wrote letters, and prayed.  The old knew that the young were fighting to defend them.   The young knew who was thinking about them back home.

In my last post on this subject, I cited the statistics as to who was getting Covid-19 and who was dying from it.  The statistics have not changed much, although there seems to be an improvement as nursing homes have implemented stricter procedures for testing and visiting.  We are all getting tired of whatever level of quarantine we are at, but the old seem to have hunkered down while the young are often frustrated and rebellious.  Maybe the difference is that younger people do not have a clear path for action, as the greatest generation did when this country entered WWII.  Or maybe we do not have a national voice (think FDR) which can inspire when motivation lags.  Maybe the young partying on the beach or at the bars do not mean any harm.  But apparently no one has quite convinced them what the right thing to do is.   We wonder if they appreciate that their risk is our risk; we wonder if they care.

And some of us older people have difficult decisions to make.  My daughter, a single mother by choice, decided to provide her 2-year-old with a sibling this year.  It turned out to be twins, born in the middle of the epidemic and now, after an extended hospital stay, at home.  My daughter lives in a college town where the students are returning (physically not virtually), and yet we feel the need to go visit and show some support.  I am at once thrilled to go and scared to death.  I know families all over the world are facing these kinds of dilemmas.  The real prospect of our own mortality makes such choices stark and real.   I fear those local college students won’t be thinking about my safety, but I wish they were.

In this topsy-turvy time, the old need protecting.  I hope that as schools and businesses open, they think about the older employees, the elderly members of households, the general level of infection in our communities.  The economy is important, but it is not the most important thing.  Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.

Maybe we need a slogan.  “Save Grandma!” “Children need grandparents!” “Do the right thing!”  I am not a speechwriter; there are speechwriters galore in Washington, yet I am hearing little that helps.

I have posted my first “Covid story” this week, which I think has a little something to say about quarantine, social media, and human nature.  (And with a nod to Becoming Duchess Goldblattthank you Sean – highly recommended.) Like war, however, I really don’t think we will write about this time well until it is over.  Assuming it is ever over.

 

Money, Time, and Old Folks

Covid has turned the world upside-down in some strange ways in relation to age, time, and money.  Let’s start with the money.  We old folks – with our social security, pensions, savings, and Medicare – are perhaps a little better off than some.  We don’t have jobs to lose, children to feed, college loans to pay off.  We are in appreciably more danger in other ways than the  younger folks (see earlier post), but we are arguably a little more economically secure for the time being.

In relation to money, old folks have a long history of being classified as covetous, miserly.  Going back to Horace (Ars Poetica), the old man is described by his “desire for gain, miserliness, lack of energy, greediness for a longer life, quarrelsomeness, praise of good old days when he was a boy, and his condemnation of the younger generation.”  Famous examples of old misers might include the fictional characters Ebenezer Scrooge and Silas Marner.

Of course, in times when there was no provision for the elderly except perhaps the good will of one’s children (remember King Lear?), it made sense for old people to hang onto their money.  Neither do the old have the time or energy to start again.  When Benjamin Franklin admonishes a “Young Tradesmen” to “[r]emember that time is money,” one can only wonder if the implication is that the old – with little time left – are poor by definition?

Incidentally, time and money are intimately related – as was most apparent in the early Christian church’s opposition to usury. One of the Christian arguments against usury was that all time is God’s time, and that charging interest is profiting from something that belongs to God.  For many years, the term has been used only for the crime of charging exorbitant interest, but there was as time in the Christian church when no interest at all was allowed, when belief in usury was a heresy.  But where would the modern economy be without usury?

Similarly, using probability tables to predict life expectancy for annuity and insurance purposes assumed that someone was betting on one’s death, and that someone (other than God) was sure enough of when our “number would be up” to put money on it.  When life insurance came into being in the 18th century, there were many who thought that it also was a heresy, a presumption.  Only God could know when our time was up.

Here is the paradox: We older people have time, and yet we are running out of time.  Retired and quarantined, we have oodles of hours on our hands when we might not be able to count on years, or even months.  It is a strange situation.  One might consider Wendell Berry’s view that “time is neither young nor old”:

I know I am getting old and I say so,
but I don’t think of myself as an old man.
I think of myself as a young man
with unforeseen debilities. Time is neither
young nor old, but simply new, always
counting, the only apocalypse.

As we watch some young people flaunting the quarantine rules and endangering the lives around them, our lives, it seems that perhaps they think they have plenty of time.   They do not think that Covid will kill them (and statistically they are correct), and they do not think about dying much at all.  Neither did I at their age.  And yet, the elders – who are busy trying to make peace with the nearing end – see the possibility that the “truce of old age” (St. Benedict) will soon be broken, our lives will be precipitated into immediate danger.  Usually, as in war time, it is the young who are in danger, fighting for the elders and others at home.  This time we are the potential casualties.  It is a topsy-turvy world.

For more perspective on how Covid is exposing (and creating) stress between the old and young, see my post, Covid-19 and the Generational Wars. This situation is taking on a new dimension as we begin to open the schools.  Children and young adults seem to be at low risk, but how about older teachers, custodians, librarians, and bus drivers?  For a fictional take on the generational gap, you might try “Common Enemy.

 

Three Truth-Tellers

In this era of “fake news” and “truthiness,” I still like to think I know a real truth about life when I hear it.  I am, of course, particularly interested in the truths of old age.  (If you are an old age denier, I suggest you stop here!)  Three truth-tellers who come to mind are a motley group: the Buddha, Virginia Woolf, and Albert Camus.

The Buddha started his teaching with the Four Noble Truths, of which the first is “all life is unsatisfactory.”  The is sometimes translated as “life is suffering,” but it is my understanding that the original Pali text connotes stress rather than suffering.  In any case, it was a relief to me that someone important acknowledged that life is not a breeze.  I no longer had to ask myself what on earth was the matter with me!  The Buddha came to this conclusion after escaping the royal palace (in which he had been raised in opulent isolation) and meeting the divine messengers – an old man, an ill man, a corpse, and a wandering yogi.  Note that the first of these divine messengers was an old person.  Such a shock for the young prince to realize he too would get old!  In fact, of the five daily recollections that the Buddha recommended, the second is to remind ourselves that our body is subject to aging and decay.  This would seem obvious, but I still seem to be spending a lot of psychological effort to deny it.

When I was a young woman, I read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own for the first time.  There was much there to inspire me, but the passage I most remember is this:  “Life for both sexes – and I look at them shouldering along the pavement – is arduous, difficult, a perpetual struggle.  It calls for gigantic courage and strength.”  Why did no one ever tell me this?  It certainly wasn’t in the advice I got from my parents or the music I listened to.   As I was growing up, Madison Avenue led me to believe if I made the right choice between Coke and Pepsi, Covergirl or Maybelline, everything would come up roses.  In another essay, Woolf talks about the “great wars which the body wages with the mind” and goes on to warn us that “to look these things squarely in the face would need the courage of a lion tamer.”  Yes.  And somehow it was easier to summon up that courage once I knew it was not supposed to be easy.

And last there is Camus.  Camus tells us in The Myth of Sisyphus that life is absurd; that there will always be a gap between “the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”  Unreasonable because we are going to grow old and die and it would seem that the earth does not care.  If we are aware at all, we will suffer.  “To a conscious old man, old age and what it portends are not a surprise.  Indeed, he is conscious only in so far as he does not conceal its horror from himself.  There was a temple in Athens dedicated to old age.   Children were taken there…”  Old age is not punishment though:  “That is the rule of the game.  And indeed, it is typical of his [the conscious man’s] nobility to have accepted all the rules of the game.  Yet he knows he is right and that there can be no question of punishment.  A fate is not punishment.”  This is an important distinction.  Think about it.

OK – this all sounds somewhat dismal, doesn’t it?  True, but dismal.  How do these folks recommend that we handle the facts of life?  The Buddha said that we needed to loosen our attachments to the way we thought things should be because craving was the root of our suffering.  This, presumably, would include the wish to be young.  Woolf, you say, committed suicide.  Yes.  But until overtaken by depression, she lived the most creative of lives and even, in her suicide note, assured her husband: “I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came.”  And she wrote her wonderful books out of an ecstatic appreciation of life set within the limits of biology and fate. She has one of her characters say, “the compensation of growing old… was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained–at last!–the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.” And so she did turn experience round and round.  Read the scenes where Mrs. Dalloway traverses London on a spring morning or the interludes in The Waves.

So, if Woolf  found happiness, it was through creativity. This is also Camus’s answer.  His solution to the absurdity of our life is to be creative and make our own meaning – knowing all the time the absurdity of it.  Having, as Simone de Beauvoir would put it, our projects.  Camus says that “in this [absurd] universe the work of art is then the sole chance of keeping his consciousness and of fixing its adventures.”  He quotes Nietzsche: “Art and nothing but art; we have art in order not to die of the truth.”  Or in another translation (Will to Power): “Art is with us in order that we may not perish through truth.”

Camus contends that art/creativity is the solution for the  writer, the artist, the dancer, the liver of life.  Living one’s own life is the ultimate creative art form.  Thoreau told us (and lived) this secret: “To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”  Yes.  I guess this is all by way of saying that living in ignorance might be easier, but it is not an art.  Living despite some hard truths is the highest kind of creation and the best solution.  True of life.  True of old age.  Blessed be the truth-tellers.

This week’s story is “The Mustard Seed.”  I have been told by someone who edited the piece for me that the ending was unsatisfactory.  Perhaps the Buddha would agree.  Perhaps the ending is always unsatisfactory in some way.  You decide.