“This Will All Make Sense When I Am Older”

I ran across a cute Disney video from Frozen II,  wherein a young snowman (snowboy?) named Olaf sings a delightful song about how life is scary, but comforts himself that “this will all make sense when I am older.”  Of course, that got me thinking (now that I am older) about whether that was true.  I invite you to answer the same question for yourself.

Separated by time and hormones from experiences of our younger years, there is a certain detachment in old age that allows us to calmly consider why certain things happened, why we did the things we are now embarrassed to remember.  And there is sometimes a bittersweet melancholy to such thought.  As Kierkegaard told us, “life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.”

Many people have tried to make sense of their lives, to give it a linear and rational narrative.  One of the things we learn in old age is that human beings are not always (or often) rational animals, lessons are sometimes earned but not learned, and we accumulate at least as much guilt as we do wisdom.  In these days, wisdom is needed, guilt seems to be confused with embarrassment, and the old often seem willing to let the young set the moral agenda – on civil rights, women’s rights, gay marriage, humane acceptance of all kinds.

This reminds me of the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery.  There are a couple of mysterious things about this episode, which occurs only in the Gospel of John.   The Pharisees bring  a woman caught in adultery to Jesus; Mosaic law calls for her to be stoned to death and the crowd is ready. Jesus responds by crouching down and writing in the sand.  Over the centuries there has been much speculation about what he wrote.  Perhaps he was writing the sins of the onlookers, because finally he rises and tells the crowd that “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Personally, I wonder if he was just writing to get his thoughts straight – something I do all the time.  So the writing in the sand is one mystery, but not the one that interests me the most.

Soon after Jesus’ challenge (let him who is without sin throw the first stone), the crowd starts to drop their stones and disperse.  And here is the most interesting part to me in this familiar passage: John clearly states that “they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last.” The old people left first. Why? 

Did the old leave first because they were wiser? Had they learned that youthful indiscretions are not the end of the world?  Or did the old leave first because they had accumulated so much sin of their own that they knew clearly and immediately that they were not eligible to cast the first stone?  Is this an example of the value of experience?

I have elsewhere mused on the value of reflection in old age, and of writing one’s own story.  Maybe there will not be a clear narrative when we go to string the episodes of our life together, but there will surely be lessons there which we were taught, but never had time to really learn.  In the episode of the woman taken in adultery, the issue was forced.  For most of us there is not such a crisis.  But there is still a need, and time to learn the lessons that have accumulated in the parts of our minds we don’t visit very often. “This will all make sense as I get older,” says young Olaf.  Perhaps, with distance and time and attention, anything is possible. However, we might also remember the lesson that Sara Teasdale shared in one of her last poems: “The heart asks more than life can give, /When that is learned, then all is learned.”  

Many of my stories involve lessons learned late. For such tales, you might try “The Iscariot,” “A Balm in Gilead,” orEye of the Needle.”

Your Old Men Shall Dream Dreams

The Bible tells us (in both the Old and New Testaments) that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”  God says it through his prophet Joel (Joel 2:28) in a vision of those “last days” when Israel shall be forgiven and restored.  The Apostle Peter quotes it (Acts 2:17) when questioned about why Christians are speaking in tongues and filled with the holy spirit, suggesting that these are the “last days” predicted in the Book of Joel.  In any case, it is interesting that it is the old who will dream, and the young who will see visions. 

It has been an accepted phenomenon that the elderly dream  less than the young, although this is usually measured in “dream recall” – meaning that  (possibly) the old might dream as much but recall less than they used to.  The major drop-off appears to be in middle age.  Recent research also shows that young adults pay more attention to their dreams than older people.  Time and time again it has been shown that when attention is paid to dreams, they start getting remembered more often.  I have to say for myself, that since I started researching this topic, I have remembered more dreams.  In fact, for months before this, I would have said that I remembered no dreams at all, although I often woke with the unsettled feeling that I had been having a “bad” dream.

When my mother was in the mid-level grip of dementia, I was convinced that she was having trouble telling the difference between dreams and reality.  She would call me early in the morning with tales of boys who visited her apartment in the middle of the night and wreaked havoc in her kitchen.  Or she would go into great detail about a boat trip she had gone on where the boat got marooned for hours.  The first time that happened, I called her assisted living center to see if such a trip had happened – the center was on the side of a small lake – but, of course, the trip was a figment of my mother’s imagination.  Or, more likely, it was a dream.

There is actually a term, oneirophrenia for a state in which a person becomes confused about the distinction between reality and dreams.  Surely, we have experienced this to some extent when we woke shaking from a nightmare and had to spend a few moments convincing ourselves that everything was fine, and that there was no awful monster outside the window.  In dementia, the confusion naturally worsens.

When I was younger, I had recurrent dreams that had to do with the pressure to get things done.  One was academic:  I had to take a test for which I was late; I ran through buildings encountering ridiculous obstacles and never actually made it to the exam before I woke up in a sweat.  When I was a young mother, I had dreams about needing to find food for my children.  In middle age I had dreams about wandering around in a big house, looking for my room.  Looking for a room of one’s own, perhaps? Long after I retired, I had dreams about audits and the end of the fiscal year, and about not being able to find a parking spot and missing a meeting. Anxieties about responsibilities seemed to be played out in my dreams.  Note that I said played out, and not worked out.   My dreams never contained solutions or advice, and only offered awareness of what my subconscious was struggling with.  Most of these anxiety dreams have disappeared as I grow old – or perhaps I have stopped remembering them.

Dreams are often used as literary devices in movies and books; in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,  the ghost convinces Mrs. Muir that their entire relationship was just a dream.  Young Rip Van Winkle falls asleep in the hills and dreams until he is old, thus escaping a nagging wife and other responsibilities. Alice in Wonderland and The Christmas Carol are simply the records of the dreams of a very young person and a very old person.  Alice has an adventure; Scrooge confronts his past and his probably dreary future.  Is this the difference between younger dreams and older dreams?  Is the Biblical promise that the old will “dream dreams” a promise that they will be renewed in some way?

And, on a more basic level – if dreams are manifestations of the struggles that are taking place subconsciously, what struggles do the elderly manifest?  One research psychiatrist says that our dreams keep up with our needs:

Older adults tend to dream more about creative works, legacies and enduring concerns, while the dreams of dying people are filled with numbers of supernatural agents, other-worldly settings and images of reunions with a loved one who has died. Dreams that transport the child into the social world of his caretakers during early life gently escort the dreamer into the arms of his loved ones when life is nearing an end. Dreams accompany us literally from the cradle to the grave. 

This is a gentle interpretation, though, and doesn’t consider the effects of dementia or the fact that some people don’t want to be reunited with their caretakers.  One can hope, though, for some kind of comforting dream sat the end of life..

I am no expert in the analysis of dreams, but – as I said above – dreams will respond to attention.  Think about your dreams.  Intend to remember them and see what they tell you.

Meanwhile, you might read my story, “The Widow’s Dream,” which gives an example of how literal interpretation of dreams might be harmful, and skillful creation of dreams can solve some problems.

 

 

A Different Kind of Bucket List

 

I have been thinking (and reading) about a different kind of bucket list.  Merriam Webster defines bucket list as “a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying.”  The books I am reading – The Bright Book of Life  by Harold Bloom and Horizon by Barry Lopez –  are about the things or places or books that the authors wanted to revisit before they died. Both authors died within a year of writing their books.  Bloom wants to reread the books he has loved one more time; he says he is desperately lonely in his old age (having outlived so many friends) and goes “back to reread novels to find old friends still living and to make new ones.”    Barry Lopez, one of the great travelers of our time, is interested in going back to some of his favorite places (in mind if not always in body) to determine whether his journeys taught him anything: “Having seen so many parts of the world, what have I learned about human menace, human triumph, and human failings and fallibilities?”  Bloom and Lopez both invite us to come on their final journeys and to plan one of our own – back through experience, physical or textual.

A few years ago, Bloom published an anthology and commentary on late poems by various poets:  Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last PoemsBloom looks for comfort, for answers, in these late poems, but says in the end: “Confronting illness, pain, and dying, we learn quickly that eloquence is not enough.  Neither are even the most authentic poems of consolation.  Still, the beauty and wisdom of these poems reverberate into the coming silence.”  However, he expects more from the novels that he reviews in his last book.  Its title (The Bright Book of Life) comes from an essay by D.H. Lawrence:

The novel is the one bright book of the life.  Books are not life.  They are only tremulations on the ether.  But the novel as a tremulation can make a whole man alive tremble.  Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do…. To be alive, to be man alive, to be the whole man alive: that is the point.  At its best, the novel, and novel supremely, can help you.  It can help you not to be a dead man in life.

One of Lopez’s abiding concerns is the state of the world we live in and the degree to which it has deteriorated in his lifetime.  He is a genuine and literate environmentalist, and not unaware that his own physical deterioration is natural, but that of the places and indigenous peoples he loves on the earth is not.  He can accept his mortality; he has trouble accepting what we have done to our home. 

Going back is not easy.  That place we loved when we were twenty may now be overdeveloped and all serenity replaced by noise and concrete.  The book that meant so much to us, that changed our lives, when we were adolescents may somehow now feel…  juvenile.  And yet it is a brave venture and one that might assist us in making some sense of the path of our lives.  Barry Lopez puts it very well:

There is no originality in this, of course.  We, all of us, look back over our lives, trying to make sense of what happened, to see what enduring threads might be there.  My further desire in planning this book was to create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives.  At a time when many see little more on the horizon but the suggestion of a dark future.  

I have long been intrigued by the idea of limiting myself to rereading in my old age.  I have often thought old age would be a good time to revisit my favorite movies and television shows.  Maybe, if my memory is bad enough, I will laugh just as hard at reruns of The Office as I did the first time.  If my memory is good, maybe I will remember the laughter of the first time, and that will be a joy in itself.

 I even visualized this as a kind of spiritual practice in my story “Nothing New,” where one of the characters strikes anything new from her life in order to relish the old.    But that was probably going too far.  Yet, when I read Bloom and Lopez, I find myself making lists of books, music, drama, and places I want to revisit (at least) one more time.  Most of these intentions will never be realized; however, just creating the list is a useful exercise.  Try it.  And think about ignoring the best seller list in favor of something you already know is wonderful.

Book Recommendations – Old Age and the End of Life

 

I have read four interesting books lately (and put down a few uninteresting ones) about old age. In addition to senescence, all of these books deal with the issues of life continuance/assisted suicide in some way.  Three of them are novels, one is non-fiction, and all were well worth my time.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is the story of an older woman (72) living in an apartment in Beirut – the same apartment she has been in throughout her adult life, and in which she watched her beloved city being torn to pieces.  In a way, she is lamenting both the dissolution of her life and that of the place she calls home.  This character, Aaliya, has spent the last few decades annually translating a great work of fiction into Arabic.  Because she only reads English and French in addition to Arabic, she sometimes translates from translations – for Anna Karenina, for example.  She picks works she loves and labors over them, starting a new work every January.  This task gives meaning and form to her life, and reminded me of Simone de Beauvoir’s imperative on the necessity of “projects” in old age.   Aaliya piles up the manuscripts (never trying to publish anything) in a spare room, and the action of the novel comes when a plumbing accident floods that room and its thousands and thousands of unshared pages.  I will not be a spoiler, but I will say it forces her to think about the meaning of her life.  Aaliya is a character who speaks to me. I also have a multitude of unshared pages.  I also use writing to give some form to my life.

Aviary by Dierdre McNamer is a lighter novel (written by a younger person) about a group of old people living in a condominium complex.  It contains a mystery, delightful characters, and a parable about the ways in which our capitalist culture preys on the elderly.  There is a quirky arson detective and an altruistic ninety-year-old.  Really an enjoyable read, if a little light on the everyday plight of old age.  End-of-life issues and the question of suicide come up as one of the characters prepares to move herself out of the way, but this is not the emphasis of the novel, as in the last two books I will mention.

Assisted suicide (as opposed to euthanasia) is the driver of Belinda Bauer’s novel Exit.   The main character, after having watched his wife die an uncomfortable death, volunteers with the “Exiteers,” a group of people who clandestinely assist elders who want to end their suffering.  Exiteers help provide the means and are present for support, but the “exiters” must end their lives themselves.  Because the legal ramifications are so severe, the Exiteers receive anonymous communications and – other than the partner they work with – do not even know each other.   One such “assist” goes wrong and leads to a police investigation of the participants and of the entire organization.  Again, I will not spoil the plot, but rest assured that it explores the good and the evil in relation to this issue.

Katie Englehart’s The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die is a noble effort to give us the history and status of assisted suicide in the United States and other parts of the world.  In a format that reminded me of Nomadland, she follows six people, their loved ones, and health care personnel as they explore the final option.  Engelhart treads a slippery slope with the people she interviews, always aware that her attention might prompt them to follow through.  It is an excellent survey of the checkered array of laws in the United States, the more expansive laws in places like Switzerland, and the reasons health care systems (as in the U.S.) often make people feel they have no other choice.  Perhaps the wisest interview in the book came with a  hospice doctor who was initially against the new assisted suicide laws in her state (California).  She thought that dying was a necessary part of the “circle of life” and that some patients often found peace in those last days.  After the law was passed, she referred hospice patients to a doctor who would help them if they requested assisted suicide, and she “eventually came around” saying “Having this (assisted suicide) as an option lets people relax…Not even getting the drugs, but knowing, ‘I can get the drugs.’”  Yes. 

Incidentally, Engelhart recently wrote an excellent piece for The New Yorker about using AI pets to be companions and comforters to the elderly.  Apparently, it is effective in many instances, but it would seem to be a fairly hollow response to a lonesome segment of our society. 

 

Old Folks in the Stories That Formed Us

Salman Rushdie had an essay in the Sunday New York Times last week about what we learned from the books we loved in our younger days. While Mr. Rushdie’s juvenile reading list was very different from mine, I agree with his conclusions: “I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives.”  If this is true – and surely it is, at least in part – then what did those beloved books and stories tell us about getting old?  In the books of my youth, there seemed to be two kinds of old people – the  nasty ones (think of Aunt March in Little Women) and the nice ones (Mr. Laurence, also in Little Women).  Mr. Laurence has an  initially gruff exterior, but gradually reveals his good heart.   In fact, many of the aged characters in the books I read in my youth were first described as gruff and perhaps miserly, until “warmed up” by a young character.  This was the case with Mr. Laurence (warmed up by Beth), with the old Grandfather in Heidi, and with Silas Marner (perhaps middle-aged rather than old and brought back from his miserly life by his little charge Eppie).  

In fairy tales, the witches were often old (and ugly), while fairy godmothers could be young or old (but were always beautiful).  Old folks were often feeble or bedridden (think of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother).  Or silly.  There was an old woman who was stupid enough to swallow a fly, and Old Mother Hubbard had so many children she didn’t know what to do.  No role models there. 

In the Bible (I was a Sunday School child), living to be old was a sign that God liked you if you did the right things: “You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you will possess” (Deut. 5:33).  If you’re good you will thrive in old age: “Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing.” And we should particularly be good to our old parents if we want to live long ourselves: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12).  Then there was old Simon in the New Testament who just wants to see the Messiah and die.  None of this particularly interested my younger self.

But when we were young, we were not looking for models of elderly people in literature.  We were looking for coming of age stories – stories that gave us hope, or at least some comfort that we were not alone in our angst.  In our old age, we are looking for a Vollendungsroman, a story about the end of life, the winding down.  It may be time to go back to those old stories.  Rushdie suggests that we may find a new emphasis in old stories.  “A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song.”

I reread Heidi a couple of years ago, and, while originally the spunky little girl was of the most interest to me, now the hero of the piece was the grandfather.  Alone and self-sufficient (and more than a little irascible) on the mountain with his goats, he is eventually able to garner the effort to take a little girl into his life.  I also had forgotten about Peter’s blind grandmother, to whom Heidi reads and with whom she develops a touching bond.  These characters were always in the book, but they escaped my younger imagination.   As a teenager, I was particularly taken with Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; going back to it I am reminded of the picture the young people conjured up of the imaginary Fat Lady for whom Seymour tells them they must perform – she is old and fat and cancerous and the very reason for life itself.  Michelangelo’s God is a very old man.  Christ is forever young, but God is always old. 

In any case, this is what Rushdie’s column made me think about.  Maybe it will inspire you to think about the stories that formed you and what they taught you about getting old – and what they could still teach you.

I continue to admire Franny and Zooey so much that I paid homage to Salinger in naming the characters in one of my novels (Order of the Stock Farm Jesus) – although I changed the spelling to Zoë and both characters are female (Salinger’s Zooey is the brother).  And while there is no Fat Lady in my story, it contains a formidable grandmother and a limestone Jesus.  There is an excerpt from that novel here.

Emerson and the Boundaries of Old Age

In rating influencers of American attitudes and culture, Ralph Waldo Emerson would come near the top of anyone’s list.  That is why it is productive to look at his evolving attitudes toward aging and what it says (and taught others) in the formative years of this country.  Emerson had a relatively long life for the 19th century; he reached the age of 79.    For most of his life he wrote prolifically, lectured, kept journals and wrote volumes of letters.  Yet his last decade was clouded by his gradual loss of memory and, finally, speech.  In Emerson, as in Jonathan Swift, we have a figure who lived long and thought about what old age meant.  Like Swift, he also had a difficult old age.

Swift, who made resolutions when he was young about how he would not behave when he got old, broke all his own rules.  In his youth, Emerson was sad for the very old who were in the papers for nothing more than being a year older.  “We do not count a man’s age until he has nothing left to count.”  In his essay “Circles,” Emerson wrote: “Nature abhors the old, and old age seems the only disease; all others run into this one.”  And he resents the attitudes of his elders: “But the man and woman of seventy assume to know all, they have outlived their hope, they renounce aspiration, accept the actual for the necessary, and talk down to the young.”  Somehow, he thinks we should be able to resist this: “Old age ought not to creep on a human mind.”  Emerson seems to give little force to the inevitable decay of the body; we must keep our minds young, even though “the surest poison is time.” Emerson knew some admirable old men and he thought they had their place, but old age requires, according to the younger Emerson, “fit surroundings.  Age is comely in coaches, in churches, in chairs of state and ceremony, in council-chambers, in courts of justice, and historical societies.” But not on Broadway or in the mainstream of society: “The creed of the street is, Old Age is not disgraceful, but immensely disadvantageous.”  And perhaps it some ways it is.

Emerson took a kinder view of old age as he got into his fifties (don’t we all), but both Emerson and Swift suffered from an early aversion to growing older, which seemed to only make the process harder when they finally approached senescence.

As Emerson aged, he did mellow to the gifts of age.  They are gentler gifts than those delineated by T. S. Eliot.  First, there is the gift of relief that life has been (more or less) successfully weathered. “It were strange if a man should turn his sixtieth year without a feeling of immense relief from the number of dangers he has escaped.”   Second, ambition evaporates.  Emerson no longer frets about how he will be received, whether a project is a success or a failure.  Third, we do not have things hanging over our heads – we have had the career, the family, the house, the friends.  For good or bad, those days are past us.  “The ferment of earlier days has subsided into serenity of thought and behavior.”  And the fourth and last benefit is a chance to “set its [old age’s] house in order, finish its works, which to every artist is a supreme pleasure.”   Emerson in his late fifties has a warmer view of old age than young Emerson.  But he is also mostly done writing the powerful essays that made him great, that we still read today.

Emerson wrote “Terminus,” one of the great poems about old age when he was 64.  Terminus was the Roman god of boundaries, and Emerson sees old age as a time for boundaries:

Make thy option which of two;

Economize the failing river,

Not the less revere the Giver,

Leave the many and hold the few.

We don’t want to hear about limitations though, do we?  No boundaries for us boomers.  No acceptance of, as Robert Frost terms it, “a diminished thing.”  Many of us suffer from believing that all is possible in a time of life when that is not the truth.  In fact, it was never the truth; old age just hits us over the head with it.

The very old Emerson does note some compensations.  As he lost his memory, he posits that “increased power and means of generalization” partially makes up for the inability to remember a word or a name or a citation.  Emerson is glad to lose his sensitivity to what people think: “One capital advantage of old age is the absolute insignificance of a success more or less.  I went to town and read a lecture yesterday.  Thirty years ago it had really been a matter of importance to me whether it was good and effective.   Now it is of none in relation to me.” 

Emerson finally says of the aches and pains of old age that they come with the comfort that we will soon be out of them.  “Old age bring along with its uglinesses the comfort that you will soon be out of it, – which ought to be a substantial relief to such discontented pendulums are we are.” Yet, Emerson still feared death.  One of the last poems Emerson wrote follows Frost and Keats in asking stars for lessons in endurance and stability. 

Teach me your mood, O patient stars!
Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
No trace of age, no fear to die.

Emerson did write one piece about old age for The Atlantic when he was in his late fifties.  But a better way to see how his attitude modulated over time is to look at his journals (where most of my quotes come from), which Emerson kept from his teen years until a few years before he died.  The last notation in the copy I have is that the day is Thomas Carlyle’s 80th birthday.  Emerson may have been wondering if he would make it to 80, but we cannot know if he were hoping he would or  wishing he would not.  He did not.  He died at 79. 

 

Addie LaRue, Faust, and Old Age

I have been fascinated (but not surprised) to see a Faustian novel on the best-seller list for the past six months.  The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a Faust tale with a twist, and quite enjoyable reading.  There are actually two deals with the devil in this book.  Addie, the main character, has made a pact with Mephistopheles (here nicknamed Luc) which includes both a kind of immortality and eternal youth.  The problem is that she has asked for time and freedom.  No obligations.  Luc fixes this for her by making sure that no one remembers her from one encounter to the next.  It makes robbery easy, but relationships hard.  Henry, the love interest, has made his own deal with the devil based on his desire “to be loved.”  So, everyone he meets loves Henry, but it is clear that they do not love him with discrimination or of their own volition. They love him because a spell has been cast.  There is an especially funny scene in which Henry has a reunion with his dysfunctional family of origin where he has always been a black sheep, but now is the clear favorite of all.  Nevertheless, both deals are very unsatisfactory after theinitial euphoria.  Be careful what you ask for.  Or as Truman Capote reminded us, when the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.

Since the original German chapbook about Dr. Faustus in the 16th century (based on even earlier legends), there have been numerous versions of the Faust story.  Goethe and Marlowe wrote theirs in the form of plays.  Thomas Mann wrote a good one (Dr. Faustus) and his son wrote one too (Mephisto – but if you’re going to read one, read the father’s and pity the son).  Washington Irving and Stephen Vincent Benet wrote famous versions. It was done time and again in music too.  Bohemian Rhapsody is thought to be based on a Faust story, as is music written by Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner.  There was at least one successful Broadway musical on the topic (Damn Yankees), and even an episode of The Simpsons (“Bart Sells His Soul”).

The Faust story fascinates us.  Maybe this is because we have all sold our souls for one thing or another – individually and collectively.  Spengler posited that Faust was the core myth of our culture: “Western man sold his soul for technology.”  Take your nose out of your cell phone and think about this.   While not all technology is bad, most technology has some bad consequences, and all technology can be used for evil purposes.  Progress does not necessarily lead to paradise.

But I am especially interested when poor souls make a pact for eternal youth and longevity.  This, for example, is the basis for Gounod’s opera, Faust, where the title character seems to want youth more than anything.   I thought of this recently as I read an article entitled “Is Life Extension Today A Faustian Bargain?”  The author (S. Jay Olshansky) is concerned that while the “longevity revolution” increased life-span by 30 years over the last century or so, we are now trading small increments in life-span for large increases in chronic illnesses:

But Mephistopheles isn’t done with us.  Like the street magician that lets you win the first game, and then sucks you into a bigger con with larger stakes, or a drug dealer that gets you hooked with free samples, the next much costlier offer is before us now.  We’ve had our taste of longevity, and now we want more – much more at any cost, and Mephistopheles knows this.

We know this.  We also know that the chances of dementia after a certain age balloon upward, and as we watch our diets and take our statins, we have to worry about whether we are just preserving our bodies for a longer stay in the memory care facility.  As with most technology, we tend not to think of the negative ramifications.  In the article referenced above, Dr. Olshansky suggests that we might concentrate our research more on having a better old age than having a simply longer one.  I think we also have to think about what a “better” old age means – does it simply mean retaining our youth or is it something different?  What would a “better” old age mean to you?  Mary Oliver asks, “When men sell their souls, where do the souls go?”  Old age might be a good time to get them back.

Faust fascinates me.  Life is like Borges’ “Garden of the Forking Paths;”  every time we choose one experience over another, we are bartering away our future – for good or bad.  Faust’s experience with Mephistopheles is one metaphor for this.  A more benign one might be Robert Frost’s “two roads diverg[ing] in a wood.”

I have written on this topic before (“Notes on Faust”) and written a novel (unpublished) with a Faust theme, the Prologue of which can be accessed here.  I have also posted a portion of Chapter 5 of that book (A Kind of Joy) wherein Pauline (an agent of the Mephistopheles figure) works out her deal with Faye, a young mother and novelist.

Meanwhile I encourage you to think about the bargains you have made, and what a good old age should look like.

Does Life Have a Plot?

The title of this blog – “When I Come to Be Old” – comes from a list of resolutions that Jonathan Swift compiled as a young man about how he would behave in his old age. It is a litany of the things he finds annoying about the older people around him and includes the reminder not to “tell the same story over and over.”  We old people tend to tell stories to others and to ourselves.  We are trying to make sense of our lives.  Boring those around us with repetitive stories is definitely to be avoided, but is trying to make stories out of our lives a good thing or a bad thing?

We want to make sense of things.  We want to believe that things happen for a reason.  Whole religions are built out of this.  When we wonder why “the wicked prosper,” Christianity moves the end of the story to eternal life.  Buddhism and Hinduism and other religions of karma and reincarnation assure us that it all works itself out over many lifetimes. Whether we believe this or not, however, we want things to make sense now.  We want to be able to read the stories of our lives to a satisfying conclusion.  So we make the past into a story.

Not everyone thinks this is a good idea.  The philosopher Galen Strawson thinks that our culture encourages people to construct continuous narratives of their lives over time, while life might be better understood as “episodic.”  Things happen and then other things happen.  Lives do not necessarily make sense.  Freud gave us the idea that everything was rooted in our childhoods; if we could just follow the thread we would understand.  Maybe.  But there are random events like illnesses and weather and which roommate you were paired with as a college freshman.

In Swift’s time, it was common to talk about life in seven years segments.  Swift’s mentor, Sir William Temple (one of the old men Swift is talking about in his resolutions no doubt), wrote that “mind and his thoughts change every seven years, as well as his strength and his features.”  The seventh year (7,14, 21…63, 70) was seen as “climacterical” and having significance as a turning point.  (Climacteric is now a term we use synonymously with menopause, but that is just one kind of change.)  This theory assumes definite differences between your old self and your new self.  And surely, none of us can understand all of the decisions we made forty or fifty years ago.  And yet we try to connect the dots.

But life is not entirely in our control (another lesson we might not learn until old age), and bad things happen to good people for no apparent reason – and vice versa. The Bible contains the most significant story of a man whose life does not make sense – Job.  The last chapter of the Book of Job (where he gets new riches and new children) is thought to have been tacked on at some later date to make us all feel better.  Mostly it makes us wonder, does God really think children are replaceable?

We want it all to make sense.  In some cases it seems to for a while.  People who work hard do well – but not always.  Good parents have good children – but not always.  Love begets love – but not always. As we get old and look back on our lives – what holds it all together?  What part of my eight-year-old self endures (besides some unreliable memories)?

Autobiographies written in old age reinforce the cause-and-effect route.  Benjamin Franklin wants to convince you that he plotted out his life and developed his character according to a set of guidelines which he developed as a young man and is hoping to pass along to his poor son.  On the other hand, Penelope Lively entitles her memoir Making It Up, and by following the forking threads of decisions she made and things that happened to her, makes it clear that it could have gone another way.

Galen Strawson thinks the human population is divided into diachronics (those who see life as a continuous narrative) and episodics (those who remember events but do not forge a link). He intimates that the latter have an easier time seeing each day as a new beginning.  One might think of the Greek differentiation of time as chronos (linear calendar/clock time) or kairos (special experiences outside of time). Old age is a time for episodic reminiscing, which is often followed by an attempt to make sense of the episodic sequence.  Maybe this is a fool’s errand.  Surely it is beyond our ability.  Among the questions the Buddha said were “inconceivables” and should be “put aside” were questions as to how karma worked. 

So, when you sit down to write those memoirs or family histories, please consider that your life is not a novel.  You do not need to find a plot (or to invent one).  A number of my short stories are about people who read the wrong narrative into things (try “The More Loving One”).  But maybe reading any narrative into things should only be done provisionally.

Drama of Old Age – Oedipus at Colonus

Sophocles was in his nineties when he wrote Oedipus at Colonus; we think it was not performed until after his death.  It is, of course, part of the cycle that starts with Oedipus Rex  and ends with Antigone, but Colonus was written last and reveals an Oedipus with a different temperament than the younger, brasher man who was overcome by and angry at his fate.  Oedipus is now old and has found a kind of reconciliation with what has happened to him: “You’ll never find / A man on earth, if a god leads him on, / Who can escape his fate.”  So Oedipus seems to have dispensed with the guilt.  He is in a grove near Athens, getting ready to die, and to lend his protective spirit to Athens rather than to Thebes.  The gods have said that whoever accepts the dying Oedipus will be “blessed.”  Oedipus has no wish to bless Thebes, the city that cursed him.   

Oedipus is not the only old person in the play.  Old Creon shows up trying to convince Oedipus to die at Thebes, and the chorus is composed of “elders.”  Oedipus has come to the sacred grove at Colonus (outside of Athens) with his adoring daughters (Ismene and Antigone), and has a confrontation with one of his two hated sons.  But, while the passionate young Oedipus spurned fate, the aged Oedipus has decided to accept his fate and die in the sacred grove.  Zeus thunders his approval. 

In his posthumous book, On Late Style, Edward Said differentiates between two artistic approaches at the end of creative lives.  He proposes that some aging literary and musical artists reflect “a new spirit of reconciliation and serenity often expressed in terms of miraculous transformation of common reality,” and puts the Sophocles of Oedipus at Colonus in this category, along with the Shakespeare of the late romances (think of Winter’s Tale or The Tempest).  These writers have come to a kind of late serenity, and perhaps also a kind of truce with death.  I would probably put Eliot’s Elder Statesman in this category too.  There are angry old people too, though, and not everyone comes to resolution, peace.  While Oedipus says that his “experience and length of days teach me to be content,” even Oedipus comes to no reconciliation with Thebes, Creon, or his sons.  Reconciliation should not require capitulation.  And perhaps contentment does not require any reconciliation beyond one’s own conscience.

Colonus influenced Eliot’s Elder Statesman and also influenced other writers.  E. M. Forster (at a much younger age) rewrote Colonus as a perfectly wonderful short story (“The Road to Colonus“) with a completely different ending.  In the story, the aging Mr. Lucas is touring Greece with his caring daughter Ethel.  The story starts with the sentences: “For no very intelligible reason, Mr. Lucas had hurried ahead of his party.  He was perhaps reaching the age at which independence becomes valuable, because it is soon to be lost.”  And, of course, we find out that it is already too late. We can all relate to that.  The party comes through the parched countryside to a ramshackle inn by a spring in a grove of trees.  An oasis of sorts.   Mr. Lucas finds some peace there by an old tree; he wants to stay; he wants to die there.  But unlike the obedient daughters of Oedipus, the efficient Ethel is having none of this.  He gets tricked into leaving and spends the rest of his life not exactly living with his daughter and her husband back in England.  We learn later that the inn was destroyed when the tree fell later that evening; Mr. Lucas was meant to die there but did not accept (or was not allowed to accept) his fate.  While his daughter Ethel says, “Such a marvelous deliverance does make one believe in Providence,” we are left to conclude that escaping Providence was a disaster for the poor old man living half a life in his daughter’s house back in England, forever complaining about the noise and forever being ignored.

Colonus is full of strange and mysterious occurrences.  So is life.  We can rage against the things we do not like (including our own mortality – think of Dylan Thomas’s advice that “Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light”).   However, if we rage on and on,  we may lose any ability to enjoy the parts of life that we do like.  “Our life is not as pitiful as you’d think,” says the elderly Oedipus, “as long as we find joy in every hour.”  This sounds a little like Lear’s speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison: We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage… and take upon’s the mystery of things.”  There is, perhaps, time in old age to take upon ourselves the mystery of things.  And to let them be. 

I drafted a novel once about the Great Books Institute which takes place every year at Colby College.  If you are interested in what my fictional readers had to say about Colonus, click here.

The Drama of Old Age – Eliot’s The Elder Statesman

 

I have written about last poems, last novels, and now a last play.  There are many wonderful last plays, many of them directly relating to old age.  T.S. Eliot wrote The Elder Statesman in 1958 when he was about 70; I first read it when I was in my 50s, then again at 63, and now as I am about to turn 70 myself.  It is both a heartening and scary play.  On the plus side, Eliot uses the word love more in this play than in all his other drama combined; on the scary side, imagine arriving at the nursing home only to find it populated by all the people you have wronged in life, all the people who know your darkest secrets.

Eliot stated that he partially based his play on another play by an even older playwright.  Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus when he was about 90.  Cicero tells a story about how Sophocles’ sons were not happy at how their elderly father was handling the family fortune.  They took him to court for incompetence and Sophocles defended himself by reading from Colonus.  So much for the sons.  But Elder Statesman is not a rewrite of Sophocles; it feels deeply personal.  One cannot help remembering that Eliot and his brother-in-law had locked his first wife away in an insane asylum; she had died there ten years before this play was written.  And here we have a play about the problems of the past, how to deal with regret for things that cannot be changed.  Any old person knows about this.

Much of Eliot’s late writing is religious (or spiritual) in nature, but there is no religion in Elder Statesman.  The protagonist, Lord Claverton, has just retired due to a failing heart and is facing the first period in his life with an empty appointment book.  He has a loving daughter and a renegade son.  And time to think.  But he does not have to dredge up his old sins; they come knocking on the door.  The youthful joyride where he ran over someone, the inappropriate love match that he let his father buy off, the younger friend whom he betrayed.  For most of us, these kinds of past sin just reside at the bottom of our consciousness; Eliot has them come to call.  The question to be answered is what to do about our past sins, our inner critic:

What is this self inside us, this silent observer,

Severe and speechless critic, who can terrorize us

And urge us on to futile activity,

And in the end, judge us more severely

For the errors into which his own reproaches drove us.

One of the things we sometimes do with our own faults is to project them on our children.  Lord Claverton does this with his son  Michael – always fearful that Michael has gotten into trouble with some woman or hurt someone while driving his sports car.  In the end, however, he realizes that the only lesson both he and his son have to learn is not to try to escape their responsibilities, the consequences of their own actions:

Come, I’ll start to learn again,

Michael and I shall go to school together.

We’ll sit side by side, at little desks

And suffer the same humiliations

At the hands of the same master.  But have I still time?

There is time for Michael.  Is it too late for me, Monica [his daughter]?

Is it too late?  The call, the question, the entreaty, the petition of the old – can I undo, can I atone, can I make restitution, can I learn the lesson?  This is a play and so the old man does learn a lesson and that lesson involves love – a very human kind of love.  Confession, yes, but not necessarily to a priest:

If a man has one person, just one in his life,

To whom he is willing to confess everything –

And that includes, mind you, not only things criminal,

Not only turpitude, meanness and cowardice,

But also situations which are simply ridiculous,

When he has played the fool (and who has not?) –

Then he loves that person and love will save him.

We all hope to be fortunate enough to have that person, to find that person.  For Claverton, it is his daughter.  But one has to be willing to confess.  In Colonus, Oedipus dies claiming he was not fully responsible for what happened to him and his family.  There surely is a sense in which our fates are ordained by circumstances – but almost never completely.  Oedipus says that old age teaches him acceptance:  “My experience and my length of days teach me to be content.”  I hope your old age has brought you acceptance and contentment.  If not, read The Elder Statesman and think about who you might not want to encounter in the rest home of your final years. 

Also, for a story about dealing with the sins of the past, try my story “Shrove Tuesday;” for more on T.S. Eliot, you might look at my blog from a year ago, “Eliot’s Gifts of Old Age.”