Aging Deliberately

I have always been challenged by Thoreau’s ambition to live life intentionally, with purpose and awareness: “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” To live life deliberately. It seems like such an obvious and worthwhile goal.

I first read Walden in college. By then, it was too late to live my childhood deliberately – and is that even possible? For most of us, choices as to how we lived were severely limited until we were emancipated from our families. Our diets, our activities, our free time were all greatly prescribed. And the nuclear family meant that we often were not even aware that other choices existed. Do you remember how shocked you were when you ate a meal or spent the night at a friend’s house and realized that people did things differently? At six years old, I visited a house where the children were allowed to operate the television by themselves! Who knew?

During adolescence and young adulthood, hormones and the drive for emancipation drove me, drove most of us. And then, quickly enough, I was driven by my career and children. And too busy to think about much else. How else does one get through those years but by ploughing ahead with blinders on? When I visit my children now and watch them cope with young children and jobs and all the juggling of such a life, I still couldn’t tell you how it’s done – except that, under the circumstances, one has to suspend doubt that one can do it.

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I really had time to pause and think about the shape of my life. There wasn’t much that I could do about the past (except make sure I was telling myself a truthful story – but more on that another time), but the future stood out as a time of … my own. Soon I would not have to work anymore, would not have to live in a given place or a prescribed way, would not have direct responsibility for anyone except my partner and myself. But didn’t Janice Joplin warn us: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”? Freedom itself can lead to futility, despair.

Jeannette Winterson says that the “question, ‘How shall I live?’ is fierce.” It is perhaps the only question. For so much of our lives things seem out of our control, and in our latter years we are, of course, subject to the decay and disease of our bodies. And yet. Surely facing deterioration and death is among the things we can do deliberately, unless we are robbed of this ability by dementia (which is just one of the things that is heartbreaking about that condition).

Here is Montaigne in his essay “Experience”:

We are great fools. “He has passed his life in idleness,” say we: “I have done nothing today.” What? Have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious, of your occupations. “Had I been put to the management of great affairs, I should have made it seen what I could do.” “Have you known how to meditate and manage your life? You have performed the greatest work of all.” … Have you known how to regulate your conduct, you have done a great deal more than he who has composed books. Have you known how to take repose, you have done more than he who has taken empires and cities.

So as we retire, we might ask ourselves Montaigne’s implied question, “Have you known how to take repose?” and realize its importance. In his repose, Montaigne looked inward and wrote his essays.

Of course, not all courses are open to us. How we (or the vagaries of life) have prepared our bodies and minds for this last part of life is consequential. Lord Bolingbroke who was forced into retirement in 1735 at age 57, wrote a treatise on study and retirement.  He reminds us such study “would have been agreeable and easy if he had accustomed himself to it early, will be unpleasant and impracticable late: such men lose their intellectual powers for want of exerting them, and, having trifled away youth, are reduced to the necessity of trifling away age. It fares with the mind just as it does with the body.” Cicero expresses similar concerns about dayspring mishandled in his essay on old age. But within the limits of our bodies and minds and preparation, choices still must be made. Old age is different from youth; to ignore the opportunities and challenges it presents will lead us to senescence mishandled.

Carl Jung always insisted that the stages of life had different purposes. “We cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” You can read Jung’s “Stages of Life” for his advice on how to spend your old age, but, hey, we’ve lived a long time. Maybe we can figure it out for ourselves. And then do it. Deliberately.

This week’s story, “Essentials,” is not about old age, but it is about the challenge we face at every stage of life – how to make life meaningful. How to live – within the parameters with which we are faced – with intensity and deliberation and good intent.

Geriatric Homesteading

In its original sense (at least in the US), homesteading referred to staking out a piece of land to work and live on and therefore, after a period of time, take title. In more recent years, we’ve had urban homesteading, where vacant properties are allotted provided the residents inhabit and improve them. The emphasis is on continual residence creating a right of ownership. As I started thinking about elderly people I know, I thought we might be seeing a different kind of homesteading. And I’m not sure whether it was a good or bad thing.

Consider the case of a woman who is in her mid-eighties and lives alone in her house. She has had major and minor accidents, been in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities, but hangs onto her house for dear life. The house was not necessarily designed for the elderly; it is on one floor but the driveway is steep (the cause of one major accident) and the house is not handicapped accessible in all ways. It is also a long distance from the people who most want to support my friend – her children, who travel and take time away from home and work to help out. Right now, my friend has gone home with her daughter for a while after some surgery which she was recovering from slowly. But she’ll be back. My friend is clinging to the house with all she has. What does it represent?

Independence, I suppose. Although the fact that it is in a suburb and requires a car (and that’s another subject) for any kind of shopping, meaning that my friend (who still owns a car, but often cannot drive because of temporary disability) requires assistance. She is lucky; people are willing to help. Her children make great sacrifices to come back and forth, but they too seem willing. This has gone on for about three years now. Why is my friend hanging onto her house with such tenacity?

Perhaps because the alternatives are not attractive: elderly housing, assisted living, nursing homes? They have the aura of the funeral parlor about them. They are not “home.” What is home? Frost said it was the “place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And if it’s your own home you, of course, have control. Loss of control is one of our greatest fears.

We have mythologized the value of home ownership in this country; John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that:

Your homestead’s title gives you all
That idle wealth can buy.

Your home gives you privacy. Sovereignty. But there is no one there in the middle of the night to help the sovereign, and it often takes a consortium of people to keep elderly people in their homes. These are stubborn homesteaders, holding out against the advice of friends, appeals by realtors, and the pleading of over-burdened children.

I don’t have an answer. I have seen enough elderly housing and assisted living centers to understand why they are avoided. One thinks fondly of European granny cottages in a child’s backyard, but this is often neither legal nor practical. I do not have a solution – but we should have one. When the boomers started to reproduce in large numbers, we created suburbs. Now that these boomers are reaching senescence, we need to invent something else. Something as appealing as suburbia was in the 1950’s. Something that works.

Houses are powerful symbols. For Jung, the house (in dreams) represented the personality with its many rooms, its order and disorder. But the house is also representative of the body; “Ain’t goin’ to need this house no longer” says the old Gospel song. In the Bible, we are told that God has many mansions for the blessed, and one of the oldest mnemonic devices was making our mind into a house or palace and storing needed information in the many rooms where it can be retrieved – Napoleon used this method and so did Sherlock Holmes. For many, our original homes take on an Edenic quality – my mother in her dementia and confusion longs for her childhood home.

Often, I think of my friend alone in her house and wonder what will happen if she wakes up disoriented in the night. Or if she trips over her little dog (pets being another reason the elderly cling to home). I think of her children – although I am old, I have a mother and mother-in-law still living. I know about the care of elderly relatives far away. And I think of the people without homes. Street people, refugees, prisoners. There should be a better solution to this, but it is part of the “blight that man was born for” which all of us and Hopkins “mourn for.” But, still, we could do better.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of old folks squatting in their deteriorating homes and becoming increasingly defensive toward anyone who tries to move them. I think again of Frost and his description of a very elderly farmer, alone in his drafty house on a frigid winter’s night, nodding by the fire:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

It’s “thus” that they do it, and it’s both heroic and sad. But it’s preferable – to them, if not to the rest of us.

The story this week, “Option to Buy,” is about the potent symbol of houses – and maybe a little about the difference between a house and a home.

Failed Generation?

A while back, I was listening to Krista Tippett interviewing the Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli (author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I can recommend as a good primer for those of us who learned our last physics in high school). In talking about his past, Rovelli said this (in his charming Italian accent):

I spent my youth traveling and being a little bit revolutionary in the Italian politics of the time. And at some point, we wanted to change the world. I’m of that generation; we failed. And at some point, I just fell in love with physics…

Now, Rovelli is a little younger than I am, but apparently he saw himself as a child of the sixties – those days when we were going to “change the world.” He says “we failed.” And I thought that was worth thinking about.

And then in Sunday’s NY Times in an article about movies of the sixties, I read this:

“A revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao Zedong said, but this revolution was also a party, and left behind a legacy of hedonism. Rather than tearing down the consumer society, the ’68 students helped to open it up. Their generation is remembered more for its embrace of sexual freedom and personnel fulfillment, for a social transformation enacted in the realm of the personal.

We were the children of the “greatest generation” that fought the wars (World War II or Korea or both) that saved the world for democracy. Big shoes to fill and we tried to fill them in a way that often pitted generation against generation. Fights over the dinner table about draft resistance and whether girls should wear “dungarees.” Protests at the state house about civil rights and women’s rights. And, in many of these crusades, we did not fail. There were new civil rights laws, the Vietnam War came to an end, women wore jeans and entered the workplace in huge numbers. And yet.

We did not seem to learn any lessons from Vietnam. Black Lives Matter is not a given for many of our citizens. The ERA was never passed. Women went to the workplace, but still did most of the work at home. And the president who was most recently elected could not be more different from the young president who inspired us.

Rovelli is right; at some point we grew weary with taking on the world and fell in love – with our partners, our children, our careers, new technology and avocations. And here we are looking out over the environmental and political wasteland that somehow happened when we were paying for our children’s education, learning to use a scanner, and scouting out retirement locations. We had to make a living; we had to start trusting people over thirty when they were us. We let things slide.

And there was something we forgot (if we ever really knew it). There was another part of the boomer generation; these were the people who went to Vietnam willingly, who felt that integration and the sexual revolution were forced on them. While many of us gloried in what technology could bring us in the way of iPads and cell phones, many of them were losing jobs to robotic technology. While some us saw increased globalization as a way to have cool cars (remember the VW buses?) and exotic vacations, other saw their livelihoods move to Mexico or the Philippines. These members of our own generation – and their parents and children – would seem to have elected our current president, to have pressed the brake on change – hard and with the force of resentment. Read Hillbilly Elegy. Listen to Fox News (but don’t listen long).

When we rebelled, our parents did not agree with us, but they eventually came around. They loved us. But there was a big part of the boomer generation that found the change too hard and too fast. It hit at their basic values. Some took solace in religion, some in patriotism, and others in their own kind of rebellion, their own kind of Tea Party. Why couldn’t we win them over? Did they see that the college kids were just going through a phase and then returning (with their degrees) to a secure middle class life? How did we fail to connect?

Our generation accomplished much and we are still kicking. Old ladies in tennis sneakers are a powerful force and provide the backbone of many good causes. But somewhere we failed.

Many of us lament the fact that the younger generation does not seem to feel the need to change the world that some of us felt. Yet, we see the murmurings begin with the students from Parkland, from the persistence of Black Lives Matter. And, to be honest, our generation had the impetus of the draft at our back threatening our brothers or boyfriends or selves. But, you say, the young have an environment that is crumbling around them. It’s their world they are watching lapse into environmental and political chaos. I still believe they will act. But, whatever they do, let’s hope they do it in an inclusive way. Including all members of their generation. And us too. We still have our tennis sneakers.

This week’s story, “Common Enemy” (from the Sam Levenson quote “the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy”), is not about politics, but, well, I’ll let you decide what it’s about….

Failing Bodies and the Failing Planet

First of all, you must read The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is a powerful novel –a story in the best and oldest sense of the word – about trees, nature, and the place of humanity in the cosmos. And it’s about psychology – how much we are affected by our peers, our culture, how hard it is to step aside, how dangerous it can be to think outside our conditioning, but also how necessary. The mood of the book is at once lyrical and dire. Humankind does not appreciate the intricacy and power of nature and seems not to want to learn.

As elders, we will be especially moved by this book and its characters, many of whom we follow into old age. We will want to warn the next generation. But how are the old (myself, the author, all of us) to tell the young and the disenfranchised that they cannot have what we had – new cars, wooden houses, air conditioning in home and vehicle, all of it?  And we had it without guilt. We had the advantage of not giving any thought to clearing a lot, building a house, driving a big car just for the fun of it, having as many children as we could afford to support – and never considering what the earth could support.

We know better now. In part, we learned from our own bodies. We are paying for our early smoking, drinking, drugs. We take statins, use inhalers, go to physical therapy. Athletes are getting joints replaced and hoping they did not land on their heads too many times. Surgeons replace arteries clogged with the fat we ingested thoughtlessly. Dayspring mishandled. And as we retire, we have time to look around at our devastated planet – a devastation that we funded with our new houses and cars and expectations that progress meant we could have more and more. Our bodies and minds know that perpetual progress is a myth. We know this as we nurse our knees and grope for that name we can’t remember. We know this by going back to the neighborhood where we grew up and looking for the woods we played in. The planet too has paid for our mistakes: global warming, plastic continents floating on the ocean, butterflies that never return.

In the middle ages there was the idea that the human body was a microcosm of the universal macrocosm – and each individual grew old in this post-lapsarian world just as the world also grew older, decayed from its Edenic beginnings. But the Enlightenment assured us the world was progressing, not regressing. In the seventeenth century, George Hakewill made an early appeal for the idea that life on earth, that earth, was improving, progressing – and yet even he realized what this meant for the idea of microcosm/macrocosm: “And though whiles I have laboured to free the world from old age, I feele it creeping upon my selfe.”

But the truth is, whether or not humans are accurate microcosms of creation, we are most definitely part of the macrocosm and most definitely not in charge – as much as it might temporarily seem so. In trying to overcome and overwhelm the natural world, we have forgotten we are only part of that world. Irretrievably imbedded in the macrocosm. It is true of a tree; it is true of homo sapiens.

One of my favorite characters in The Overstory is the (fictional) scientist Patricia Westerford – at one point she says: “Trees stand at the heart of ecology. And they must come to stand at the heart of human politics. Tagore said, Trees are the earth’s endless efforts to speak to the listening heaven. But people – oh, my word – people! People could be the heaven the Earth is trying to speak to.”

This novel is full of stories and statistics that will frighten you. They should frighten you. But it is also full of the glory of creation. There is a theory (from Carl Sagan among others) that if humanity was evolved by creation for a purpose, we are perhaps an effort by the cosmos to become aware of itself. Through us. Perhaps our task is not to overcome, but to appreciate. Old people should be good at this. We are also, perhaps (because elders have often stepped out of economic and romantic competition), capable of what one of the characters in Powers’ book calls unbinding. His question is this: Can people come to independent moral decisions that run counter to their tribe’s beliefs? Unbinding. Seeing things outside of cultural norms.

We have lived long enough to know the costs to the world we live in for the lives we have led. To recognize the difference between cost and value. Look around you. Unbind. And read the book. Richard Powers says it far better than I can.

And for more on trees, look at my “Fable About a Soccer Mom.”

 

 

The Mirror of Age

There is a footnote in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” which all of us can identify with:

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jerk of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that he had been about to leave the washing-cabinet which divides the two compartments, and had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass of the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance.

First, we must remember that Freud has defined “uncanny” as the “mixture of the familiar and the eerie.” And, in this case, it was his own image as an “elderly gentleman” that was uncanny. And so, perhaps, it is with old age. The face is familiar but the transformation can sometimes be…eerie. I think part of it is because when we look at our own faces in the mirror or at the faces we love, we see a vision anchored to the past. It is only when we unexpectedly identify ourselves as a stranger that we can see what we really look like to others.

The old face in the mirror is a familiar motif –we see it in poetry. In both Robert Graves’ “Face in the Mirror” and Thomas Hardy’s “I Look into My Glass,” the poet contrasts the visage he sees with how he feels inside. Graves is puzzled:

I pause with razor poised, scowling derision
At the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention,
And once more ask him why
He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption,
To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.

Hardy is more outraged as he views his “wasting skin” and wishes his heart would also waste away:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

For babies, the “mirror stage” starts a process of physical identity. For the aging person, the mirror may serve as an agent of disintegration rather than integration; a secure sense of the physical self developed when young – and as young – is displaced by the changing body in the mirror: “The I or ego which is developed in the mirror stage of infancy is structured precisely to resist the anxiety of bodily fragmentation. In old age, with one’s position reversed before the mirror, the ego finds it more difficult to maintain its defenses” (Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents). Fragmentation rather than integration – no wonder we are disoriented.

Still, we have wonderful self-portraits of artists like Rembrandt in their old age. A triumph of the spirit looks out of Rembrandt’s wrinkled eyes. I have lasted, Rembrandt seems to say, despite and because of this old, battered body. We know Rembrandt used a mirror for his many self-portraits. Clearly he came to terms with what he saw. Such self-examination is not easy, but I think it would be a worthwhile exercise.

The old, deaf, and presumed mad (I’m not so sure) Jonathan Swift, upon being led across a room in his dotage, caught sight of himself in a mirror and cried out “O poor old man.” And so cry we all. But, near the very end, Swift was found rocking himself and muttering “I am what I am, I am what I am.” There is a truth in the mirror. We can deny it, but it is part of who we are and it cannot be rejected anymore than can the self/soul that peers out of the reflected eyes.

Yes and Hesse and Old Age

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Spinoza and the value of cheerfulness. I took some criticism for promoting baseless optimism; surely this is not what I (or Spinoza) intended. Let me try again.

Cheerfulness is a way of saying yes to what life presents. Think of Molly Bloom saying yes to life and all it entails. Remember Paul telling the Corinthians that Jesus was never about yes or no, but always about yes. Consider Nietzsche sharing his “highest insight”:

This final, most joyful, effusive, high-spirited yes to life is not only the highest insight; it is also the most profound, the most rigorously confirmed and supported by truth and study. Nothing in existence should be excluded, nothing is dispensable …. To understand this requires courage….

Yes! An affirmation of life, the start to approaching life with… cheerfulness. As one definition has it: an ungrudging attitude toward life.
One of the best (and most neglected) writings on old age is a collection (Hymn to Old Age) that Hermann Hesse pulled together from his own letters and other writings. At age seventy-five, Hesse talks about getting to yes in regard to life – and specifically in regard to old age:

An old man who only hates his white hair and his proximity to death is as unworthy a representative of this phase of life as a young, strong man who hates his job and his daily work and tries to get out of them. In brief, if an old man is to achieve his goal and do justice to his task, he must be in accord with age and everything that age brings with it – he must say yes to all of it. Without this yes, without acceptance of what nature demands of us, we lose the value and sense of all our days – whether we are old or young – and we betray life.

Hesse is thought of as a great influence on the young. We all read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf when we were young. If we were lucky we read Glass Bead Game when we were a little older. But Hesse lived to be eighty-five and he had what seems to be an admirable old age. And he “gratefully give(s) names to the gifts that are given to us by age”:

For me the dearest of all these gifts is the treasure of images which after a long life we carry in our memory, and to which with the decline of our active powers we turn with a different attitude from ever before…. Looking, observing and contemplating increasingly becomes a habit, an exercise, and imperceptibly the mood and approach of the watcher permeates all our actions… today, gently leafing through the great picture book of our own life, we are amazed at how good and beautiful it can be to have escaped the hunt and the headlong rush and to have landed safely in the vita contemplativa. Here, in this garden of old men, many flowers blossom which earlier we would never have thought of cultivating. There blooms the flower of patience, a noble plant, and we become calmer, more tolerant, and the less we insist on actively intervening, the greater becomes our ability to watch and listen to the life of nature and the lives of our fellow humans, and to let it all pass us by without criticism but with renewed amazement at the vast diversity, sometimes taking part or silently regretting, and sometimes laughing with shining joy and humour.

Hesse “gratefully give(s) names to the gifts that are given to us by age.” One might compare Eliot’s “gifts reserved for old age” from “Little Gidding.” Eliot’s gifts are mostly in the negative, he’s not nearly as… cheerful as Hesse. Hesse says yes to it all. Hesse is realistic, though; his paean to old age includes the aches and pains and disappointments of himself and his fellow travelers. But in the end: “Age is not worse than youth; Lao Tse is not worse than Buddha. Blue is not worse than red. Age is only pathetic when it wants to play at being young.”

Interestingly, Hesse wrote an early novel (while in his thirties) about the old called In the Old Sun. It is good, but does not have the ring of truth we find in the selections from A Hymn to Old Age. In the latter, Hesse has been to the mountaintop and back down to the valley – and he is still cheerful.

This week I have posted the story “The More Loving One,” with a nod to Auden.  It is about a dying father’s gift to his daughter, a gift that has to do with saying “yes.”

 

Second Growth

For anyone interested in the process of aging, one could do worse than perusing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals. Emerson lived to be almost seventy-nine, and kept a journal between the ages of seventeen and seventy-two. Not only do we read about his transit through time, but he relates the development and aging of his friends – and Emerson’s friends were wonderful people indeed.

I have conscientiously kept a journal for the past fifteen years; in the writing, it has been therapeutic; in its existence (particularly with the aid of the word processor’s search feature), it has been an aid to memory; in its chronology, it has helped me understand my own journey through time. I wish, though, that I had such documentation of earlier crises in my life, as I rely on my memory – both historical and emotional – to try to make some sense out of things retrospectively, which I believe is part of the mission of old age. And one’s own memory can be a sly fox. Of course, there remains the problem of what to do with the written details of one’s life and thought when the end of life (or mind) comes, but for now it is a priceless resource (to me). More on this in another post (as well as hints as to how to journal consistently), but back to Emerson.

In a journal entry that Emerson made in February 1862 (he was fifty-seven), he gives us his thoughts on a second growth in old age, as well as a comment from his friend Thoreau (what wouldn’t you give to go on a long walk with those two?):

[Oliver Wendell] Holmes came out late in life with a strong sustained growth for two or three years, like the old pear trees which have done nothing for ten years, and at last begin to grow great. The Lowells come forward slowly, and Henry Thoreau remarks that men may have two growths like pear trees.

And this got me thinking about… dandelions. For one thing, it is that time of year in North Carolina. For another, dandelions have two “growths,” two “blossomings.” One day on a walk, I began wondering about dandelions (having seen a wonderful crop of them). How do they metamorphose from a yellow bloom to a white one with no “transitional” blossoms? As I got down on my haunches and investigated more closely, it seemed that the golden bloom closed up again and then reopened as the white feathery blossom – I found this diagram of the dandelion life cycle:

dandelion

 

So, the blossom is twice born – once to youth, beauty, color, and sexual purpose (attracting those bees), and the second time to lightness, airiness, ultimate dispersal, and perhaps rebirth. In-between, there is a period of rest, a closing down, a respite. It might behoove us to think of our whitening heads as such a second flowering.

For those of you interested in Emerson’s journals (which are voluminous), I recommend the abbreviated Heart of Emerson’s Journals, edited by Bliss Perry. For those of you interested in Emerson’s life, I recommend Mr. Emerson’s Wife, by my friend Amy Belding Brown.

For a story this week, you might go back to “Again and Again and Again” for a tale of Walden Pond, or you can read the prospectus for a novel (I actually did write the novel several years later), included here as “A New Fable of Old Age.” This started as a thought experiment in which the old are forced into a second growth. I apologize for my tardiness in posting this time; we have been visiting our elderly mothers. Perhaps more about that too at a later date.