We know that life is change; we see it all around us. Yet, we value permanency, dream about lasting bliss. We celebrate significant birthdays, long tenures at jobs, endurance in marriages.   Individually, we want to remain the same and we want the people in our life to be stable and unaltered. Our fairy tales end with life happily ever after and our doxologies envision a world without end. But, of course, life is not like that, and our beliefs and desires for constancy set up a basic paradox that is the cause of much anxiety. And this may be particularly true regarding the changes of aging.

Intellectually, of course, we know that things change. After Darwin and Lyell, we learned transformation happens on a large and slow scale to the world around us.  (Although global warming may be speeding things up.) We know from our own observations that babies grow up, have children,  suffer successes and tragedies, cope or fail to cope,  and age. Yet, we choose to worship the illusive stability rather than the pervasive change. In our culture we have very few metaphors for the benefits of change; it is good to be as solid and stable as a rock, but it is not usually a compliment to be a chameleon or a shape-changer. And woe to the politician who admits to changing his mind! But – if we haven’t learned the lesson in earlier years – aging teaches us change in inevitable.

Ovid, of course, knew. He was at the end of an era which internalized myths in which physical metamorphoses were used to demonstrate the power – for good and bad – of change.   His tales (Metamorphoses) are full of transformation, starting from the changes that formed the earth, moving through the conversion of people to trees, birds, deer, and ending with alterations in his own world, including contemplations of the changes death will make on his own body. Ovid puts the most direct sermon on the subject of change, however, in the mouth of Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher of music, vegetarianism, and reincarnation who admonishes us (and note the word suffer in the last line):

                                                Remember this:
The heavens and all below them, earth and her creatures,
All change, and we, part of creation, also
Must suffer change.

            Ovid’s Metamorphoses are tales of change; while they may signify psychological or spiritual change, they are mostly stories of physical change. The intangible becomes manifest. Perhaps to understand change, we need a material phenomenon. Perhaps it takes powerful evidence to remind us that stability is an illusion. The fantastic is necessary for us to comprehend that reality is a constantly metamorphosing world around us. It is a paradox.

Ovid’s extraordinary changes also remind us that we cannot live without metaphors. (In another post, I will explore how metaphors for aging have changed over the years.) In the seventeenth century, the western world lost one set of metaphors, but eventually new ones appeared. The void must be filled. There are things that we cannot understand by thinking about them in abstract terms; we need metaphors and the imagination. Milton calls the imagination as the chief faculty serving reason:

But know that in the soul
Are many lesser faculties that serve
Reason as chief; among these fancy next
Her office holds. (Paradise Lost V)

Of course, we must remember that metaphors are simply correspondences, Correspondences that require imagination (fancy). Ovid inspired me to write a number of stories of metamorphoses set in the current era. I have started by posting “Gift to the Widows.” Let your fancy roam and see if it can bring anything back to nourish your reason. And feel free to chortle.


Dante’s Parabola


In this pleasing contrite wood-life which god allows me, let me record day by day my honest thought without prospect or retrospect, and, I cannot doubt, it will be found symmetrical, though I mean it not and see it not.

– Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days with a new baby, a lovely new baby. This special infant evoked lucid memories: adults making fools of themselves, the smells of spit-up and sweet baby skin, the rule of chaos in everything including time, and the utter vulnerability in which our species is born. But this time I noticed something else too. The little baby boy was staring very intently at one thing after another. Trying to make sense of the world.

Wordsworth claims that babies come into the world “trailing clouds of glory” and that former babies forget as the shabby realities of the world override the wonders of heaven. Be that as it may, surely babies are trying to make sense of what must seem like a confusing world. And we big folks work to convince them it’s a noble effort and that there is any sense to it all. We teach them labels for things (“Mama”) and, when they respond, we think they’ve really learned something. Maybe. In any case, babies often look intent and perplexed. This one certainly did.

In some cases it seemed the baby had figured things out – or been born knowing them. Our grandson certainly was able to communicate hunger or discomfort of any kind. And we watched him testing how much control he had over his own body – although whether he differentiated his body from his mother’s was unclear. Mostly our baby had a curious and puzzled look on his little face – and that got me thinking again about Dante’s parabola of human life.

If life is a parabola (related to the Greek word parabolē, which also gave us parable), it might be an interesting exercise to ponder the mathematical definition of a parabola, which is: “a curve where any point is an equal distance from a fixed point (interestingly call the focus) and a fixed line (called the directrix).” You can see a good diagram of this here.

In such a model, our lives would travel through time along what we would normally call the x-axis, which in this case is called the directrix – from birth to the left through death to the right. And we might note here that directrix is the archaic feminine form of the director. The directrix is the feminine axis of time. The three Fates were also women: Clotho, the spinner, Lachesis, the allotter, and Atropos, the unturnable.

So, if time (the directrix) is the horizontal axis, what is the vertical axis?   If Dante is right, it is the measure of perfection. And he says that it crests in the thirty-fourth year. Maybe true, at least in Dante’s day. Or might it be that with better sanitation and medical help, the peak might have migrated a little to the right? Does it matter? The point is that life’s trajectory goes up – and then goes down. But whatever we call it – growth, development, maturity – it goes through the same levels (think y-axis) going down as it went through going up.

Here’s another way to look at it: the distance from the focus is always changing, but there is always one point going up and one coming down where the distance is the same. A correspondence with an identical point on the y-axis. Birth with death, for instance. And certainly poets have been known to compare the process, the labor of being born with the labor of dying. Could there be other correspondences – menopause and adolescence, for example? Marriage with widowhood or divorce? Steady debilitation in old age with the steady development of children? Can we make comparisons? Can we take lessons from the first time we crossed these vertical markers and use them when we are on the same level on our way down? And what is that still point in the middle, the focus, from which all is measured?

One might think of the Buddha’s enlightenment. After trying to gain nirvana (or at least lasting peace and happiness) through severe ascetic practice – starving himself until he would touch his spine by putting his hand on his stomach – he suddenly remembered a moment from his childhood. As a young child, Siddhartha went to a ploughing festival with his father and was left to sit in “the cool shade of a rose-apple tree” – alone and safe and soon in a kind of self-induced rapture. It was not a rapture born of deprivation; it was a function of deep contentment. And in his adulthood he remembered and re-learned this lesson from his youth. He went back to learn something which taught him how to go forward. The rose-apple tree turned into the bodhi tree. An even better example might be Proust and the memory of the taste of a cookie he dipped in tea when a child. This memory at age fifty-one triggered the Remembrance of Things Past, a review of his life and a masterpiece. A taste and a memory. Parallel moments. Baudelaire said genius was “nothing more than childhood recovered at will.”   Think about that.

And think about the newest baby in our family trying to make sense of the world and more than a little perplexed by it all. And about the oldest member of our family who is also perplexed and getting more so every day. At the same horizontal point on the parabola perhaps, but headed in different directions.

I have attached a story, “Like Heaven,” about a woman at two points on her own parabola. I wrote this tale long ago when I was first thinking about the parabola parable. I am currently working on a novel where I pair diary entries over the course of a lifetime to explore whether the same issues come up as we rise along the arc of life and as we venture down the other side. It isn’t scientific and I’m not even sure the metaphor even holds, but, as I said, it is worth thinking about.

A Diminished Thing?

At the end of Frost’s poem, the oven bird asks the question: “What to make of a diminished thing?” The query follows the comparison of dusty late summer to the moist blossoms of spring. As a late autumn bird myself, I ask: Is old age a “diminished thing”? And, if it is, what do we “make of” it?

There are many metaphors for the trajectory of life: paths, ladders, steps, bridges. In his Convivio, Dante pictures the course of life as a parabola. We go up and we come down. The “high point” of the parabola is around age thirty-five, a date Dante comes to based on Christ’s death in this thirty-fourth year. “It was not fitting that his divinity should be present in something that was in decline.” What, exactly, is “in decline” in the latter part of life? What is “diminishing”? I can give you a long list: teeth, endurance, bone density, strength – and you may add your own infirmities. But, is there something waxing that compensates for that which is waning?

A vigorous old age should be celebrated and enjoyed (may you be so fortunate!). But, however expanded the life span, there will come a time when vigor will diminish, and we must have a story with which to comprehend this change in terms other than those of utter failure. Byron’s “So We’ll Go No More a Roving” and Burns’ “John Anderson, My Jo” both look back at younger days, but seem to be reconciled to the facts of age. But, in addition to being reconciled, might we not use the more contemplative opportunities of age to actively integrate all we have learned about life, all we have experienced?

David Galenson’s book on age and art, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, divides artists into two groups: conceptual geniuses who do innovative work early, and experimentalists, whose best work is the product of the slow accretion of learning, experience, and reflection – all of which occur in the later years. My favorite novel of old age, Sackville-West’s All Passion Spent, presents a woman intent on spending her old age in contemplation, life’s “last, supreme luxury.” There are compensations in age, but we cannot define them by the values of our culture and our own younger days – or we may be fighting a losing battle. “You are only as old as you feel” becomes an exhortation to feel younger, not to experience old age. And the loss of that experience would be diminishment indeed.

And it might be that acceptance is necessary for true appreciation of what age has to offer. Beethoven – one of those masters whose late work is his best – entitled the final movement of his Opus 135, “The Difficult Decision.” The ending of this string quartet is thought to be one of the last pieces of music Beethoven ever wrote. Over the notes he wrote the question, “Must it be?” He then responds to himself as the movement lightens and quickens: “It must be.” The music resolves itself; Beethoven himself seems to find resolve. There may be some energy in fighting the inevitable, but it is a fight we are destined to lose. And perhaps that energy could be put to better use.

The Buddha recommended that people ponder five reflections every day – on the nature and fragility of the body, on the body’s unavoidable aging and decay, on mortality, on the inevitability of separation from all we hold dear, and on karma – the fact that our happiness depends on our actions. While it all sounds harsh, the Buddha assures us that our equanimity depends on acceptance of the truth.

I have posted two stories (“The Birthday Paradox” and “A Perfect Ending”) about the diminishments and magnifications of age. As I have said, aging is one of the divergent problems of life. Aging has no formulaic solution, but this does not mean that attention should not be paid.


Possessing That Which Was Mine

A few weeks ago there was an op-ed piece in the Sunday Times by Ann Patchett entitled “My Year of No Shopping.”  It was one of those wonderful instances where the title told you exactly what the article was about, and Ms. Patchett did actually spend a year without purchasing anything but necessities (and books, but this aside might be redundant) and without perusing catalogs, tramping through malls, or (and this might be the chief benefit) surfing the internet. Now, Ms. Patchett is only fifty-four years old, young to be thinking about trimming her sails (see Emerson poem here), but wise enough to know that there must be a time to step back. Ann Patchett finds many of the things that she thinks she “needs” somewhere in the house – for example, she unearths enough lip balm and face cream to last the duration. But she finds other things, too – such as a renewed appreciation for what she already has – and a ton of time to think about and do other things.

As we age in this era of technology, information, and consumerism, there is a constant pressure to keep up – not to be the old lady who not only has no idea about all the things her iPhone can do, but has one that is five generations old. I thought about this quite a bit a while back, in a way that overlaps with the methodology and reasoning of Ms. Patchett. And I did what I often do when I am mulling something over – I wrote a story. “Nothing New,” is attached here. I have not practiced what my protagonist resolves at the end of the story, but I have become more conscious and reflective about what new things I take into my life. And if you continue to read my blog about life and aging, you will realize I believe more in reflection than I do in action and more in retrospective contemplation than I do in further mental accumulation. More on this later.

This may evoke Philip Larkin’s sentiments in “Winter Palace”: “Most people know more as they get older; / I give all that the cold shoulder.” My motivations are slightly different than Mr. Larkin’s, however. Mine are more akin to those of Borges’ prisoner “The God’s Script,” who has no access to the new and is thrown back on what he already knows:

Impelled by the fatality of having something to do, of populating time in some way, I tried, in my darkness, to recall all I knew…. Gradually, in this way, I subdued the passing years; gradually, in this way, I came into possession of that which was already mine.

And, unlike Ann Patchett, I might also limit books. In another one of Borges’ stories, a wise man from the future tells a man from the past that “it is not the reading that matters, but the re-reading.” As we age, we cannot possibly keep up with the best seller lists, recommendations, treasures in the remainder pile. As Ecclesiastes reminds us: “Of making many books there is no end.” But there is an end to life and there is a time for review and reflection – and, perhaps, for a limit to the new.