I traveled over the holidays – probably not a wise decision, but it seemed like a necessary one at the time. As I double-masked, waited in long lines, and prayed that our flight crew did not call in sick, I pondered why I was doing this at seventy years of age. Open question. But the question of age and its benefits and disadvantages kept coming back to me during this time as we approach the end of 2021 and the prospect of another year gone.
Nothing has changed in the past few decades as much as air travel. So, I separated my liquids and made sure our fruit cake was not wrapped in aluminum foil. When I came to the front of the airport security line, I asked a TSA employee if I needed to remove my shoes. I tend to get dizzy bending down so I would have liked to avoid untying my sneakers, not to mention pattering around on my socks on a dirty airport floor. The nice young man asked how old I was, and I told him (70). He smiled and said that the limit was 75, but I should just lie next time because they never check. Nevertheless, I make it a policy never to fib to people who can put me on a “no fly” list, so I guess I will keep taking my shoes off. But the encounter got me thinking about uses of age – we want to be old to qualify for keeping our shoes on, for Social Security and Medicare (especially Medicare!), for early Covid vaccinations, for senior discounts, but we don’t want any age restrictions on driving, employment, credit, or any other parts of our lives. I have a 95-year-old relative who says she is too old if confronted with something she doesn’t want to do, but alternately asserts that she is so old that she can do anything she wants to do in the face of any kind of limitations (regardless of protest from the near and dear). Ahhh…. In a way, this is all of us.
Centuries ago, there was little concept of age restrictions on the old; neither was there much sympathy for retirement. Pope Celestine became the first pope to “abdicate” at age 79 (in 1294) for which he was much maligned; he wanted to become a hermit. Celestine even makes it into one of Dante’s circles of hell for his “great refusal.” The whole point of King Lear seems to be (at least at first glance) that the old man let go of the rei(g)ns too soon.
Early modern times did make some allowances for the old. At sixty, one could not be forced into military service and at seventy an elder was exempt from jury duty. (The latter is of interest to me as I have a jury duty notice and, in my state, the automatic exemption age is 72 and I don’t quite make it.)
But, in general, the old were expected to carry on to the extent of their capabilities. To be excused from service to the House of Lords, for example, age was generally not enough. The important imperative to persevere, however, was more ethical than legal, and in it was embedded the assumption of the duty of the old to be wise and to impart that wisdom to the young. When the Fool admonishes Lear that “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” he paraphrases the words that Lucrece addresses to Priam as she views a tapestry depicting the deception of Sinon (in the Bard’s “Rape of Lucrece”): “Priam, why art thou old, and yet not wise?” Regardless of her age, no one expected or wanted the Virgin Queen Elizabeth to retire in Shakespearean England (and the current Queen Elizabeth apparently assumes this is still the case).
Again, I am also focused on numbers because we are headed toward the countdown for a new year. (I will be asleep when the ball actually falls.) What will 2022 bring besides making me another year older (if I live through it)? I have a habit of making resolutions in my journal every year, but last year’s entry was mostly about my hope that Covid would disappear. That has been a disappointment for us all. I hope for more good days, more ordinary days. I pray with the Psalmist that life will even out, and that God will “make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil” (Psalm 90), that there will be a return to normality, good days to make up for the bad, normal to balance the abnormal. But maybe such strict accounting is not necessary; as Frost says, “Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.” If Frost is right, numbers surely do not matter.
My new year story, “Amnesia at the Airport,” was prompted by memory and my recent air travel. It compares the fantasies of youth with the realities of age, and I hope it also points out the advantages of each. You might also take a look at my blog on Baby New Year and Old Father Time. Cheers!