Projects of Our Old Age

As I sat down to write yet another story for my blog and pick out yet another piano piece to practice for my piano group, I realized I was in dire need of a new project.  For clarification, I am defining a project as an ongoing, long-term undertaking.  It may or may not have an end; for instance, it could be drafting a novel or the mastery of the Chopin Nocturnes.  (The latter would have no end in my case.) It usually takes more energy than I have these days to start something from scratch every time I sit down at my keyboard (computer or piano). This is how Simone de Beauvoir defended the need for projects in our old age:

…there is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning – devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work.  In spite of the moralists’ opinion to the contrary, in old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in upon ourselves.

Now, I don’t necessarily think that “turning in upon ourselves” in old age is a bad thing, and – in general – de Beauvoir trends far too negative about old age.  (She softened up as she aged.)  Old age offers a time for review and contemplation, and yet there is a need for something more active in our lives.  Some old people just do not retire from their vocations/avocations; some make family their project, caring for grandchildren or others in need. I have known elderly people who built model railroads or created unique birdhouses.  But we all need something of our own which gives us some feeling of accomplishment or worth.  And it does not matter whether it is ever completed.  I sometimes hear writers or scholars fret about taking on a large project when their time is getting short.  This always reminds me of a conversation between Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton (wouldn’t you like to have been at the table?) recounted in an interview Wendell Berry had with Tim DeChristopher entitled “To Live and Love in a Dying World.”  Berry is speaking:

It was the Shakers who were sure the end could come anytime, and they still saved the seeds and figured out how to make better diets for old people. Thomas Merton was interested in the Shakers. I said to him, “If they were certain that the world could end at any minute, how come they built the best building in Kentucky?”

“You don’t understand,” he [Merton] said. “If you know the world could end at any minute, you know there’s no need to hurry. You take your time and do the best work you possibly can.” That was important to me [Berry].  I’ve repeated it many times.

That piece of wisdom is important to me, too.  One thinks of the European cathedrals that took generations to complete.  Or Johnny Appleseed.  Or the Thoreau’s Artist of Kouroo.

But this ruminating still leaves me looking for a project.  I have file drawers full of manuscripts (fiction) I could edit and rework, but they hold little appeal.  For some reason when I have grappled with a problem in story or novel, the fine tuning fails to interest.  But in mid-life, I authored a lengthy dissertation (abstract found here) about the changes in our views of old age (as read through literature) that ensued with the start of the Enlightenment Period, at the dawn of Modernity, and I have long wanted to get back to it for two reasons.  For one, I am much older.  I finished my doctorate in my early fifties and had spent considerable time being the oldest student in the room.  My dissertation topic proves that age was on my mind.  But I want to review it from the perspective of my seventies.  I am not sure I was correct in my conclusions.  Or, at least, my generalizations lacked the texture that my own aging has added to abstract thoughts about what it means to grow old in a culture of progress, in a cult of youth, in an era of a deteriorating planet. 

I hope that there might be something in that research worth sharing.  I found it fascinating to look at how people in different ages regarded old age; it reminded me that our paradigm is not the only one.  Truly, in earlier eras not so many people reached old age as do now, but some did and the possibility was always there.  And ancient and medieval sources had much interest in the scope and purposes of a long life.   In the 6th century, Saint Benedict saw old age as a “truce” with God wherein we had time to “amend our misdeeds;” In the 14th century, William Langland saw senescence as an active enemy that knocked out his wits and his teeth.  Shakespeare saw aging as a time of loss; for him, the last stage of life “is second childishness and mere oblivion; /Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Sans everything.  I centered my dissertation on the encounter with the Struldbruggs in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. The Struldbruggs lived so long that the language and culture around them became unrecognizable, and they lived “under the Disadvantage of living like Foreigners in their own Country.”  Any of that sound familiar?

So, I hope to start that process soon and will post excerpts here from time to time.  Projects in old age do not have to be intellectual; they do not even have to be easily definable.  Tell me about your own projects, and look at my story “Again and Again and Again” for an example of one woman’s project, an undertaking both physical and mental, serving the purpose of such projects – keeping us whole in a time of dissolution.

No-Fly Zones and Old Fears


The current talk about no-fly zones in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war take me back to 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis.  My family was living in Florida then, and I think our terror was greater than some farther away.  The missiles that were being installed in Cuba were medium range – they might have been able to hit Washington DC but maybe not NYC.  In Florida we definitely felt at risk.  The fear was palpable.  The adults talked of nothing else.  We had exercises in school where we crouched out in the hall or under our desks.  Somehow, even at 11 years old – we all knew our desks would not protect us.

In our suburban neighborhood, everyone was constructing a fall-out shelter. My father dug a “shelter” in the dirt floor of the crawl space and stocked it with rice and canned goods.  It was pretty rough, and I could not really imagine how we all – and the dog – would live down there.  But I did try to imagine it – what it would be like to live in the fallout shelter for months, what it would be like to take a direct hit (even as children we knew this was the preferable way to go), what it would mean to die of radiation poisoning (not pleasant). It was the first time I heard (or thought about) people owning guns, as there was talk that you needed to have one stashed in your fallout cellar to deter your neighbors from taking it over or stealing your food.  Scary stuff. 

For the first time, perhaps, we felt like we were all confronting our mortality together.  But the crisis lasted 13 long days, and when it passed, we gradually forgot about it. Kennedy made some concessions in this instance to bring us that peace.  The concessions were never overtly acknowledged, but, in these times, it is good to remember that concessions can be a valuable tool for peace. In any case, the US and the USSR proved that they could work together to avert catastrophe This is when the hot line/red phone was installed between Washington and Moscow.   In the 1950s and 60s, there was a spat of movies about a nuclear apocalypse – try watching On the Beach or Fail-Safe. But, over time, we gradually forgot or repressed the danger.  We forgot, that is, until the discussion started about what we could do to help Ukraine, and how the use of no-fly zones would lead to nuclear war with Russia.

It seems inevitable that once we had nuclear weapons, someone would eventually use them.  We used them in WWII, with horrific results for the Japanese.  Scientists who worked on the bomb had remorse, and Oppenheimer and others saw no point in mankind building bridges, carrying on – as they felt that it was inevitable that the world would end in a nuclear holocaust.  The great polymath John von Neumann said: Technological possibilities are irresistible to man. If man can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.  He also said: It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.

That being said, it seems amazing that there has been so little general discussion of nuclear weapons over the decades since Kennedy and Khrushchev faced each other down.  I have to admit, they have not been much on my mind.  It is not a comfortable subject.  Maybe, like death, the Damocles Sword of possible atomic annihilation is something we know but do not acknowledge, do not allow ourselves to acknowledge. (Is climate change in this same category?)

In his “Thoughts in Time of War,” Freud talks about how war – even a war in which we might not be participants – forces us to acknowledge death, and considers whether this might be a good thing:

It is evident that war is bound to sweep away this conventional treatment of death.  Death is no longer to be denied; we are forced to believe in it.  People really die; and no longer one by one, but many, often tens of thousands, in a single day…. Would it not be better to give death the place in reality and in our thoughts which is its due, and give a little more prominence to the unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully suppressed?

I am indeed lucky to have reached the age of 70 without witnessing an atomic apocalypse, nor have I suffered much anxiety about it since 1962.  But I am thinking about it now again, and – as Freud says – war forces us to acknowledge our own mortality, even though most of the time “we were accustomed to behave as if it were otherwise.” 

I have never written a story about nuclear war – although I have ended the world with an asteroid (“Back to the Garden”) and an epidemic (The Last Quartet).  My story, “Last Things,” though, expresses one way of looking at the end of things – or the possible end of things.

Does Everyone Die Young?

I just read an intriguing book by Marc Augé, entitled Everyone Dies Young. Augé is a distinguished and famous anthropologist; he was eighty-one in 2016 when he published this slim volume of essays about old age.  It starts with the story of Mounette, his first cat, who aged without the psychological constraints that human beings struggle with as they age, and this cat yet knew her own limitations.  As Mounette aged, she gave up leaping to the beloved mantel and contentedly spent days in the sunshine in a soft chair by the window. When she could not leap onto the chair, she lay on the floor.  The old cat was not perturbed.  Like the elderly human, it had time.  Unlike the human, it had no age: “Time is a freedom, age a constraint.  The cat, apparently, does not know this constraint.”

We all feel the “constraint” of age in various ways.  Aches and pains remind us.  Other people remind us.  And then there is the mirror.  In medieval literature (Langland, Gower), the mirror is the vehicle which confronts us with our own age.  In “The Uncanny,” Freud tells of his surprise that the reflection of the old man in the window is his self.  Robert Graves and Thomas Hardy write poignant poems about what they see in the mirror.  They are alternately puzzled and outraged.  And why does the mirror sometimes surprise us?  Because we feel young inside.  That continuing self, the “person” that we were at twenty, is still there somewhere, but now is enshrouded with a wrinkled and faded façade. 

It is a truism that “you are only as old as you feel.”  Nevertheless, one of the worse things that our culture can say about our older comrades is that “they are showing their age,” which usually means they are “acting old” (never a good thing).  Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist, posited that feeling younger psychologically would have a positive effect on the physical body and did the famous “counterclockwise” experiment in which she moved a group of elders into an environment that mimicked (or maybe mocked) the world of 1959, the world of their youth.  They watched old television programs, read old magazines, discussed old headlines.  And there were no mirrors.  The staff treated them as if they were young; no one helped them with their luggage or condescended to them.  At the end of the week, they showed improvement in almost all measurable areas – cognitive, physical, perceptual.  Of course, there was no control group and perhaps the group just profited from attention, socialization, and respect from the staff.

We know this kind of thing works.  In this digital age, when our cell phone can design a radio program based on the music we listened to in our youth (and isn’t that the music we all love?), we get a lift as one old favorite after another conjures up scenes and emotions from the days when our whole life was in front of us.  We like talking about old times, particularly with someone who was there.  We enjoy re-reading the books and re-watching the movies that shaped our lives, and all of it is available to us with a few clicks.  We can bring 1959 back all by ourselves.

There is also the matter of memory.  Many old people have much better memories of fifty years ago then they do of last week.  True, we have had time to polish those memories, but they are there.  Augé says that “with regard to our pasts, we are all creators and artists.  We advance facing backward, forever observing and reconstructing the times gone by.”  We can remember the lyrics to a song we haven’t heard for decades and the name of the friend who bought us our first cigarette.  But, for dear life, we can’t remember the name of our neighbor’s husband.  We are youthful in memory.  Except in the face of physical ailments, we all feel young.

Augé ends with this from the title essay of Everyone Dies Young:

Time, as old age experiences it, is not the accumulated, ordered sum of the events of the past.  It is a palimpsest; everything inscribed there does not reappear, and sometimes the earliest inscriptions surface most easily.  Alzheimer’s disease is only an acceleration of the natural selection process of forgetting, at the end of which it seems that the most tenacious – if not the most faithful – images are often those of childhood.  Whether we delight in this fact or deplore it, because there is a share of cruelty in such an observation, we must nevertheless admit it:  everyone dies young.  (85)

I recommend Augé’s little book.  He approaches old age from the vantage point of being old and being trained as an anthropologist/ethnologist.  He encourages us to look at old age as a cultural as well as a biological construction. 

If you are interested in people and mirrors, you might try my old story, “Reflections.”  I don’t like looking in the mirror myself, but don’t seem to be able to avoid it.