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.

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