Life on the Margins

If you look up the word margin in the dictionary, you will find an assortment of meanings.  For writers and readers, of course, the margin is the white space around a text – a very good place to enter long edits (if you are a writer) and an excellent spot to pencil comments (if you are a reader).  One of the best reasons to buy used books is to read someone else’s marginalia.

The capitalist definition of margin is the difference between the cost of something and its selling price.  It can also be a way of buying stock for a fraction of its price by using other investments as collateral (risky).

Margin also has an environmental meaning.  A century ago or more, it was commonly used to signify the seashore or the edge of a forest or brook.  Wordsworth penned a memorable poem about daffodils “along the margin of the bay.”  Ostracized characters, like Hester Prynne, often lived on the margins of civilization – literally and figuratively.

Margins in nature– the edge of the sea, a hedgerow, the place where forest meets prairie, are often generative for wildlife, for all life.  Rachel Carson was much taken with the margins of the world.  In The Edge of the Sea, she wrote:

Looking out over the cove I felt a strong sense of the interchangeability of land and sea in this marginal world of the shore, and of the links between the life of the two. There was also an awareness of the past and of the continuing flow of time, obliterating much that had gone before, as the sea had that morning washed away the tracks of the bird.

Today, the word margin (when not being used in the capitalist sense) often has a negative connotation – “life at the margins” is not pleasant and no one wants to be “marginalized.”  Perhaps there are ways that living in the margins might not be entirely negative.  Maybe seniors should reconsider the term, perhaps adopt it, own it.

Surely, old folks also have a sense of life on the margins, our rich past bumping up against the “continuing flow of time.”  As old folks, we are at the margins of life, at the edge of the shore, the forest, the main text.  At the edge between life and death.  And there is a value in that position.  A few decades ago, there was a review of old age in literature entitled The Margin That Remains.

A couple of years before his death, Thomas Merton wrote in his journal: “I am glad to be marginal.  The best thing I can do for that ‘world’ is stay out of it – in so far as one can.”  Glad to be marginal. Me too.  Seniors are fortunate to be able to step out of the mainstream, to review and assess a long life, to enjoy the benefits of a greater perspective and a wide margin to our days.  Do you remember when you had babies in the house and you did not even have the margin of time to go to the bathroom alone?  Or when you were working full-time, parenting, trying to make a home, and even your appointment calendars had no margins?  I surely appreciate the margins of my elder years.

It is also interesting to think about where we gather on the margins – where the biggest gatherings of “white hairs” are.  From my experience white hairs (including those so old that they don’t bother with the Clairol anymore) and bald heads proliferate at traditional churches, at classical music concerts, at Memorial Day observances, at live theater, and perhaps on cruise ships.  With the possible exception of the last, these have become “marginal activities.”  Will they survive us?

Recently I wrote an appreciation of old lady detectives, who operated at the outer margin of life and from the margins of society – and used it to their advantage.  We should all be looking for that advantage.  I also promised you a new story about an elderly female detective.  “Case of the Missing Husband,” however, took a direction I didn’t expect.  Hope you enjoy.

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