Death as a Divine Messenger

A good slice of great literature (and even greater percentage of myth) concerns our relationship with death.  How can we cope with the inevitability of it?  Or, how can we trivialize it? Or, better yet, avoid it?

Sometimes, this literary grappling with death takes the form of a trip to the underworld, the land of the dead.  Some such ventures are heroic – Heracles goes as part of one of his labors, Orpheus visits  to rescue Persephone.  Some seek information  – Odysseus wants to know how to get back home, back to Ithaca; Aeneas wants to know his destiny.  Some represent a pilgrimage for wisdom – like Dante in the “middle of life’s journey.”  Virgil both gets to write about the underworld in the Aeneid and to accompany Dante on his perambulations through heaven and hell.  More recently we have Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.  Each story is trying to make sense of life and death, trying to come to terms with mortality.

Many of such stories begin when a young person is scared by an encounter with death.  The Buddha was frightened into leaving his royal palace at the sight of a corpse.  For the young Siddhartha death was a “divine messenger.” Gilgamesh was completely undone by the death of his friend Enkidu, and ventures out to find the secret to immortality.  And, in the Katha Upanishad, the teenage Nachiketa is sent by his father to find out “the secret of life and death.”  In Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, a trio of young men set out to find Death in a spirit of revenge after the demise of one of their companions.

Poetry too deals with how to conquer death in a metaphoric fashion.  Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146 is an admonition to elevate the soul above the body, and ends: “So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men, /And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”  John Donne also vanquishes death at the end of one of his Holy Sonnets: “Death, thou shalt die.”  Oh, that it were so easy.

Sometimes, the initial fear of death prompts the protagonist to explore methods of immortality.  This is where Gilgamesh starts, in search of the magic plant that will allow him to stay both young and immortal.  In legend (if not in fact), Ponce de León searched high and low for the fount of immortality.  In the 16th century, Cranach painted a wonderful representation of it – old naked bodies going into the fountain and young bodies coming out.  Silicon Valley is obsessed with immortality projects.  But most of literature and myth (with notable exceptions) does not ultimately deal with death by denying it will happen.  Most – like even the saga of Gilgamesh – end with a reconciliation with death rather than the annihilation of it.  Thomas Merton’s goal was “to face the real limitations of one’s own existence and knowledge and not try to manipulate or disguise them.”  And yet, the 21st century slogan seems to be “no limits.”

When we were waiting for the News Hour last night on PBS, our local channel was advertising two shows about aging – one was called “Aging Backwards” and the other was “The Longevity Paradox,” both apparently how-to shows about avoiding aging and prolonging life.   Those PBS folks know their News Hour audience.  Is there such a thing as reverse aging?  I admire those who try to keep us old folk limber with yoga, functional through diet, and positive with mindset suggestions, but where is the show on coming to grips with the fact that all is not going to end well?

I cannot remember when I first recognized the fact of death.  I vaguely remember when my great-grandmother (whom I hardly knew) died – the same year I found our canary Billy (whom I was very fond of) belly up in the bottom of the cage.  We lost pets, I heard adults discuss the demise of others, and I guess I slowly realized the animals and people die.  But when did I realize that this applied to me Freud would say that I probably never did.  There have been moments – just before surgery, just after having a close call in a car accident – when death has seemed real, when the fragility of life realigned my thinking, but these moments did not endure.

Jorge Borges wrote a story, “August 25, 1983,” in which he imagines his own death.  Using his format, I did something similar and found it an interesting exercise.  I highly recommend it.  What do you think you will have to say at the end of your life?  What was important, transformational, disappointing?  Borges drafted his story just a few years before he died, and it is amazing what we learn about him in just a few pages.

And what would it mean to you if you knew you were dying, that there was a determined date for your termination?  Of course, we are all headed toward death, but what difference would it make if you could actually see the end coming?  There is a wonderful book by Stephen Levine, “A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last.”  It inspired this week’s story, “Encore.”

Child Rearing / Child Raising / Hair Raising

Most old people have seen profound changes in childrearing in our lifetimes – child rearing now considered to be the incorrect term; we should talk about child raising.  OK.  But whatever it is, it has changed.   Those of us whose parents were children during the Depression and World War II heard about their deprivations as children, having to get jobs to help out financially, sitting in church every Sunday for hours, celebrating scanty Christmases and even scantier birthdays.  We baby boomers had it better, but one thing was still clear to us: we were secondary to the adults.  The adults controlled the menu, the television set (if we had one), and the level of noise in the house.  No meant no, and whining was instantly squelched.  We ate three meals a day at the kitchen table and Sunday noon dinner in the dining room.  There was only one telephone in the house – right in the center where no conversation was private.  No calls were answered during dinner.  Whether or not our families believed in corporal punishment, we were firmly under control.   In all honesty, we couldn’t wait to escape, but even at college there were long lists of rules – at least until 1968.

We baby boomers raised our children with slightly more tolerance, I think.  We allowed slightly more pushback.  I surely was more permissive than my mother, trying to cook what the kids liked (as long as there was meat or fish, vegetable, and starch, accompanied by a glass of milk) and insisting only that the evening meal be eaten together as a family.  Even this became a chore as the children got older; more and more events were scheduled during the dinner hour or their friends were calling.  The children had their own television and there was soon a VCR, so content was at their command as long as we remembered to return the tapes on time to Blockbuster.  There were fewer dress codes and I let the children decide what they were going to wear (within limits).  But even then, the trend was toward the emancipation of children.  Besides, as working mothers (many of our mothers had never worked outside the home), we were too tired to fight constantly against the tide of “what the other kids did.”

It was during their adolescence, when I was fighting a losing battle about getting everyone at the table for dinner, that I was teaching a class of young community college students.  One day I asked them (most of whom still lived at home) how many of them ate at least one meal a day with the people they lived with.  Out of thirty, only one young man raised his hand.  One young woman volunteered that her mother did the most absurd thing:  she cooked dinner every night, set the table, called them to dinner, and then everyone in the family loaded up their plates and took them into their bedroom or out to the TV room.  She said her mother got upset.  I cried for that mother,  but it was clear that this young woman’s mother and I were losing the battle.

And in the next generation (that of our grandchildren),  such battles (and it remains to be seen if they were battles worth fighting) have been completely lost.  Grazing has replaced mealtimes.  Toddlers and young children’s undeveloped tastes are catered to (even to the extent of preparing a second or third selection if the first is rejected).  Such power given to a child often involves much wasted time and food.   Entertainment is controlled by the children either by allowing them to select what to watch on television or giving them their own devices.  I am not assuming there is no censorship; most parents still prevent children from accessing violent or indecent content, but that is about all they control.  I sound old and critical, and perhaps I am.  The young parents are not so permissive because they are lazy; it is far harder to deal with children who have fewer rules, less discipline.  They rightfully worry about the child’s sense of self-esteem.  And they would probably tell me (if they were honest) that they were trying to avoid the sins of their own fathers and mothers.  OK.  But it isn’t always easy to watch or deal with. 

My generation witnessed huge cultural changes.  When I was young, girls couldn’t wear pants or sneakers to school.  There were no female varsity teams.  No one (at least it my family) assumed that young women might have to support themselves for the rest of their lives.  No one in my circle of friends had divorced parents.  If a girl at my high school got pregnant, she disappeared to “visit her aunt” for a few months.  I knew of no teenage single mothers.  The world has vastly changed and there is no reason child raising should not be the same.  Sometimes, however, I wish that it were not so very different and that I was better at adapting.

This week’s fiction, “When Elephants Fly,” is based on a composite of experiences with my grandchildren and somewhat exaggerated. Although the tale is pure fiction, it felt true when I wrote it! 

Retirement as Henry James’ “Great Good Place”

In my later working years, most of the office coffee break conversations with people of my age involved speculation about when we would retire, where we would move when we could live anywhere, how many days, months or years before we could “escape.”   The talk was largely negative – more about what we were going to be glad to get rid of (regular hours, miserable bosses, long commutes) than what we would replace it with.  And soon, when we could, we retired.  But perhaps, before embarking on our escape, we should have thought more about “The Great Good Place” that Henry James describes for us in such loving detail.

The main character in James’ short story is Dane, a successful author (James himself?) who is constantly harassed for interviews, lectures, deadlines.  One bleak morning, overwhelmed by depression at the piles of tasks before him, Dane is reminded by his secretary that he has a meeting with a young stranger.  Immediately upon the arrival of his guest, Dane finds himself transported to “the scene of his new consciousness,” the calm and quiet of a “great good place.”  It is both a monastery and a spa, it is a “broad deep bath of stillness” which gives Dane time – it seems like months – to recuperate.

He arrived [the stranger in his office] to the minute on a day when more than ever in my life before I seemed, as it happened, in the endless press and stress, to have lost possession of my soul and to be surrounded only with the affairs of other people, smothered in mere irrelevant importunity.

Not so in the great good place. The value of the place seems to be in the material and mental renunciations:

This key, pure gold, was simply the cancelled list.  Slowly and blissfully he read into the general wealth of his comfort all the particular absences of which it was composed.  One by one he touched, as it were, all the things it was such rapture to be without.

The place is described as resembling a gracious monastery or a quiet grand hotel, but it is clearly the work of Dane’s imagination.  Auden loved this story and, in The Dyer’s Hand, called it a parable:

I believe, however, that, in his own discreet way, James is writing a religious parable, that is, he is not describing some social Utopia, but a spiritual state which is achievable by the individual now, that the club [the great good place] is a symbol of this state ….

In retrospect, I could have stayed in the workplace longer if I could have found refuge in such a parable, if I were capable of conjuring up a state of peaceful detachment from my work.  God knows I tried.  And often lately, when I have heard my children complain about the stress of their careers, I have repeated the advice I could never incorporate into my life – knowing that it is doubtful that they will either.  Both the Buddha’s words and the Gita tell us again and again that we must work but not be attached to the outcome of our work.  True, but easier said than done. 

But back to retirement.  I guess my retirement is closer to a monastery than a grand hotel.  We consciously live very quietly, trying to reduce the exterior and interior noise in our lives.  Sometimes, though, it cannot be avoided.  There are family crises.  There are house repairs and the illnesses old age. For the past couple of years there has been the constant threat of Covid. There is the agitation I feel over these things.  Some, perhaps, can be sidestepped.  I have already sworn that I will never own another house.  Yet one cannot sidestep loved ones or the demands of one’s own body.  One cannot, in good conscience, completely withdraw from the responsibilities of the world (although it is tempting). 

Limits might be drawn, but too often they are not.  Are we so inured to the sturm und drang of life that we take it into retirement with us, like a drug to which we are addicted?  It is almost as if we need some level of emotional turmoil and challenge to feel alive.

Outside demands on us have diminished, but we often replace our involuntary servitude with voluntary obligations, guilt, chores.  And if the obligations are not for our time, they are for our mental space.  Finally, we have a chance to take “possession of our soul,” but we are perhaps out of the habit. 

There is an interesting article on the mathematician Grothendieck in this week’s New Yorker.   You might remember Grothendieck from Labatut’s wonderful book When We Cease to Understand the World (see my recent post).  Grothendieck “disappeared” in his old age to live a completely different kind of life.  Some speculated that he was deranged (as geniuses often are), but others thought he was living just as he wanted.  He himself wrote: “The time of tasks is over for me.  If age has brought me something, it is lightness.”  I hope he found his great good place.

The main reason I spend time studying old age, is that I have always hoped to build my old age deliberately.  It is not easy but – as Thoreau tried to tell us – living deliberately is the only way to construct and live in our “great good place.”  What would your great good place look like?

One of the ways I play with ideas about how to live the latter parts of my life is through writing fiction.  You might look at “Again and Again and Again” or “Nothing New” as examples of such sketches.  Often, I explore ideas in order to ultimately reject them, but the writing often tutors me in different ways of being in these “golden” years.

 

Big Questions, Little Questions, Questions of Old Age

Recently, I came upon W.H. Auden’s proposal for the two questions “about which all men [and presumably women] … seek clarification.” They are:

  1. Who am I? What is the difference between man and all other creatures? What relations are possible between them? What is man’s status in the universe?  What are the conditions of his existence which he must accept as his fate which no wishing can alter?
  2. Whom ought I to become? What are the characteristics of the hero [heroine?], the authentic man whom everybody should admire and try to become?  Vice versa, what are the characteristics of the churl, the inauthentic man whom everybody should try to avoid becoming?  (from The Dyer’s Hand)

These questions reminded me of Gauguin’s inscription on the face of his great painting: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We?  Where Are We Going?”  Not so different – except Gauguin wants to know where we came from, and maybe Auden thinks that is implied in the first question.  In any case they are big questions, and they got me thinking about big questions and little questions and old age.

I have written about questions before (“Three Questions – Or More”), and so you know how important I think it is to ask the right question.  This is not easy – there is even a famous paradox from Plato called “Meno’s Paradox,” which basically asks how I can ask the right question if I do not know what the answer is.  “A man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.”  So says Socrates, but – being Socrates – this does not stop him from asking questions, and it should not stop us.  Formulating questions is a skill; equally important is knowing that there are some questions not worth asking.

The big questions seem to belong to youth, to long nights of smoking cigarettes (or something) on a warm beach with the future in front of us.  We still thought we had some control over the future – and maybe we did – but surely not to the extent that our facile minds were assuming.  And we surely had no control over the passage of time.

But the Buddha says that the “big” questions aren’t worth asking (or answering) – both because they are far too complicated to waste our time with and because the big questions do not affect our daily lives.  Questions like “What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?” (MN2) are just a matter of spinning our wheels, according to the Buddha, and do not eliminate suffering.

On the other hand, the Buddha does force us to question everything else about our lives, particularly our actions and assumptions:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. (Kalama Sutta)

In other words, observe and analyze and adjust your actions accordingly.  Try something and then interrogate yourself as to whether it worked.  Review your day to see if your actions relieved or created suffering – yours or someone else’s.  This would seem to be something we could and should do in old age, at all ages.

I spent a great deal of time in my youth asking the big questions, but to little avail.  Is old age perhaps the time for the little questions?  Side note:  I googled “Questions of old age” and got pages of suggested questions to ask old people – in case you don’t know how to hold a conversation with your grandmother, perhaps?  Google (and various experts) suggested questions like “How did you get to school when you were a kid?”  Whereas, if you google questions for young adults,  you get big philosophical questions that such people might be asking themselves.  Senior citizens apparently are not only hard to talk to, but have no inner life.  At least according to Google.

What do little questions look like?  Let’s start with a daily review of what worked (caused less suffering in the Buddha’s terms) and what did not work (caused more suffering).  Like Benjamin Franklin with his ivory tablet of desired character traits, we could daily interrogate how we are doing.  For example, did we feel better for having taken a walk in the afternoon?  Was it worthwhile making scones for our neighbor who is laid up after surgery?  Did I sleep better when I skipped my afternoon coffee break?  Who did I talk to today that made me feel… better?  Who made me feel worse? Did I really feel better after I bought that new jacket?  Drank that second cup of coffee?  Surfed the net for two hours?  Is that new medication really helping?  Do I feel better or worse after a nap?  Little questions, but isn’t that the stuff of real life?  Does it help me more to know where I stand in the cosmos or to review where I stand with my neighbors?  Or what gives me peace and what makes me worry all day?

Old people are famous for worrying over little things,  which is precisely why we should interrogate fiercely what we spend time worrying about. Did fretting over the lack of a phone call from a loved one ruin my day?  Did it make them call any faster?  These are the kinds of small questions we should be asking ourselves, and then we must be open to act on the answers.

I am not trying to discourage you from asking the big questions (and if you’ve found the answers, please share), but it is the daily events that form a life.  We elders know that by now.

If you are looking for a story, “A Spoonful of Sugar” is about a woman who confronts the big question of mortality, and answers it with her attention to… cookies.

Auden, Narcissus, and the Duty of Happiness

I have gone back to reading Auden; this time I am reading his prose in The Dyer’s HandHe has much to say about life and old age, but I was particularly taken by this bit about Narcissus:

Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful, but because it is his.   If it were his beauty that enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by its fading.

We love our image because it is ours; we even correct it in our minds to be closer to what we think it should be.  I always think I look better in the mirror than I do in the cell phone pictures people take – I guess it is harder to mentally photoshop pixels than it is a face in the mirror (or in the mind).

Auden’s love for his own old body extended to his old age, even though he himself described his face as “a wedding cake that had been left out in the rain.”  It was his.  This comes across in his poem “A Lullaby,” written a year before he died.  Here he hugs himself, calls himself “Big Baby,” and references Narcissus again:

The old Greeks got it all wrong:

Narcissus is an oldie,

tamed by time, released at last

from lust for other bodies,

rational and reconciled.

For many years you envied

the hirsute, the he-man type.

No longer: now you fondle

your almost feminine flesh

with mettled satisfaction….

Harold Bloom loved this poem: “Older than Auden was [when he wrote the poem], I chant this lullaby to myself during sleepless nights and wish I had more of his admirable temperament.”

Bloom is right; Auden did have an “admirable temperament,” even in his old age (although Auden only lived to age sixty-six).  Like Spinoza, Auden thought we all have a duty to be cheerful, to be happy (again, from The Dyer’s Hand):

It is incorrect to say, as the Declaration of Independence says, that all men have a right to the pursuit of happiness.  All men have a right to avoid unnecessary pain if they can, and no man has a right to pleasure at the cost of another’s pain.  But happiness is not a right; it is a duty.  To the degree that we are unhappy, we are in sin.  (And vice versa.)  A duty cannot be pursued because its imperative applies to the present instant, not to some future date.

My duty toward God is to be happy; my duty towards my neighbor is to try my best to give him pleasure and alleviate his pain.  No human being can make another one happy.

Spinoza did not put it in religious terms; in his Ethics, he tried to reason his way through to a formula for the good life and says this: “Cheerfulness cannot be excessive, but is always good; melancholy, on the other hand, is always evil.”  And Spinoza has no use for regrets, the one thing that often heads off happiness in old age: “Repentance is not a virtue… instead, he who repents what he has done is twice wretched.”

Auden quotes Caesare Paves on the definition of maturity: One ceases to be a child when one realizes that telling one’s trouble does not make it any better.  Auden does not think that it even does any good to tell ourselves about our trouble.  Love the old body, love the life you have had and have now, and do your duty to be happy.  So says Auden, but it is not easy.

However, there are moments, like the one my character has in “Snickerdoodles.”

How Old Are You Inside? How Old Do You Want to Be?

Aged people are often asked how old they feel inside.   And even if they are not asked, they often volunteer the information.  “I know I’m 70, but if I don’t look in the mirror, I still feel like I am 40!”  Rarely does anyone admit to “feeling” older than their chronological age.  Younger is always better, unless you are a fifteen-year-old waiting to be old enough for a driving license.

The common adage of our age is “you are only as old as you feel.”  This was, in fact, the title of a New York Times article three years ago, in which two doctors discussed the effect of the perception of age on health.  Apparently, most people think of themselves as younger than they are, a discrepancy which widens with age:

If you’re over 40, chances are you feel younger than your driver’s license suggests. Some 80 percent of people do, according to Dr. Stephan. A small fraction of people — fewer than 10 percent — feel older. The discrepancy between felt and actual age increases with the years, Dr. Terracciano said. At age 50, people may feel about five years, or 10 percent, younger, but by the time they’re 70 they may feel 15 percent or even 20 percent younger.

This got me thinking about two things – how old do I feel and at which age was I the happiest? (Happy is not exactly the right word; sense of well-being might be better.)  Or to put it another way, if I’m not going to feel 70, what would be the best age to feel?  To start with the first question, I probably only feel about a decade younger than I am.  I definitely do not feel like a working person; the fire of ambition is almost extinguished – it flickers only for matters of small consequence.  I feel like a recently retired person of about 60 I would say, which squares entirely with Dr. Terracciano’s study, with about a 15% discrepancy with my real age.

More interesting are my thoughts about what age I would like to be mentally or psychologically – which age I would like to adopt the characteristics of.  After a short contemplation, the answer was easy.  I would like to be eight years old.  Being eight was wonderful.  I was in the third grade and the only competition I felt in my life was who was the tallest person in the class – myself or Rae Ann Reutershan.  (The boys were all midgets at that point.)  I loved my teacher, Miss Butterfield.  I loved my school and where I lived.  My younger brother was a tease and my little sister was a nuisance, but they were not my responsibility.  I had started needing eyeglasses in second grade, and spectacles made the world so much brighter and more wonderful that I didn’t mind wearing them at all, despite occasional taunts from my brother and his mean friends (four-eyes).

I had no control over my life at age eight, something I knew and accepted.  My parents and teacher called the shots, and I went along with their decisions the way adults go along with the weather – something that may be aggravating but which we can do nothing about.  There was no anxiety, except perhaps some short-lived angst about whether I would hit the baseball or be able to bicycle up a steep hill.  I loved animals and was interested in almost everything except boys and snakes.   I was ill sometimes – that was the era when children still got the full array of later-eradicated diseases as well as the still common colds and earaches – but even that had it’s advantages; I got to stay at home, lay on the couch, and watch TV.  And read.

Another reason I chose eight was that was when my reading ability hit its stride.  I had been an early and precocious reader, and by eight I was able to get “real books” from the library – books like “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew” or Nancy Drew or even “Little Women.”  If I didn’t understand a word, I guessed and kept reading.  I often used words in conversation that I didn’t know how to pronounce, which amused my family.  And reading represented an eternity of possibility.  It was not like Easter candy which would disappear quickly.  I could see by surveying the shelves at our wonderful public library that I would not run out of material for a very long time.  Which was, indeed, the case.  All I needed to do was return the books on time and keep my little sister from destroying them.  The one time of true anxiety I can remember from this period was when my toddler sister crayoned in a copy of one of the Boxcar Kid books I had from the library.  The librarian, who knew me well by then, was very sympathetic.  “It’s still readable,” she said.  Readable – what a wonderful word my eight-year-old self thought.

If it sounds like life was simple, it was. Not for my parents, not for the world – but for me.   I know it is not so for all eight-year-olds.  (Think and weep for the children of Ukraine!)  My family was intact and had its problems, but at eight I didn’t know the difference between problems and normality.  I thought all was as it should be, and I adapted.  I didn’t waste much time wanting to be older or younger.  Eight was wonderful.  Pictures from that period with my sparkly pink glasses and my home perm are a horror, but I was surely not aware of that.  And when something was going on  around me that I didn’t understand and was afraid of, I dove into a book.  Any book.

So back to myself at 70.  Of that little girl, only the joy of reading seems to have stuck.  But maybe I am reverting in some ways.  I would like to think I care less about what I look like or what people think.  I have gone back to realizing that we have very little control over the world. I have come to know that anxiety, guilt, and regret are useless emotions – at least I recognize that intellectually but wonder if one can go back to the innocent Eden of a child.  Last week I wrote about confronting the reality of nuclear war when I was ten.  Two years made a huge difference in my level of anxiety and fear about all things.   Even before the missile crisis, I had lost my optimism and well-being. 

I am talking about a state of mind, not a delusion as to our real age.  My mother’s dementia-fueled descent into her childhood was not a pleasant one.  She spent a year asking me where her parents were and fretting about how she was going to get home.  I do not wish that on myself or anyone.

 But again,  I would like to recapture some of what time and enculturation took away from that eight-year-old girl.  What age would you like to recapture?

The story this week – “Like Heaven” – is about a woman who lives in two worlds – the real one of her old age and a vivid memory of a younger age, which was not perfect but had its moments.   

New Books with Old Characters – Otsuka, Ozick, and Guterson

I don’t know if I am imagining it, but there seem to be more good books written about old age.  Some are fun, some are inspiring, some are tragic – but the best capture some of all that.  Old age is both tragic and funny, both inspiring and depressing.

The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka starts with the allegorical story of an underground neighborhood swimming pool used by a number of dedicated swimmers who have their preferred times and lanes, and know the other swimmers by their quirks.  Alice, in the “early stages of dementia,” is among them.  Alice loves to swim; she knows the pool; she knows the routine.  And then the beloved pool develops a suspicious crack.  First no one thinks much of it; some people deny that it is even there.  Then it gets worse and there are haphazard attempts to repair it, to no avail.  Some swimmers are fascinated by the crack; others change lanes to avoid it.    The crack   consumes the minds and imaginations of the swimmers: 

Several of us worry that the crack might somehow be our own fault.   We feel ashamed of it, as though it were a blemish, a defect, an indelible flaw, a moral stain upon our soul that we have brought on ourselves.

The crack worsens; the pool is closed.  Alice no longer has the outlet of her exercise and her routine.  But think about those words: might somehow be our own fault, feel ashamed of it, as if we brought it on ourselves.

The book moves from a group portrait of the swimmers to a chronicle of Alice, written alternately in her voice, the voice of her daughter, and a collective voice of the people in the nursing home with Alice. The methodology is interesting.  We get long lists of things Alice remembers (the persimmons of her youth, the first love of her life) and the things she has forgotten, including most of what happened twenty minutes ago.  Some reviewers took exception to the catalogs that make up much of this book, but these lists give us Alice.  I have often wished that I had saved my daily to-do lists, which I have made kept since I was an adult.  Lists make up our lives.  When our author (or the voice of the daughter) cannot grasp what Alice is thinking or feeling, she gives us the concrete.  Alice’s fade into dementia (the “Diem Perdidi” section of the book) is heartbreaking as she clings to routine in the midst of the fog that is enveloping her. 

Alice is soon moved into a memory care center, Belavista.  “You are here today because you have failed the test.”  The crack has gotten worse, the mind has been shut into a “long-term, for-profit memory care residence conveniently located on a former parking lot off the freeway.”  Alice and her fellow patients are there because each has become “an extremely difficult person to live with.”  The rest of the book details Alice’s descent in the home – a descent into dementia and a descent into hell.  Having had to watch a loved one in such a setting, I found it depressingly accurate.  Why read it?  Because it is there; it is true; as we have more very elderly people, it is proliferating.

The next two books in an indirect way talk about the relationship of aging and writing.  First, there is Cynthia Ozick’s Antiquities; Ozick is still writing at 93, which is a good enough reason to read the book.  I found the writing excellent, gorgeous at times, but the story unsatisfactory.  It is told in the first person of a very old man (in every sense) literally living in the past (his old prep school turned into apartments for the last trustees) and obsessed by three incidents of the past – his attachment to a strange Jewish student, his father’s mysterious disappearance into Egypt for a period, and his lifelong adoration of his legal secretary, which he apparently never did anything about.  This aging Lloyd Petrie is fixated on a series of objects relating to these memories, including his secretary’s Remington manual typewriter with which he encodes his memories. In this the book reminded me of another excellent recent book, Ruth Ozeki’s Book of Form and Emptiness, in which objects actually speak of memory and life.

Maybe Ozick’s Antiquities is unsatisfactory because life is not satisfactory; loose ends do not tie themselves up at the end of the book, at the end of our lives.  Or at least, not very often and certainly not in this book.  At the end, the old man is dismayed that no one is interested in his father’s journals; he surmises that no one will be interested in his either.  And yet, it is these journals that Ozick has created to give us a book about old age and the power of memory.

David Guterson’s book – The Final Case –  was also unsatisfactory as to story, but nicely portrays the difference between the son (in his early sixties) who stops writing novels early and the father who is 83 and still goes into his law office every day, bringing bran cereal for his 10AM cereal and coffee ritual.  Guterson published this novel when he was 65, and is clearly grappling with a decision as to whether to go on writing.  To be clear, this novel is fiction, but Guterson is an author and his father was a criminal defense attorney. He may have disguised some of the facts, but the story has the ring of truth.  The old man takes on public defender cases, as he has his whole life, and dies of a stroke while wrapping up the defense of a despicable woman who has murdered her adopted daughter through neglect.  The narrator then contemplates death for a few months and concludes, as Auden did, that in the end all there is is love: “We must love one another or die” (from “September 1, 1939”).  Again, the plot does not satisfy and the story of child abuse by fundamentalist parents appalls, but Guterson’s comparison of a “green” old age and an old old age, the contrast of early retirement and dogged perseverance,  has much to recommend it.

For other reviews of books pertaining to old age see here (Doerr, Osman, Tawada, Wilder), here (Alameddine, McNamer, Bauer, Englehart), here (Schwab, Goethe) or here (Huxley).

 

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.