Parabola and Long Tails

I wrote earlier in this blog about Dante’s vision of life as a parabola, which goes up to the “perfect age” (thirty-four according to Dante) and then starts down again. Life rises on one side and falls on the other, ending on the same level where it began. And so, as it falls, it passes through some of the same horizontal levels passed through on the way up – something that intrigues me, but which I will come back to.

If life for Dante was a parabola, I have wondered whether – seven centuries later – the shape of life has changed. Children (and mostly I mean well-off children) now seem to have a longer childhood. They stay at home longer, marry later, have children later. On the other side, old age is often very long indeed in the modern era. Medicine and technology have allowed life to be extended again and again, until the tail just lengthens and lengthens. Without judging whether this is a good thing or not, it surely changes the shape of a life. My mother, for example, has been old for a very long time. She has had multiple joint replacements and cancer surgeries, but is remarkably healthy as she approaches ninety – except that she has severe dementia. Scary dementia where she is sure that people are watching her, harming her, planning all manner of evil. And this could go on for a very long time. For better or for worse, old age seems to have developed what statisticians call a “long tail” – rather than dipping down precipitously at the end (think parabola), it tapers off as more and more is lost, and yet the heart goes on and so does some form of life. Where Dante saw the symmetry of a parabola, are we now seeing something else?

I like playing with the symmetry of Dante’s parabola. Over my desk hangs a nineteenth century depiction of the stages of a woman’s life – more an arc than a parabola but the idea is the same.

As I noted in my earlier post, the parabola gave me an idea for the structure of a novel which would pair points on the upward movement with corresponding points on the downward slope after the “perfect age” is reached. (Here is an interesting exercise – when did you reach your “perfect age”? Or aren’t you there yet? What is the difference between Dante’s perfect physical age and the perfect spiritual/mental age?) My novel is about two-thirds complete and will soon join its companions in my bottom drawer, but I thought I would post an excerpt. In order to illustrate and test my thesis that there are correspondences between the same point going up and coming down the life cycle, the novels pairs (fictional) diary/journal entries from the same woman, often on a common topic or theme.

The title of the novel is Hummingbird Wars and the excerpt includes two chapters/paired journal entries. In the this selection, we have a young mother being introduced to exciting new technology as the world opens up to VCR’s and personal computers in 1985. At the descending point on the parabola, the same woman in 2005 is nearing retirement, learning yet another version of the operating system at the office, and wondering about the true value of the internet, cell phones, and social media. If you are my age, you will recognize this woman (both the older and younger version) and her thoughts and concerns. If you are younger, you might wonder how your views of technology will change as you enter the long tail of old age.

Journaling in Old Age

Old man, old woman – it is not too late to start keeping a journal! I started to keep one conscientiously at age fifty-three, and I only wished I had done so earlier. These blogs are often an outgrowth of a journal entry, but the document, the content, is not my journal’s main value; it is the process of keeping a journal that is critical.

Like any good habit, keeping a journal is easy once you etch it into your life – scientific literature says this takes three weeks, but I would give it a few months. I started by disciplining myself (I know discipline is out of favor, but nothing worthwhile is ever done without at least a pinch of it!) to write a certain number of pages each month – ten single-space pages at font size 12. That has not changed. I often write more, but never less. And if I fall behind, I have to make it up by the last day of the month. In the early years, this often meant a lot of rubbish on the 31st! You do not have to write every day, but it’s easier to establish the habit if you do. I put in the date, skip a line, and proceed to discuss what I am reading, how I slept, what I am afraid of, surprised at, hopeless at figuring out. Give yourself lots of leeway. If all you can manage is a history of the day before or an agenda for the day ahead, so be it. Believe me, this will change!

You will find that having the journal to write slowly changes the way you view your life. You will catch yourself marking passages in books to transcribe (a journal works as a wonderful commonplace book) or trying to note exactly what someone says to you (pay attention!) so that you can record it in your journal as accurately as possible. More importantly, you will be turning your life into a narrative – your narrative. Not a Facebook narrative. (Can those people really be so happy? No way. They are either deceptive or deluded, maybe both.) Not a blog. You are not writing to impress anyone (and you should decide up front that you will not share). You are writing to try to narrate your own life. Susan Sontag said that “in the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” Take your only opportunity to tell your own story.

I’m in my fifteenth year of doing this. I wish I had always done it – how edifying it would be to be able to look back on how I felt about being a new mother (scared and overwhelmed), how I navigated divorce (scared and overwhelmed) and then remarried (happy and overwhelmed). But the feelings I just put in parentheses are remembered. And we only have to have someone send us an old photo of ourselves or compare reminiscences with our siblings to realize that memory isn’t always completely reliable.

And (with my parentheses) I have just described another benefit (they are endless). You can look back a few months or years and see what you were worried about, what you fretted over – and recognize that those things have just evaporated. They either never happened or were not half as bad as you feared. There is a life lesson. There are many such lessons that we cannot learn anywhere but from our own experience – and experience not reified in words is hard to recall, difficult to grasp, and susceptible to psychological manipulation.  And the “search” function in Word gives me the ability to ascertain when I had a root canal (and sometimes even to settle arguments).

The document itself is a mixed blessing. For instance, there is the problem of what to do with all of this sensitive material – especially as I get older. I am not sure I would even want people I loved to read my daily thoughts (once in a great while you get angry with almost everyone), or have to decide how to dispose of them. I print out the journal monthly for vague reasons that may have something to do with the strange satisfaction of seeing the record of my life turned into copy, hole-punched, and piled up in loose-leaf binders in the closet. But I do spend time thinking about the appropriate moment in my life for a bonfire. But again, these problems are outweighed by the advantages.

So, try it. I recommend it and so do many wonderful writers and thinkers. The product is valuable. Salman Rushdie cautioned us to “never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things — childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves — that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.” But it is really not the product that is the most important. It is the process. The daily exercise of trying to make sense of your own life. Is there a better way that you could spend your time?

I am not posting a story this week, but if you want a smile, try Rich Schram’s blog at funreadsbyrichschram.blogspot.com. I particularly recommend his “Sheetrock Ballet.”

Answers?

My generation spent our young adult years being fascinated by all the new technology cascading to the market. We knew television from our youth, but soon it was color television, then there were VCR’s and cable TV, video games, there were computers in the office and then computers at home – and then the internet and cell phones arrived! Scanners, digital pix, e-mail, social media, texting, news on demand, ipads, smart phones, search engines – all of this was a long way from the US Postal Service and the Encyclopedia Britannica. We were fascinated, seduced, enamored, and then we were… suspicious, and sometimes overwhelmed.

I remember the first time I was exposed to a spread sheet program (Lotus 123) and realized those ledgers and blue and red pencils could go out the window. But the initial joy was followed by the realization that the answers we got from the spread sheets were only as good as the data and formulas that we put into them. The word processors produced gorgeous copy – error-free with justified margins, but the content was if anything diminished by the speed with which it could be produced. We learned the acronym GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. We found that we could reach anyone in the world from our cell phone or computer, but that there weren’t that many people we wanted to talk to. (Remember Thoreau? “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate!”) Google answered our questions, but we weren’t at all sure what questions to ask. Maybe Picasso spoke for all of us when he stated that “Computers are useless. They only give you the answers.”

Of course, computers and rational people can answer what are called convergent problems – ones with definitive answers that are the same across time and individuals. How do you build a bicycle? How far is it to the sun? But what are the important questions? For you? For me: “What should I do? How should I live? And (as I got older): Why haven’t I figured this out before now?” Ah, but maybe the problem is a blind belief in rationality itself and that we (or our computers) can “figure it out.” The best literature is written about the big questions of life. I just finished Richard Powers wonderful Prisoner’s Dilemma (and see here for a description of the philosophical problem for which the novel is titled) and the question that Powers asks is “what, if anything, can one private citizen do to make the shared scenario less horrible?” This is a great question for our time. A good exercise in reading is to attempt to ascertain what questions the author is asking and what – if any – alternative answers are presented to these interrogations.

Questions and answers. For all the rationality of Socrates, he is surely better at questions than answers. And wisdom literature of the religious variety is not much for definitive answers. In the Bhagavad Gita, we open with Arjuna asking Krishna why he must engage in battle. Krishna tells Arjuna that it makes no difference, in the end friend and foe are the same, and that Krishna himself is both the sacrifice and the sacrificer. Try to figure that out rationally. Arjuna learns a level of acceptance – “You have dispelled my doubts and delusions and I understand through your grace,” says Arjuna finally. “My faith is firm now, and I will do your will.”

Job asks God three questions: “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” “How can a man be just before God?” and “If a man die, shall he live again?” As far as I can see, God never answers any of these questions. After trying to argue rationally with his friends and with God, poor Job comes to the same conclusion: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” God also takes Job’s “friends” to task for thinking they had “figured things out” and for giving Job false information. These friends end up needing to make big sacrifices and have Job intercede for them to stay on the right side of the Big Guy. The Book of Job and the Bhagavad-Gita are stories of acceptance, not stories of answers.

Computers have both absolute rationality and answers; it might appear that both are, in many ways, useless. Like Job’s friends. Computers give us answers, but answers – especially easy answers – are something of which we should be very suspicious.

But the questions, the questions are important. How do we interrogate our own lives to avoid GIGO? What are your questions? Think about it. And when you decide on your questions, run them through Google for a laugh.

This week’s story, “Don’t Eat the Pink Ones,” has more mysteries than answers, but it is appropriate for the end of the blueberry season.

Forgiveness and Remorse

Forgiveness is different in old age. In the hurry of youth and middle age, we often either push forgiveness aside or bestow it hastily in order to get on with things. In our latter years, old resentments drift out of the silence, out of the memory that cannot remember the word for that thing over there, but can recall all unkindnesses in great detail – the ones we received as well as the ones we perpetrated. Often those we want to forgive (or seek forgiveness from) are not available; they have passed out of our orbit through time, through death, through dementia.

Old age is teaching me many things and one of them is that the human condition is universal. Sympathy is replaced by empathy. There is no time or heart left for enemies. We are all friends in our common human afflictions. And David Whyte says that friendship is all about forgiveness. He says it “is a mirror to presence and a testament to forgiveness. Friendship not only helps us see ourselves through another’s eyes, but can be sustained over the years only with someone who has repeatedly forgiven us for our trespasses as we must find it in ourselves to forgive them in turn.”

And then there is the issue of forgiving ourselves.

Yeats wrote a poem that is a dialogue between the Self and Soul. Unlike similar medieval dialogues, the Self gets the final word here and it is about forgiveness:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest.

“Casting out remorse” is easier said than done, but the result, according to Yeats, is a recovery of the innocence of Eden. In his “We must laugh and we must sing, / We are blest by everything,” the old Irishman sounds almost like Blake. Heaven all around us! But can we “cast out remorse” without doing something about it? David Whyte refers to the section of the Lord’s Prayer that implies in order to beg forgiveness ourselves, we must forgive “those who trespass against us.” It is a package deal. Of course, often the hardest person to forgive is oneself. I know.

I also find myself contemplating the need to beg forgiveness from this earth that we have been blessed with, out of which our kind was spun and nurtured. How it and its creatures have been abused in my lifetime! How can we ever atone!

Isak Dinesen too references the Lord’s Prayer in her sad story of watching giraffes from her beloved Africa being shipped to Europe:

The giraffes turned their delicate heads from the one side to the other, as if they were surprised, which they might well be. They had not seen the sea before. They could only just have room to stand in the narrow case. The world had suddenly shrunk, changed and closed round them.

They could not know or imagine the degradation to which they were sailing. For they were proud and innocent creatures, gentle amblers of the great plains; they had not the least knowledge of captivity, cold, stench, smoke, and mange, nor of the terrible boredom in a world in which nothing is ever happening….

As to us, we shall have to find someone badly transgressing against us, before we can in decency ask the Giraffes to forgive us our transgressions against them.

The giraffes and the polar bears and the elm trees and the monarch butterflies. Who can we forgive that will reciprocate the forgiveness we need from the world we are destroying? These are not easy questions, but they are on my mind.

Yeats says he is “ content to follow to its source /Every event in action or in thought; /Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!” Measure first. A good carpenter will tell you to measure twice. Maybe realization is enough, but I’m not sure. I think I rather feel, with Dinesen, that more is needed before we can “in decency” throw off all remorse.

This week’s story is “The Iscariot” and references the most infamous sinner of all and describes a woman who sometimes feels like she is running a close second. And, perhaps, a different way to look at remorse and redemption.

What Are the Old To Do?

The current political situation in the United States leaves many older Americans (but certainly not all – the majority of people over 50 voted for Trump)  in a quandary about what to do. I have thought about this carefully and there are a few points I would like to consider.

In many cases, old people have little to lose. We are often on fixed pensions of one type or another, we don’t have a job to take leave from if we go out to protest, we needn’t fear reprisals from colleagues. We have Social Security and Medicare (at least for now). On the other hand, we are not as vigorous as we once were and long marches start us thinking about where the restroom will be and whether we can go the distance. But, while we may not have physical strength, we do have bodies to put in the way and, perhaps, a certain sentimental public relations value in such matters. (What cop wants to be photographed grappling with a white-haired old lady?)

We are tired and also a little resentful. Where are the young people? I know some of them are out there, but I do not see the passion or the numbers I remember.  (And, yes, I realize my memory is not perfect and getting worse.) When we were young we were out in the thousands protesting against the Viet Nam war, for Civil Rights, for the ERA. Shouldn’t the banner be picked up by those coming along behind us who have the most to lose, since they will have to live longer with the results? Are we more upset than the younger people because they think it’s just a phase they’ll live through, and we fear it may be a phase we will never see the other side of?

And yet we must do something. I keep chanting to myself: We cannot leave with things in this state. Like the dying person who puts her household in order so her children won’t have to deal with the muddle, I cannot imagine retiring, dying, from a world that is in such a … mess.

I envy Simeon, the old man in the New Testament, who was ready to die once he saw the child Jesus and was convinced that everything was going to be fine. “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” Simeon was a fortunate man. I think of Leonard Cohen, who died the day before Trump was elected; when I heard the news of his passing I remember being grateful he never had to face the next day’s revelation. But I also I think of Sigmund Freud, who escaped Austria for England in 1938. Before he left Austria, he said, “What progress we are making. In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now, they are content with burning my books.” He was wrong; there was no progress. If he had stayed, they might well have burned him also. Freud died in 1939 while things were surely looking disastrous, but without learning the full extent of the horror. But how hard is it to leave the world in decline, perhaps worse than you found it? Think of the old folks who died in Hitler’s concentration camps long before the Allies pushed through.

Many of our parents and grandparents emigrated to this country for a better life for their children and grandchildren – and those children mostly had a far better life. Those immigrant parents saw their children graduate from school, get jobs, buy houses, do better than their forebears. I find myself grieving for the future of my grandchildren. I mourn for their rights, their environment, their humanity, for civility and justice. And for the immigrant parents at the border whose children may never have a chance for that better life.

So, what to do? Postcards, phone calls, donations to ACLU, Planned Parenthood, good candidates? Local rallies, posts on Facebook, family arguments? Remain polite and civil in the face of the crude, the impolite, the uncivil, the unfair? Please feel free to post your ideas here.

This week’s story (“Ritual“) is about the power of ritual to get us through. Like little children, old people know about the utility of ritual to comfort and soothe. But, we (perhaps) should be thinking a little harder about how to break out of it.  And do something.

Aging Deliberately

I have always been challenged by Thoreau’s ambition to live life intentionally, with purpose and awareness: “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” To live life deliberately. It seems like such an obvious and worthwhile goal.

I first read Walden in college. By then, it was too late to live my childhood deliberately – and is that even possible? For most of us, choices as to how we lived were severely limited until we were emancipated from our families. Our diets, our activities, our free time were all greatly prescribed. And the nuclear family meant that we often were not even aware that other choices existed. Do you remember how shocked you were when you ate a meal or spent the night at a friend’s house and realized that people did things differently? At six years old, I visited a house where the children were allowed to operate the television by themselves! Who knew?

During adolescence and young adulthood, hormones and the drive for emancipation drove me, drove most of us. And then, quickly enough, I was driven by my career and children. And too busy to think about much else. How else does one get through those years but by ploughing ahead with blinders on? When I visit my children now and watch them cope with young children and jobs and all the juggling of such a life, I still couldn’t tell you how it’s done – except that, under the circumstances, one has to suspend doubt that one can do it.

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I really had time to pause and think about the shape of my life. There wasn’t much that I could do about the past (except make sure I was telling myself a truthful story – but more on that another time), but the future stood out as a time of … my own. Soon I would not have to work anymore, would not have to live in a given place or a prescribed way, would not have direct responsibility for anyone except my partner and myself. But didn’t Janice Joplin warn us: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”? Freedom itself can lead to futility, despair.

Jeannette Winterson says that the “question, ‘How shall I live?’ is fierce.” It is perhaps the only question. For so much of our lives things seem out of our control, and in our latter years we are, of course, subject to the decay and disease of our bodies. And yet. Surely facing deterioration and death is among the things we can do deliberately, unless we are robbed of this ability by dementia (which is just one of the things that is heartbreaking about that condition).

Here is Montaigne in his essay “Experience”:

We are great fools. “He has passed his life in idleness,” say we: “I have done nothing today.” What? Have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious, of your occupations. “Had I been put to the management of great affairs, I should have made it seen what I could do.” “Have you known how to meditate and manage your life? You have performed the greatest work of all.” … Have you known how to regulate your conduct, you have done a great deal more than he who has composed books. Have you known how to take repose, you have done more than he who has taken empires and cities.

So as we retire, we might ask ourselves Montaigne’s implied question, “Have you known how to take repose?” and realize its importance. In his repose, Montaigne looked inward and wrote his essays.

Of course, not all courses are open to us. How we (or the vagaries of life) have prepared our bodies and minds for this last part of life is consequential. Lord Bolingbroke who was forced into retirement in 1735 at age 57, wrote a treatise on study and retirement.  He reminds us such study “would have been agreeable and easy if he had accustomed himself to it early, will be unpleasant and impracticable late: such men lose their intellectual powers for want of exerting them, and, having trifled away youth, are reduced to the necessity of trifling away age. It fares with the mind just as it does with the body.” Cicero expresses similar concerns about dayspring mishandled in his essay on old age. But within the limits of our bodies and minds and preparation, choices still must be made. Old age is different from youth; to ignore the opportunities and challenges it presents will lead us to senescence mishandled.

Carl Jung always insisted that the stages of life had different purposes. “We cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” You can read Jung’s “Stages of Life” for his advice on how to spend your old age, but, hey, we’ve lived a long time. Maybe we can figure it out for ourselves. And then do it. Deliberately.

This week’s story, “Essentials,” is not about old age, but it is about the challenge we face at every stage of life – how to make life meaningful. How to live – within the parameters with which we are faced – with intensity and deliberation and good intent.

Geriatric Homesteading

In its original sense (at least in the US), homesteading referred to staking out a piece of land to work and live on and therefore, after a period of time, take title. In more recent years, we’ve had urban homesteading, where vacant properties are allotted provided the residents inhabit and improve them. The emphasis is on continual residence creating a right of ownership. As I started thinking about elderly people I know, I thought we might be seeing a different kind of homesteading. And I’m not sure whether it was a good or bad thing.

Consider the case of a woman who is in her mid-eighties and lives alone in her house. She has had major and minor accidents, been in and out of hospitals and rehab facilities, but hangs onto her house for dear life. The house was not necessarily designed for the elderly; it is on one floor but the driveway is steep (the cause of one major accident) and the house is not handicapped accessible in all ways. It is also a long distance from the people who most want to support my friend – her children, who travel and take time away from home and work to help out. Right now, my friend has gone home with her daughter for a while after some surgery which she was recovering from slowly. But she’ll be back. My friend is clinging to the house with all she has. What does it represent?

Independence, I suppose. Although the fact that it is in a suburb and requires a car (and that’s another subject) for any kind of shopping, meaning that my friend (who still owns a car, but often cannot drive because of temporary disability) requires assistance. She is lucky; people are willing to help. Her children make great sacrifices to come back and forth, but they too seem willing. This has gone on for about three years now. Why is my friend hanging onto her house with such tenacity?

Perhaps because the alternatives are not attractive: elderly housing, assisted living, nursing homes? They have the aura of the funeral parlor about them. They are not “home.” What is home? Frost said it was the “place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” And if it’s your own home you, of course, have control. Loss of control is one of our greatest fears.

We have mythologized the value of home ownership in this country; John Greenleaf Whittier wrote that:

Your homestead’s title gives you all
That idle wealth can buy.

Your home gives you privacy. Sovereignty. But there is no one there in the middle of the night to help the sovereign, and it often takes a consortium of people to keep elderly people in their homes. These are stubborn homesteaders, holding out against the advice of friends, appeals by realtors, and the pleading of over-burdened children.

I don’t have an answer. I have seen enough elderly housing and assisted living centers to understand why they are avoided. One thinks fondly of European granny cottages in a child’s backyard, but this is often neither legal nor practical. I do not have a solution – but we should have one. When the boomers started to reproduce in large numbers, we created suburbs. Now that these boomers are reaching senescence, we need to invent something else. Something as appealing as suburbia was in the 1950’s. Something that works.

Houses are powerful symbols. For Jung, the house (in dreams) represented the personality with its many rooms, its order and disorder. But the house is also representative of the body; “Ain’t goin’ to need this house no longer” says the old Gospel song. In the Bible, we are told that God has many mansions for the blessed, and one of the oldest mnemonic devices was making our mind into a house or palace and storing needed information in the many rooms where it can be retrieved – Napoleon used this method and so did Sherlock Holmes. For many, our original homes take on an Edenic quality – my mother in her dementia and confusion longs for her childhood home.

Often, I think of my friend alone in her house and wonder what will happen if she wakes up disoriented in the night. Or if she trips over her little dog (pets being another reason the elderly cling to home). I think of her children – although I am old, I have a mother and mother-in-law still living. I know about the care of elderly relatives far away. And I think of the people without homes. Street people, refugees, prisoners. There should be a better solution to this, but it is part of the “blight that man was born for” which all of us and Hopkins “mourn for.” But, still, we could do better.

Meanwhile, there are thousands of old folks squatting in their deteriorating homes and becoming increasingly defensive toward anyone who tries to move them. I think again of Frost and his description of a very elderly farmer, alone in his drafty house on a frigid winter’s night, nodding by the fire:

One aged man—one man—can’t fill a house,
A farm, a countryside, or if he can,
It’s thus he does it of a winter night.

It’s “thus” that they do it, and it’s both heroic and sad. But it’s preferable – to them, if not to the rest of us.

The story this week, “Option to Buy,” is about the potent symbol of houses – and maybe a little about the difference between a house and a home.