Special Diets and American Immortals

One thing (one of many!) that has changed since I was younger is the number of my friends on special diets. Dinner parties have become minefields.  Of course, older people with various ailments are even more likely to be avoiding certain foods than the general population; we are not alone in this, but we are the worst.  It makes entertaining difficult, but challenges us to learn to bake gluten-free, oil-free, sugar-free (and usually taste-free) fare.

I have always enjoyed cooking for other people.  I especially liked making birthday cakes, but – alas! – there is almost no one I can make them for anymore except hapless children.  Having just made a layered sugar extravaganza for visiting grandchildren, I realized how much I missed the joy of baking and consuming such an illicit treat.

I am not criticizing.  My husband and I are not immune.  We have struck things off our diet to lower our cholesterol, keep our weight down, and pamper our stomach linings.  I have terrible teeth, so I avoid nuts, hard candies, and anything else that might crack my very expensive caps.

From my work on old age, it appears that, in earlier times, there was little faith that doctors (fisicien), drugs (drogges), and diets (dyas) could help one avoid old age (elde) and death (deth).  In Langland’s 14th century Piers Plowman, the protagonist sees that even the doctor falls prey to old age and death, so what is the point?

Lyf leued that lechecraft ∙ lette shulde Elde,

(Life believed that medicine would delay old age)

And dryuen awey Deth ∙ with dyas and drogges.

 (And drive away Death with drugs and prescriptions.)

And Elde auntred hym on Lyf ∙ and at the last he hitte

(And Old Age ventured against Life, and he hit at the last)

A fisicien with a forred hood ∙ that he fel in a palsye,

(A physician in a furred hood so that he fell in a palsy,)

And there deyed that doctour ∙ ar thre dayes after.

(And there the doctor died before three days were passed.)

‘Now I see,’ seyde Lyf ∙ ‘that surgerye ne fysike

(‘Now I see,’ said Life, ‘that surgery and medicine)

May nought a myte auaille ∙ to medle aghein Elde.’

(Cannot do good at all [might avail] against Old Age.’)   (XX: 172-178, translated by E. Talbot Donaldson)

Langland is right – nothing much does “avail” against the onset of old age.  But, of course, medicine and nutrition have helped us live longer in old age.  But now, regardless of all our drugs and diets, life expectancy in the United States (and in much of the world) is falling, probably for the first time since the Black Death.

Ah, but you say, now we have better drugs and diets and doctors.  Yes.  And we can sometimes delay the inevitable.  But I do wonder a little about making life a war against old age and death.  In 1968, life expectancy was 68 years, in 2019, 41 years later, it had increased almost 20% to 79 (no wonder social security is in trouble).  However, by 2021, it had decreased to 76.  Part of the loss was due to Covid – but not all of it.  There were also increases in fatal drug overdoses, accidents, gun deaths, and suicides.   On the other hand we are keeping people with Alzheimer’s and most chronic conditions alive longer.  Women still live longer than men, white people live longer than black or brown people, and rich people live longer than poor people.

My own parents died at 77 and 89; my maternal grandparents died at 76 and 82.  They, of course, ate cheesecake and had their cocktails until the end.  Will I live longer than my parents?  And, of course, in making life expectancy predictions, one must also consider the life expectancy of the planet.  Enough said.

A few years back (2014), Ezekiel Emanuel (noted oncologist and bioethicist who was recently appointed to Biden’s Covid team and whose brothers are Rahm and Ari) wrote a much-discussed article in The Atlantic entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”  The title is misleading; Emanuel does not necessarily hope to die in his mid-seventies.  But he has decided that by age 75 he will give up all measures to make him live into a very long but perhaps debilitated old age.  He is clearly against euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, but:

I am talking about how long I want to live and the kind and amount of health care I will consent to after 75.  Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible.  This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.

I wrote about Dr. Emanuel in a blog a few years ago, but I recently looked to see if he had changed his stance as he was almost ten years closer to 75. (He is now 65).  He has not completely reneged, but he has softened his stance. I think we all soften our stance as we get older.  Death is a scary foe, but not as scary (for me) as prolonged dementia or debilitating illness.

But back to special diets and what Dr. Emanuel calls the aspiring “American immortal.”  I have learned to give tofu some flavor, to cook with flax and applesauce rather than oil, and to live without red meat.  I am part of the trend, willing to cater to those who are trying more extreme measures – to a point.  I do think that we need to spend more time thinking about what we are saving those extra years for, and what we might be giving up as we look for the magic bullet.

I once wrote a story about how food can sometimes make us feel better, even though it might not make us last longer.  “A Spoonful of Sugar” ends with these lines: “Gabriella couldn’t figure out death today. But she would think about it again. Meanwhile, she would make more cookies.”  More cookies please.

Crabbed Age and Youth, or Silent Serenity Meets Carpe Diem

Crabbed Age and Youth” is the title of a wonderful essay written by Robert Louis Stevenson when he was but 38.  Of course, Stevenson never reached old age himself (dying in 1894 at age 44); one can wonder if he still would have thought old age was “crabbed” if he had ever arrived there.  Nevertheless, it is an excellent examination of irreconcilable differences between the old and the young.  Stevenson observes:

All sorts of allowances are made for the illusions of youth; and none, or almost none, for the disenchantments of old age.  It is thought to be a good taunt, and somehow or other to clinch the question logically, when an old gentleman waggles his head and says: “Ah, so I thought when I was your age.”  It is not thought an answer at all, if the young man retorts: “My venerable sir, so I shall probably think when I am yours.”  And yet the one is as good as the other: pass for pass, tit for tat, a Roland for an Oliver.

The old have learned something, perhaps, from experience; unfortunately, we cannot seem to pass that along.  Experience must be had (and hopefully learned from) by the experiencer.  And there is the additional problem, of course, that sometimes what the old have learned is a measure of fear.  We love the young because they are fearless; they dismay us for the same reason.

I had an experience this week of crabbed age encountering youth.  We have learned that it is often far easier to visit our children and grandchildren in their own environments; our house, our life, is not set up for either toddlers (too many fragile things to touch) or teenagers (not enough electronics or basketball hoops), so it is easier to go to them and see how the younger folk live (never jealous).  Like many in our generation, we are older grandparents – we are in our seventies and our grandchildren range in age from 2 to 15 (see my post “The Age of Grandmothers“).  Last week, however, we had a family of five visit with children from age 3 to 13.  Knowing we had a dearth of space and patience, we put them in hotel rooms; nevertheless, they were in our environment for about fourteen hours a day.  It was hard for me, and probably for them too.

As a habitual catastrophic thinker, I thought I had imagined all possible hazards.  I had put away breakables, locked away personal information, stocked the refrigerator and baked ahead.  I had good intentions.  But they weren’t in the house for five minutes before the ten-year-old was spinning her sister around in faster and faster circles in my favorite upholstered rocking chair.  I had no idea that it would turn 360 degrees, and no desire to see it send itself into orbit at the speed it was going.  The end table had already tipped over.  And so I “corrected” them.  Not a good start.

I never had a chance.  For one thing, we were outnumbered.  For another, they had far more energy than we did.  We hiked in the morning, ate lunch, hiked some more, and when we came home in the midafternoon, they were immediately looking for something else to do.  The only “something else” I was capable of was a nap before feeding dinner to the seven of us and cleaning up, all while hoping that nobody dumped their spaghetti on the carpet.

And there is another problem with spending too much time with your progeny.  You learn lots about their lives that is fun and interesting, but you also learn things that you don’t want to know.  More things to worry about, to catastrophize about.

But, back to Stevenson, they are young and we are the crabbed aged.  I don’t want to be young again, make the mistakes I made, have children underfoot all day and worry about how I am going to send them to college.  And they don’t want to be old.  So we rub along; they surely are glad to see the back of me (but also glad I packed cookies and sandwiches for their trip home), and I am glad to recede into my placid, quiet, and predictable rituals.

Stevenson, even though he was never old, knew that there was no use trying to make old age more adventuresome:

Childhood must pass away, and then youth, as surely as age approaches. The true wisdom is to be always seasonable, and to change with a good grace in changing circumstances. To love playthings well as a child, to lead an adventurous and honourable youth, and to settle when the time arrives, into a green and smiling age, is to be a good artist in life and deserve well of yourself and your neighbour.

The children and grandchildren are gone.  I’m a “green and smiling” old lady again.

Was She Someone?

In the beginning of Penelope Lively’s wonderful novel Moon Tiger, Claudia, an “old ill woman” in a hospital bed, tells a nurse that she’s “writing a history of the world.”  The nurse is dubious, but asks the doctor later, “Was she someone?”  The doctor looks at her record, which includes illnesses in various parts of the world and notations about her books, and says, “Yes, the records do suggest she was someone, probably.”  She was someone… probably.

Claudia could be any of us.  We are  no longer identified by our work (although some of try to hang onto our titles and accomplishments); many of us are no longer identified by place (almost all of the seniors we have met in North Carolina came from somewhere else).  Our families might identify us as Nana or Grandma – but we are no longer the heart of anyone’s family.  Our appearance has changed, the culture around us has changed, and some of us have children who seem to have metamorphized into someone different than the offspring we raised.

In Buddha’s teaching, there are three principal “signs of being:” Change, suffering and non-self.  Buddhism posits no self (anatta) in the sense of a permanent identity; this follows, of course, from the first “sign of being”: change.   How can we hang onto a permanent identity in the face of relentless change?  If you are old, this is a query you have put to yourself many times.

Western thinkers have been much taken up with the subject of personal identity.  In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), Locke tried to connect what he called “personhood” with consciousness and memory:

For since consciousness always accompanies thinking, and it is that that makes everyone to be what he calls self,  and thereby distinguishes himself from all other thinking things: in this alone consists personal identity, i.e. the sameness of a rational being.  And as far as this consciousness can be extended backwards to any past action or thought, so far reaches the identity of that person.  (II: xxvii: 9)

 Linking consciousness and memory to identity is problematic in relation to old age, when changes in the physical self and mental forgetfulness may both challenge any assurance of continuous identity.  In addition, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain our sense of identity when it is not acknowledged by those around us.  But I am an esteemed professor with an academic title, thinks the old man whose physical therapist has just called him “Georgie.”

Not only our bodies, but the physical world around us has changed also.  Things we thought were solid, have proved disposable.  My mother, in her eighties, was heartbroken when the child of some former neighbors e-mailed her to tell her that the house that her husband and father had built by hand just after I was born had been demolished to make room for a McMansion.  I cursed the person who shared that information with her, nevertheless it was the truth.  Houses change, cars change, neighborhoods change, culture changes, even the landscape is changing.  There is nothing to cling to.  Attachment to anything, even personal identity, is the source of dukkha, suffering.

In his old age, Jonathan Swift, who had thought much about identity and age, would sit and rock and say, “I am what I am, I am what I am.”  Perhaps what Swift was trying to remember in that mantra was that he was a popular author, the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, one of the leading minds of his age.  But when he passed a mirror, Swift exclaimed, “O poor old man.”

But, back to Moon Tiger.  The last words of Lively’s novel tell us that Claudia has died and focus on what remains:

And within the room a change has taken place.  It is empty.  Void.  It has the stillness of a place in which there are only inanimate objects: metal, wood, glass, plastic.  No life.  Something creaks; the involuntary sounds of expansion and contraction.  Beyond the window a car starts up, an aeroplane passes overhead.  The world moves on.  And beside the bed the radio gives the time signal and a voice starts to read the six o’clock news.

We live with “objects” and leave them behind; yet, as I have noted, even objects change.  I have been thinking about houses these days – perhaps the most intimate of objects which we live with as we “inhabit” them.  This led me to reread (rereading being one of the great joys of old age) the interregnum in Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Ray Bradbury’s poignant and scary story, “There Will Come the Soft Rains.” The title of the latter comes from a wonderful poem by Sara Teasdale in which are the memorable lines:

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

All this inspired my short story, “The Beach House,” in which the house does seem to wonder about the people, people who become attached to a house – an object, which in itself is healthily detached.

Amnesty for Amnesia

We have all been deeply schooled in the value of “letting go.”  My Centering Prayer group talks often about “letting go and letting God.”  “Consider the lilies,” says Jesus in answer to two questions about anxiety: “… which of you by being anxious can add a cubit to his span of life? If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest?”  OK, right. “Letting go” is also a pervasive theme in Buddhist meditative practice; I cannot tell you how many dharma talks I have heard on the necessity of letting be and letting go.  “If you let go a little you will have a little peace; if you let go a lot you will have a lot of peace; if you let go completely you will have complete peace,” says Ajahn Chah, and I believe him.  The problem is that I still have not been able to let go the of big things, while I am “letting go” of little things constantly.  And I don’t like it.

I let go of small things all the time – mostly names, but sometimes words.  I also let go of objects (reading glasses) or the reason why I walked into the kitchen. The most strange and aggravating thing about these little “forgettings,” these “senior moments,” is that I know the word or answer is buried somewhere in the folds of my grey matter, from whence it eventually surfaces – long after the moment when I need it.  Sometimes it teases me – I can remember that the name starts with an “S” (Sara?  Sally?) but still cannot produce the correct name when we meet up in the grocery store.  It is like when you wake up at the tail end of a dream – you try to grasp it but… it’s gone.  And then, while you are brushing your teeth and not standing in front of a woman trying to remember her name, the answer floats back into your consciousness.  “Stacy,” you say to yourself, “that woman’s name is Stacy.  Where was that name when I needed it?”  Where indeed?

These are small lapses, but it is not an inconsequential matter to me.  My mother spent her last years in a nasty sort of dementia, so every time my brain fumbles, I start to hyperventilate.

It bothered Elizabeth Bishop too, but she turned her lapses into the wonderful poem, “One Art“:

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:

places, and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

Losing things is an art; it’s going to happen, so we might as well get better at it, “accept the fluster.”  Bishop’s poem is bittersweet, pairing the need for acceptance with the letting go of keys, names, places, and the grief over things that are permanently gone.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident

the art of losing’s not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Philip Larkin seems to take the letting go of memory as a blessing; the past is what gets in the way of future happiness.  Funny and cynical, in “The Winter Palace” he longs for the peace of an empty mind:

And [I] am starting to give offence by forgetting faces
And swearing I’ve never been in certain places.

It will be worth it, if in the end I manage
To blank out whatever it is that is doing the damage.

Then there will be nothing I know.
My mind will fold into itself, like fields, like snow.

Billy Collins at least has a sense of humor about it:

It is as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor

decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,

to a little fishing village where there are no phones. (from “Forgetfulness”)

Amnesia and amnesty both come from the Greek word amnestia – meaning oblivion, or forgetting.  Amnesia means “complete or partial memory loss” and amnesty means “a general pardon for offenses.”  Now, it is somewhat paradoxical that I have been working hard at “letting go” for years, and yet – when my brain is ready to part with something, albeit something as trivial as where I hid the extra key, I panic.  Silly.  And, I have been assured that these minor memory lapses are rarely a prelude to true dementia (from the Latin dementia, meaning “out of one’s mind”), which is defined as a condition characterized by progressive, persistent, severe impairment of intellectual capacity. Some self-amnesty for amnesia is in order. Clearly, I need to pair Bishop’s advice about learning the art of losing (“it isn’t hard to master”) with Larkin’s assurance that the less cluttered my mind is, the better.  And add a dash of Collins’ humor.  I just wish I could choose what my mind lets go of.  There’s some stuff I would really like to get rid of, but it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

I have written several other blogs on letting go and memory – if you are interested in the topic you might try “Whispered Words of Wisdom” or “Dementia, Creativity, and Forgetfulness.”

Margaret Atwood – Young Babes and Old Babes

Margaret Atwood – Young Babes and Old Babes

Margaret Atwood, now eighty-three, recently published a story, “Babes in the Wood” (in a book of the same name), about two old women staying at an old family cabin on a lake, far into the woods.  It’s a good story about sisters and memory and the limits of things; I recommend it.

Mostly, though, it reminded me of another excellent Atwood story, “Death by Landscape,” which Atwood wrote in her younger days and about very much younger people.  Although the story is framed by an elderly woman (Lois) looking at artists’ renditions of the Canadian wilderness on her living room wall, it is about two teen-age girls, who go to camp together in the summer.  On their last outing, the two good friends take a walk to an overhanging cliff, and while on a “bathroom break,” one of the girls (Lucy) disappears, never to be seen again.  The woods are combed by men and dogs, theories abound, and the camp director – desperate to find a scapegoat and save the reputation of her camp – even insinuates that the other young girl (the old woman of the frame of the story) might have had something to do with it.  Even into her old age, Lois surrounds herself by pictures of the Canadian wilderness.  All her life she has felt an empty space, an “echo” where her friend Lucy used to be.  Lois imagines her turned into one of the trees in the landscape, for what could have happened to her?  She lives in the empty space in Lois’s mind and in the landscapes on the wall:

Everyone has to be somewhere, and this is where Lucy is.  She is in Lois’s apartment, in the holes that open inward on the wall, not like windows but like doors.  She is here.  She is entirely alive.

In “Old Babes in the Woods,” two sisters at the old family lake cabin are also preoccupied with people long gone. They have come even though they really can’t handle it – water must be pumped, firewood scrounged, and laundry drying (“toasting”) on the dock falls into the water and must be retrieved.  Wading in the water, trying to pick up clothes with her toes, Nell says to herself: “You old ninny, you really shouldn’t be doing this… One of these days you’ll break your neck.”

Unlike the young girls in the wilderness, the old women in “Old Babes” mostly know how the story comes out.  Parents are gone; spouses deceased.  They are left with ageing bodies in a disintegrating cabin – and everywhere there are reminders of the life they lived and the people they lived it with.  And, unlike the earlier story, there are messages that these people have left behind.  There are notes in the cookbook and on the kitchen walls in their mother’s handwriting: When feeling down in the dump – go for a brisk walk!  These many years later, her daughter reminds herself that she is no longer capable of a brisk walk.  Nell finds a note that her husband folded up with the mosquito netting for the instruction of future occupants.  The messages are both about continuity and  about inevitable change.  The husband knew that he might not be the next one to use the netting.  He is gone and Nell treasures the note from the past – “a cryptic message from the dead.”

There is no mystery in the second story – or the only mystery is time and what it brings.  The two old ladies watch the sunset every night because it is the “best way of predicting the next day’s weather…That plus the barometer, though the barometer isn’t much help because it almost always says “Change.”  And change is what always happens, and yet it surprises us. The two sisters find themselves wondering why the cabin is not designed better for old age:

“He [their father] didn’t intend to get old,” Nell says.

“Yeah, that was a fucking surprise,” Lizzie says.

Well, yes, it is a fucking surprise.  But here we are.  We may not be trying to vacation in an old cabin with minimal conveniences, but we are trying to live in a world that has gone on without us.  Mysteries, for the most part, have been resolved.  We know whether there was a happily ever after or not; we (generally) know how we ended up.  Most of us are not still looking for missing friends in landscapes, partly because missing friends have a way of showing up on Facebook.  But while there may be no mysteries, we are still mystified:  How did we get old?

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.

“Hopelessly Devoted’ – Dedication in Old Age

Devotion is much to be admired.  I am not necessarily talking about religious devotion, but single-minded dedication in any form tends to sanctify both the object of worship and the devotee.  We often trivialize the devotion of other people when it differs from our own, but true devotion – be it to a person, a god, an art, an animal – is often admirable and surely gives many lives their meaning.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna (a god in disguise) tells Arjuna, “Those who worship other gods with faith and devotion will also come to Me, Arjuna, but by other paths.”  The paths are many, and in older people we sometimes see devotion take forms we may find silly – devotion to a grandchild, a cat, a favorite cause, a collection of coins or favorite recording artist.  But there is nothing silly here.  In a few cases, devotion to bad causes can have evil results, but true love is almost always life-enhancing.

My favorite story of this kind of devotion is Flaubert’s “A Simple Heart” (Une Cœur Simple).  Félicité was a servant who spent her early life devoted to people – a lover, the children in the house where she was employed for half a century, a nephew – who did not return her love.  She became practiced at such love, and when she was given a parrot, she had a captive object for her boundless affection.  In her old age, when the parrot dies, she has him stuffed.  He is her most prized possession, her object of adoration, the center of her life.  Again, from the outside, this looks silly, inane – but as Félicité grows old, it is the parrot that grounds and centers her life.  When she dies peacefully, “she thought she could see, in the opening heavens, a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.”

There are other tales of old folks and their devotions.  We have the cliché of the old woman carrying around pictures of her grandchildren, of the old man telling and retelling tales of his favorite baseball team.  There is Silas Marner, the old miser, who finds happiness in his attachment to the child Eppie; there is Hemingway’s old fisherman Santiago and his devotion to bringing the big fish out of the sea.  Such devotion is sometimes tragic in the end (as it is for Santiago), but it vitalizes life.  For the elderly, it is often what gives long life meaning.

We had a neighbor who was in his nineties when we moved into the neighborhood.  During the time he lived next to us, his wife’s health failed and she died.  He took wonderful care of her.  He also took wonderful care of a mangy old dog, whom he walked daily and found endless pleasure in.  When he decided he had to move out of his house, the only criteria for a new home was whether old Lucky could come.  I don’t know which of them will live longer, but I do know they have enriched each other’s lives. At a particularly desperate point in my life, a therapist suggest that I get a pet.  I thought that, in my current state, a pet to take care of was the last thing I needed.  But I adopted a cat, and I felt better.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her book on old age, said that all old people need “projects” that we are devoted to:

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.

In her philosophical and scholarly manner, Beauvoir imagined these “projects” to be special people, creative endeavors, worthy causes, or political activities.  I think she is right that we need something to be dedicated to, but I would take a broader view.

Of course, devotion can go wrong.  If zealous attachment is motivated by fear or power lust, it can be deeply destructive, and we can all think of many examples – from the Nazi hierarchy to the witch burners.  The January 6 insurrection was a prime example in recent times, but we all know cases of misplaced devotion.  All the best of human emotions possess a shadow side, and once in the grip of a cult, a tribe, a powerful personality, it is hard to see our way out of the fog.  How to know?  I think that true devotion does not expect a return on investment, the return is the investment.

I wrote a story (“Shrines”) about three old women who are devoted in their own ways, ways that might seem to have little meaning from the outside.  One could ponder whether their various dedications enriched their lives.  I tried not to reach any conclusion in my story.  I still have not reached a conclusion.

Retirement as Utopia/ Life as a Game

Residing in a household where there are diverse reading preferences, I sometimes find myself catching enthusiasm for a book I would have never come across on my own.  Thus it was that I picked up The Grasshopper: Games, Life, and Utopia by Bernard SuitsIt is a book of philosophy – a very strange book of philosophy – wherein the speaker is, surprisingly, Aesop’s grasshopper (from “The Ant and the Grasshopper”).  Now, Aesop’s moral was that we should work hard like the ant to prepare for winter and not play around all summer like the grasshopper.  Suits’s Grasshopper, however, thinks that play is the thing – or, specifically, games are the thing.  And Suits spends much of the book on proofs and definitions concerning games, all of which are more interesting than you might think, though not the parts that fascinate me the most.

What I am most interested in is Suits’s chapter on utopia (as he defines it).  What would we do in a world where all our needs are met?  Basic physical requirements met, no need to earn a living, no need to prove ourselves?  Here is what Suits says:

For I suspect that playing (genuine) games is precisely what economically and psychologically autonomous individuals [read adequately housed, fed, and medicated without working] would find themselves doing, and perhaps the only things they would find themselves doing.  (165)

Now, the Grasshopper admits that people might do things like chop down trees or till gardens for the “fun of it,” but claims that our relationship to those things would change.  They would become games or play, and we would be happier for it.

Bear with me.  If a sufficiently funded retirement (and I mean sufficient to cover the basic costs of life sustenance, and not necessarily six cruises a year) can be thought of as a kind of utopia, what would it mean to think of our lives in terms of games, in terms of play?  Believe it or not, I think this is a serious question.  Would you be happier if you didn’t take life so seriously?  I’m talking about the day-to-day stuff here; this is not an argument for trivializing climate change or anarchy.

When we “play” games, we win and lose and still look forward to the next game.  It is not the end of the world if my husband beats me at gin rummy or a grandchild beats me at the very first level of a video game (as grandchildren always do).  I accept the terms of the game, including the fact that I might not win, and still enjoy playing it.

Camus said that the fundamental question in the face of life’s (seeming) absurdity was whether to commit suicide.  And once we decide to live (and he assures us that is what we should decide), we must somehow create meaning in a (seemingly) meaningless or absurd life.  Isn’t this what we do with games, with play – create some kind of pleasure and meaning from defining the terms under which we will play and then viewing the game in a positive manner?  Mightn’t life be easier if we could think of it as some kind of game?

When I was working, I always regretted that I could not take my work life less seriously – I could have worked longer and enjoyed it more.  But in work, one is less able to define one’s own rules, decide which games to play.  I have more latitude now, but am not sure that I am really taking advantage of it.

Now I am aware that while all work and no play can make Jack a dull boy, the reverse is also true.  That is why it is not just play, I am talking about, but games, where there is the pleasure of striving, but perhaps in a more joyful sense.  Think about playing a board game with friends.  You know it is not serious, but you lose yourself in the play of the game within the limits of the rules.  You don’t consider cheating to win; you don’t stay up at night over misplayed cards (unless you are a championship bridge player) or think you are a better person because you won.  You take the game as it comes and do your best and enjoy the experience.

The theologian John Dominic Crossan says that games are like life in that they have limits.  In life we have all kinds of limits – death being the major one:

I would suggest… that game is a very serious practice session for life and death, or, more precisely, for life towards death….  It is the joy of finitude and the laughter of limitation…. Game teaches us to enjoy the limitation posed by the game itself.  To destroy the limitation is to destroy the game.  Imagine baseball with as many balls as the pitcher wanted and as many strikes as the batter chose. (5)  The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story

The laughter of limitation.  I am reminded of Spinoza, my favorite philosopher, who says that “cheerfulness is always good and can never be excessive.”  Cheerfulness comes from joy and brings joy.  And looking at life as play would seem to be a joyful exercise.

The other interesting exercise that The Grasshopper stimulates is that of thinking about what exactly utopia would look like for us?  In his book, Suits somehow assumes that the government would be straightened out in utopia (which should be enough to worry us about his hold on reality, but he is – one must acknowledge – Canadian and that might make a difference).  What would utopia in what’s left of our lives look like?  What would constitute the best life we could live?  Old folks have lived a long time; we should have some idea of what makes life… joyful.  Suits says utopia  would be people playing games.  I do not entirely agree (after all the grasshopper dies because he has not prepared for the winter), but I think if I could see life as more game-like, I might be happier.

Rituals are one of the games I play in my old age; I create “rules” within which to live my life in such a way to meet at least some of my goals.  You might look at my short story, “Ritual,” to see one example of ways in which structure can add to life and what happens when it is interrupted.

New Year’s Resolutions in Old Age

The title of my blog site (When I Come to be Old) comes from a list of Jonathan Swift’s resolutions, made when he was a young adult, about how he was determined to act (or more specifically not to act) when he was old.  His list is worth reviewing by us seniors, just to see how the younger set may perceive us (no comfort there).  This new year, however, I am more interested in thinking about what kind of resolutions old folks should make about themselves?

What kinds of resolutions should old people make?  If you do a search on the web, most of what you will find are suggestions to improve your mental or physical health: take up crosswords, walk at least a mile a day, eat more vegetables.  Yes, of course.  These are common sense maintenance items, and we all are fully aware that learning a foreign language will work our brain harder than watching Brit Box.  I surely make such resolutions, but they usually (in my case) take the form of the negative.  No more than an hour of TV per day, no dessert unless I have walked three miles that day, no more than one restaurant meal a week – and so on.  Games we play with ourselves which (hopefully) make us a little healthier without undue deprivation.

On my doctor’s suggestion upon my query about any possibility of avoiding my mother’s dementia, I have gone back to French. (I once knew enough to pass a translation exam for a graduate degree, but those brain cells seem to have disappeared.) I am using Duolingo and pledged myself to a modest fifteen minutes a day.  I don’t have to worry about reminders; Duo is a pest.  I also continually contrive and amend reading lists and rules (e.g., at least one literary work of fiction or nonfiction for every mystery novel).

But how about other hopes and goals other than those aimed at life extension?  There are at least a couple of other categories.  How about creative endeavors?  Not to be published or hung on our grandchildren’s walls, but for our own satisfaction in doing something which draws on our experience, something, perhaps, that we have always wanted to do.  Most of us know what that means for us – which could be anything from adventuresome cooking to bonsai gardening to a full-length novel.  Here, too, I have found it necessary to set concrete goals for an enterprise which is not concrete at all in its reason or its results.  When I first started to keep a journal over twenty years ago, my resolution was ten single-spaced pages per month – and if I put it off, I had to write all ten on the last day.  It never came to that – but since that time I have produced the minimum (usually far more).  Similarly, when I started a blog, it was with the determination to post a blog at least twice a month and a new story every six weeks.  I have succeeded, at least on the average.

But there are more personal ambitions to do with our states of mind – our souls, if you will.  One of my resolutions this year is to start going back and reviewing my journal from the beginning to see what I can learn about myself.  (See my blog, “Rules of One’s Own,” for the wonderful Marion Milner’s advice in this regard.)

And how about resolutions that have to do with the very fact that we are aging, facing changes we cannot (wholly at least) control, coming closer to the end, however we might define it?  “Do not go gentle into that good night” was a resolve, made not by an old man, but by a younger man (Dylan Thomas) on behalf of his dying father.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my children making resolutions for me.  And I don’t want to spend my last years in a “burning and raging” against the “dying of the light.”

Kay Boyle was already old when she formulated her “Advice to the Old (Including Myself).” Boyle, like Swift, warns us about not dwelling on old times or regaling others with our aches or disappointments – but she ends with a challenge to battle despair:

Have no communion with despair; and, at the end,

Take the old fury in your empty arms, sever its veins,

And bear it fiercely, fiercely to the wild beast’s lair.

This is a different kind of battle – not against inevitable death and age, but against self-generated despair, not against the reality of existence but against an antagonistic attitude toward what isFor me, it is not so much a battle (who wants life to be a battle?) as a matter of – resolution.

Resolution is a word with many meanings; at the new year, we often mean it in the sense of “firmness of purpose.”  But it can also mean the “solution to a problem” (as in “the dentist resolved my toothache”) or the “degree of sharpness with which we can see something” (think of the resolution level of your monitor or TV).  All the senses of resolution are related: firmness of purpose is only of use if we can see sharply enough to define the issue we are trying to resolve, and know what action on our part will “resolve” it.

Old age is, in itself, not a problem.  Grief or despair about the changes that old age brings can be a problem and is worth resolving.   But before we can resolve it, we must examine and define it.  Yes, bad habits can come with age and these need to be guarded against (just ask Jonathan Swift), but that is true of all times of life.  And again, perhaps the real sin is to despair at the facts of existence. I spent my childhood wishing to be older; I spent much of my middle age looking forward to retirement.  I am trying hard not to miss the opportunity to enjoy and make the most of my old age.  My resolutions will be to understand my own nature and changes (read the old journals), learn (French and patience, although not necessarily in that order), and work toward some form of resolution with age, provisional though it may be.

For a fictionalized account of a different kind of resolution, you might try “Nothing New.

The Old King Brought the Gold

We are in a new year, and about to celebrate the Epiphany (Three Kings Day) on January 6.  The legend of the three kings who were guided by starlight to find yet a fourth king is well-celebrated in Christian literature and ritual, but maybe it has something to tell us about old age – then and now.

The only place the kings/magi are mentioned is in the Gospel of Matthew, and it doesn’t even specify how many there were: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, ‘Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’” Matthew does tell us that they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – so early Christians apparently extrapolated their number from this.  But the short note from the Gospel was far too simple a story for Christians, and soon the kings had names, domains, and camels.  They also had ages, and are often depicted as ranging from young to old as in this stained-glass window from the National Basilica:


According to legend, the oldest king or magi was Melchior, King of Persia. The gold he brought was in accordance with the prophecy in Isaiah (Isaiah 60:6).  As I said, we sometimes forget that the nativity gospel – shepherds, kings, manger – only occurs in Matthew and Luke, and the magi only appear in Matthew.  We also (conveniently) forget that the story that Matthew tells makes the magi responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents, because they warn Herod of the existence of a threatening child.  This episode is almost always left out of the retelling of the Christmas story.  Perhaps for the best.

The kings appear in various poems and stories, with one of the most famous being T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of Magi” which begins with these words:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

Note that there are single quotes around this first section; in fact, they were lifted from a Nativity sermon that Lancelot Andrewes preached to King James in 1622. Andrewes was best known for translating the Bible into the lovely King James version published, in 1611.  He was specifically responsible for the first four books of the Bible (giving us the eloquent creation story in Elizabethan English), and generally oversaw the rest of that monumental project.  In 1622, when he preached the Nativity sermon quoted above, Andrewes was sixty-seven, an advanced age in those days, and assuredly feeling the “dead of winter.”  He jokes in the sermon that we do not have the faith of these Gentile kings, that we do not like the hard going in the cold weather: “Best get us a new Christmas in September,” he chides.  Living through the bruising temperatures of this past Christmas, I have sympathy.

Art and literature have made much of the three kings – there are many poems besides Eliot’s, including notable ones by Longfellow and Yeats.  Yeats makes all the kings old: “With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones.” Various books and stories have used the story in some way, most famously O. Henry’s “Gifts of the Magi.

The magi are much celebrated in Christmas pageants and on Epiphany, “Three Kings Day” being the time of gift-giving in many cultures. But I am most interested in the legends that assigned age and gifts to the magi.  If the legends were created now would the old king bring the gold? Would the oldest of us have been paired with the most valuable gift?

Eliot ends his poem thus, in the voice of one of the kings (we don’t know which one):

…were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Sometimes I think all old people, in this youth culture of ours, feel like aliens among people who are “clutching” at gods or values we don’t recognize.

But come the kings did and legend gave them names, countries, and specific gifts. Matthew’s Greek text dubbed them magi, a word that denotes wisdom as well as authority.  The most ancient, Melchior, brought the gold, which was said to symbolize Christ’s kingship.  Was this gift purposefully assigned to the oldest of the three?  Frankincense was said to denote worship, myrrh was used in the preparation of dead bodies and foretold death.  Myrrh might have seemed to be the most appropriate for the oldest man.  But, no.  In an age when true elders were few and appreciated for accumulated knowledge, it was Melchior who endowed the symbol and mantle of kingship.

Lastly, we might remember that January 6 was also the date of the Capitol Insurrection.  Where were the wise men on that day of Epiphany?