Lost Horizon and the Purpose of (Extreme) Old Age

 

Most of you have probably read James Hilton’s Lost Horizon at some point in your life.  A good read if there ever was one.  As you might remember, it involves the hidden land of Shangri-La (which is where we get this word from), deep in the mountains of Tibet.  Four unwitting passengers crash land in a small plane near the lamasery, and we are told the story by someone who met up with one of those passengers years later.  The narration style is much like that of Heart of Darkness, but the story is even stranger.

The lamas at the monastery oversee a “happy valley” which is protected enough from the winds and weather for abundant farming and living in the kind of moderation believed in by the lamas, one of whom explains to their visitors: 

If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation.  We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all lands – even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself….We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience.  And I think we can claim that our people are moderately chaste, and moderately honest. (50)

The lamas themselves have less moderation and more discipline and have learned how to age to wondrous numbers of years, living for centuries (but they are not immortal).  As the head lama tries to entice Conway, the main character, to stay and undertake their way of life, Conway  questions the purpose of such a long life:

…your sketch of the future interests me only in an abstract sense.  I can’t look so far ahead.  I should certainly be sorry if I had to leave Shangri-La tomorrow or next week, or perhaps even next year; but how I shall feel about it if I live to be a hundred isn’t a matter to prophesy.  I can face it, like any other future, but in order to make me keen it must have a point.  I’ve sometimes doubted whether life itself has any; and if not, long life must be even more pointless.(108)

And then the old lama tries to answer him:

There is a reason, and a very definite one indeed.  It is the whole reason for this colony of chance-sought strangers living beyond their years.  We do not follow an idle experiment, a mere whimsy.  We have a dream and a vision… it seemed to him [the founder] that  all the loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might someday crush them until there were no more left in the world…he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army…. when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air…. Can you say that his vision was untrue? (109)

And then he goes on to envisage how Shangri-La will be left, hoped to be spared, when civilization destroyed itself:

We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.  Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegances of a dying age, and seek such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent.  We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath.  Let us take what pleasure we may until that day comes… when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.   (110)

I post these long quotes because they raise questions that interest me.  What is the point of extreme old age and what would we be willing to sacrifice to get it? In any case, I think it is worthwhile to think about why we are watching our diets, slogging to the gym, taking statins, replacing joints.  To live longer, yes.  Out of fear of dying, of course.  But what are we doing with all those additional years?  Are we like the inhabitants of Shangri-La, just trying to preserve a way of living?

And is there any purpose in trying to preserve a way of life that is not just fading, but disappearing at a rapid rate?  The lama sees a hope that as civilization destroys itself, Shangri-La will preserve the “elegances of a dying age.”  Is that the purpose for extreme old age?  I do enjoy “the elegances of a dying age.”  Some I can hang onto – old books and movies, classical music, setting a nice table for dinner.  Some I have no choice but to watch dissolve around me.  For example, rampant development has made it very hard for me to go back to some of the scenes of my youth.  And I have long since given up on any hope that these “elegances” will be passed down to the next generation – who are living very different lives and have no interest in my china or acoustic piano.

There are, of course, many other reasons to want to live a long life.  It might be worthwhile, however, to try to verbalize them and use them as a map if we are lucky enough to live a long life.  St. Benedict thought he knew the purpose of old age; “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce [with God], that we may amend our misdeeds.”  Simone de Beauvoir thought that we had to create a purpose, a project, for ourselves to make old age worthwhile. “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.”  With so many of us living longer, it is a topic worth pondering, no?  And you might re-read Lost Horizon while you are thinking about it.  Or look at a previous blog I wrote about the purpose of old age.

 Shangri-la is a kind of utopia; it also portrays a form of gerontocracy – governing by the old.  I have never written a utopia, but I once wrote a speculative novel about a gerontocracy – the Prelude of which is here.  Oddly enough, although written many years ago, it starts with a pandemic virus. 

The Wells Fargo Wagon

As I found myself shaking my head at the constant prowling of delivery trucks in my neighborhood, I thought the best way to express my anxieties might be in a new piece of fiction.  You can find “Prime Time” here, but there were some additional thoughts on the subject I wanted to share.

When I was in eighth grade, I participated in the chorus of a junior high production of The Music Man.  In that musical, there is a piece about the exciting experience of having the Wells Fargo delivery wagon show up in one’s neighborhood:

Oh the Wells Fargo Wagon is a coming down the street

Oh don’t let it pass my door

Oh the Wells Fargo Wagon is a coming down the street

I wish I knew what he was coming for!

The song goes on to detail memorable deliveries from the past (grapefruit from Tampa and a cannon for the courthouse square), and soon the whole town is celebrating the rare pleasure of a gift brought to one’s door.  I remember a similar excitement as a child when someone in the family got an order from the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogues – although most often the packages were picked up at the counter in the back of the store and not delivered to the house.

These days delivery trucks prowl my neighborhood streets daily.  There is the ubiquitous Prime van, the jeep that delivers the mail, the big brown UPS truck, and a multitude of other vehicles delivering groceries, pharmaceuticals, take-out food, and almost anything else one could imagine.  This trend started years ago, but Covid accelerated it.  We all succumbed, and we all got used to it.  Deliveries helped us maintain isolation during the pandemic, but I fear that continued use of such services will increase our isolation as time goes on.

We used to get to know the people who came to our doors regularly, be they mail carrier or milkman.  Drivers are now on such tight schedules that they have no time to exchange words with us.  They do not even ring our doorbells, but rather send us a text or e-mail telling us the package is there and perhaps even enclosing a picture.  Meanwhile, our motion sensors often take pictures of them as they run to and away from our front door.  I don’t have any more relationship with the people who bring me my orders than I would have with a drone.  (I would, however, prefer not to have the drone.)

Now, this capability is wonderful for some older people who have trouble getting to the store, and I surely don’t begrudge any of us this service.  But the process is both non-geographic and impersonal.  We are not doing business locally (other than perhaps with orders from local restaurants or grocery stores), and we are not interacting with anyone to do it.  This worries me.

I also have a parallel concern about the number of storage units that are being built in my area – in all areas of this country.  For the last period for which I could get statistics, the industry expanded construction of units by 27% – this was in 2018 and the industry has certainly not stopped growing.  And deliveries have increased – aggregate statistics hare hard to come by, but some delivery services like Instacart have seen 500% growth and we all know how well Amazon is doing.  But does this all mean that much of the stuff we are ordering we are paying to store?  What is going on here?

Add to this, of course, the fact that we are watching movies at home, playing games online, and meeting our friends and relatives via Zoom.  Some of this will loosen when and if Covid gets under control, but some has become habit and convenience.  I think that social norms may have lapsed and changed in ways that cannot be fully restored.

Perhaps I have always been fascinated by the delivery services –  you might remember my story about the end of the world and the UPS man.  But if we are not going to interact with people in stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues, what will fill the void?  If the elderly can be “served” without human interaction, what has been lost? 

Again, I refer you to my new story, “Prime Time.”  I would also note that the very word on which Amazon stakes its relationship with us, prime, has particular connotations for the elderly, who may not be in what is traditionally labelled the “prime of life,” but who are still very much alive.  Keeping us off the road and out of the stores may be for our own good for now, but I fear it will be a lesser good in the long run.

 

Reunions – Looking Back with Affection and Embarrassment

I was recently tracked down by a very nice woman who was a classmate of mine during my first two years of college – 50 years ago.  After my sophomore year, I married and could not afford to return to school right away, so I quickly lost track of the good friends I made during those two years  – perhaps the kind of friends you never make again.  We were young, female, and completely out from under our parents’ thumbs for the first time in our lives.  In addition, this was the sixties.  When I arrived, there were strict curfews and prohibitions about spending nights off campus without parental permission (this was a women’s college); within a few months all restrictions were lifted.  Fun, but dangerous to a seventeen-year-old like myself who had no idea what to do with such freedom.  I often think that I burned myself out quickly and retreated to a disastrous early marriage.  In any case, that was the situation, and – while I could recall those days and people vividly when I tried – I mostly struggled not to remember.

So out of the blue comes one of the nicest of those remembered classmates, who has volunteered to be in charge of rounding up all the women who lived in our campus residence house for the 50th reunion.  I have no intention of attending the reunion (I ended up graduating from a different college), but I found myself interested in catching up with her and ultimately agreed to submit some basic information for the reunion book – including a 500-word essay on what I had been doing for the last 50 years.   That would be 10 words per year, but – then again – some of those years I barely remember.

Nevertheless, I gave it a go and recommend it as an exercise.  In fact, we all do it verbally pretty consistently when we meet new people, and they want to know something about us.  But this felt different.  These people knew what a mess I was a half-century ago.  I wanted to show the trajectory of where I had been, how I had recovered, what was still left to do.  Here is a brief excerpt, leaving out those parts about my children, husbands, degrees and locations:

I think we went to college in strange times – when I arrived at _____ as an innocent young woman (girl) of barely 17, I had just managed to learn what parietals were when they were abolished.  It was a wild time that I remember well and yet often find painful to recall.  I met warm friends, and tested myself, my friends, my teachers, and my parents in a multitude of ways – but apparently got the wild oats out of my system.  I have been determined that my old age would be more thoughtful and deliberate than my youth (wouldn’t take much) and have been much taken with the study of old age and literature – the topic on which I wrote my dissertation and on which I maintain a blog…. Through all these years I have read voraciously, taken piano lessons most of the time (with little effect), belonged to writing groups (same result), hiked, and knit….

Before she died, my mother gave me a pile of letters I wrote home while at ____.  I haven’t read them (sense of embarrassment surely); they reside in the back of the bottom left-hand drawer of my desk.  It is telling that I haven’t discarded them. But hearing from some of my classmates has perhaps given me the strength to revisit those years.

If fact, those letters in the drawer – envelopes covered with little pictures and slogans (“Wear Your Love Like Heaven”) have silently mocked me for years.

But I am reminded of a poem by Paul Fenton (“The Ideal”):

This is where I came from.
I passed this way.
This should not be shameful
Or hard to say.

A self is a self.
It is not a screen.
A person should respect
What he has been.

This is my past
Which I shall not discard.
This is the ideal.
This is hard.

It is hard to deal with those portions of our life of which we are not proud, but I am glad to have had my old classmate give me a shove.  I wrote those letters; I was exuberant if misguided.  And I was lucky to be surrounded by kind people.  As I age, as we all age, a common phenomenon is to have a better memory of the far past than we have of the recent past.  But those memories shouldn’t hurt.  They made us who we are.

It has always been so.  One might incant a line from Psalm 25: “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord.”  Amen to that.

I have never written about my early college life – even in fiction.  But “The Iscariot” or “Shrove Tuesday” contain characters who try to deal with the irreversibility of the past.

“This Will All Make Sense When I Am Older”

I ran across a cute Disney video from Frozen II,  wherein a young snowman (snowboy?) named Olaf sings a delightful song about how life is scary, but comforts himself that “this will all make sense when I am older.”  Of course, that got me thinking (now that I am older) about whether that was true.  I invite you to answer the same question for yourself.

Separated by time and hormones from experiences of our younger years, there is a certain detachment in old age that allows us to calmly consider why certain things happened, why we did the things we are now embarrassed to remember.  And there is sometimes a bittersweet melancholy to such thought.  As Kierkegaard told us, “life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.”

Many people have tried to make sense of their lives, to give it a linear and rational narrative.  One of the things we learn in old age is that human beings are not always (or often) rational animals, lessons are sometimes earned but not learned, and we accumulate at least as much guilt as we do wisdom.  In these days, wisdom is needed, guilt seems to be confused with embarrassment, and the old often seem willing to let the young set the moral agenda – on civil rights, women’s rights, gay marriage, humane acceptance of all kinds.

This reminds me of the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery.  There are a couple of mysterious things about this episode, which occurs only in the Gospel of John.   The Pharisees bring  a woman caught in adultery to Jesus; Mosaic law calls for her to be stoned to death and the crowd is ready. Jesus responds by crouching down and writing in the sand.  Over the centuries there has been much speculation about what he wrote.  Perhaps he was writing the sins of the onlookers, because finally he rises and tells the crowd that “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Personally, I wonder if he was just writing to get his thoughts straight – something I do all the time.  So the writing in the sand is one mystery, but not the one that interests me the most.

Soon after Jesus’ challenge (let him who is without sin throw the first stone), the crowd starts to drop their stones and disperse.  And here is the most interesting part to me in this familiar passage: John clearly states that “they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last.” The old people left first. Why? 

Did the old leave first because they were wiser? Had they learned that youthful indiscretions are not the end of the world?  Or did the old leave first because they had accumulated so much sin of their own that they knew clearly and immediately that they were not eligible to cast the first stone?  Is this an example of the value of experience?

I have elsewhere mused on the value of reflection in old age, and of writing one’s own story.  Maybe there will not be a clear narrative when we go to string the episodes of our life together, but there will surely be lessons there which we were taught, but never had time to really learn.  In the episode of the woman taken in adultery, the issue was forced.  For most of us there is not such a crisis.  But there is still a need, and time to learn the lessons that have accumulated in the parts of our minds we don’t visit very often. “This will all make sense as I get older,” says young Olaf.  Perhaps, with distance and time and attention, anything is possible. However, we might also remember the lesson that Sara Teasdale shared in one of her last poems: “The heart asks more than life can give, /When that is learned, then all is learned.”  

Many of my stories involve lessons learned late. For such tales, you might try “The Iscariot,” “A Balm in Gilead,” orEye of the Needle.”

Your Old Men Shall Dream Dreams

The Bible tells us (in both the Old and New Testaments) that “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions.”  God says it through his prophet Joel (Joel 2:28) in a vision of those “last days” when Israel shall be forgiven and restored.  The Apostle Peter quotes it (Acts 2:17) when questioned about why Christians are speaking in tongues and filled with the holy spirit, suggesting that these are the “last days” predicted in the Book of Joel.  In any case, it is interesting that it is the old who will dream, and the young who will see visions. 

It has been an accepted phenomenon that the elderly dream  less than the young, although this is usually measured in “dream recall” – meaning that  (possibly) the old might dream as much but recall less than they used to.  The major drop-off appears to be in middle age.  Recent research also shows that young adults pay more attention to their dreams than older people.  Time and time again it has been shown that when attention is paid to dreams, they start getting remembered more often.  I have to say for myself, that since I started researching this topic, I have remembered more dreams.  In fact, for months before this, I would have said that I remembered no dreams at all, although I often woke with the unsettled feeling that I had been having a “bad” dream.

When my mother was in the mid-level grip of dementia, I was convinced that she was having trouble telling the difference between dreams and reality.  She would call me early in the morning with tales of boys who visited her apartment in the middle of the night and wreaked havoc in her kitchen.  Or she would go into great detail about a boat trip she had gone on where the boat got marooned for hours.  The first time that happened, I called her assisted living center to see if such a trip had happened – the center was on the side of a small lake – but, of course, the trip was a figment of my mother’s imagination.  Or, more likely, it was a dream.

There is actually a term, oneirophrenia for a state in which a person becomes confused about the distinction between reality and dreams.  Surely, we have experienced this to some extent when we woke shaking from a nightmare and had to spend a few moments convincing ourselves that everything was fine, and that there was no awful monster outside the window.  In dementia, the confusion naturally worsens.

When I was younger, I had recurrent dreams that had to do with the pressure to get things done.  One was academic:  I had to take a test for which I was late; I ran through buildings encountering ridiculous obstacles and never actually made it to the exam before I woke up in a sweat.  When I was a young mother, I had dreams about needing to find food for my children.  In middle age I had dreams about wandering around in a big house, looking for my room.  Looking for a room of one’s own, perhaps? Long after I retired, I had dreams about audits and the end of the fiscal year, and about not being able to find a parking spot and missing a meeting. Anxieties about responsibilities seemed to be played out in my dreams.  Note that I said played out, and not worked out.   My dreams never contained solutions or advice, and only offered awareness of what my subconscious was struggling with.  Most of these anxiety dreams have disappeared as I grow old – or perhaps I have stopped remembering them.

Dreams are often used as literary devices in movies and books; in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,  the ghost convinces Mrs. Muir that their entire relationship was just a dream.  Young Rip Van Winkle falls asleep in the hills and dreams until he is old, thus escaping a nagging wife and other responsibilities. Alice in Wonderland and The Christmas Carol are simply the records of the dreams of a very young person and a very old person.  Alice has an adventure; Scrooge confronts his past and his probably dreary future.  Is this the difference between younger dreams and older dreams?  Is the Biblical promise that the old will “dream dreams” a promise that they will be renewed in some way?

And, on a more basic level – if dreams are manifestations of the struggles that are taking place subconsciously, what struggles do the elderly manifest?  One research psychiatrist says that our dreams keep up with our needs:

Older adults tend to dream more about creative works, legacies and enduring concerns, while the dreams of dying people are filled with numbers of supernatural agents, other-worldly settings and images of reunions with a loved one who has died. Dreams that transport the child into the social world of his caretakers during early life gently escort the dreamer into the arms of his loved ones when life is nearing an end. Dreams accompany us literally from the cradle to the grave. 

This is a gentle interpretation, though, and doesn’t consider the effects of dementia or the fact that some people don’t want to be reunited with their caretakers.  One can hope, though, for some kind of comforting dream sat the end of life..

I am no expert in the analysis of dreams, but – as I said above – dreams will respond to attention.  Think about your dreams.  Intend to remember them and see what they tell you.

Meanwhile, you might read my story, “The Widow’s Dream,” which gives an example of how literal interpretation of dreams might be harmful, and skillful creation of dreams can solve some problems.

 

 

A Different Kind of Bucket List

 

I have been thinking (and reading) about a different kind of bucket list.  Merriam Webster defines bucket list as “a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying.”  The books I am reading – The Bright Book of Life  by Harold Bloom and Horizon by Barry Lopez –  are about the things or places or books that the authors wanted to revisit before they died. Both authors died within a year of writing their books.  Bloom wants to reread the books he has loved one more time; he says he is desperately lonely in his old age (having outlived so many friends) and goes “back to reread novels to find old friends still living and to make new ones.”    Barry Lopez, one of the great travelers of our time, is interested in going back to some of his favorite places (in mind if not always in body) to determine whether his journeys taught him anything: “Having seen so many parts of the world, what have I learned about human menace, human triumph, and human failings and fallibilities?”  Bloom and Lopez both invite us to come on their final journeys and to plan one of our own – back through experience, physical or textual.

A few years ago, Bloom published an anthology and commentary on late poems by various poets:  Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last PoemsBloom looks for comfort, for answers, in these late poems, but says in the end: “Confronting illness, pain, and dying, we learn quickly that eloquence is not enough.  Neither are even the most authentic poems of consolation.  Still, the beauty and wisdom of these poems reverberate into the coming silence.”  However, he expects more from the novels that he reviews in his last book.  Its title (The Bright Book of Life) comes from an essay by D.H. Lawrence:

The novel is the one bright book of the life.  Books are not life.  They are only tremulations on the ether.  But the novel as a tremulation can make a whole man alive tremble.  Which is more than poetry, philosophy, science, or any other book-tremulation can do…. To be alive, to be man alive, to be the whole man alive: that is the point.  At its best, the novel, and novel supremely, can help you.  It can help you not to be a dead man in life.

One of Lopez’s abiding concerns is the state of the world we live in and the degree to which it has deteriorated in his lifetime.  He is a genuine and literate environmentalist, and not unaware that his own physical deterioration is natural, but that of the places and indigenous peoples he loves on the earth is not.  He can accept his mortality; he has trouble accepting what we have done to our home. 

Going back is not easy.  That place we loved when we were twenty may now be overdeveloped and all serenity replaced by noise and concrete.  The book that meant so much to us, that changed our lives, when we were adolescents may somehow now feel…  juvenile.  And yet it is a brave venture and one that might assist us in making some sense of the path of our lives.  Barry Lopez puts it very well:

There is no originality in this, of course.  We, all of us, look back over our lives, trying to make sense of what happened, to see what enduring threads might be there.  My further desire in planning this book was to create a narrative that would engage a reader intent on discovering a trajectory in her or his own life, a coherent and meaningful story, at a time in our cultural and biological history when it has become an attractive option to lose faith in the meaning of our lives.  At a time when many see little more on the horizon but the suggestion of a dark future.  

I have long been intrigued by the idea of limiting myself to rereading in my old age.  I have often thought old age would be a good time to revisit my favorite movies and television shows.  Maybe, if my memory is bad enough, I will laugh just as hard at reruns of The Office as I did the first time.  If my memory is good, maybe I will remember the laughter of the first time, and that will be a joy in itself.

 I even visualized this as a kind of spiritual practice in my story “Nothing New,” where one of the characters strikes anything new from her life in order to relish the old.    But that was probably going too far.  Yet, when I read Bloom and Lopez, I find myself making lists of books, music, drama, and places I want to revisit (at least) one more time.  Most of these intentions will never be realized; however, just creating the list is a useful exercise.  Try it.  And think about ignoring the best seller list in favor of something you already know is wonderful.

Book Recommendations – Old Age and the End of Life

 

I have read four interesting books lately (and put down a few uninteresting ones) about old age. In addition to senescence, all of these books deal with the issues of life continuance/assisted suicide in some way.  Three of them are novels, one is non-fiction, and all were well worth my time.

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine is the story of an older woman (72) living in an apartment in Beirut – the same apartment she has been in throughout her adult life, and in which she watched her beloved city being torn to pieces.  In a way, she is lamenting both the dissolution of her life and that of the place she calls home.  This character, Aaliya, has spent the last few decades annually translating a great work of fiction into Arabic.  Because she only reads English and French in addition to Arabic, she sometimes translates from translations – for Anna Karenina, for example.  She picks works she loves and labors over them, starting a new work every January.  This task gives meaning and form to her life, and reminded me of Simone de Beauvoir’s imperative on the necessity of “projects” in old age.   Aaliya piles up the manuscripts (never trying to publish anything) in a spare room, and the action of the novel comes when a plumbing accident floods that room and its thousands and thousands of unshared pages.  I will not be a spoiler, but I will say it forces her to think about the meaning of her life.  Aaliya is a character who speaks to me. I also have a multitude of unshared pages.  I also use writing to give some form to my life.

Aviary by Dierdre McNamer is a lighter novel (written by a younger person) about a group of old people living in a condominium complex.  It contains a mystery, delightful characters, and a parable about the ways in which our capitalist culture preys on the elderly.  There is a quirky arson detective and an altruistic ninety-year-old.  Really an enjoyable read, if a little light on the everyday plight of old age.  End-of-life issues and the question of suicide come up as one of the characters prepares to move herself out of the way, but this is not the emphasis of the novel, as in the last two books I will mention.

Assisted suicide (as opposed to euthanasia) is the driver of Belinda Bauer’s novel Exit.   The main character, after having watched his wife die an uncomfortable death, volunteers with the “Exiteers,” a group of people who clandestinely assist elders who want to end their suffering.  Exiteers help provide the means and are present for support, but the “exiters” must end their lives themselves.  Because the legal ramifications are so severe, the Exiteers receive anonymous communications and – other than the partner they work with – do not even know each other.   One such “assist” goes wrong and leads to a police investigation of the participants and of the entire organization.  Again, I will not spoil the plot, but rest assured that it explores the good and the evil in relation to this issue.

Katie Englehart’s The Inevitable: Dispatches on the Right to Die is a noble effort to give us the history and status of assisted suicide in the United States and other parts of the world.  In a format that reminded me of Nomadland, she follows six people, their loved ones, and health care personnel as they explore the final option.  Engelhart treads a slippery slope with the people she interviews, always aware that her attention might prompt them to follow through.  It is an excellent survey of the checkered array of laws in the United States, the more expansive laws in places like Switzerland, and the reasons health care systems (as in the U.S.) often make people feel they have no other choice.  Perhaps the wisest interview in the book came with a  hospice doctor who was initially against the new assisted suicide laws in her state (California).  She thought that dying was a necessary part of the “circle of life” and that some patients often found peace in those last days.  After the law was passed, she referred hospice patients to a doctor who would help them if they requested assisted suicide, and she “eventually came around” saying “Having this (assisted suicide) as an option lets people relax…Not even getting the drugs, but knowing, ‘I can get the drugs.’”  Yes. 

Incidentally, Engelhart recently wrote an excellent piece for The New Yorker about using AI pets to be companions and comforters to the elderly.  Apparently, it is effective in many instances, but it would seem to be a fairly hollow response to a lonesome segment of our society. 

 

Old Folks in the Stories That Formed Us

Salman Rushdie had an essay in the Sunday New York Times last week about what we learned from the books we loved in our younger days. While Mr. Rushdie’s juvenile reading list was very different from mine, I agree with his conclusions: “I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives.”  If this is true – and surely it is, at least in part – then what did those beloved books and stories tell us about getting old?  In the books of my youth, there seemed to be two kinds of old people – the  nasty ones (think of Aunt March in Little Women) and the nice ones (Mr. Laurence, also in Little Women).  Mr. Laurence has an  initially gruff exterior, but gradually reveals his good heart.   In fact, many of the aged characters in the books I read in my youth were first described as gruff and perhaps miserly, until “warmed up” by a young character.  This was the case with Mr. Laurence (warmed up by Beth), with the old Grandfather in Heidi, and with Silas Marner (perhaps middle-aged rather than old and brought back from his miserly life by his little charge Eppie).  

In fairy tales, the witches were often old (and ugly), while fairy godmothers could be young or old (but were always beautiful).  Old folks were often feeble or bedridden (think of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother).  Or silly.  There was an old woman who was stupid enough to swallow a fly, and Old Mother Hubbard had so many children she didn’t know what to do.  No role models there. 

In the Bible (I was a Sunday School child), living to be old was a sign that God liked you if you did the right things: “You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you will possess” (Deut. 5:33).  If you’re good you will thrive in old age: “Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing.” And we should particularly be good to our old parents if we want to live long ourselves: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12).  Then there was old Simon in the New Testament who just wants to see the Messiah and die.  None of this particularly interested my younger self.

But when we were young, we were not looking for models of elderly people in literature.  We were looking for coming of age stories – stories that gave us hope, or at least some comfort that we were not alone in our angst.  In our old age, we are looking for a Vollendungsroman, a story about the end of life, the winding down.  It may be time to go back to those old stories.  Rushdie suggests that we may find a new emphasis in old stories.  “A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song.”

I reread Heidi a couple of years ago, and, while originally the spunky little girl was of the most interest to me, now the hero of the piece was the grandfather.  Alone and self-sufficient (and more than a little irascible) on the mountain with his goats, he is eventually able to garner the effort to take a little girl into his life.  I also had forgotten about Peter’s blind grandmother, to whom Heidi reads and with whom she develops a touching bond.  These characters were always in the book, but they escaped my younger imagination.   As a teenager, I was particularly taken with Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; going back to it I am reminded of the picture the young people conjured up of the imaginary Fat Lady for whom Seymour tells them they must perform – she is old and fat and cancerous and the very reason for life itself.  Michelangelo’s God is a very old man.  Christ is forever young, but God is always old. 

In any case, this is what Rushdie’s column made me think about.  Maybe it will inspire you to think about the stories that formed you and what they taught you about getting old – and what they could still teach you.

I continue to admire Franny and Zooey so much that I paid homage to Salinger in naming the characters in one of my novels (Order of the Stock Farm Jesus) – although I changed the spelling to Zoë and both characters are female (Salinger’s Zooey is the brother).  And while there is no Fat Lady in my story, it contains a formidable grandmother and a limestone Jesus.  There is an excerpt from that novel here.

Emerson and the Boundaries of Old Age

In rating influencers of American attitudes and culture, Ralph Waldo Emerson would come near the top of anyone’s list.  That is why it is productive to look at his evolving attitudes toward aging and what it says (and taught others) in the formative years of this country.  Emerson had a relatively long life for the 19th century; he reached the age of 79.    For most of his life he wrote prolifically, lectured, kept journals and wrote volumes of letters.  Yet his last decade was clouded by his gradual loss of memory and, finally, speech.  In Emerson, as in Jonathan Swift, we have a figure who lived long and thought about what old age meant.  Like Swift, he also had a difficult old age.

Swift, who made resolutions when he was young about how he would not behave when he got old, broke all his own rules.  In his youth, Emerson was sad for the very old who were in the papers for nothing more than being a year older.  “We do not count a man’s age until he has nothing left to count.”  In his essay “Circles,” Emerson wrote: “Nature abhors the old, and old age seems the only disease; all others run into this one.”  And he resents the attitudes of his elders: “But the man and woman of seventy assume to know all, they have outlived their hope, they renounce aspiration, accept the actual for the necessary, and talk down to the young.”  Somehow, he thinks we should be able to resist this: “Old age ought not to creep on a human mind.”  Emerson seems to give little force to the inevitable decay of the body; we must keep our minds young, even though “the surest poison is time.” Emerson knew some admirable old men and he thought they had their place, but old age requires, according to the younger Emerson, “fit surroundings.  Age is comely in coaches, in churches, in chairs of state and ceremony, in council-chambers, in courts of justice, and historical societies.” But not on Broadway or in the mainstream of society: “The creed of the street is, Old Age is not disgraceful, but immensely disadvantageous.”  And perhaps it some ways it is.

Emerson took a kinder view of old age as he got into his fifties (don’t we all), but both Emerson and Swift suffered from an early aversion to growing older, which seemed to only make the process harder when they finally approached senescence.

As Emerson aged, he did mellow to the gifts of age.  They are gentler gifts than those delineated by T. S. Eliot.  First, there is the gift of relief that life has been (more or less) successfully weathered. “It were strange if a man should turn his sixtieth year without a feeling of immense relief from the number of dangers he has escaped.”   Second, ambition evaporates.  Emerson no longer frets about how he will be received, whether a project is a success or a failure.  Third, we do not have things hanging over our heads – we have had the career, the family, the house, the friends.  For good or bad, those days are past us.  “The ferment of earlier days has subsided into serenity of thought and behavior.”  And the fourth and last benefit is a chance to “set its [old age’s] house in order, finish its works, which to every artist is a supreme pleasure.”   Emerson in his late fifties has a warmer view of old age than young Emerson.  But he is also mostly done writing the powerful essays that made him great, that we still read today.

Emerson wrote “Terminus,” one of the great poems about old age when he was 64.  Terminus was the Roman god of boundaries, and Emerson sees old age as a time for boundaries:

Make thy option which of two;

Economize the failing river,

Not the less revere the Giver,

Leave the many and hold the few.

We don’t want to hear about limitations though, do we?  No boundaries for us boomers.  No acceptance of, as Robert Frost terms it, “a diminished thing.”  Many of us suffer from believing that all is possible in a time of life when that is not the truth.  In fact, it was never the truth; old age just hits us over the head with it.

The very old Emerson does note some compensations.  As he lost his memory, he posits that “increased power and means of generalization” partially makes up for the inability to remember a word or a name or a citation.  Emerson is glad to lose his sensitivity to what people think: “One capital advantage of old age is the absolute insignificance of a success more or less.  I went to town and read a lecture yesterday.  Thirty years ago it had really been a matter of importance to me whether it was good and effective.   Now it is of none in relation to me.” 

Emerson finally says of the aches and pains of old age that they come with the comfort that we will soon be out of them.  “Old age bring along with its uglinesses the comfort that you will soon be out of it, – which ought to be a substantial relief to such discontented pendulums are we are.” Yet, Emerson still feared death.  One of the last poems Emerson wrote follows Frost and Keats in asking stars for lessons in endurance and stability. 

Teach me your mood, O patient stars!
Who climb each night the ancient sky,
Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
No trace of age, no fear to die.

Emerson did write one piece about old age for The Atlantic when he was in his late fifties.  But a better way to see how his attitude modulated over time is to look at his journals (where most of my quotes come from), which Emerson kept from his teen years until a few years before he died.  The last notation in the copy I have is that the day is Thomas Carlyle’s 80th birthday.  Emerson may have been wondering if he would make it to 80, but we cannot know if he were hoping he would or  wishing he would not.  He did not.  He died at 79. 

 

Addie LaRue, Faust, and Old Age

I have been fascinated (but not surprised) to see a Faustian novel on the best-seller list for the past six months.  The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a Faust tale with a twist, and quite enjoyable reading.  There are actually two deals with the devil in this book.  Addie, the main character, has made a pact with Mephistopheles (here nicknamed Luc) which includes both a kind of immortality and eternal youth.  The problem is that she has asked for time and freedom.  No obligations.  Luc fixes this for her by making sure that no one remembers her from one encounter to the next.  It makes robbery easy, but relationships hard.  Henry, the love interest, has made his own deal with the devil based on his desire “to be loved.”  So, everyone he meets loves Henry, but it is clear that they do not love him with discrimination or of their own volition. They love him because a spell has been cast.  There is an especially funny scene in which Henry has a reunion with his dysfunctional family of origin where he has always been a black sheep, but now is the clear favorite of all.  Nevertheless, both deals are very unsatisfactory after theinitial euphoria.  Be careful what you ask for.  Or as Truman Capote reminded us, when the gods want to punish us, they answer our prayers.

Since the original German chapbook about Dr. Faustus in the 16th century (based on even earlier legends), there have been numerous versions of the Faust story.  Goethe and Marlowe wrote theirs in the form of plays.  Thomas Mann wrote a good one (Dr. Faustus) and his son wrote one too (Mephisto – but if you’re going to read one, read the father’s and pity the son).  Washington Irving and Stephen Vincent Benet wrote famous versions. It was done time and again in music too.  Bohemian Rhapsody is thought to be based on a Faust story, as is music written by Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner.  There was at least one successful Broadway musical on the topic (Damn Yankees), and even an episode of The Simpsons (“Bart Sells His Soul”).

The Faust story fascinates us.  Maybe this is because we have all sold our souls for one thing or another – individually and collectively.  Spengler posited that Faust was the core myth of our culture: “Western man sold his soul for technology.”  Take your nose out of your cell phone and think about this.   While not all technology is bad, most technology has some bad consequences, and all technology can be used for evil purposes.  Progress does not necessarily lead to paradise.

But I am especially interested when poor souls make a pact for eternal youth and longevity.  This, for example, is the basis for Gounod’s opera, Faust, where the title character seems to want youth more than anything.   I thought of this recently as I read an article entitled “Is Life Extension Today A Faustian Bargain?”  The author (S. Jay Olshansky) is concerned that while the “longevity revolution” increased life-span by 30 years over the last century or so, we are now trading small increments in life-span for large increases in chronic illnesses:

But Mephistopheles isn’t done with us.  Like the street magician that lets you win the first game, and then sucks you into a bigger con with larger stakes, or a drug dealer that gets you hooked with free samples, the next much costlier offer is before us now.  We’ve had our taste of longevity, and now we want more – much more at any cost, and Mephistopheles knows this.

We know this.  We also know that the chances of dementia after a certain age balloon upward, and as we watch our diets and take our statins, we have to worry about whether we are just preserving our bodies for a longer stay in the memory care facility.  As with most technology, we tend not to think of the negative ramifications.  In the article referenced above, Dr. Olshansky suggests that we might concentrate our research more on having a better old age than having a simply longer one.  I think we also have to think about what a “better” old age means – does it simply mean retaining our youth or is it something different?  What would a “better” old age mean to you?  Mary Oliver asks, “When men sell their souls, where do the souls go?”  Old age might be a good time to get them back.

Faust fascinates me.  Life is like Borges’ “Garden of the Forking Paths;”  every time we choose one experience over another, we are bartering away our future – for good or bad.  Faust’s experience with Mephistopheles is one metaphor for this.  A more benign one might be Robert Frost’s “two roads diverg[ing] in a wood.”

I have written on this topic before (“Notes on Faust”) and written a novel (unpublished) with a Faust theme, the Prologue of which can be accessed here.  I have also posted a portion of Chapter 5 of that book (A Kind of Joy) wherein Pauline (an agent of the Mephistopheles figure) works out her deal with Faye, a young mother and novelist.

Meanwhile I encourage you to think about the bargains you have made, and what a good old age should look like.