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  Not to be published or hung on our grandchildren’s walls, but for our own satisfaction in doing something which draws on our experience, something, perhaps, that we have always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.

Letters from an Old Person (To a Stranger)

In the hiatus of the plague, I have been trying to convince my eleven-year-old granddaughter to spend some of her spare time writing about what she is going through – from piano lessons on Zoom to way too much time with Mom and Dad. I tell her that her own grandchildren, her own older self, might be interested someday in the 2070’s. But the greatest value would be, of course, that she would have to process her thoughts about this major disruption in her young life. That is the same reason we should all do it – especially now that time is often not an issue. If you haven’t gotten around to keeping a journal or writing your life review yet, let me give you another way to think about it, another way to do it. And a book endorsement.

At the recommendation of one of my readers (thank you!), I recently read Meet Me at the Museum. Besides being a good read, it was interesting to me for a few reasons. The two main characters are reasonably old. And it was the debut novel for Ann Youngson, who was seventy when the novel was published – there is hope for us all! She apparently wrote it after a career in the automotive industry, and I surely hope she writes another.

A woman on a farm in England writes to a professor at a museum in Denmark, whom she remembers corresponding with as a class project over fifty years prior. Since that man is long since gone, another administrator at the museum answers her letter and thus starts the correspondence which makes up this epistolary novel. Without having ever met (and never meeting within the timeframe of the novel), these two older adults start telling each other bits and pieces of their own histories. Either one can stop writing at any point, but they do not. And soon we know a great deal about two very private people.

There is something about talking to strangers. While it is hard to get started, we all might admit to some very delightful conversations on airplanes or in waiting rooms. I think there are two reasons for this. First, because the person knows nothing about us, we are forced to try to relay our history – who we are and how we landed in this place and time. Second, because we don’t know them and have no reason to think we will ever see them again, we are more open. We are less likely to edit and abridge, which is something we do constantly even with people who are close to us. And if you want to see the epitome of this, look at the rosy view of their lives most people portray on Facebook.

There is a long literary history of telling tales to relative strangers. One might remember Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” where the old man stops a young wedding guest and spills out his story. Or preludes to the tales the travelers tell in Canterbury Tales, where – for example – the Wife of Bath spills out what appears to be an honest account of her life before she goes on to tell her tale. Or one might think of the letters that Celie writes to God in The Color Purple.

In any case, it might be worth a try to address your journal, memories, life review to a stranger. You surely don’t have to mail it and the person can be alive or dead – but who would you like to talk to? Most of us need someone to talk to these days, and a one-sided conversation has its limitations, but also might give you a new and more honest perspective. By addressing an imaginary audience, their reaction is not really an issue. We have all spent more than enough of our lives thinking about the reactions of others (she says with much experience). Old age is a good time to stop such lunacy.

Try it. Pick someone you would like to talk to but not a member of your family, not someone you know at all well – preferably someone you don’t know at all. Alive or dead. And write to them. Tell them about yourself – past and present. Soon you will know a great deal about yourself. And it does not have to be prose – it could be poetry, song. Leonard Cohen did something like this in his “Famous Blue Raincoat.”

Of course, there is the question of the ultimate disposition such writing. First, assume that no one will see it, otherwise it won’t work. The value is in the process and not the product. But what to do with such manuscripts in the long run? I have saved years of journals, and still ponder the proper time to dispose of them. Covid has made me consider this problem again – you never know when you will leave your belongings behind permanently. But my guess is that no one would want to wade through that material anyway, and in the meantime, it has value for me.

So, I will try to continue to encourage my granddaughter to write it all down. Who knows – I never thought I could teach her to knit, but since our Zoom lessons, mile-long scarves have been proliferating.

And, by the way, if in writing these letters you should realize how fortunate you have been in your life, particularly in getting help from others when you needed, consider writing a check to your local food pantry. Their clients need assistance, nourishment, now more than ever.

The story for this week, “Luck,” is about two strangers on a bus and what they learn about each other and themselves.