Failed Generation?

A while back, I was listening to Krista Tippett interviewing the Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli (author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which I can recommend as a good primer for those of us who learned our last physics in high school). In talking about his past, Rovelli said this (in his charming Italian accent):

I spent my youth traveling and being a little bit revolutionary in the Italian politics of the time. And at some point, we wanted to change the world. I’m of that generation; we failed. And at some point, I just fell in love with physics…

Now, Rovelli is a little younger than I am, but apparently he saw himself as a child of the sixties – those days when we were going to “change the world.” He says “we failed.” And I thought that was worth thinking about.

And then in Sunday’s NY Times in an article about movies of the sixties, I read this:

“A revolution is not a dinner party,” Mao Zedong said, but this revolution was also a party, and left behind a legacy of hedonism. Rather than tearing down the consumer society, the ’68 students helped to open it up. Their generation is remembered more for its embrace of sexual freedom and personnel fulfillment, for a social transformation enacted in the realm of the personal.

We were the children of the “greatest generation” that fought the wars (World War II or Korea or both) that saved the world for democracy. Big shoes to fill and we tried to fill them in a way that often pitted generation against generation. Fights over the dinner table about draft resistance and whether girls should wear “dungarees.” Protests at the state house about civil rights and women’s rights. And, in many of these crusades, we did not fail. There were new civil rights laws, the Vietnam War came to an end, women wore jeans and entered the workplace in huge numbers. And yet.

We did not seem to learn any lessons from Vietnam. Black Lives Matter is not a given for many of our citizens. The ERA was never passed. Women went to the workplace, but still did most of the work at home. And the president who was most recently elected could not be more different from the young president who inspired us.

Rovelli is right; at some point we grew weary with taking on the world and fell in love – with our partners, our children, our careers, new technology and avocations. And here we are looking out over the environmental and political wasteland that somehow happened when we were paying for our children’s education, learning to use a scanner, and scouting out retirement locations. We had to make a living; we had to start trusting people over thirty when they were us. We let things slide.

And there was something we forgot (if we ever really knew it). There was another part of the boomer generation; these were the people who went to Vietnam willingly, who felt that integration and the sexual revolution were forced on them. While many of us gloried in what technology could bring us in the way of iPads and cell phones, many of them were losing jobs to robotic technology. While some us saw increased globalization as a way to have cool cars (remember the VW buses?) and exotic vacations, other saw their livelihoods move to Mexico or the Philippines. These members of our own generation – and their parents and children – would seem to have elected our current president, to have pressed the brake on change – hard and with the force of resentment. Read Hillbilly Elegy. Listen to Fox News (but don’t listen long).

When we rebelled, our parents did not agree with us, but they eventually came around. They loved us. But there was a big part of the boomer generation that found the change too hard and too fast. It hit at their basic values. Some took solace in religion, some in patriotism, and others in their own kind of rebellion, their own kind of Tea Party. Why couldn’t we win them over? Did they see that the college kids were just going through a phase and then returning (with their degrees) to a secure middle class life? How did we fail to connect?

Our generation accomplished much and we are still kicking. Old ladies in tennis sneakers are a powerful force and provide the backbone of many good causes. But somewhere we failed.

Many of us lament the fact that the younger generation does not seem to feel the need to change the world that some of us felt. Yet, we see the murmurings begin with the students from Parkland, from the persistence of Black Lives Matter. And, to be honest, our generation had the impetus of the draft at our back threatening our brothers or boyfriends or selves. But, you say, the young have an environment that is crumbling around them. It’s their world they are watching lapse into environmental and political chaos. I still believe they will act. But, whatever they do, let’s hope they do it in an inclusive way. Including all members of their generation. And us too. We still have our tennis sneakers.

This week’s story, “Common Enemy” (from the Sam Levenson quote “the reason grandparents and grandchildren get along so well is that they have a common enemy”), is not about politics, but, well, I’ll let you decide what it’s about….

Failing Bodies and the Failing Planet

First of all, you must read The Overstory by Richard Powers. It is a powerful novel –a story in the best and oldest sense of the word – about trees, nature, and the place of humanity in the cosmos. And it’s about psychology – how much we are affected by our peers, our culture, how hard it is to step aside, how dangerous it can be to think outside our conditioning, but also how necessary. The mood of the book is at once lyrical and dire. Humankind does not appreciate the intricacy and power of nature and seems not to want to learn.

As elders, we will be especially moved by this book and its characters, many of whom we follow into old age. We will want to warn the next generation. But how are the old (myself, the author, all of us) to tell the young and the disenfranchised that they cannot have what we had – new cars, wooden houses, air conditioning in home and vehicle, all of it?  And we had it without guilt. We had the advantage of not giving any thought to clearing a lot, building a house, driving a big car just for the fun of it, having as many children as we could afford to support – and never considering what the earth could support.

We know better now. In part, we learned from our own bodies. We are paying for our early smoking, drinking, drugs. We take statins, use inhalers, go to physical therapy. Athletes are getting joints replaced and hoping they did not land on their heads too many times. Surgeons replace arteries clogged with the fat we ingested thoughtlessly. Dayspring mishandled. And as we retire, we have time to look around at our devastated planet – a devastation that we funded with our new houses and cars and expectations that progress meant we could have more and more. Our bodies and minds know that perpetual progress is a myth. We know this as we nurse our knees and grope for that name we can’t remember. We know this by going back to the neighborhood where we grew up and looking for the woods we played in. The planet too has paid for our mistakes: global warming, plastic continents floating on the ocean, butterflies that never return.

In the middle ages there was the idea that the human body was a microcosm of the universal macrocosm – and each individual grew old in this post-lapsarian world just as the world also grew older, decayed from its Edenic beginnings. But the Enlightenment assured us the world was progressing, not regressing. In the seventeenth century, George Hakewill made an early appeal for the idea that life on earth, that earth, was improving, progressing – and yet even he realized what this meant for the idea of microcosm/macrocosm: “And though whiles I have laboured to free the world from old age, I feele it creeping upon my selfe.”

But the truth is, whether or not humans are accurate microcosms of creation, we are most definitely part of the macrocosm and most definitely not in charge – as much as it might temporarily seem so. In trying to overcome and overwhelm the natural world, we have forgotten we are only part of that world. Irretrievably imbedded in the macrocosm. It is true of a tree; it is true of homo sapiens.

One of my favorite characters in The Overstory is the (fictional) scientist Patricia Westerford – at one point she says: “Trees stand at the heart of ecology. And they must come to stand at the heart of human politics. Tagore said, Trees are the earth’s endless efforts to speak to the listening heaven. But people – oh, my word – people! People could be the heaven the Earth is trying to speak to.”

This novel is full of stories and statistics that will frighten you. They should frighten you. But it is also full of the glory of creation. There is a theory (from Carl Sagan among others) that if humanity was evolved by creation for a purpose, we are perhaps an effort by the cosmos to become aware of itself. Through us. Perhaps our task is not to overcome, but to appreciate. Old people should be good at this. We are also, perhaps (because elders have often stepped out of economic and romantic competition), capable of what one of the characters in Powers’ book calls unbinding. His question is this: Can people come to independent moral decisions that run counter to their tribe’s beliefs? Unbinding. Seeing things outside of cultural norms.

We have lived long enough to know the costs to the world we live in for the lives we have led. To recognize the difference between cost and value. Look around you. Unbind. And read the book. Richard Powers says it far better than I can.

And for more on trees, look at my “Fable About a Soccer Mom.”



The Mirror of Age

There is a footnote in Freud’s essay “The Uncanny” which all of us can identify with:

I was sitting alone in my wagon-lit compartment when a more than usually violent jerk of the train swung back the door of the adjoining washing-cabinet, and an elderly gentleman in a dressing-gown and a traveling cap came in. I assumed that he had been about to leave the washing-cabinet which divides the two compartments, and had taken the wrong direction and come into my compartment by mistake. Jumping up with the intention of putting him right, I at once realized to my dismay that the intruder was nothing but my own reflection in the looking-glass of the open door. I can still recollect that I thoroughly disliked his appearance.

First, we must remember that Freud has defined “uncanny” as the “mixture of the familiar and the eerie.” And, in this case, it was his own image as an “elderly gentleman” that was uncanny. And so, perhaps, it is with old age. The face is familiar but the transformation can sometimes be…eerie. I think part of it is because when we look at our own faces in the mirror or at the faces we love, we see a vision anchored to the past. It is only when we unexpectedly identify ourselves as a stranger that we can see what we really look like to others.

The old face in the mirror is a familiar motif –we see it in poetry. In both Robert Graves’ “Face in the Mirror” and Thomas Hardy’s “I Look into My Glass,” the poet contrasts the visage he sees with how he feels inside. Graves is puzzled:

I pause with razor poised, scowling derision
At the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention,
And once more ask him why
He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption,
To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.

Hardy is more outraged as he views his “wasting skin” and wishes his heart would also waste away:

But Time, to make me grieve,
Part steals, lets part abide;
And shakes this fragile frame at eve
With throbbings of noontide.

For babies, the “mirror stage” starts a process of physical identity. For the aging person, the mirror may serve as an agent of disintegration rather than integration; a secure sense of the physical self developed when young – and as young – is displaced by the changing body in the mirror: “The I or ego which is developed in the mirror stage of infancy is structured precisely to resist the anxiety of bodily fragmentation. In old age, with one’s position reversed before the mirror, the ego finds it more difficult to maintain its defenses” (Woodward, Aging and Its Discontents). Fragmentation rather than integration – no wonder we are disoriented.

Still, we have wonderful self-portraits of artists like Rembrandt in their old age. A triumph of the spirit looks out of Rembrandt’s wrinkled eyes. I have lasted, Rembrandt seems to say, despite and because of this old, battered body. We know Rembrandt used a mirror for his many self-portraits. Clearly he came to terms with what he saw. Such self-examination is not easy, but I think it would be a worthwhile exercise.

The old, deaf, and presumed mad (I’m not so sure) Jonathan Swift, upon being led across a room in his dotage, caught sight of himself in a mirror and cried out “O poor old man.” And so cry we all. But, near the very end, Swift was found rocking himself and muttering “I am what I am, I am what I am.” There is a truth in the mirror. We can deny it, but it is part of who we are and it cannot be rejected anymore than can the self/soul that peers out of the reflected eyes.

Yes and Hesse and Old Age


A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Spinoza and the value of cheerfulness. I took some criticism for promoting baseless optimism; surely this is not what I (or Spinoza) intended. Let me try again.

Cheerfulness is a way of saying yes to what life presents. Think of Molly Bloom saying yes to life and all it entails. Remember Paul telling the Corinthians that Jesus was never about yes or no, but always about yes. Consider Nietzsche sharing his “highest insight”:

This final, most joyful, effusive, high-spirited yes to life is not only the highest insight; it is also the most profound, the most rigorously confirmed and supported by truth and study. Nothing in existence should be excluded, nothing is dispensable …. To understand this requires courage….

Yes! An affirmation of life, the start to approaching life with… cheerfulness. As one definition has it: an ungrudging attitude toward life.
One of the best (and most neglected) writings on old age is a collection (Hymn to Old Age) that Hermann Hesse pulled together from his own letters and other writings. At age seventy-five, Hesse talks about getting to yes in regard to life – and specifically in regard to old age:

An old man who only hates his white hair and his proximity to death is as unworthy a representative of this phase of life as a young, strong man who hates his job and his daily work and tries to get out of them. In brief, if an old man is to achieve his goal and do justice to his task, he must be in accord with age and everything that age brings with it – he must say yes to all of it. Without this yes, without acceptance of what nature demands of us, we lose the value and sense of all our days – whether we are old or young – and we betray life.

Hesse is thought of as a great influence on the young. We all read Siddhartha and Steppenwolf when we were young. If we were lucky we read Glass Bead Game when we were a little older. But Hesse lived to be eighty-five and he had what seems to be an admirable old age. And he “gratefully give(s) names to the gifts that are given to us by age”:

For me the dearest of all these gifts is the treasure of images which after a long life we carry in our memory, and to which with the decline of our active powers we turn with a different attitude from ever before…. Looking, observing and contemplating increasingly becomes a habit, an exercise, and imperceptibly the mood and approach of the watcher permeates all our actions… today, gently leafing through the great picture book of our own life, we are amazed at how good and beautiful it can be to have escaped the hunt and the headlong rush and to have landed safely in the vita contemplativa. Here, in this garden of old men, many flowers blossom which earlier we would never have thought of cultivating. There blooms the flower of patience, a noble plant, and we become calmer, more tolerant, and the less we insist on actively intervening, the greater becomes our ability to watch and listen to the life of nature and the lives of our fellow humans, and to let it all pass us by without criticism but with renewed amazement at the vast diversity, sometimes taking part or silently regretting, and sometimes laughing with shining joy and humour.

Hesse “gratefully give(s) names to the gifts that are given to us by age.” One might compare Eliot’s “gifts reserved for old age” from “Little Gidding.” Eliot’s gifts are mostly in the negative, he’s not nearly as… cheerful as Hesse. Hesse says yes to it all. Hesse is realistic, though; his paean to old age includes the aches and pains and disappointments of himself and his fellow travelers. But in the end: “Age is not worse than youth; Lao Tse is not worse than Buddha. Blue is not worse than red. Age is only pathetic when it wants to play at being young.”

Interestingly, Hesse wrote an early novel (while in his thirties) about the old called In the Old Sun. It is good, but does not have the ring of truth we find in the selections from A Hymn to Old Age. In the latter, Hesse has been to the mountaintop and back down to the valley – and he is still cheerful.

This week I have posted the story “The More Loving One,” with a nod to Auden.  It is about a dying father’s gift to his daughter, a gift that has to do with saying “yes.”


Second Growth

For anyone interested in the process of aging, one could do worse than perusing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals. Emerson lived to be almost seventy-nine, and kept a journal between the ages of seventeen and seventy-two. Not only do we read about his transit through time, but he relates the development and aging of his friends – and Emerson’s friends were wonderful people indeed.

I have conscientiously kept a journal for the past fifteen years; in the writing, it has been therapeutic; in its existence (particularly with the aid of the word processor’s search feature), it has been an aid to memory; in its chronology, it has helped me understand my own journey through time. I wish, though, that I had such documentation of earlier crises in my life, as I rely on my memory – both historical and emotional – to try to make some sense out of things retrospectively, which I believe is part of the mission of old age. And one’s own memory can be a sly fox. Of course, there remains the problem of what to do with the written details of one’s life and thought when the end of life (or mind) comes, but for now it is a priceless resource (to me). More on this in another post (as well as hints as to how to journal consistently), but back to Emerson.

In a journal entry that Emerson made in February 1862 (he was fifty-seven), he gives us his thoughts on a second growth in old age, as well as a comment from his friend Thoreau (what wouldn’t you give to go on a long walk with those two?):

[Oliver Wendell] Holmes came out late in life with a strong sustained growth for two or three years, like the old pear trees which have done nothing for ten years, and at last begin to grow great. The Lowells come forward slowly, and Henry Thoreau remarks that men may have two growths like pear trees.

And this got me thinking about… dandelions. For one thing, it is that time of year in North Carolina. For another, dandelions have two “growths,” two “blossomings.” One day on a walk, I began wondering about dandelions (having seen a wonderful crop of them). How do they metamorphose from a yellow bloom to a white one with no “transitional” blossoms? As I got down on my haunches and investigated more closely, it seemed that the golden bloom closed up again and then reopened as the white feathery blossom – I found this diagram of the dandelion life cycle:



So, the blossom is twice born – once to youth, beauty, color, and sexual purpose (attracting those bees), and the second time to lightness, airiness, ultimate dispersal, and perhaps rebirth. In-between, there is a period of rest, a closing down, a respite. It might behoove us to think of our whitening heads as such a second flowering.

For those of you interested in Emerson’s journals (which are voluminous), I recommend the abbreviated Heart of Emerson’s Journals, edited by Bliss Perry. For those of you interested in Emerson’s life, I recommend Mr. Emerson’s Wife, by my friend Amy Belding Brown.

For a story this week, you might go back to “Again and Again and Again” for a tale of Walden Pond, or you can read the prospectus for a novel (I actually did write the novel several years later), included here as “A New Fable of Old Age.” This started as a thought experiment in which the old are forced into a second growth. I apologize for my tardiness in posting this time; we have been visiting our elderly mothers. Perhaps more about that too at a later date.


Teach Your Children Well?

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams,
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by.

Anyone who has been a parent (or a grandparent or an aunt or uncle) knows how hard it is to “teach our children well,” how frustrating it is to helplessly watch young people make the same mistakes we made. There is a memorable passage from Willa Cather’s One of Ours in which an older man tries to warn the young Claude against a bad marriage:

He found himself absolutely unable to touch upon the vast body of experience he wished to communicate to Claude. It lay in his chest like a physical misery, and the desire to speak struggled there. But he had no words, no way to make himself understood. He had no argument to present. What he wanted to do was to hold up life as he had found it, like a picture, to his young friend; to warn him, without explanation, against certain heart-breaking disappointments. It could not be done, he saw. The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young. The only way that Claude could ever come to share his secret, was to live.

“The only way …was to live.” That is the answer we come to, isn’t it? The only teacher is experience, and yet we wish we could prevent their mistakes, their heartbreak. And Claude does end up broken-hearted.

Of course, these days, we often find ourselves learning from the young. Technology is the best example; we are forever having our computers and digital televisions fixed or explained by someone far younger. I don’t mind; they know the language and I am grateful to have a translator. Sometimes I wonder, though, whether our technical and cultural laggedness does not make young people assume we have nothing to share. Because on issues of the uses of youth, on the dangers of dayspring mishandled, I do so wish I could spare them “heart-breaking disappointments.”

There were other eras when the youth held knowledge the old did not have. As education and literacy started to spread in 18th century England, younger members of the household – the children and grandchildren – could read the new broadsides and chapbooks that their elders could not decipher. Families often gathered by the fire to be read to by the young. At the same time, increasing literacy and the proliferation of books meant that the memory of the elders was not as important as it had been. One could get an almanac with planting times, rather than relying on Grandpa’s experience.

So, in the face of all that, what do we have to teach? Of course, the old person has always served as a memento mori for the young – a living reminder of how (unless science comes up with a cure for aging and death) they will end up, given time. Time. The fourth dimension. We have gained experience over time, and have lived long enough to know how it is when passion is spent, the consequences of decisions (or the failure to make decisions), what is harvested after a long and punishing season of plowing and planting. As we are running out of time, it is time we want to give the young experience of, but it is not easy. Where I feel this lack most is in environmental issues; our generation participated in enjoying the resources of this world without taking account of what would happen over time. Now we know and weep. But more on the old and the environment in another post. And I might note that while we are interested in teaching the young about the consequences of time, they are interested in how it feels to live without time.

This week we have all been learning from the young students from Parkland as they march on Washington, believe changes can be made, refuse to be taught acceptance or pessimism, and insist on grasping the present moment. Bless them. They have learned from us, but not as elders – they have learned from our younger selves, our actions in the sixties and early seventies when we marched against the Vietnam War, rallied against segregation, burned our bras, and didn’t trust anyone over thirty. And they have much to teach us about remembering.

Graham Nash finishes his song by admonishing the young to “teach their parents well”:

And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.
Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s, the one you’ll know by.

This week’s story, “Any Help She Can Get” gives us a younger person whose desperation forces her to learn from the very old and the very young. May we all be open to the wisdom of age and the vitality of youth.



Learning in Old Age – What Do You Say?

Learning is good, you say.  Our culture encourages old people to pick up new skills, new knowledge.  And there are countless “senior” universities and elder learning/travel programs to help us along.  OK.  But let’s think for a minute about what Seneca said (and Montaigne quoted in his wonderful essay, “All Things in Their Season”):  “An old man learning his ABC is a disgraceful and absurd object; the young man must store up, the old man must use.”  Seneca is commenting here on Cato’s learning Greek for the first time in his old age.  And Montaigne goes on to say “the greatest vice they [the wise] observe in us [old people] is that our desires incessantly grow young again; we are always re-beginning to live.”

The current popular opinion is it is never too late to learn something (if not everything) and this is a very American sentiment.  Here is Emerson at age sixty-nine writing in his journal:  “I thought to-day, in these rare seaside woods, that if absolute leisure were offered me, I should run to the college or the scientific school which offered [the] best lectures on Geology, Chemistry, Minerals, Botany, and seek to make the alphabets of those sciences clear to me.  How could leisure or labour be better employed?”  And so we go on educational cruises and enroll in sign language classes, spending our money and filling our time.  Me too.  There’s nothing really wrong with it, but it bears thinking about.  “The young man must store up, the old man must use.”  That phrase haunts me.

Maybe there is a middle way.  In an essay on reading the classics, Italo Calvino recommends:

There should therefore be a time in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth.  Even if the books have remained the same… we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing…Every rereading of a classic is as much a voyage of discovery as the first reading.

Rediscovering what we already knew – and doing it ourselves without being told what the academy thinks it means.  For anyone interested in such an endeavor, I recommend finding a Great Books group (all the people in it will be old, I can assure you) in which you deal with the text and there are no experts or outside sources.  Similarly, I moved from taking piano lessons to meeting monthly with other amateurs like myself; we learn pieces to play for each other and discuss.   I participate in a neighborhood yoga group which is simply a group of willing participants.  In all these groups, we teach each other and we teach ourselves.

I am not denigrating classes and travel; I am trying to differentiate learning as a distraction from plumbing the depths of our experience to realize what, perhaps, we already know.  I want to distinguish between taking in regurgitated “professional” knowledge and developing our own capabilities, our own wisdom.  What did the fool say to Lear?  “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.”  Perhaps I will try to define wisdom in some future post, but I think we know what it feels like.

In a different essay, Seneca discusses people who are looking for gems as they read, wrapping up nuggets of learning to represent their effort – something that is fine for children, but the older person should be doing something else:

But for a man advanced in study to hunt such gems is disgraceful; he is using a handful of clichés for a prop and leaning on his memory; by now he should stand on his own two feet.  He should be producing bons mots, not remembering them.  It is disgraceful for an old man or one in sight of old age to be wise by the book.  “Zeno said this.”  What do you say?  “This Cleanthes said.”  What do you say?

What do you say?

Note: To preempt your justified criticism, I know I am guilty of relying on “nuggets of learning.”  Most of them come from notes and journals I have been keeping for decades, but I endeavor to contemplate them rather than “lean” on them!