Does Life Have Two Trajectories?

Often these days, there appears on my Facebook feed a picture of old people doing the can-can or surfing or jumping out of airplanes – and the caption is usually something like “Don’t worry about getting old, worry about thinking old.”  The first thing I think about when I see an old person behaving foolishly is how much they are going to regret that broken hip.  The second thing that annoys me is:  What in the world is the problem with thinking old?

I think better in my old age than I did when younger and sprier, and if I wanted to bare my soul, I have a past that would attest to this fact.  I might not think faster, but fast thinking and precipitous action were the problems of my youth, so slowing down is an improvement.  My body might be breaking down and groaning under the challenge to its endurance, but my body reminds me of my own limitations, of the real limitations of existence, of my mortality.  All of this leads to more realistic thinking, more comprehensive thinking, better thinking.

I have written several times about Dante’s parabola of life (for example see here), which posits a model wherein we are born and are on the upswing until we reach the “perfect age,” and then start on the downward slope.  Over my desk, I have a framed picture of an early American graphic on the “Stages of Woman’s Life from Infancy to the Brink of the Grave.”


As you can see, life was seen as an arch, as a kind of parabola, with ascension to an apex, and then a relentless decline.  Extension of the life span (although life expectancy has actually decreased lately) and joint replacements may have shifted the curve a little, but one way or other the body breaks down.

Recently I read a variation on this in a discussion of Ladislaus Boros by Cynthia Bourgeault in the introduction to The Mystery of Death. The discussion posited that there were two lines to life, the physical parabola that Dante was so taken with and a “second curve”:

While the trajectory of the first (outer) curve leads, after that initial expansiveness of youth, toward greater and greater physical limitation and confinement, the trajectory of the second curve, when given full rein, rises irreversibly toward ever-greater interior freedom, expressed in those qualities of self-knowledge, personal agency, and the capacity to live imaginatively and richly within one’s interiorities. [I quote Bourgeault because Boros’ prose is prohibitively dense.]

 Mystery of Death presents the argument that the increasing physical limitations we are under in old age actually contribute to wisdom and bring us face to face with the real aspects of the world in which we find ourselves.  This is Boros (speaking always in the masculine voice): “He [the elder] loses his illusions: he learns to face up to disorder, suffering and inevitable frustrations, to accept them, to conform himself to them, and yet, to achieve something of lasting value.”

Not all kinds of knowledge and creativity improve with age.  David Galenson’s book on age and art, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, divides artists into two groups: conceptual geniuses who do innovative work early, and experimentalists, whose best work is the product of the slow accretion of learning, experience, and reflection – all of which occur in the later years.  There is a place for both.  We tend, however, to privilege young geniuses and resist acknowledging the “slow accretion” of careful reflection over time.

There is the trope of the wise old man or woman, and yet how many of us believe in it?  How many of us equate “thinking old” with stagnation, nostalgia, or senility?  If we don’t believe that our experience and time for reflection give us something of value, then we might as well go skydiving and try to prove (futilely, I am afraid) that we are still on an upward trajectory in some respect. And if we are wiser, how do we share that wisdom?  I have written elsewhere (“Teach Your Children Well”) of the difficulty and heartbreak of trying to help the young avoid our mistakes.

Many of my stories are about old people recognizing things they have learned – or, more often, realizing what they had failed to learn in their earlier years.  Most of these realizations are “little” learnings; I am still working on the bigger ones.  For an example of the former, you might try “Needs of the Living Organism.” 

Wendell Berry and His Portrayal of the Elderly

I have written before about my penchant for works about old age written by the old, by those who have experienced it.  It is particularly interesting to compare a work about the old written by an author before he has entered that uncharted territory with a work completed in his own old age.  There are many authors whose writings spanned long lifetimes, but today I want to talk about Wendell Berry (now 88), and two of his best novels: The Memory Old Jack and Hannah Coulter.  Old Jack was written when Berry was 40 and concerns a character who is 92.  Hannah was published when the author was 70; the title character is 79.  Let me start by saying that they are both wonderful novels and fantastic reads.  Both novels will have you pining for times gone by, even though those times are depicted as challenging and tragic.  If you have never read Berry, these are good books to start with, but be sure you have in hand a genealogy of Berry’s Port William, Kentucky – there was one in Hannah Coulter, and I found it invaluable.  Hannah Coulter and Old Jack appear in each other’s novels; like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha or Robinson’s Gilead, Berry has created a place and a community of people (referred to as “the membership”) that you will want to visit again and again.

But, back to old age.  The title, The Memory of Old Jack, has a double meaning.  Berry tells the story of Jack’s last day on earth through the eyes and memories of those around him. Jack’s past life comes out through his own overwhelming memories, which can be prompted by the smell of an apple pie, the creak of an opening door, a touch on the shoulder.  Sometimes these memories and observations intersect; the people around him are also the subject of many of his recollections.  But mostly, Jack’s own memories take over his whole being, and the ones who love him can just watch:

Old Jack has become a worry to them…. They have all found him at the various stations of his rounds, just standing, as poignantly vacant as an empty house.  And they have watched him, those who care about him, because they feel that he is going away from them, going into the past that holds nearly all of them.

And going into the past he is, seeing from a distance all that he could hardly comprehend when he was living it.  Like Sackville-West’s Lady Slane, “all passion is spent” and he is using his extreme old age to reflect on his past, something the elderly Lady Slane characterizes as “life’s last supreme luxury.”  Ah.

While Hannah Coulter also reflects on her life, it is in a more conscious manner.  The book opens with her memories of her dead husband’s memories (now alive only in her recollection of what he told her) and with her own story, told as she lives out an active life in the community that took her in and nurtured her when she was a young and lonely girl.  We get the past more consciously than we get it in Old Jack.  Berry is no longer writing of a sleepy, stationary oldster – Hannah is still living her life, as she takes time to reflect on her past: “Like a lot of old people that I have known, I am now living in two places: the place as it was and the place as it is.”  And place is critical.  “By those who have moved away, as my children have done, the dead may be easily forgotten.  But to those who remain, the place is forever a reminder.”  Jack is seen from a distance by a younger Berry; Hannah is perhaps the kind of old person Berry is or wishes to be.

Both Hannah and Jack are also preoccupied with their legacy – not in money or reputation, but in the stewardship of the land they tended for so long.  It is heart-breaking to both of them that their children did not return to the land.  Hannah’s children understand her attachment to the farm, but they know what farm life is and have made other choices.  Jack’s only child does not even understand.  Hannah thinks about leaving her land in some kind of conservancy; Jack tries to arrange for a young couple who have been renting his farm to buy it after his passing.

The two novels are different in many ways.  Old Jack is a figure of respect and care for the community.  He is on his last legs.  People round him up for meals and give him rides when they meet him on the road.  Hannah is still someone who is there to help.  She is a good elder in that she seldom offers unsolicited advice, but she is ready to help when people present themselves at her doorstep, as happens when she takes in a ne’er-do-well grandson.  Now, it is true that Hannah (79) is younger than Jack (92), but it seems that Berry has moved from musing on care for the elderly (in Old Jack) to the care and wisdom that the elderly are able to give to their community.

In an even later Berry novel, the title character, Andy Catlett, remembers his grandfather sitting empty-handed in a rocking chair and “studying” every night in front of the fire.  From a perspective of years later, the older Andy says that he had no idea at the time as to what the old man was “studying,” but “now I have aged into knowledge of what he was thinking about.”

This blog (When I Come to Be Old) is titled after a series of admonitions that Jonathan Swift wrote to himself about old age, when he was but thirty-two.  He promises himself not “to tell the same story over and over to the same People,” “not to talk much or of myself,” “not to boast of my former … favor with the ladies,” and so on.   The list is lively enough to show that Swift has given the matter some thought; it also shows a lack of sympathy with the elderly around him.  He is wise enough to end it: “Not to set up for observing all these Rules; for fear I should observe none.”  Old age is another world; Swift calls the state of extreme old age as being as a “foreigner in his own country.”  By the time that Berry has reached that stage, he is giving his older characters more depth, more autonomy.   Or so it would seem.  Both books are highly recommended.

This week’s story, “Skillful Means,” is about the distance between intention and reality.  It was written (partially) out of my own memory and my own good intentions.

Young to Old – Do People Really Change?

It is a perennial question:  Do people ever really change?  The other night we watched Odd Couple II, a good but inferior sequel (1998) to the original movie (1968) based on the wonderful play by Neil Simon.  Neil Simon also wrote the movie versions.  The whole basis of the sequel is, of course, that Felix and Oscar have not changed over all these years.  They have made small adjustments to life, and life has had to make large adjustments to them. This all makes for good comedy.  But, of course, this is just a movie.  Do real people ever change? Are old people different from their younger selves?

People do make major changes in their exterior life.  They change careers, spouses, location.  They give up drinking, take up religion.  But do they really change?  We have all seen many dry drunks and unmerciful Christians.  Is there an age after which our personality loses much of its plasticity?  Everyone has friends who married people hoping to change them – often with disastrous results.  Change is not easy. 

If you have occasion to meet someone after many years (think of class reunions), you might converse with them as if it were yesterday, and remark – as if it were a compliment – that they “haven’t changed a bit.”  High school reunions are full of women who still act like beauty queens long after their looks are gone, and former athletes who have dropped the habit of exercise but retained the bravado of the football field.

Novels have been written about characters who only appear to change.  In Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, the mayor starts out bad, appears to reform, and ends up in the despicable state in which he started.  Shakespeare’s characters seldom change – Iago is Iago until the end, regardless of the consequences.  In Marilynne Robinson’s Gideon novels, the character Jack is a winsome man who makes other people suffer.  Such he is as a child and such he is until the end.  Jack is sorry sometimes, but he does not change.

There is some literature in which characters change – there is even a word for such characters in writer’s jargon.  They are called dynamic.  Some examples might be Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations or Eliot’s Silas Marner.  We like these stories (or the Hallmark versions of them) because we want to believe that people can change, that we ourselves can change.

I have often thought that in old age certain characteristics refine and crystallize themselves.  A frugal man becomes a tyrant over the purse strings and won’t permit so much as a tablespoon of mayonnaise to be wasted.  A woman who has spent most of her life worrying about how she looks, indulges in plastic surgery and spa treatments as the sags.  Worried young people become fretful elders.  I have a number of friends I have known since they were young; few have changed much and for that I am mostly grateful.

The brain is an amazing instrument.  In it are trapped all we have learned, all the tracks of our habits, and all the memories of the pleasant and painful.  If you have loved anyone with dementia, you know that the brain can change, personality can change – all without the consent of the individual.  AA says that sometimes drunks have to hit bottom to change.  Saints often changed after some kind of mystical experience.  Near collisions with death have known to be effective. But how much change can we control?  Interesting question.

I’ve written many stories about change, including a series modeled after the stories in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which people literally change into other beings based on their just desserts in the minds of the gods.  The introduction to those stories is here; an example is my tale “What Crime is There in Error.”   Most of my stories, though, do not assume that the people change; characters often have realizations about themselves and others, but there are no miraculous conversions on the road to Damascus – or the road to old age. 

The Dagwood Generation

I was recently at a social event with other women in their seventies, and I realized that almost all of us had at least one parent, stepparent, or parent-in-law still living.  We talked about our children and grandchildren, but we spent more time talking about the sometimes difficult and often hilarious process of relating to and helping to care for our elders.  This is a relatively new problem.  When my parents and in-laws were in their seventies, their parents were already gone.  Years ago, they used to talk about the sandwich generation.  This term seems to have been coined in 1981 and referred to women between the ages of 35-54, who had young children and elderly parents (at that point elderly meaning over 60).  Now that sandwich generation has turned into a Dagwood concoction with great-grandchildren, grandchildren, children, and parents all out there looking for love and support of various kinds.  And the stress is not all on the women.

This is all made more difficult by the fact that most often families are stretched out across the country or the world.  Dropping off a casserole once a week isn’t an option; neither is babysitting regularly so your married children can have a date night.  People of our generation can, and often do, move to be close to at least one other member of the family, but that still leaves others in far-flung places, others we try to keep in contact with, visit when we can, and for whom we feel both guilt and empathy.

And it is only going to get worse as life spans increase.  I have written previously about how much older grandmothers are now than they were a couple of generations ago (“The Age of Grandmothers”).  Our children waited to have their kids; in my seventies I have babies among my eight grandchildren.  What does this all do to the concept of family?  Who gets priority – the nonagenarian or the new mother?  And in such situations, can we even effectively measure need?

I recently read a novel by Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter. It is in the voice of an old woman, a Vollendungsroman about old age and the winding down of life.  She does go back and tell us the story of her life, but from the point of view of the old: “This is the story of my life, that while I lived it weighed upon me and pressed against me and filled all my senses to overflowing and now is like a dream dreamed.  So close to the end now….”

This excellent tale reminded me that some families have been more stable in location and attachments than our generation is.  Hannah Coulter lives in the Kentucky farmhouse where she raised her family, next door to her in-laws and her husband’s uncle.  The sadness of her life is that none of her three children stayed on the farm, and there is a touching scene in which the last son tells his father, Nathan, that he is going to graduate school:

There was nothing more to say, Caleb didn’t need a graduate degree to be a farmer, and Nathan did not say anything.  He went on eating.  He had his work to do, and he needed to get back to it.  Tears filled his eyes and overflowed and ran down.  I don’t think he noticed he was crying.

 The book’s provisional happy ending comes when a black sheep of a grandson returns to the family home to try farming.  I don’t know what the author thought, but the reader is far from sure that the situation will turn out well.

Of course, there was no expectation that our children would stay close.  We educated them, hoped they would become adequately and gainfully employed, and spend at least some holidays with us.  Common wisdom among many oldsters is that it almost never works to move to be close to your children.  They may ignore you; they may move themselves.  But I wonder sometimes.  I love my privacy; I was never much of a baby person.  But as I spend my time among the old, I wonder what we have lost.  Hannah Coulter is sure that she has lost much, but that her children have lost even more.  I am not sure.  There is no way to be sure.

This week’s story is a fairy tale for old folks: “Tale of Two Grannies.”  These grandmothers live in an enchanted village where the children and grandchildren never move far away, but their experiences are not the same.

Travel, Rituals, and Old Age

My husband and I just returned from a ten-day marathon in New England with all our relatives.  We are not used to hotel beds, restaurant food, and such a rich diet of forced socialization.  It was reassuring and comforting to see people we love, but we missed our rituals – from tea at 3PM to oatmeal on weekdays to the PBS News Hour on Wednesday nights (we can only stomach the news once a week).  We are home now and nestling back into our routines, and this has gotten me thinking about the value and meaning of ritual.  I am also thinking about it because I found myself trying to defend it on several occasions while we were gone.

Usually, I would say as I sat down at the restaurants our hosts had chosen, Thursday is the day we have fish.  Or, upon being asked if we eat oatmeal every morning (we bring our old-fashioned oats with us), I would reply that we ate oatmeal Monday through Friday, have pancakes on Saturday and eggs on Sunday.  Generally, our friends and relatives were appalled.  You know what you are going to be doing every day of the week? they exclaim.  What kind of life is that?

It is a sacred kind of life as far as I am concerned.  And a life that leaves much room for contemplation and creativity.  It may not work for everyone, but not worrying about what’s for breakfast or dinner, or what we are going to watch for our nightly hour/dose of daily television leaves room for the more intriguing parts of life.  It is not that our rituals are not important; it is that they are holy.  These moments in our days are like a religious Book of Hours, where we perform and say the duties of the day between work, play, thought, meditation.  I would never criticize someone who lived a spontaneous life in all respects, but such is a life of continual decisions and effort of which I am no longer capable – if I ever was.

Ritual also teaches us to appreciate the small wonders of life.  In one of my favorite books, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery writes “When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.”  Back home after a major disruption in our routines, the blueberries on our oatmeal, my peanut butter and cracker afternoon snack, become luminescent in their beloved familiarity.  And this, in turn, reminds me to appreciate all life.

Routine makes for contentment rather than thrills, but who says that happiness is something to be “pursued”?  I would say that the pursuit of happiness is an oxymoron (with due deference to Jefferson).  Children love to hear the same bedtime story over and over again; they sleep the peace of the familiar.  Monasteries and convents are models of a scheduled life, and yet they fertilize the genius of a Thomas Merton, a Hildegarde, a Gregor Mendel.

And I think of Nietzsche, who raised the question of eternal return – is it possible to live our lives in such a manner that we would be happy to live them again and again?  Or would it become an eternal frustration, a Ground Hogs Day of confusion and regret? Routine, for me, makes parts of every day a blessing of eternal return– knowing that I will come back daily, hourly, weekly to these holy points, making the rest of life easier, fuller, and more open to adventures of another sort. 

One last note: rituals and habits are “near enemies” in Buddhist terminology.  Near enemies are two things that look the same on the surface – like equanimity and indifference – but are totally different in their intention.  It is true that rituals can become habitual, but something is lost.  And I would never call a bad habit a ritual.  One must be vigilant.

This week’s story, “Paradise on Earth,” is about habits (not rituals) that develop about how we treat each other, and what can happen when things change.


Death as a Divine Messenger

A good slice of great literature (and even greater percentage of myth) concerns our relationship with death.  How can we cope with the inevitability of it?  Or, how can we trivialize it? Or, better yet, avoid it?

Sometimes, this literary grappling with death takes the form of a trip to the underworld, the land of the dead.  Some such ventures are heroic – Heracles goes as part of one of his labors, Orpheus visits  to rescue Persephone.  Some seek information  – Odysseus wants to know how to get back home, back to Ithaca; Aeneas wants to know his destiny.  Some represent a pilgrimage for wisdom – like Dante in the “middle of life’s journey.”  Virgil both gets to write about the underworld in the Aeneid and to accompany Dante on his perambulations through heaven and hell.  More recently we have Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo.  Each story is trying to make sense of life and death, trying to come to terms with mortality.

Many of such stories begin when a young person is scared by an encounter with death.  The Buddha was frightened into leaving his royal palace at the sight of a corpse.  For the young Siddhartha death was a “divine messenger.” Gilgamesh was completely undone by the death of his friend Enkidu, and ventures out to find the secret to immortality.  And, in the Katha Upanishad, the teenage Nachiketa is sent by his father to find out “the secret of life and death.”  In Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, a trio of young men set out to find Death in a spirit of revenge after the demise of one of their companions.

Poetry too deals with how to conquer death in a metaphoric fashion.  Shakespeare’s Sonnet 146 is an admonition to elevate the soul above the body, and ends: “So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men, /And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”  John Donne also vanquishes death at the end of one of his Holy Sonnets: “Death, thou shalt die.”  Oh, that it were so easy.

Sometimes, the initial fear of death prompts the protagonist to explore methods of immortality.  This is where Gilgamesh starts, in search of the magic plant that will allow him to stay both young and immortal.  In legend (if not in fact), Ponce de León searched high and low for the fount of immortality.  In the 16th century, Cranach painted a wonderful representation of it – old naked bodies going into the fountain and young bodies coming out.  Silicon Valley is obsessed with immortality projects.  But most of literature and myth (with notable exceptions) does not ultimately deal with death by denying it will happen.  Most – like even the saga of Gilgamesh – end with a reconciliation with death rather than the annihilation of it.  Thomas Merton’s goal was “to face the real limitations of one’s own existence and knowledge and not try to manipulate or disguise them.”  And yet, the 21st century slogan seems to be “no limits.”

When we were waiting for the News Hour last night on PBS, our local channel was advertising two shows about aging – one was called “Aging Backwards” and the other was “The Longevity Paradox,” both apparently how-to shows about avoiding aging and prolonging life.   Those PBS folks know their News Hour audience.  Is there such a thing as reverse aging?  I admire those who try to keep us old folk limber with yoga, functional through diet, and positive with mindset suggestions, but where is the show on coming to grips with the fact that all is not going to end well?

I cannot remember when I first recognized the fact of death.  I vaguely remember when my great-grandmother (whom I hardly knew) died – the same year I found our canary Billy (whom I was very fond of) belly up in the bottom of the cage.  We lost pets, I heard adults discuss the demise of others, and I guess I slowly realized the animals and people die.  But when did I realize that this applied to me Freud would say that I probably never did.  There have been moments – just before surgery, just after having a close call in a car accident – when death has seemed real, when the fragility of life realigned my thinking, but these moments did not endure.

Jorge Borges wrote a story, “August 25, 1983,” in which he imagines his own death.  Using his format, I did something similar and found it an interesting exercise.  I highly recommend it.  What do you think you will have to say at the end of your life?  What was important, transformational, disappointing?  Borges drafted his story just a few years before he died, and it is amazing what we learn about him in just a few pages.

And what would it mean to you if you knew you were dying, that there was a determined date for your termination?  Of course, we are all headed toward death, but what difference would it make if you could actually see the end coming?  There is a wonderful book by Stephen Levine, “A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last.”  It inspired this week’s story, “Encore.”

Child Rearing / Child Raising / Hair Raising

Most old people have seen profound changes in childrearing in our lifetimes – child rearing now considered to be the incorrect term; we should talk about child raising.  OK.  But whatever it is, it has changed.   Those of us whose parents were children during the Depression and World War II heard about their deprivations as children, having to get jobs to help out financially, sitting in church every Sunday for hours, celebrating scanty Christmases and even scantier birthdays.  We baby boomers had it better, but one thing was still clear to us: we were secondary to the adults.  The adults controlled the menu, the television set (if we had one), and the level of noise in the house.  No meant no, and whining was instantly squelched.  We ate three meals a day at the kitchen table and Sunday noon dinner in the dining room.  There was only one telephone in the house – right in the center where no conversation was private.  No calls were answered during dinner.  Whether or not our families believed in corporal punishment, we were firmly under control.   In all honesty, we couldn’t wait to escape, but even at college there were long lists of rules – at least until 1968.

We baby boomers raised our children with slightly more tolerance, I think.  We allowed slightly more pushback.  I surely was more permissive than my mother, trying to cook what the kids liked (as long as there was meat or fish, vegetable, and starch, accompanied by a glass of milk) and insisting only that the evening meal be eaten together as a family.  Even this became a chore as the children got older; more and more events were scheduled during the dinner hour or their friends were calling.  The children had their own television and there was soon a VCR, so content was at their command as long as we remembered to return the tapes on time to Blockbuster.  There were fewer dress codes and I let the children decide what they were going to wear (within limits).  But even then, the trend was toward the emancipation of children.  Besides, as working mothers (many of our mothers had never worked outside the home), we were too tired to fight constantly against the tide of “what the other kids did.”

It was during their adolescence, when I was fighting a losing battle about getting everyone at the table for dinner, that I was teaching a class of young community college students.  One day I asked them (most of whom still lived at home) how many of them ate at least one meal a day with the people they lived with.  Out of thirty, only one young man raised his hand.  One young woman volunteered that her mother did the most absurd thing:  she cooked dinner every night, set the table, called them to dinner, and then everyone in the family loaded up their plates and took them into their bedroom or out to the TV room.  She said her mother got upset.  I cried for that mother,  but it was clear that this young woman’s mother and I were losing the battle.

And in the next generation (that of our grandchildren),  such battles (and it remains to be seen if they were battles worth fighting) have been completely lost.  Grazing has replaced mealtimes.  Toddlers and young children’s undeveloped tastes are catered to (even to the extent of preparing a second or third selection if the first is rejected).  Such power given to a child often involves much wasted time and food.   Entertainment is controlled by the children either by allowing them to select what to watch on television or giving them their own devices.  I am not assuming there is no censorship; most parents still prevent children from accessing violent or indecent content, but that is about all they control.  I sound old and critical, and perhaps I am.  The young parents are not so permissive because they are lazy; it is far harder to deal with children who have fewer rules, less discipline.  They rightfully worry about the child’s sense of self-esteem.  And they would probably tell me (if they were honest) that they were trying to avoid the sins of their own fathers and mothers.  OK.  But it isn’t always easy to watch or deal with. 

My generation witnessed huge cultural changes.  When I was young, girls couldn’t wear pants or sneakers to school.  There were no female varsity teams.  No one (at least it my family) assumed that young women might have to support themselves for the rest of their lives.  No one in my circle of friends had divorced parents.  If a girl at my high school got pregnant, she disappeared to “visit her aunt” for a few months.  I knew of no teenage single mothers.  The world has vastly changed and there is no reason child raising should not be the same.  Sometimes, however, I wish that it were not so very different and that I was better at adapting.

This week’s fiction, “When Elephants Fly,” is based on a composite of experiences with my grandchildren and somewhat exaggerated. Although the tale is pure fiction, it felt true when I wrote it! 

Retirement as Henry James’ “Great Good Place”

In my later working years, most of the office coffee break conversations with people of my age involved speculation about when we would retire, where we would move when we could live anywhere, how many days, months or years before we could “escape.”   The talk was largely negative – more about what we were going to be glad to get rid of (regular hours, miserable bosses, long commutes) than what we would replace it with.  And soon, when we could, we retired.  But perhaps, before embarking on our escape, we should have thought more about “The Great Good Place” that Henry James describes for us in such loving detail.

The main character in James’ short story is Dane, a successful author (James himself?) who is constantly harassed for interviews, lectures, deadlines.  One bleak morning, overwhelmed by depression at the piles of tasks before him, Dane is reminded by his secretary that he has a meeting with a young stranger.  Immediately upon the arrival of his guest, Dane finds himself transported to “the scene of his new consciousness,” the calm and quiet of a “great good place.”  It is both a monastery and a spa, it is a “broad deep bath of stillness” which gives Dane time – it seems like months – to recuperate.

He arrived [the stranger in his office] to the minute on a day when more than ever in my life before I seemed, as it happened, in the endless press and stress, to have lost possession of my soul and to be surrounded only with the affairs of other people, smothered in mere irrelevant importunity.

Not so in the great good place. The value of the place seems to be in the material and mental renunciations:

This key, pure gold, was simply the cancelled list.  Slowly and blissfully he read into the general wealth of his comfort all the particular absences of which it was composed.  One by one he touched, as it were, all the things it was such rapture to be without.

The place is described as resembling a gracious monastery or a quiet grand hotel, but it is clearly the work of Dane’s imagination.  Auden loved this story and, in The Dyer’s Hand, called it a parable:

I believe, however, that, in his own discreet way, James is writing a religious parable, that is, he is not describing some social Utopia, but a spiritual state which is achievable by the individual now, that the club [the great good place] is a symbol of this state ….

In retrospect, I could have stayed in the workplace longer if I could have found refuge in such a parable, if I were capable of conjuring up a state of peaceful detachment from my work.  God knows I tried.  And often lately, when I have heard my children complain about the stress of their careers, I have repeated the advice I could never incorporate into my life – knowing that it is doubtful that they will either.  Both the Buddha’s words and the Gita tell us again and again that we must work but not be attached to the outcome of our work.  True, but easier said than done. 

But back to retirement.  I guess my retirement is closer to a monastery than a grand hotel.  We consciously live very quietly, trying to reduce the exterior and interior noise in our lives.  Sometimes, though, it cannot be avoided.  There are family crises.  There are house repairs and the illnesses old age. For the past couple of years there has been the constant threat of Covid. There is the agitation I feel over these things.  Some, perhaps, can be sidestepped.  I have already sworn that I will never own another house.  Yet one cannot sidestep loved ones or the demands of one’s own body.  One cannot, in good conscience, completely withdraw from the responsibilities of the world (although it is tempting). 

Limits might be drawn, but too often they are not.  Are we so inured to the sturm und drang of life that we take it into retirement with us, like a drug to which we are addicted?  It is almost as if we need some level of emotional turmoil and challenge to feel alive.

Outside demands on us have diminished, but we often replace our involuntary servitude with voluntary obligations, guilt, chores.  And if the obligations are not for our time, they are for our mental space.  Finally, we have a chance to take “possession of our soul,” but we are perhaps out of the habit. 

There is an interesting article on the mathematician Grothendieck in this week’s New Yorker.   You might remember Grothendieck from Labatut’s wonderful book When We Cease to Understand the World (see my recent post).  Grothendieck “disappeared” in his old age to live a completely different kind of life.  Some speculated that he was deranged (as geniuses often are), but others thought he was living just as he wanted.  He himself wrote: “The time of tasks is over for me.  If age has brought me something, it is lightness.”  I hope he found his great good place.

The main reason I spend time studying old age, is that I have always hoped to build my old age deliberately.  It is not easy but – as Thoreau tried to tell us – living deliberately is the only way to construct and live in our “great good place.”  What would your great good place look like?

One of the ways I play with ideas about how to live the latter parts of my life is through writing fiction.  You might look at “Again and Again and Again” or “Nothing New” as examples of such sketches.  Often, I explore ideas in order to ultimately reject them, but the writing often tutors me in different ways of being in these “golden” years.


Big Questions, Little Questions, Questions of Old Age

Recently, I came upon W.H. Auden’s proposal for the two questions “about which all men [and presumably women] … seek clarification.” They are:

  1. Who am I? What is the difference between man and all other creatures? What relations are possible between them? What is man’s status in the universe?  What are the conditions of his existence which he must accept as his fate which no wishing can alter?
  2. Whom ought I to become? What are the characteristics of the hero [heroine?], the authentic man whom everybody should admire and try to become?  Vice versa, what are the characteristics of the churl, the inauthentic man whom everybody should try to avoid becoming?  (from The Dyer’s Hand)

These questions reminded me of Gauguin’s inscription on the face of his great painting: “Where Do We Come From? What Are We?  Where Are We Going?”  Not so different – except Gauguin wants to know where we came from, and maybe Auden thinks that is implied in the first question.  In any case they are big questions, and they got me thinking about big questions and little questions and old age.

I have written about questions before (“Three Questions – Or More”), and so you know how important I think it is to ask the right question.  This is not easy – there is even a famous paradox from Plato called “Meno’s Paradox,” which basically asks how I can ask the right question if I do not know what the answer is.  “A man cannot enquire either about that which he knows, or about that which he does not know; for if he knows, he has no need to enquire; and if not, he cannot; for he does not know the very subject about which he is to enquire.”  So says Socrates, but – being Socrates – this does not stop him from asking questions, and it should not stop us.  Formulating questions is a skill; equally important is knowing that there are some questions not worth asking.

The big questions seem to belong to youth, to long nights of smoking cigarettes (or something) on a warm beach with the future in front of us.  We still thought we had some control over the future – and maybe we did – but surely not to the extent that our facile minds were assuming.  And we surely had no control over the passage of time.

But the Buddha says that the “big” questions aren’t worth asking (or answering) – both because they are far too complicated to waste our time with and because the big questions do not affect our daily lives.  Questions like “What am I? How am I? Where has this being come from? Where is it bound?” (MN2) are just a matter of spinning our wheels, according to the Buddha, and do not eliminate suffering.

On the other hand, the Buddha does force us to question everything else about our lives, particularly our actions and assumptions:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and the benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it. (Kalama Sutta)

In other words, observe and analyze and adjust your actions accordingly.  Try something and then interrogate yourself as to whether it worked.  Review your day to see if your actions relieved or created suffering – yours or someone else’s.  This would seem to be something we could and should do in old age, at all ages.

I spent a great deal of time in my youth asking the big questions, but to little avail.  Is old age perhaps the time for the little questions?  Side note:  I googled “Questions of old age” and got pages of suggested questions to ask old people – in case you don’t know how to hold a conversation with your grandmother, perhaps?  Google (and various experts) suggested questions like “How did you get to school when you were a kid?”  Whereas, if you google questions for young adults,  you get big philosophical questions that such people might be asking themselves.  Senior citizens apparently are not only hard to talk to, but have no inner life.  At least according to Google.

What do little questions look like?  Let’s start with a daily review of what worked (caused less suffering in the Buddha’s terms) and what did not work (caused more suffering).  Like Benjamin Franklin with his ivory tablet of desired character traits, we could daily interrogate how we are doing.  For example, did we feel better for having taken a walk in the afternoon?  Was it worthwhile making scones for our neighbor who is laid up after surgery?  Did I sleep better when I skipped my afternoon coffee break?  Who did I talk to today that made me feel… better?  Who made me feel worse? Did I really feel better after I bought that new jacket?  Drank that second cup of coffee?  Surfed the net for two hours?  Is that new medication really helping?  Do I feel better or worse after a nap?  Little questions, but isn’t that the stuff of real life?  Does it help me more to know where I stand in the cosmos or to review where I stand with my neighbors?  Or what gives me peace and what makes me worry all day?

Old people are famous for worrying over little things,  which is precisely why we should interrogate fiercely what we spend time worrying about. Did fretting over the lack of a phone call from a loved one ruin my day?  Did it make them call any faster?  These are the kinds of small questions we should be asking ourselves, and then we must be open to act on the answers.

I am not trying to discourage you from asking the big questions (and if you’ve found the answers, please share), but it is the daily events that form a life.  We elders know that by now.

If you are looking for a story, “A Spoonful of Sugar” is about a woman who confronts the big question of mortality, and answers it with her attention to… cookies.

Auden, Narcissus, and the Duty of Happiness

I have gone back to reading Auden; this time I am reading his prose in The Dyer’s HandHe has much to say about life and old age, but I was particularly taken by this bit about Narcissus:

Narcissus does not fall in love with his reflection because it is beautiful, but because it is his.   If it were his beauty that enthralled him, he would be set free in a few years by its fading.

We love our image because it is ours; we even correct it in our minds to be closer to what we think it should be.  I always think I look better in the mirror than I do in the cell phone pictures people take – I guess it is harder to mentally photoshop pixels than it is a face in the mirror (or in the mind).

Auden’s love for his own old body extended to his old age, even though he himself described his face as “a wedding cake that had been left out in the rain.”  It was his.  This comes across in his poem “A Lullaby,” written a year before he died.  Here he hugs himself, calls himself “Big Baby,” and references Narcissus again:

The old Greeks got it all wrong:

Narcissus is an oldie,

tamed by time, released at last

from lust for other bodies,

rational and reconciled.

For many years you envied

the hirsute, the he-man type.

No longer: now you fondle

your almost feminine flesh

with mettled satisfaction….

Harold Bloom loved this poem: “Older than Auden was [when he wrote the poem], I chant this lullaby to myself during sleepless nights and wish I had more of his admirable temperament.”

Bloom is right; Auden did have an “admirable temperament,” even in his old age (although Auden only lived to age sixty-six).  Like Spinoza, Auden thought we all have a duty to be cheerful, to be happy (again, from The Dyer’s Hand):

It is incorrect to say, as the Declaration of Independence says, that all men have a right to the pursuit of happiness.  All men have a right to avoid unnecessary pain if they can, and no man has a right to pleasure at the cost of another’s pain.  But happiness is not a right; it is a duty.  To the degree that we are unhappy, we are in sin.  (And vice versa.)  A duty cannot be pursued because its imperative applies to the present instant, not to some future date.

My duty toward God is to be happy; my duty towards my neighbor is to try my best to give him pleasure and alleviate his pain.  No human being can make another one happy.

Spinoza did not put it in religious terms; in his Ethics, he tried to reason his way through to a formula for the good life and says this: “Cheerfulness cannot be excessive, but is always good; melancholy, on the other hand, is always evil.”  And Spinoza has no use for regrets, the one thing that often heads off happiness in old age: “Repentance is not a virtue… instead, he who repents what he has done is twice wretched.”

Auden quotes Caesare Paves on the definition of maturity: One ceases to be a child when one realizes that telling one’s trouble does not make it any better.  Auden does not think that it even does any good to tell ourselves about our trouble.  Love the old body, love the life you have had and have now, and do your duty to be happy.  So says Auden, but it is not easy.

However, there are moments, like the one my character has in “Snickerdoodles.”