Thoughts on the New Year and Turning 70

There is much hope in the land for the New Year; 2020 will not be fondly remembered by most people. I do not have to detail the collective tragedy of this lost year.  On the positive and personal side, we were blessed with two healthy new grandsons this year, but have only seen them once. And, just as the vaccine is in our sights, Covid has surged.  It has even entered my immediate neighborhood for the first time.

I have written in another year about the images of the “old” year (Father Time) and the “Baby” New Year.  This is a holiday which will not let us forget time is passing.  As I get older, New Year’s Eves come faster and faster, and I go to bed earlier and earlier.  No bells at midnight for me.  And I am cognizant today that 2021 is the year in which I will turn 70.  Seventy seems old to me.  I am sure I will get used to my new decade (although my husband who is two years ahead of me says he hasn’t).  But the numerical marker is a bellwether, a harbinger of things to come.

The Bible tells us that seventy years is all we can expect of life.  Psalm 90 is quite explicit on this point:

The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

Or in a more modern translation:

Seventy years is all we have—eighty years, if we are strong; yet all they bring us is trouble and sorrow; life is soon over, and we are gone.

One can argue that in Biblical times 70 was much older than it is now.  Maybe.  But I know there are many things about old age that have not changed, that cannot be easily “cured,”  including the simple truth of the wear and tear our bodies and minds have undergone for seven decades.

As anyone who has been reading these blogs will know, there has been much debate in recent years on what our attitude toward old age should be.  One of my favorite authors (both as the academic Carolyn Heilbrun and the mystery writer Amanda Cross) wrote The Last Gift of Time – Life Beyond 60It is a lovely book about getting older and delineates many of the joys of old age.  Yet, Dr. Heilbrun also vows in the book to commit suicide at age 70,  as “there is no joy in life past that point, only to experience the miserable endgame.”  She actually waited until she turned 77; I wish she had waited longer.

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

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

I recommend the article – particularly those parts about where our health care dollars are going and how statistics show that longevity improvements often just “increase the years spent in disability.”  By the way, Dr. Emanuel says in this essay that he will no longer take flu vaccines after age 75; I wonder how he feels about this in the current situation.  I do not want to make his argument simplistic though; it is a powerful statement of reality in the face of the very unreal chase after immortality.  As I approach my eighth decade, all these things are on my mind.

This is my last post in a remarkable year.  It is also the time for printing up my journal for the month of December and completing the three-ring binder labeled 2020.   This is the 17th year I have undertaken this process of recording my life in an organized way; these piles of words remember more than I do.    Virginia Woolf said, once, that she wrote her diary for her 50-year-old self to read (she was in her thirties when she said this).  Why does a 70-year-old keep a diary? (I bet you know the answer to this – if not read my blog on the subject here.)   And when is it time to stop writing and just to review and reflect?

December 31st  is also time to put away my books of morning readings – this year it was readings from C.S. Lewis and the third volume of a set of daily poems that I cycle through on a triennial basis. It is a time to start clearing away Christmas decorations and throwing out old calendars. 

And, as we clear away the old, are we getting ready for that final clearing away?  Does the end of a year make us consider that – perhaps – the new year might be our last?  Out with the old, in with the new?  Old man time being replaced by baby new year?  The old year being shuffled into drawers, shut into binders,  or collected in folders for our tax returns?  I have made no resolutions for the New Year.  I am not as pessimistic as Carolyn Heilbrun or Ezekiel Emanuel, but I did watch my mother’s life disintegrate into a malicious form of dementia in the end.  There should be some middle ground to this business of fading out, of becoming someone we don’t recognize mentally or physically.  I have no answers, but am open to alternatives.  And, in truth, I look forward to this new year.  Especially, to this new year.

 

Air Travel During Covid and Mount Pisgah

We recently took our first flight since the pandemic started.  Not a good idea.  We are still sitting out a self-imposed quarantine period so we don’t inflict our recklessness upon the neighbors.  The trip left me with great compassion for the workers who have no choice – flight attendants, security workers, people who must travel for business.  Never a casual air passenger, this time I worried not at all about strange engine noises, but panicked as the man behind me kept clearing his throat.   I see no way they can make air travel safe.  We did what we could (practically pickling ourselves in hand sanitizer and hiding behind scarves and masks); it will be a few days before we know if it was enough.  The incubation period of Covid ends for us on Election Day.  An uneasy time in many ways.

It was not a completely abysmal experience, though.  We had not flown in a long time; I was newly awed by the view from on high.  From my window seat, I could see the contours of land brought into geometric definition by the hand of man.  I could see cars like rolling BBs and houses like sprinkled confetti among the autumn foliage.  I could see the top sides of the clouds and imagine the rain that was falling away from us rather than on us.  It gave me the long view; I thought about Moses.

We live on the edge of Pisgah National Forest, which contains Mount Pisgah.  The forest and the mountain were named for the mountain in the Bible from which Moses saw the promised land:

And Moses went up from the plains of Moab unto the mountain of Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, that is over against Jericho. And the Lord shewed him all the land of Gilead, unto Dan, And all Naphtali, and the land of Ephraim, and Manasseh, and all the land of Judah, unto the utmost sea, And the south, and the plain of the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees, unto Zoar. And the Lord said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither.

Moses sees the promised land but will never get there.  But seeing it seems to be enough; knowing that his people will thrive in the land of milk and honey presumably gives him solace.

Martin Luther King referenced the same Bible story in his “I Have a Dream” speech:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.

These two speeches assume that while the speaker may not be around to see how things turn out, things will definitely be OK, that times on the other side of the mountain will surely be better.  We old folks are always trying to look over the top of the mountain to see what things will be like for our children and grandchildren.  For the times we will never live to see.  But what if what is on the other side of the mountain is not better; what if it is worse?  What if the view from the mountaintop fills us with fear rather than inspiration?  This is not just about politics (although that is heavy on my mind these days), but about climate change and environmental degradation, about the lack of economic opportunities for younger people, about the stranglehold of technology on the lives of us all.  I have high hopes for my grandchildren as individuals, but I tremble for the world they will live in.  Do I want to live to see that world?

One of my heroes, Leonard Cohen, died the day before the U.S. election in 2016.  Go back and listen to “Democracy.”  I remember thinking that I was glad he did not live to see America delivered to isolationism, fear, and studied ignorance of both the scientific and the moral.  I am eager to see what happens next in the world; to resume life after the enforced quiet of the pandemic.  But do I really want to see what is on the other side of the mountain?  Can I really believe the long view is better?  Much hinges on this election – including the view from the mountain.  Moses was reassured by God; Martin Luther King was inspired by the progress already made.  I want to be reassured and inspired.  I want the view to be comforting.  I want to end my life believing that things are getting better. 

My husband and I climbed Mount Pisgah a few times after we moved to North Carolina five years ago.  I must admit that the wooded slopes of the milder climate here do not give the panoramic views we used to get from the bald tops of New England favorites like Mount Monadnock.  And I am getting older.  The last time we reached the peak of Pisgah, I realized that although I can go long distances on gentler slopes, the scramble up is getting too much for me.  So I am probably never going to see that view again.

And I will probably not see the Promised Land.   When I was young, it looked like things were getting better.  Civil rights were being granted, women were welcome in more places and professions than ever before, the rivers were actually getting cleaner.  I came into this life on a hopeful note.  I pray that I can go out that way.

This week’s fiction, “Going Down is the Most Dangerous Part,” takes place on Mount Monadnock.  Enjoy.

Old Karma, Instant Karma

I have heard the word karma tossed around a lot lately. There is a subtle thread that postulates that humanity is reaping what it has sown in terms of overpopulation, globalization, and racial inequities. Buddhists will tell you that there are many kinds of karma. I am partial to John Lennon’s kind of karma – but we’ll come back to that.

Karma literally means “action,” it is what we do or think. Because the world seems to work on a cause and effect basis, what we do has consequences. This is the good news and the bad news. It means we can get ourselves into trouble, but it also means we can get ourselves out of trouble. As older people, most of us are well experienced with this concept. The sins of our youth might still haunt us, but most of us have learned some lessons, overcome some of the consequences of our misjudgments, and carried on. Maybe not entirely, though. Cicero continually reminds us that a well-spent youth is the “best armor of old age,” but Cicero is not right about everything. Erasmus, on the other hand, quotes a common medieval proverb that a “young saint makes an old devil” and vice-versa. In any case, the good news about karma, even if you do not believe in multiple lifetimes in which to reap the consequences, is that as long as we can act, we can change our karma. And, I believe, this is even true on an individual daily basis and collectively over the long term.

None of this is to say that bad things (or good things) cannot happen to undeserving people; earthquakes and rainbows are indiscriminate as far as I can tell. And I am not saying we could even figure out the ramifications of our past or present actions very accurately – even the Buddha said such an effort would drive one to madness. But it would also be madness to think that our actions have no consequences. It is a kind of madness that we apparently have collectively, and the earth and its creatures are suffering for it.

Again, old people know all about this. We know it with our bodies – we are dealing now with the sins of our youth when we got too much sun, smoked, did drugs, or didn’t eat well or take good care of our teeth. And we know it in our hearts. It often occurs to me that I have far clearer memories of my mistakes than I do of my successes, that I can summon up the details of bad times more easily than I can remember the good ones. Karma.

You might remember one of Lennon’s last creations – “Instant Karma.” Here are the chorus and some of the lyrics:

Well we all shine on
Like the moon and the stars and the sun
Well we all shine on
Every one, come on

Instant Karma’s gonna get you
Gonna knock you off your feet
Better recognize your brothers
Every one you meet

This is the karma of conscience. Things I did, things I didn’t do (and should have); the guilt, shame, and remorse of such things don’t wait for another lifetime. They are, as Lennon says, instant. These pangs don’t disappear instantly, however. In the little book on conscience by Paul Strohm that I have been reading (highly recommended), there is talk about the “black book of conscience” that we must carry with us to present to the “Final Judge.” Oh boy.

What we’ve done or not done, where we come from, what we’ve thought, has repercussions throughout our life. Of course, we cannot change the past, and yet… one spends a lot of time with regrets and might remember Yeats words about remorse:

I am content to follow to its source
Every event in action or in thought;
Measure the lot; forgive myself the lot!
When such as I cast out remorse
So great a sweetness flows into the breast
We must laugh and we must sing,
We are blest by everything,
Everything we look upon is blest. (“Dialogue of Self and Soul”)

May it be so! But how to “cast out remorse”? And do we always want to?

But here’s the thing – I have remorse that I spent too much time in the sun, didn’t brush my teeth enough, didn’t drink enough milk. But I don’t spend any time berating myself about it – I just get a good dermatologist, a decent dentist, and take my Prolia shots for osteoporosis without complaint. So far, however, there have been no such “remedies” for the bad karma we have inflicted on the earth and its creatures. Covid and the Black Lives Matter have reminded me of this. And I know remorse won’t help unless it is fueling action (new karma) and a new heart (instant karma).

The story this week, “The Widow’s Dream,” is not so much about karma within one woman’s lifetime, as about how the past can cripple us if we allow it to. Let it not be so.