Parabola and Long Tails

I wrote earlier in this blog about Dante’s vision of life as a parabola, which goes up to the “perfect age” (thirty-four according to Dante) and then starts down again. Life rises on one side and falls on the other, ending on the same level where it began. And so, as it falls, it passes through some of the same horizontal levels passed through on the way up – something that intrigues me, but which I will come back to.

If life for Dante was a parabola, I have wondered whether – seven centuries later – the shape of life has changed. Children (and mostly I mean well-off children) now seem to have a longer childhood. They stay at home longer, marry later, have children later. On the other side, old age is often very long indeed in the modern era. Medicine and technology have allowed life to be extended again and again, until the tail just lengthens and lengthens. Without judging whether this is a good thing or not, it surely changes the shape of a life. My mother, for example, has been old for a very long time. She has had multiple joint replacements and cancer surgeries, but is remarkably healthy as she approaches ninety – except that she has severe dementia. Scary dementia where she is sure that people are watching her, harming her, planning all manner of evil. And this could go on for a very long time. For better or for worse, old age seems to have developed what statisticians call a “long tail” – rather than dipping down precipitously at the end (think parabola), it tapers off as more and more is lost, and yet the heart goes on and so does some form of life. Where Dante saw the symmetry of a parabola, are we now seeing something else?

I like playing with the symmetry of Dante’s parabola. Over my desk hangs a nineteenth century depiction of the stages of a woman’s life – more an arc than a parabola but the idea is the same.

As I noted in my earlier post, the parabola gave me an idea for the structure of a novel which would pair points on the upward movement with corresponding points on the downward slope after the “perfect age” is reached. (Here is an interesting exercise – when did you reach your “perfect age”? Or aren’t you there yet? What is the difference between Dante’s perfect physical age and the perfect spiritual/mental age?) My novel is about two-thirds complete and will soon join its companions in my bottom drawer, but I thought I would post an excerpt. In order to illustrate and test my thesis that there are correspondences between the same point going up and coming down the life cycle, the novels pairs (fictional) diary/journal entries from the same woman, often on a common topic or theme.

The title of the novel is Hummingbird Wars and the excerpt includes two chapters/paired journal entries. In the this selection, we have a young mother being introduced to exciting new technology as the world opens up to VCR’s and personal computers in 1985. At the descending point on the parabola, the same woman in 2005 is nearing retirement, learning yet another version of the operating system at the office, and wondering about the true value of the internet, cell phones, and social media. If you are my age, you will recognize this woman (both the older and younger version) and her thoughts and concerns. If you are younger, you might wonder how your views of technology will change as you enter the long tail of old age.

Journaling in Old Age

Old man, old woman – it is not too late to start keeping a journal! I started to keep one conscientiously at age fifty-three, and I only wished I had done so earlier. These blogs are often an outgrowth of a journal entry, but the document, the content, is not my journal’s main value; it is the process of keeping a journal that is critical.

Like any good habit, keeping a journal is easy once you etch it into your life – scientific literature says this takes three weeks, but I would give it a few months. I started by disciplining myself (I know discipline is out of favor, but nothing worthwhile is ever done without at least a pinch of it!) to write a certain number of pages each month – ten single-space pages at font size 12. That has not changed. I often write more, but never less. And if I fall behind, I have to make it up by the last day of the month. In the early years, this often meant a lot of rubbish on the 31st! You do not have to write every day, but it’s easier to establish the habit if you do. I put in the date, skip a line, and proceed to discuss what I am reading, how I slept, what I am afraid of, surprised at, hopeless at figuring out. Give yourself lots of leeway. If all you can manage is a history of the day before or an agenda for the day ahead, so be it. Believe me, this will change!

You will find that having the journal to write slowly changes the way you view your life. You will catch yourself marking passages in books to transcribe (a journal works as a wonderful commonplace book) or trying to note exactly what someone says to you (pay attention!) so that you can record it in your journal as accurately as possible. More importantly, you will be turning your life into a narrative – your narrative. Not a Facebook narrative. (Can those people really be so happy? No way. They are either deceptive or deluded, maybe both.) Not a blog. You are not writing to impress anyone (and you should decide up front that you will not share). You are writing to try to narrate your own life. Susan Sontag said that “in the journal I do not just express myself more openly than I could to any person; I create myself.” Take your only opportunity to tell your own story.

I’m in my fifteenth year of doing this. I wish I had always done it – how edifying it would be to be able to look back on how I felt about being a new mother (scared and overwhelmed), how I navigated divorce (scared and overwhelmed) and then remarried (happy and overwhelmed). But the feelings I just put in parentheses are remembered. And we only have to have someone send us an old photo of ourselves or compare reminiscences with our siblings to realize that memory isn’t always completely reliable.

And (with my parentheses) I have just described another benefit (they are endless). You can look back a few months or years and see what you were worried about, what you fretted over – and recognize that those things have just evaporated. They either never happened or were not half as bad as you feared. There is a life lesson. There are many such lessons that we cannot learn anywhere but from our own experience – and experience not reified in words is hard to recall, difficult to grasp, and susceptible to psychological manipulation.  And the “search” function in Word gives me the ability to ascertain when I had a root canal (and sometimes even to settle arguments).

The document itself is a mixed blessing. For instance, there is the problem of what to do with all of this sensitive material – especially as I get older. I am not sure I would even want people I loved to read my daily thoughts (once in a great while you get angry with almost everyone), or have to decide how to dispose of them. I print out the journal monthly for vague reasons that may have something to do with the strange satisfaction of seeing the record of my life turned into copy, hole-punched, and piled up in loose-leaf binders in the closet. But I do spend time thinking about the appropriate moment in my life for a bonfire. But again, these problems are outweighed by the advantages.

So, try it. I recommend it and so do many wonderful writers and thinkers. The product is valuable. Salman Rushdie cautioned us to “never forget that writing is as close as we get to keeping a hold on the thousand and one things — childhood, certainties, cities, doubts, dreams, instants, phrases, parents, loves — that go on slipping, like sand, through our fingers.” But it is really not the product that is the most important. It is the process. The daily exercise of trying to make sense of your own life. Is there a better way that you could spend your time?

I am not posting a story this week, but if you want a smile, try Rich Schram’s blog at funreadsbyrichschram.blogspot.com. I particularly recommend his “Sheetrock Ballet.”