No-Fly Zones and Old Fears

 

The current talk about no-fly zones in Ukraine and the threat of nuclear war take me back to 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis.  My family was living in Florida then, and I think our terror was greater than some farther away.  The missiles that were being installed in Cuba were medium range – they might have been able to hit Washington DC but maybe not NYC.  In Florida we definitely felt at risk.  The fear was palpable.  The adults talked of nothing else.  We had exercises in school where we crouched out in the hall or under our desks.  Somehow, even at 11 years old – we all knew our desks would not protect us.

In our suburban neighborhood, everyone was constructing a fall-out shelter. My father dug a “shelter” in the dirt floor of the crawl space and stocked it with rice and canned goods.  It was pretty rough, and I could not really imagine how we all – and the dog – would live down there.  But I did try to imagine it – what it would be like to live in the fallout shelter for months, what it would be like to take a direct hit (even as children we knew this was the preferable way to go), what it would mean to die of radiation poisoning (not pleasant). It was the first time I heard (or thought about) people owning guns, as there was talk that you needed to have one stashed in your fallout cellar to deter your neighbors from taking it over or stealing your food.  Scary stuff. 

For the first time, perhaps, we felt like we were all confronting our mortality together.  But the crisis lasted 13 long days, and when it passed, we gradually forgot about it. Kennedy made some concessions in this instance to bring us that peace.  The concessions were never overtly acknowledged, but, in these times, it is good to remember that concessions can be a valuable tool for peace. In any case, the US and the USSR proved that they could work together to avert catastrophe This is when the hot line/red phone was installed between Washington and Moscow.   In the 1950s and 60s, there was a spat of movies about a nuclear apocalypse – try watching On the Beach or Fail-Safe. But, over time, we gradually forgot or repressed the danger.  We forgot, that is, until the discussion started about what we could do to help Ukraine, and how the use of no-fly zones would lead to nuclear war with Russia.

It seems inevitable that once we had nuclear weapons, someone would eventually use them.  We used them in WWII, with horrific results for the Japanese.  Scientists who worked on the bomb had remorse, and Oppenheimer and others saw no point in mankind building bridges, carrying on – as they felt that it was inevitable that the world would end in a nuclear holocaust.  The great polymath John von Neumann said: Technological possibilities are irresistible to man. If man can go to the moon, he will. If he can control the climate, he will.  He also said: It is just as foolish to complain that people are selfish and treacherous as it is to complain that the magnetic field does not increase unless the electric field has a curl. Both are laws of nature.

That being said, it seems amazing that there has been so little general discussion of nuclear weapons over the decades since Kennedy and Khrushchev faced each other down.  I have to admit, they have not been much on my mind.  It is not a comfortable subject.  Maybe, like death, the Damocles Sword of possible atomic annihilation is something we know but do not acknowledge, do not allow ourselves to acknowledge. (Is climate change in this same category?)

In his “Thoughts in Time of War,” Freud talks about how war – even a war in which we might not be participants – forces us to acknowledge death, and considers whether this might be a good thing:

It is evident that war is bound to sweep away this conventional treatment of death.  Death is no longer to be denied; we are forced to believe in it.  People really die; and no longer one by one, but many, often tens of thousands, in a single day…. Would it not be better to give death the place in reality and in our thoughts which is its due, and give a little more prominence to the unconscious attitude towards death which we have hitherto so carefully suppressed?

I am indeed lucky to have reached the age of 70 without witnessing an atomic apocalypse, nor have I suffered much anxiety about it since 1962.  But I am thinking about it now again, and – as Freud says – war forces us to acknowledge our own mortality, even though most of the time “we were accustomed to behave as if it were otherwise.” 

I have never written a story about nuclear war – although I have ended the world with an asteroid (“Back to the Garden”) and an epidemic (The Last Quartet).  My story, “Last Things,” though, expresses one way of looking at the end of things – or the possible end of things.

Does Everyone Die Young?

I just read an intriguing book by Marc Augé, entitled Everyone Dies Young. Augé is a distinguished and famous anthropologist; he was eighty-one in 2016 when he published this slim volume of essays about old age.  It starts with the story of Mounette, his first cat, who aged without the psychological constraints that human beings struggle with as they age, and this cat yet knew her own limitations.  As Mounette aged, she gave up leaping to the beloved mantel and contentedly spent days in the sunshine in a soft chair by the window. When she could not leap onto the chair, she lay on the floor.  The old cat was not perturbed.  Like the elderly human, it had time.  Unlike the human, it had no age: “Time is a freedom, age a constraint.  The cat, apparently, does not know this constraint.”

We all feel the “constraint” of age in various ways.  Aches and pains remind us.  Other people remind us.  And then there is the mirror.  In medieval literature (Langland, Gower), the mirror is the vehicle which confronts us with our own age.  In “The Uncanny,” Freud tells of his surprise that the reflection of the old man in the window is his self.  Robert Graves and Thomas Hardy write poignant poems about what they see in the mirror.  They are alternately puzzled and outraged.  And why does the mirror sometimes surprise us?  Because we feel young inside.  That continuing self, the “person” that we were at twenty, is still there somewhere, but now is enshrouded with a wrinkled and faded façade. 

It is a truism that “you are only as old as you feel.”  Nevertheless, one of the worse things that our culture can say about our older comrades is that “they are showing their age,” which usually means they are “acting old” (never a good thing).  Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist, posited that feeling younger psychologically would have a positive effect on the physical body and did the famous “counterclockwise” experiment in which she moved a group of elders into an environment that mimicked (or maybe mocked) the world of 1959, the world of their youth.  They watched old television programs, read old magazines, discussed old headlines.  And there were no mirrors.  The staff treated them as if they were young; no one helped them with their luggage or condescended to them.  At the end of the week, they showed improvement in almost all measurable areas – cognitive, physical, perceptual.  Of course, there was no control group and perhaps the group just profited from attention, socialization, and respect from the staff.

We know this kind of thing works.  In this digital age, when our cell phone can design a radio program based on the music we listened to in our youth (and isn’t that the music we all love?), we get a lift as one old favorite after another conjures up scenes and emotions from the days when our whole life was in front of us.  We like talking about old times, particularly with someone who was there.  We enjoy re-reading the books and re-watching the movies that shaped our lives, and all of it is available to us with a few clicks.  We can bring 1959 back all by ourselves.

There is also the matter of memory.  Many old people have much better memories of fifty years ago then they do of last week.  True, we have had time to polish those memories, but they are there.  Augé says that “with regard to our pasts, we are all creators and artists.  We advance facing backward, forever observing and reconstructing the times gone by.”  We can remember the lyrics to a song we haven’t heard for decades and the name of the friend who bought us our first cigarette.  But, for dear life, we can’t remember the name of our neighbor’s husband.  We are youthful in memory.  Except in the face of physical ailments, we all feel young.

Augé ends with this from the title essay of Everyone Dies Young:

Time, as old age experiences it, is not the accumulated, ordered sum of the events of the past.  It is a palimpsest; everything inscribed there does not reappear, and sometimes the earliest inscriptions surface most easily.  Alzheimer’s disease is only an acceleration of the natural selection process of forgetting, at the end of which it seems that the most tenacious – if not the most faithful – images are often those of childhood.  Whether we delight in this fact or deplore it, because there is a share of cruelty in such an observation, we must nevertheless admit it:  everyone dies young.  (85)

I recommend Augé’s little book.  He approaches old age from the vantage point of being old and being trained as an anthropologist/ethnologist.  He encourages us to look at old age as a cultural as well as a biological construction. 

If you are interested in people and mirrors, you might try my old story, “Reflections.”  I don’t like looking in the mirror myself, but don’t seem to be able to avoid it.

 

Father Time and Airport Security

I traveled over the holidays – probably not a wise decision, but it seemed like a necessary one at the time.  As I double-masked, waited in long lines, and prayed that our flight crew did not call in sick, I pondered why I was doing this at seventy years of age.  Open question.  But the question of age and its benefits and disadvantages kept coming back to me during this time as we approach the end of 2021 and the prospect of another year gone.

Nothing has changed in the past few decades as much as air travel.  So, I separated my liquids and made sure our fruit cake was not wrapped in aluminum foil.  When I came to the front of the airport security line, I asked a TSA employee if I needed to remove my shoes.  I tend to get dizzy bending down so I would have liked to avoid untying my sneakers, not to mention pattering around on my socks on a dirty airport floor.   The nice young man asked how old I was, and I told him (70).  He smiled and said that the limit was 75, but I should just lie next time because they never check.  Nevertheless, I make it a policy never to fib to people who can put me on a “no fly” list, so I guess I will keep taking my shoes off.  But the encounter got me thinking about uses of age – we want to be old to qualify for keeping our shoes on, for Social Security and Medicare (especially Medicare!), for early Covid vaccinations, for senior discounts, but we don’t want any age restrictions on driving, employment, credit, or any other parts of our lives.  I have a 95-year-old relative who says she is too old if confronted with something she doesn’t want to do, but alternately asserts that she is so old that she can do anything she wants to do in the face of any kind of limitations (regardless of protest from the near and dear).  Ahhh….  In a way, this is all of us.

Centuries ago, there was little concept of age restrictions on the old; neither was there much sympathy for retirement.   Pope Celestine became the first pope to “abdicate” at age 79 (in 1294) for which he was much maligned; he wanted to become a hermit.   Celestine even makes it into one of Dante’s circles of hell for his “great refusal.”  The whole point of King Lear seems to be (at least at first glance) that the old man let go of the rei(g)ns too soon.

Early modern times did make some allowances for the old.  At sixty, one could not be forced into military service and at seventy an elder was exempt from jury duty.  (The latter is of interest to me as I have a jury duty notice and, in my state, the automatic exemption age is 72 and I don’t quite make it.)

But, in general, the old were expected to carry on to the extent of their capabilities.  To be excused from service to the House of Lords, for example, age was generally not enough.  The important imperative to persevere, however, was more ethical than legal, and in it was embedded the assumption of the duty of the old to be wise and to impart that wisdom to the young.   When the Fool admonishes Lear that “Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise,” he paraphrases the words that Lucrece addresses to Priam as she views a tapestry depicting the deception of Sinon (in the Bard’s “Rape of Lucrece”): “Priam, why art thou old, and yet not wise?” Regardless of her age, no one expected or wanted the Virgin Queen Elizabeth to retire in Shakespearean England (and the current Queen Elizabeth apparently assumes this is still the case).

Again, I am also focused on numbers because we are headed toward the countdown for a new year. (I will be asleep when the ball actually falls.)  What will 2022 bring besides making me another year older (if I live through it)?  I have a habit of making resolutions in my journal every year, but last year’s entry was mostly about my hope that Covid would disappear.  That has been a disappointment for us all.  I hope for more good days, more ordinary days.  I pray with the Psalmist that life will even out, and that God will “make us glad according to the days wherein thou hast afflicted us, and the years wherein we have seen evil” (Psalm 90), that there will be a return to normality, good days to make up for the bad, normal to balance the abnormal.  But maybe such strict accounting is not necessary; as Frost says, “Happiness makes up in height for what it lacks in length.”   If Frost is right, numbers surely do not matter.

My new year story, “Amnesia at the Airport,” was prompted by memory and my recent air travel.  It compares the fantasies of youth with the realities of age, and I hope it also points out the advantages of each.  You might also take a look at my blog on Baby New Year and Old Father Time.  Cheers!

Holidays, Holy Days, and Old Saint Nick

 

The holidays are upon us, and – as usual – we will be traveling to see relatives.  I am looking forward to the family, but not the airports, highways, hotels and car rental firms.  I am getting too old for this, which means I spend December dreading the season when I should be celebrating the coming of the light. 

Christmas itself is a disappointing holiday in many ways.  One of the most awkward situations over the years as we have visited our children’s homes is the moment when we are about to leave for a Christmas Eve service at a church we have located on-line and ask if anyone – child or grandchild – would like to go with us.  The question clears the room rapidly.  So we go to church to try to feel what Christians and Druids felt as the dark days start to get light again, and everyone else remains home and dreams of the glories of capitalism that will appear under the tree in the morning.

I recently heard Rebecca Solnit use the term “the tyranny of the quantifiable” (which she attributed to Chip Ward).  What a wonderful description of the world we live in!  Democracy may be trouble – I am not quarreling with that.  But the biggest winner of all is capitalism.  For a holiday that celebrates the worth that can come out of a cow’s manger, the indoctrination of us all to a season of excess is pitiful.  And in an age when you can simulate sunlight and set your thermostat at 70 (no matter the weather outside), perhaps the turning of the year does not seem like such a miracle.

Don’t get me wrong, we looked forward to Christmas presents when I was a child.  Expectations were lower but ripping paper off packages was just as passionate as it is now.  But we had other memories of Christmas – church nativity pageants, family carol sings, the smells of cooking that went on and on.  I know that I sound like an old grump.  I will keep these thoughts to myself when I visit the grandkids and help them put batteries in the multitude of plastic that will emerge on Christmas morning.

Even Christmas decorations have gone downhill (says the grumpy old lady).  Our neighborhood is filled with those blow-up Santas and elves, which require a light and a noisy compressor to keep them inflated during the evening.  During the day, the deflated Saint Nicks look like piles of garbage bags on the lawn.  Our neighbors have an inflatable Holy Family, which is sad to see in its deflated daytime state.  It would be more of a “joy to the world” if we acknowledged global warming and cut down on the Snoopy Santas.

Santa, as you probably know, traces his origins to Saint Nicholas.  Saint Nicholas was the patron saint of – among other things –merchants and children.  So maybe he would not have disapproved of a holiday which made both children and merchants happy.  He died in the 4th century at the age of 73 – a ripe old age for those perilous times.  He is usually depicted with a white beard, but little body fat.  It was Coca Cola ads that originally made Santa chubby. (Of course, he does have to eat all those cookies.)  Santa is always depicted as old, but never as decrepit, never as tired, never as sick.  But think of all that traveling (magic reindeer or not)!  I only have to face air travel for a few hours, but it will age me.  It always does.  I am sure that my grandchildren wish that I were jollier and came with more presents that I can fit in my carry-on luggage.  I am definitely not aging as well as Santa.

Some of my grandchildren celebrate Three Kings Day on Epiphany.  Artists from Fra Angelico to Rubens often portrayed the wise men as of different ages: young, middle-aged and old. According to the apocryphal legends, the oldest was Melchior, Balthazar was in the middle, and the youngest magus was Caspar. Apparently, epiphanies are possible at any age.  But it should be noted that the eldest brought the gold.

I am posting a new Christmas story – “Cookie Crumbs.”  The tale of a Santa for an old person.  There are other stories about Christmas here; you might try “Epiphany” if you are dealing with young adult children returning home for the holidays.  As we head to the New Year, there is also the post “Baby New Year and Old Father Time” from a couple of years ago.  Here’s to a meaningful holiday season and a peaceful and healthy new year. 

Uncertainty and Old Age

 

In his old age, Einstein was perplexed by quantum theory and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  “God does not play dice with the universe,” exclaimed the great genius.  Bohr, another great genius, answered (less famously) “It’s not our place to tell Him how to run the world.”  We want to believe that life is not subject to blind chance, that the world is reasonable and just.  If we live long enough, we learn otherwise.

I recently finished When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamin Labatut (highly recommended).  This somewhat strange book explores the scientists of the twentieth century and the consequences of their science.  It filled a gaping void in my education by detailing the development of quantum theory up to the point of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.  Scientific advances have done wonderful things like cleaning our water and delivering us from polio, but science was also responsible for the atom bomb.  One of the first stories in the book concerns Fritz Haber, who both invented a way to fix nitrogen out of the air (making chemical fertilizer possible and warding off global famine) and also engineered Germany’s gas attacks during the first World War. 

Labatut eventually moves on to Heisenberg and his Uncertainty Principle – the theory that the underpinnings of the universe are based on chance, on odds, on probabilities.  How that threatens us!  How it threatened Einstein!

Labatut writes:

For Einstein, physics must speak of causes and effects, and not only of probabilities.  He refused to believe that the facts of the world obeyed a logic so contrary to common sense.  Chance could not be enthroned at the expense of the notion of natural laws.  There had to be something deeper.  Something not yet known.  A hidden variable that could dissipate the fog of Copenhagen [this refers to the Copenhagen Interpretation of Heisenberg and Bohr relating to quantum mechanics] and reveal the order that undergirded the randomness of the subatomic world. (167)

Einstein struggled with this proposed randomness for the rest of his life.

Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in 1932.  In 1939 the Nazis asked him about the feasibility of an atom bomb – he said it was not possible within the duration of the war and was apparently surprised when one was dropped on Hiroshima.  One might hope he was lying to Hitler to stop him; my guess was that he was just wrong.

The reader should be aware that Labatut’s book is a mixture of fact and fiction, and I don’t know enough about the subject matter to differentiate.  But it is a good read.  And it forces us to think again about technology and science and what we know to be true.  And how much of life is pure chance.

Although our parents acknowledged that “life is not fair” (after our cries of “it’s not fair”), the subliminal message was always that life is not random, that we have some significant level of control. People who fared badly did something wrong (didn’t finish college, didn’t work hard enough, ate too much, etc.) – if we will only get that degree, get that job, find that husband, have that baby – everything will be okay.  And yet everyone has had the experience of watching bad things happen to good people.  Lung cancer sometimes comes to those who never smoked, husbands leave loving wives, and one wild child in a wonderful family causes endless grief.  Uncertainty principle indeed.  Shakespeare has the poor Earl of Gloucester acknowledge that “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, / They kill us for their sport.” 

The world has never liked to think that the human life is based on probability, chance.  When in the 17th century “bills of mortality” were first used to create actuarial tables for such things as life insurance, people bridled at replacing individual providence with en masse reckonings.  Fate in the hands of mathematics is quite different from providence in the control of a deity.  Identical numbers/probabilities would be used for you or your neighbor or the sinner down the street; there is nothing individual or ethical about such calculations.   It might have been a scientific approach, an enlightened approach, but it was not comforting.

No one wants to hear about wanton boys and flies.  No one wants to think that life is random on some basic level.  No one wants to believe that technology gets away from us and has repercussions that we cannot predict.  But, those who have lived long, know that this is true.   

Lost Horizon and the Purpose of (Extreme) Old Age

 

Most of you have probably read James Hilton’s Lost Horizon at some point in your life.  A good read if there ever was one.  As you might remember, it involves the hidden land of Shangri-La (which is where we get this word from), deep in the mountains of Tibet.  Four unwitting passengers crash land in a small plane near the lamasery, and we are told the story by someone who met up with one of those passengers years later.  The narration style is much like that of Heart of Darkness, but the story is even stranger.

The lamas at the monastery oversee a “happy valley” which is protected enough from the winds and weather for abundant farming and living in the kind of moderation believed in by the lamas, one of whom explains to their visitors: 

If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation.  We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all lands – even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself….We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience.  And I think we can claim that our people are moderately chaste, and moderately honest. (50)

The lamas themselves have less moderation and more discipline and have learned how to age to wondrous numbers of years, living for centuries (but they are not immortal).  As the head lama tries to entice Conway, the main character, to stay and undertake their way of life, Conway  questions the purpose of such a long life:

…your sketch of the future interests me only in an abstract sense.  I can’t look so far ahead.  I should certainly be sorry if I had to leave Shangri-La tomorrow or next week, or perhaps even next year; but how I shall feel about it if I live to be a hundred isn’t a matter to prophesy.  I can face it, like any other future, but in order to make me keen it must have a point.  I’ve sometimes doubted whether life itself has any; and if not, long life must be even more pointless.(108)

And then the old lama tries to answer him:

There is a reason, and a very definite one indeed.  It is the whole reason for this colony of chance-sought strangers living beyond their years.  We do not follow an idle experiment, a mere whimsy.  We have a dream and a vision… it seemed to him [the founder] that  all the loveliest things were transient and perishable, and that war, lust, and brutality might someday crush them until there were no more left in the world…he saw the nations strengthening, not in wisdom, but in vulgar passions and the will to destroy; he saw their machine power multiplying until a single-weaponed man might have matched a whole army…. when they had filled the land and sea with ruin, they would take to the air…. Can you say that his vision was untrue? (109)

And then he goes on to envisage how Shangri-La will be left, hoped to be spared, when civilization destroyed itself:

We may expect no mercy, but we may faintly hope for neglect.  Here we shall stay with our books and our music and our meditations, conserving the frail elegances of a dying age, and seek such wisdom as men will need when their passions are all spent.  We have a heritage to cherish and bequeath.  Let us take what pleasure we may until that day comes… when the strong have devoured each other, the Christian ethic may at last be fulfilled, and the meek shall inherit the earth.   (110)

I post these long quotes because they raise questions that interest me.  What is the point of extreme old age and what would we be willing to sacrifice to get it? In any case, I think it is worthwhile to think about why we are watching our diets, slogging to the gym, taking statins, replacing joints.  To live longer, yes.  Out of fear of dying, of course.  But what are we doing with all those additional years?  Are we like the inhabitants of Shangri-La, just trying to preserve a way of living?

And is there any purpose in trying to preserve a way of life that is not just fading, but disappearing at a rapid rate?  The lama sees a hope that as civilization destroys itself, Shangri-La will preserve the “elegances of a dying age.”  Is that the purpose for extreme old age?  I do enjoy “the elegances of a dying age.”  Some I can hang onto – old books and movies, classical music, setting a nice table for dinner.  Some I have no choice but to watch dissolve around me.  For example, rampant development has made it very hard for me to go back to some of the scenes of my youth.  And I have long since given up on any hope that these “elegances” will be passed down to the next generation – who are living very different lives and have no interest in my china or acoustic piano.

There are, of course, many other reasons to want to live a long life.  It might be worthwhile, however, to try to verbalize them and use them as a map if we are lucky enough to live a long life.  St. Benedict thought he knew the purpose of old age; “our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce [with God], that we may amend our misdeeds.”  Simone de Beauvoir thought that we had to create a purpose, a project, for ourselves to make old age worthwhile. “There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our former life, and that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning.”  With so many of us living longer, it is a topic worth pondering, no?  And you might re-read Lost Horizon while you are thinking about it.  Or look at a previous blog I wrote about the purpose of old age.

 Shangri-la is a kind of utopia; it also portrays a form of gerontocracy – governing by the old.  I have never written a utopia, but I once wrote a speculative novel about a gerontocracy – the Prelude of which is here.  Oddly enough, although written many years ago, it starts with a pandemic virus. 

The Wells Fargo Wagon

As I found myself shaking my head at the constant prowling of delivery trucks in my neighborhood, I thought the best way to express my anxieties might be in a new piece of fiction.  You can find “Prime Time” here, but there were some additional thoughts on the subject I wanted to share.

When I was in eighth grade, I participated in the chorus of a junior high production of The Music Man.  In that musical, there is a piece about the exciting experience of having the Wells Fargo delivery wagon show up in one’s neighborhood:

Oh the Wells Fargo Wagon is a coming down the street

Oh don’t let it pass my door

Oh the Wells Fargo Wagon is a coming down the street

I wish I knew what he was coming for!

The song goes on to detail memorable deliveries from the past (grapefruit from Tampa and a cannon for the courthouse square), and soon the whole town is celebrating the rare pleasure of a gift brought to one’s door.  I remember a similar excitement as a child when someone in the family got an order from the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogues – although most often the packages were picked up at the counter in the back of the store and not delivered to the house.

These days delivery trucks prowl my neighborhood streets daily.  There is the ubiquitous Prime van, the jeep that delivers the mail, the big brown UPS truck, and a multitude of other vehicles delivering groceries, pharmaceuticals, take-out food, and almost anything else one could imagine.  This trend started years ago, but Covid accelerated it.  We all succumbed, and we all got used to it.  Deliveries helped us maintain isolation during the pandemic, but I fear that continued use of such services will increase our isolation as time goes on.

We used to get to know the people who came to our doors regularly, be they mail carrier or milkman.  Drivers are now on such tight schedules that they have no time to exchange words with us.  They do not even ring our doorbells, but rather send us a text or e-mail telling us the package is there and perhaps even enclosing a picture.  Meanwhile, our motion sensors often take pictures of them as they run to and away from our front door.  I don’t have any more relationship with the people who bring me my orders than I would have with a drone.  (I would, however, prefer not to have the drone.)

Now, this capability is wonderful for some older people who have trouble getting to the store, and I surely don’t begrudge any of us this service.  But the process is both non-geographic and impersonal.  We are not doing business locally (other than perhaps with orders from local restaurants or grocery stores), and we are not interacting with anyone to do it.  This worries me.

I also have a parallel concern about the number of storage units that are being built in my area – in all areas of this country.  For the last period for which I could get statistics, the industry expanded construction of units by 27% – this was in 2018 and the industry has certainly not stopped growing.  And deliveries have increased – aggregate statistics hare hard to come by, but some delivery services like Instacart have seen 500% growth and we all know how well Amazon is doing.  But does this all mean that much of the stuff we are ordering we are paying to store?  What is going on here?

Add to this, of course, the fact that we are watching movies at home, playing games online, and meeting our friends and relatives via Zoom.  Some of this will loosen when and if Covid gets under control, but some has become habit and convenience.  I think that social norms may have lapsed and changed in ways that cannot be fully restored.

Perhaps I have always been fascinated by the delivery services –  you might remember my story about the end of the world and the UPS man.  But if we are not going to interact with people in stores, restaurants, and entertainment venues, what will fill the void?  If the elderly can be “served” without human interaction, what has been lost? 

Again, I refer you to my new story, “Prime Time.”  I would also note that the very word on which Amazon stakes its relationship with us, prime, has particular connotations for the elderly, who may not be in what is traditionally labelled the “prime of life,” but who are still very much alive.  Keeping us off the road and out of the stores may be for our own good for now, but I fear it will be a lesser good in the long run.

 

Reunions – Looking Back with Affection and Embarrassment

I was recently tracked down by a very nice woman who was a classmate of mine during my first two years of college – 50 years ago.  After my sophomore year, I married and could not afford to return to school right away, so I quickly lost track of the good friends I made during those two years  – perhaps the kind of friends you never make again.  We were young, female, and completely out from under our parents’ thumbs for the first time in our lives.  In addition, this was the sixties.  When I arrived, there were strict curfews and prohibitions about spending nights off campus without parental permission (this was a women’s college); within a few months all restrictions were lifted.  Fun, but dangerous to a seventeen-year-old like myself who had no idea what to do with such freedom.  I often think that I burned myself out quickly and retreated to a disastrous early marriage.  In any case, that was the situation, and – while I could recall those days and people vividly when I tried – I mostly struggled not to remember.

So out of the blue comes one of the nicest of those remembered classmates, who has volunteered to be in charge of rounding up all the women who lived in our campus residence house for the 50th reunion.  I have no intention of attending the reunion (I ended up graduating from a different college), but I found myself interested in catching up with her and ultimately agreed to submit some basic information for the reunion book – including a 500-word essay on what I had been doing for the last 50 years.   That would be 10 words per year, but – then again – some of those years I barely remember.

Nevertheless, I gave it a go and recommend it as an exercise.  In fact, we all do it verbally pretty consistently when we meet new people, and they want to know something about us.  But this felt different.  These people knew what a mess I was a half-century ago.  I wanted to show the trajectory of where I had been, how I had recovered, what was still left to do.  Here is a brief excerpt, leaving out those parts about my children, husbands, degrees and locations:

I think we went to college in strange times – when I arrived at _____ as an innocent young woman (girl) of barely 17, I had just managed to learn what parietals were when they were abolished.  It was a wild time that I remember well and yet often find painful to recall.  I met warm friends, and tested myself, my friends, my teachers, and my parents in a multitude of ways – but apparently got the wild oats out of my system.  I have been determined that my old age would be more thoughtful and deliberate than my youth (wouldn’t take much) and have been much taken with the study of old age and literature – the topic on which I wrote my dissertation and on which I maintain a blog…. Through all these years I have read voraciously, taken piano lessons most of the time (with little effect), belonged to writing groups (same result), hiked, and knit….

Before she died, my mother gave me a pile of letters I wrote home while at ____.  I haven’t read them (sense of embarrassment surely); they reside in the back of the bottom left-hand drawer of my desk.  It is telling that I haven’t discarded them. But hearing from some of my classmates has perhaps given me the strength to revisit those years.

If fact, those letters in the drawer – envelopes covered with little pictures and slogans (“Wear Your Love Like Heaven”) have silently mocked me for years.

But I am reminded of a poem by Paul Fenton (“The Ideal”):

This is where I came from.
I passed this way.
This should not be shameful
Or hard to say.

A self is a self.
It is not a screen.
A person should respect
What he has been.

This is my past
Which I shall not discard.
This is the ideal.
This is hard.

It is hard to deal with those portions of our life of which we are not proud, but I am glad to have had my old classmate give me a shove.  I wrote those letters; I was exuberant if misguided.  And I was lucky to be surrounded by kind people.  As I age, as we all age, a common phenomenon is to have a better memory of the far past than we have of the recent past.  But those memories shouldn’t hurt.  They made us who we are.

It has always been so.  One might incant a line from Psalm 25: “Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: according to thy mercy remember thou me for thy goodness’ sake, O Lord.”  Amen to that.

I have never written about my early college life – even in fiction.  But “The Iscariot” or “Shrove Tuesday” contain characters who try to deal with the irreversibility of the past.

“This Will All Make Sense When I Am Older”

I ran across a cute Disney video from Frozen II,  wherein a young snowman (snowboy?) named Olaf sings a delightful song about how life is scary, but comforts himself that “this will all make sense when I am older.”  Of course, that got me thinking (now that I am older) about whether that was true.  I invite you to answer the same question for yourself.

Separated by time and hormones from experiences of our younger years, there is a certain detachment in old age that allows us to calmly consider why certain things happened, why we did the things we are now embarrassed to remember.  And there is sometimes a bittersweet melancholy to such thought.  As Kierkegaard told us, “life can only be understood by looking backward; but it must be lived looking forward.”

Many people have tried to make sense of their lives, to give it a linear and rational narrative.  One of the things we learn in old age is that human beings are not always (or often) rational animals, lessons are sometimes earned but not learned, and we accumulate at least as much guilt as we do wisdom.  In these days, wisdom is needed, guilt seems to be confused with embarrassment, and the old often seem willing to let the young set the moral agenda – on civil rights, women’s rights, gay marriage, humane acceptance of all kinds.

This reminds me of the story of the woman about to be stoned for adultery.  There are a couple of mysterious things about this episode, which occurs only in the Gospel of John.   The Pharisees bring  a woman caught in adultery to Jesus; Mosaic law calls for her to be stoned to death and the crowd is ready. Jesus responds by crouching down and writing in the sand.  Over the centuries there has been much speculation about what he wrote.  Perhaps he was writing the sins of the onlookers, because finally he rises and tells the crowd that “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” Personally, I wonder if he was just writing to get his thoughts straight – something I do all the time.  So the writing in the sand is one mystery, but not the one that interests me the most.

Soon after Jesus’ challenge (let him who is without sin throw the first stone), the crowd starts to drop their stones and disperse.  And here is the most interesting part to me in this familiar passage: John clearly states that “they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last.” The old people left first. Why? 

Did the old leave first because they were wiser? Had they learned that youthful indiscretions are not the end of the world?  Or did the old leave first because they had accumulated so much sin of their own that they knew clearly and immediately that they were not eligible to cast the first stone?  Is this an example of the value of experience?

I have elsewhere mused on the value of reflection in old age, and of writing one’s own story.  Maybe there will not be a clear narrative when we go to string the episodes of our life together, but there will surely be lessons there which we were taught, but never had time to really learn.  In the episode of the woman taken in adultery, the issue was forced.  For most of us there is not such a crisis.  But there is still a need, and time to learn the lessons that have accumulated in the parts of our minds we don’t visit very often. “This will all make sense as I get older,” says young Olaf.  Perhaps, with distance and time and attention, anything is possible. However, we might also remember the lesson that Sara Teasdale shared in one of her last poems: “The heart asks more than life can give, /When that is learned, then all is learned.”  

Many of my stories involve lessons learned late. For such tales, you might try “The Iscariot,” “A Balm in Gilead,” orEye of the Needle.”

Old Folks in the Stories That Formed Us

Salman Rushdie had an essay in the Sunday New York Times last week about what we learned from the books we loved in our younger days. While Mr. Rushdie’s juvenile reading list was very different from mine, I agree with his conclusions: “I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives.”  If this is true – and surely it is, at least in part – then what did those beloved books and stories tell us about getting old?  In the books of my youth, there seemed to be two kinds of old people – the  nasty ones (think of Aunt March in Little Women) and the nice ones (Mr. Laurence, also in Little Women).  Mr. Laurence has an  initially gruff exterior, but gradually reveals his good heart.   In fact, many of the aged characters in the books I read in my youth were first described as gruff and perhaps miserly, until “warmed up” by a young character.  This was the case with Mr. Laurence (warmed up by Beth), with the old Grandfather in Heidi, and with Silas Marner (perhaps middle-aged rather than old and brought back from his miserly life by his little charge Eppie).  

In fairy tales, the witches were often old (and ugly), while fairy godmothers could be young or old (but were always beautiful).  Old folks were often feeble or bedridden (think of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother).  Or silly.  There was an old woman who was stupid enough to swallow a fly, and Old Mother Hubbard had so many children she didn’t know what to do.  No role models there. 

In the Bible (I was a Sunday School child), living to be old was a sign that God liked you if you did the right things: “You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you will possess” (Deut. 5:33).  If you’re good you will thrive in old age: “Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing.” And we should particularly be good to our old parents if we want to live long ourselves: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12).  Then there was old Simon in the New Testament who just wants to see the Messiah and die.  None of this particularly interested my younger self.

But when we were young, we were not looking for models of elderly people in literature.  We were looking for coming of age stories – stories that gave us hope, or at least some comfort that we were not alone in our angst.  In our old age, we are looking for a Vollendungsroman, a story about the end of life, the winding down.  It may be time to go back to those old stories.  Rushdie suggests that we may find a new emphasis in old stories.  “A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song.”

I reread Heidi a couple of years ago, and, while originally the spunky little girl was of the most interest to me, now the hero of the piece was the grandfather.  Alone and self-sufficient (and more than a little irascible) on the mountain with his goats, he is eventually able to garner the effort to take a little girl into his life.  I also had forgotten about Peter’s blind grandmother, to whom Heidi reads and with whom she develops a touching bond.  These characters were always in the book, but they escaped my younger imagination.   As a teenager, I was particularly taken with Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; going back to it I am reminded of the picture the young people conjured up of the imaginary Fat Lady for whom Seymour tells them they must perform – she is old and fat and cancerous and the very reason for life itself.  Michelangelo’s God is a very old man.  Christ is forever young, but God is always old. 

In any case, this is what Rushdie’s column made me think about.  Maybe it will inspire you to think about the stories that formed you and what they taught you about getting old – and what they could still teach you.

I continue to admire Franny and Zooey so much that I paid homage to Salinger in naming the characters in one of my novels (Order of the Stock Farm Jesus) – although I changed the spelling to Zoë and both characters are female (Salinger’s Zooey is the brother).  And while there is no Fat Lady in my story, it contains a formidable grandmother and a limestone Jesus.  There is an excerpt from that novel here.