Answers?

My generation spent our young adult years being fascinated by all the new technology cascading to the market. We knew television from our youth, but soon it was color television, then there were VCR’s and cable TV, video games, there were computers in the office and then computers at home – and then the internet and cell phones arrived! Scanners, digital pix, e-mail, social media, texting, news on demand, ipads, smart phones, search engines – all of this was a long way from the US Postal Service and the Encyclopedia Britannica. We were fascinated, seduced, enamored, and then we were… suspicious, and sometimes overwhelmed.

I remember the first time I was exposed to a spread sheet program (Lotus 123) and realized those ledgers and blue and red pencils could go out the window. But the initial joy was followed by the realization that the answers we got from the spread sheets were only as good as the data and formulas that we put into them. The word processors produced gorgeous copy – error-free with justified margins, but the content was if anything diminished by the speed with which it could be produced. We learned the acronym GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out. We found that we could reach anyone in the world from our cell phone or computer, but that there weren’t that many people we wanted to talk to. (Remember Thoreau? “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate!”) Google answered our questions, but we weren’t at all sure what questions to ask. Maybe Picasso spoke for all of us when he stated that “Computers are useless. They only give you the answers.”

Of course, computers and rational people can answer what are called convergent problems – ones with definitive answers that are the same across time and individuals. How do you build a bicycle? How far is it to the sun? But what are the important questions? For you? For me: “What should I do? How should I live? And (as I got older): Why haven’t I figured this out before now?” Ah, but maybe the problem is a blind belief in rationality itself and that we (or our computers) can “figure it out.” The best literature is written about the big questions of life. I just finished Richard Powers wonderful Prisoner’s Dilemma (and see here for a description of the philosophical problem for which the novel is titled) and the question that Powers asks is “what, if anything, can one private citizen do to make the shared scenario less horrible?” This is a great question for our time. A good exercise in reading is to attempt to ascertain what questions the author is asking and what – if any – alternative answers are presented to these interrogations.

Questions and answers. For all the rationality of Socrates, he is surely better at questions than answers. And wisdom literature of the religious variety is not much for definitive answers. In the Bhagavad Gita, we open with Arjuna asking Krishna why he must engage in battle. Krishna tells Arjuna that it makes no difference, in the end friend and foe are the same, and that Krishna himself is both the sacrifice and the sacrificer. Try to figure that out rationally. Arjuna learns a level of acceptance – “You have dispelled my doubts and delusions and I understand through your grace,” says Arjuna finally. “My faith is firm now, and I will do your will.”

Job asks God three questions: “Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?” “How can a man be just before God?” and “If a man die, shall he live again?” As far as I can see, God never answers any of these questions. After trying to argue rationally with his friends and with God, poor Job comes to the same conclusion: “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” God also takes Job’s “friends” to task for thinking they had “figured things out” and for giving Job false information. These friends end up needing to make big sacrifices and have Job intercede for them to stay on the right side of the Big Guy. The Book of Job and the Bhagavad-Gita are stories of acceptance, not stories of answers.

Computers have both absolute rationality and answers; it might appear that both are, in many ways, useless. Like Job’s friends. Computers give us answers, but answers – especially easy answers – are something of which we should be very suspicious.

But the questions, the questions are important. How do we interrogate our own lives to avoid GIGO? What are your questions? Think about it. And when you decide on your questions, run them through Google for a laugh.

This week’s story, “Don’t Eat the Pink Ones,” has more mysteries than answers, but it is appropriate for the end of the blueberry season.

Aging Deliberately

I have always been challenged by Thoreau’s ambition to live life intentionally, with purpose and awareness: “I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” To live life deliberately. It seems like such an obvious and worthwhile goal.

I first read Walden in college. By then, it was too late to live my childhood deliberately – and is that even possible? For most of us, choices as to how we lived were severely limited until we were emancipated from our families. Our diets, our activities, our free time were all greatly prescribed. And the nuclear family meant that we often were not even aware that other choices existed. Do you remember how shocked you were when you ate a meal or spent the night at a friend’s house and realized that people did things differently? At six years old, I visited a house where the children were allowed to operate the television by themselves! Who knew?

During adolescence and young adulthood, hormones and the drive for emancipation drove me, drove most of us. And then, quickly enough, I was driven by my career and children. And too busy to think about much else. How else does one get through those years but by ploughing ahead with blinders on? When I visit my children now and watch them cope with young children and jobs and all the juggling of such a life, I still couldn’t tell you how it’s done – except that, under the circumstances, one has to suspend doubt that one can do it.

It wasn’t until I was in my fifties that I really had time to pause and think about the shape of my life. There wasn’t much that I could do about the past (except make sure I was telling myself a truthful story – but more on that another time), but the future stood out as a time of … my own. Soon I would not have to work anymore, would not have to live in a given place or a prescribed way, would not have direct responsibility for anyone except my partner and myself. But didn’t Janice Joplin warn us: “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose”? Freedom itself can lead to futility, despair.

Jeannette Winterson says that the “question, ‘How shall I live?’ is fierce.” It is perhaps the only question. For so much of our lives things seem out of our control, and in our latter years we are, of course, subject to the decay and disease of our bodies. And yet. Surely facing deterioration and death is among the things we can do deliberately, unless we are robbed of this ability by dementia (which is just one of the things that is heartbreaking about that condition).

Here is Montaigne in his essay “Experience”:

We are great fools. “He has passed his life in idleness,” say we: “I have done nothing today.” What? Have you not lived? That is not only the fundamental, but the most illustrious, of your occupations. “Had I been put to the management of great affairs, I should have made it seen what I could do.” “Have you known how to meditate and manage your life? You have performed the greatest work of all.” … Have you known how to regulate your conduct, you have done a great deal more than he who has composed books. Have you known how to take repose, you have done more than he who has taken empires and cities.

So as we retire, we might ask ourselves Montaigne’s implied question, “Have you known how to take repose?” and realize its importance. In his repose, Montaigne looked inward and wrote his essays.

Of course, not all courses are open to us. How we (or the vagaries of life) have prepared our bodies and minds for this last part of life is consequential. Lord Bolingbroke who was forced into retirement in 1735 at age 57, wrote a treatise on study and retirement.  He reminds us such study “would have been agreeable and easy if he had accustomed himself to it early, will be unpleasant and impracticable late: such men lose their intellectual powers for want of exerting them, and, having trifled away youth, are reduced to the necessity of trifling away age. It fares with the mind just as it does with the body.” Cicero expresses similar concerns about dayspring mishandled in his essay on old age. But within the limits of our bodies and minds and preparation, choices still must be made. Old age is different from youth; to ignore the opportunities and challenges it presents will lead us to senescence mishandled.

Carl Jung always insisted that the stages of life had different purposes. “We cannot live in the afternoon of life according to the programme of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be little at evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.” You can read Jung’s “Stages of Life” for his advice on how to spend your old age, but, hey, we’ve lived a long time. Maybe we can figure it out for ourselves. And then do it. Deliberately.

This week’s story, “Essentials,” is not about old age, but it is about the challenge we face at every stage of life – how to make life meaningful. How to live – within the parameters with which we are faced – with intensity and deliberation and good intent.

Second Growth

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

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

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

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

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

dandelion

 

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

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

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

 

Renoir, de Beauvoir, and the Artist of Kouroo

In 2012, there was a film made about the old age of Renoir. The film was lovely, but painful to watch, as Renoir coped with rheumatoid arthritis as he kept on painting, having to have assistants wrap his fingers around the brush to get him started. Possible for Renoir, perhaps, because he had the fame and fortune to get much support and respect, even though he was greatly debilitated. No nursing home for him. But still inspiring and lovely – pursing his project to the end.

In her La Vieillesse (interestingly, a French feminine noun meaning “old age,” but translated in the English version to The Coming of Age), de Beauvoir says that “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 – devotion to individuals, to groups or to causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work. In spite of the moralists’ opinion to the contrary, in old age we should wish still to have passions strong enough to prevent us turning in upon ourselves.” Yes. But. She also says (and all of this is in her conclusion to the book) it is fairly inevitable that “illusions” will vanish and “one’s zeal for life pass away.” Therefore, we shouldn’t think too much but just continue in established “paths.” De Beauvoir does not think much of retirement.

De Beauvoir tells us the retired, “even if he keeps his health and clarity of mind…is nevertheless the victim of that terrible curse, boredom.” How afraid we are of being bored! What did Pascal say? “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” And what did Kafka say? “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” When on earth do we get a chance to sit alone and listen if not in old age, in retirement? Is it such a terrible curse? And what about people (like athletes) whose passions are dependent on a functioning body? My folks were devoted to tennis and desolate when they could not play.

There is more to it. De Beauvoir says that in old age we are overwhelmed by the past, as there is so much of it. She talks about the “hard apprenticeship” of childhood and the fact that “the unpleasant memories of this time that were repressed in adulthood [by ceaseless activity] revive in old age. The barriers that stood up well enough so long as the individual was active and subject to social pressure give way to the lonely idleness of old age.” Isn’t this a good thing (not the loneliness, perhaps, but the time to reflect)? Do we want to die with these barriers in place?   (This is a very good question, and my readers may have very different answers.)

This is one of those divergent problems (see Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed for a good definition of divergent and convergent problems) – for which there are only contingent answers. Surely we should pursue projects that engage us, challenge us. And this makes me think of Thoreau and his Artist of Kouroo. I don’t know if HDT heard this fable somewhere or made it up, but in Walden, he gives us an artist “who was disposed to strive after perfection. One day it came into his mind to make a staff. Having considered that in an imperfect work time is an ingredient, but into a perfect work time does not enter, he said to himself, It shall be perfect in all respects, though I should do nothing else in my life.” The artist works and works, through endless eons of time, until he had a pure and faultless creation and “he saw by the heap of shavings still fresh at his feet, that, for him and his work, the former lapse of time had been an illusion.” In true creative engagement, time falls away. “His singleness of purpose and resolution, and his elevated piety, endowed him, without his knowledge, with perennial youth.” Perennial youth. But, when one puts the brush or the pen or the carving knife down, doesn’t one still have to deal with the aging body? May we always have projects ahead of us, but may we also be prepared to just sit – when we want to and when we have no choice.

This week’s story (“Every Winged Bird According to Its Kind”) is a part of my Metamorphoses series and concerns an old woman who has found a modest project, an object of engagement, in her old age.