April 6, 2012
The Surprise of Old Age
by Federico Moramarco
Age seventy. Here it comes. Whoops, there it went. Arriving unbidden of course, and slipping by like a stealth jet underneath the radar of my life. If you’re lucky, it will arrive for you also, if it hasn’t already, although if you’re quite a few years on the minus side of it, that will be hard for you to believe. A decade ago, when I turned sixty, I wrote the following poem:
Poem on my Sixtieth Birthday
Sixty’s one of those unimaginable ages
at twenty, thirty, even forty.
Not until fifty do you site it,
a small dot on the horizon.
As it comes closer, year by year,
you see it’s a ship flying the tattered flag
of a country you don't know.
Now it’s here.
Having little choice, you climb in
and as you set sail for the open sea
you notice, not far away,
out there by the eddies and swells,
another boat, bobbing and bouncing in the waves.
“Omygod,” you gasp, using more breath than voice,
Now the second vessel has chugged into the harbour and once again, what’s there to do but board it? Only this time the little tub adrift on the horizon is Eighty, and it will probably get here (if I’m fortunate enough to survive the deadly late 70s) even more quickly than it took seventy to follow sixty. And although we avoid facing the sheer truth of our mortality through most of our lives, it gets much more difficult to do as we enter our later years. As some comedian recently remarked, “Fifty is the new forty, sixty is the new fifty, and seventy is the new sixty, but eighty is still eighty.”
Of all of life’s events, nothing surprises a human being more than the arrival of old age. “Time creeps on its petty pace from day to day,” Shakespeare tells us in Macbeth, but one of the most universal qualities of age is the great acceleration of that “creep” in one’s 60s and 70s. The velocity of passing time seems to increase tenfold during these “white knuckle” years. “Slow down,” we say to ourselves as the speed increases, years blur together, days become hours and hours a mere snap of the fingers. It’s no secret why the years of our lifetime pass by increasingly faster as we age. When we’re children—say ten years old—five years is half a lifetime away. But at seventy, five years is only 5/70th or 1/15th of a lifetime away. The downhill ride on the roller coaster is always a lot speedier than the slow, difficult trudge to the summit.
But the other side of the rapidity of time passing is a new sense of urgency about doing the things you’ve always wanted to do and getting on with all the incomplete plans you’ve made over the years. Many people hate the word “retire” because it suggests a kind of social withdrawal, a shift from an active productive life to a passive, withdrawn life. In fact, we use the word as a synonym for going to bed, as in “I think I’ll retire for the night.”
In a recent TV interview a reporter said to Robert Redford, “I can’t believe you’ve just turned seventy.” Redford responded, as almost any seventy year old would, “I can’t believe it either.” Of course seventy arrives as any other age does; we put one foot in front of the other; one day, month, and year follows the times that precede it and we find ourselves with pains, wrinkles, inabilities, and issues we never dreamed we would have to deal with.
My own first real “brush” with true aging came at age 55 (of course I had the standard mid-life crisis years earlier, but the hard actual awareness of diminishing powers came at 55.) I was attending a men’s retreat headed by Robert Bly in Mendocino County, and we were performing a morning ritual moving more and more rapidly in a circle. I did this for two or three circuits, but my breathing became heavier and heavier and finally I was virtually gasping for breath. I dropped out of the circle and one of the elders in the group came and stood by me to make sure I was all right. It was in some sense a bittersweet rite of passage. I was becoming an elder and that shift in identity was being acknowledged. In most of American society, it’s not called “becoming an elder,” but rather “getting old” or euphemistically, becoming a “senior citizen,” (or even more euphemistically, entering your “golden years”) – a wishful thinking coinage that implies a respect that is only offered in reduced movie prices and bus fares, but not with the understanding that older people have garnered a wealth of life experiences that can be passed on to other generations, only if there is more social interaction between the generations.
I’m always struck, when I visit my son’s family in Spain (he’s been living in Santander since the late 1990’s and my daughter-in-law is Spanish), how differently the generations interact there. Family gatherings are frequent, and there are nearly always four generations present… from eight to eighty, all of the conversation criss-crossing and engaged. Of course, he has his own generational friends as well, but it’s not at all uncommon to see groups of people in their teens, twenties, thirties, and upward together, and often unrelated at concerts and other outdoor events. Unfortunately, age segregation continues to be the norm in America, with senior citizen housing, assisted living centres, and finally nursing homes the reality of many Americans’ later lives.
Inevitably, we have to come face to face with our mortality. Celine wrote, and Kurt Vonnegut quotes him in the opening pages of Slaughterhouse Five, that “no art is possible without a duty dance with death.” It’s dishonest to write about aging without writing about death, and how it captions our lives with its irreversible finality. At seventy you confront death with more severity than you ever have before. You notice deaths that impress upon your consciousness daily, particularly the deaths of those individuals who have had some impact—cultural or personal—upon your life. Kurt Vonnegut, for example, who I just cited, died over the past few years, as did Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, (on the same day) William Meredith, Henri Troyat, Arthur Schlesinger Jr, Whitney Balliet, Grace Paley, Luciano Pavarotti, George Carlin, Eartha Kitt, Harold Pinter, Dom DeLuise, John Updike, and so many others whose lives, in one way or another, impinged upon my own. These are filmmakers, writers, artists, scholars, musicians, and critics whose work made the culture I was shaped by. They are literal reminders of the wisdom of John Donne’s observation in Devotion on Emergent Occasions: “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…. any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” The deaths of the cultural heroes we carry in our heads precede and prefigure our own.
In the first chapter of her book, The Last Gift of Time, Carolyn Heilbrun writes that she always thought that the “threescore years and ten” that the Bible calls a reasonable life span (Psalm 90) was long enough to live, and that despite “the unexpected pleasures” of her sixties, she had begun to contemplate taking her own life. She decided to postpone her suicide for a time and chose “each day for now, to live.” This phrase unnerved me a bit, and did so even more when I glanced at the year of the book’s publication, which was 1997. If she was seventy when she wrote those words, that would mean she would be about eighty as I was reading them, but I had the nagging discomfort in the back of my mind that I had indeed read about her committing suicide. I googled her on the Internet and sure enough I discovered that on a brisk October day in 2003, after taking a habitual walk in Central Park with an old friend and colleague, she returned home, went through her email, contacted a few friends and colleagues about ordinary things, wrote a brief note, tied a plastic bag around her head and expired. The note read “The journey is over. Love to all.”
Heilbrun’s suicide was, in her mind, the embodiment of an idea: we can choose when to end our journeys if we act before the choice is made for us. Certainly, that is understandable in terms of people who are suffering major illnesses or are incapacitated in one way or another. But if you regard life as a gift, as I do (and it seems ironic that Heilbrun’s book is titled The Last Gift of Time) then every day you spend on this earth in good health is filled with endless possibilities. The evening after I had read the first chapter of Heilbrun’s book, I happened to see and hear Mose Allison, a great jazz pianist and singer, perform at a local music venue. He was in top form, thriving at age 80 and looking as if he could play forever. Of course, he can’t, but while he can, I have little doubt that he will.
In Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the servant Adam describes his old age as “a lusty winter” because he wants to live fully and with great passion until his physical being makes that impossible. He means “lusty” not only in the sexual sense, although certainly including that, but in the sense of a lust for life that leads to a commitment to give each moment the attention it deserves and to experience it as fully and as passionately as possible. The same idea holds true when we talk about living a “rich” old age. This phrase has nothing to do with material wealth, but rather with the idea of experiencing as many of the riches life has to offer as one can. Some of these riches, especially those relating to travel, art and culture do require some financial outlay, but these years are for many a time of divestment rather than acquisition. We begin to think more and more like George Gershwin’s Porgy: “I got plenty o’ nothin’ / Nothin’s plenty for me.”
"Common sense tells us," Vladimir Nabokov wrote in a haunting sentence from his autobiography, Speak, Memory, "that our lives are a parenthesis between two eternities.” Of course, it’s hard for us to get our minds around ideas like “eternity” and “infinity,” when our own life span at most is a piddling five score years. But since we’ve already “experienced” that first eternity—that is, the universe existed eternally before we were born—the second eternity—that endless expanse that will follow our demise should seem less daunting than it is. It is not because our life experience is all we have to define us—until and unless we can let our egos go and see ourselves as a part of some larger picture. This is the point and purpose of many of our religious traditions, though most religions dumb down this idea to the concept of a sweet and usually dull afterlife, an eternal heaven where we will have no unfulfilled desires and all will be peace and bliss. Our afterlife more likely takes the form of our ashes or decaying bodies mingling with the other elements of the biosphere and moving from the brief respite of conscious life to the endless expanse of the non-human or even non-animate world. We will become rocks, dirt, water, and wind. Can there be comfort even joy in that? Ask Walt Whitman: "I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles."
“The Surprise of Old Age” was a finalist and received an honourable mention in the 2011 Accenti Magazine Writing Contest.
Federico Moramarco is a Professor Emeritus at San Diego State University where he taught literature and creative writing for many years.