The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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“Getting older” — an evocative notion as full of resonances as some great bell struck just once. As it fades, it changes, becomes subtler, less deafening, and its components of sound emerge a little at a time until, just as I am about to congratulate myself that I “understand” each molecule of this melody there is . . . silence.
Among my molecules:
— At 42, as the teeth lengthen, the bottom sags, and the white hairs multiply, I recognize a little what I did not when I was younger, namely, that what makes aging a pleasant process is that it is richer. Not that events are very different or the intellectual shenanigans less varied or the emotions less interesting, but there is a richer context in which to fit it all. Success is not quite so successful nor devastation quite so devastating when it has been lived a few times. Not-understanding seems to take on a good deal of the lustre once exclusively reserved for understanding. The need for beliefs-judgments-opinions-etc. slips slowly-slowly away (they’re possible, yes, but not really necessary) and life becomes more . . . “interesting” is the best word I can think of. “Love” and “freedom” are real things that cannot, thank God, be named.
— A couple of weeks back, an Indian who was selling his astrological appreciations said I would live to be “83 or 85.” That’s nice. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know. That’s nice too.
— The Japanese have a character to designate “death” which can be translated as “speaking the truth from another place.” Always liked that.
— Am I afraid of death? Only to the extent that I am afraid of life, which is plenty sometimes.
— As this body decays, there seems to be a growing (concomitant?) sense of some entirely lively entity within, an entity unchanged from milk-and-crackers in the first grade through lumberjacking, Popsicle packing, book publishing, news reporting, sexual encounters, spiritual exercises, loving and angry relations, laughter until the tears came and vice versa, and on and on until right this minute. When I was younger, I thought references to this entity were the mere mutterings of those who were afraid of death, afraid to see things clearly. I still think belief systems are counter-productive in the long-run but they are a good place to begin. For me, this “entity” is not just wishful thinking, but it is impossible to name. My experience is that it is incapable of piety or misdeed, intellectual or emotional acrobatics, yet it informs all things. Or, as one fellow put it, “When you can’t say it, it’s there; when you don’t say it, it’s not there.” It is, perhaps, just a sense of my life’s life. That sense is the same one which can cause the aging to resent youth’s exuberance and grumble with (was it?) Churchill, “Youth is wasted on the young.” To which it is difficult not to reply, “If that is so, age must also be wasted on the aging.”
— Who was there in my youth to help me identify with this nameless life? No one. Everyone. So now I will take responsibility for this time and place myself, do my best to experience the integration of what-is and what-is-not, set aside heroes and villains, and find the joker in the deck, the one who is everywhere at home, yet claims no home itself . . . express my own life’s life and see it as it is . . . greying hair, added weight, sunshine on my bare feet, death as possible and exciting as birth. These are fine and easy things to write and think, but they are not so easy for me to do. Can I do them? Don’t be ridiculous!
New York, N.Y.
Getting older is something easy to do without thinking about it much. It just kinda seems to keep happening. But then there are those moments, like when you turn 30, or have a child or a grandchild, or smell something on a crisp autumn day that reminds you of one of youth’s joys now passing you by, when you stop to think about this quiet inevitable process of growing older. And don’t try to sweet talk me for a moment, like all the other positive thinkers, that some kind of sad death doesn’t take place at that melancholy moment. So let’s focus all eternity on that moment for a second here, stop the clocks, and ponder it.
What is Christmas, Scrooge asked, but a time for finding yourself a year older and not a penny richer. Brethren, in this our moment of reflection, can we find ourself any richer? We’re certainly older. In the days of my wild-oat wanderlusts I told Mike Rainnie on a foggy morning on the Cape after a night of heavy beer that my goal in life was to be a wise old man. With a goal like that, I reasoned with this Eastern-educated Cape fisherman, you won’t peak out early, like say movie stars and sports heroes do, with nothing but downhill and oldies to comfort you. While you may gain wisdom along life’s trail you can’t peak out at being a wise old man until you’re old and the trail’s at twilight anyway. But even wise old men die so let’s go back to the subject of the moment.
There rises up this deep quiet sadness that part of life has passed you by, that you haven’t done or been all that you should have been, the feeling that leads old men to checkers and young men to drink. And so what do you do now if you’re too smart to drink and too broken for checkers? Do you believe this stuff about “gaining maturity from life’s experiences” and “growing gracefully into life’s next station” nor do you just honestly swallow whole a pill which is real, bitter, and thorough? Pick up the cross the Creator has put before you, brethren, and press on, or risk being forever a dreamer.
Elk Grove, Illinois
I never thought much about getting old until the onset of menopause when I was 42. I had a baby four years before and it was more draining than my other pregnancies but still not like being old. I remember at 30 feeling 16 and even at 36 still feeling much younger. It was as if there were a girl inside who didn’t age as my body did. I don’t know when it happened, but I lost her. I have a hard time with mirrors. That middle-aged woman I catch a glimpse of in a store window is hard to accept as me. I fell in love at 37 after an unfulfilling marriage and for the first time ever, somebody thought I was beautiful. I felt beautiful. That carried me for years and as the glimpsed woman got older, made it harder to believe she was me. I felt so much more beautiful than that.
I take a lot of vitamins and I run four or five times a week. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t take any drugs, I’m a vegetarian, and I practice meditation. I’ll probably be around until I’m 80. I had a dream three years ago and in the dream a voice said, “When will you die?” Then written in the air was “1986.” My friend who interprets dreams said that probably didn’t mean physical death but could presage some drastic change in my life.
Awareness of getting old means becoming aware of your mortality and impending death. When you are young, unless you are dying, it’s difficult to find any reality in your possible death. It’s easy to accept conceptually when it’s remote.
My father died two years ago. He was 82 and had emphysema. His heart finally gave out. My daddy was my first sweetheart and he would bring me a drink of water at night when I was too much afraid of the dark to get it for myself. I wasn’t there when he died. He died alone.
My children’s grandmother died a year ago. How strange to see this woman I first met 25 years ago, when she was a young 40, get old and sick. I can see her body so frail and sexless with its thinning pubic hair when I look down at my own in the bath. I was with her when she died and still she died alone. I have lost a lot of my romantic notions about helping someone die.
It’s time for the big questions — it’s always time. What is life and what is death? When I’m alive, what speaks out of my mouth? What sees and what hears? And when I die, where is the speaker? What am I?
My beloved plays with the laugh lines around my eyes. He presses lightly on my temple to erase them. Taking his finger away, he watches them reappear.
“You’ll have them too, one of these years.” I tell him. “You already have the beginnings of a bald spot, you know.”
“But my Being is ageless,” he answers. “Only our bodies get older. Our Beings just get wiser. Just look how far through time I had to reach to find a woman as wise as I am.”
“And look how long you made me wait for a man of such infinite wisdom! What took you so long?”
We laugh and hug each other, content in the richness of our life together.
The Tarot says we are soulmates who have traveled together through many lifetimes. Astrology just confirms the Libra/Aquarius harmonies we feel. Though our physical appearances belie the differences in our ages, his mother still refers to me as “That Woman.” Our friends, more accepting, call us “The Original Odd Couple.”
“Sometimes I wonder how we’ll be,” he ponders, “when I’m 46 and you’re 60.”
Blasted out of the security of Now, I find myself wondering too. Suddenly getting older scares me.
In my youth and childhood the game appeared as a thing of forever, growing always stronger, always getting better. The clock ran out each afternoon, but I imagined there would always be more scheduled, always another season to look forward to.
But once I met a hurt so bad the doctors said I should never play again. Believing them, I quit playing. For another year as an excuse to stay with it, I tried to be a manager, but hated every minute of cleaning up after the other guys, chasing their wild kicks. The sport just left me behind.
Sometimes after that, on my way from there to here, I chanced to pass a field colored by two teams in pitched play, or saw a fellow with cleats over-shoulders and ball under-arm on his way. Reminded of sunsets, storms and sunny days when my own body flexed, flaunted and floundered on the field, I could lapse into fleeting rushes of those happy times gone by.
Many hours, many years, I kicked the ball towards the goal. In organized practice or pick-up afternoons all else was lost but the determination to play my best. Kicking sometimes for winners and other times for losers, experience soon proved the score to be meaningless; the simple action was all-important.
Dramatic fall weather intensified the enjoyment. Running hard in the cold air brought warmth to the blood. Being tired and ready for dinner sweetened the run to the showers under a purple sky. Even the rain felt good, cooly washing away the sweat.
If I stopped to think at all, I imagined the game would go on forever: good plays, hard knocks, sore breath, running so long, feeling exhilaration for a score, desolation for another score, stretching, stretching to head that ball, skirting ’round that defender, panting, calling, warning, cussing . . .
But I couldn’t play any more, so I tried to shove the clear memories back into the fog.
Getting older, I thought, I wouldn’t have time or opportunity anyway. Family and working responsibilities don’t leave two hours free to kick a ball around. Even given the chance, being so out of shape, my sides would cramp immediately, my breath would cut short. I have to consider the danger of a heart attack. Getting older, I decided, the game must be left to the children.
Fortunately a wiser spirit prevailed. In an instant the years vanished and the sport came alive for me again. In coaching, I realized, it became so easy to recapture my youth. In the middle of their game, the pop of a good shot shivers my soul, the sight of a goalie’s save pulls out a thrilled cheer. Enthusiasm reigns, makes it fun for them to show off. To take a kid aside to pass on a tip that was taught to me, then to watch it used, to witness the little soulful smile of self-discovery flashed back is cause for infinite satisfaction.
Getting older, I tire out, but as the coach, I don’t have to play so hard. A few demonstrations, a few minutes on the field in scrimmage is enough to feel the sport. In actively passing the game on to the next generation, my participation has actually expanded — just as I had imagined getting older should be, only different.
Christopher Kline de Moll
As Grandpa Cook closed in on his last few years, his strong farming body gave way to the pain of arthritis. As a child I never knew him well. His heavy Czech accent made him very foreign to me and their stern old country ways did not allow affection for the grandchildren.
But by my early twenties, as he lay in his bed waiting for death, his spirit had changed. His wife had died a few years earlier leaving him very alone.
He would talk now at great length about leaving Czechoslovakia, about grandma, about the farm and how they always had everything they needed. And as he would finish each story he would sigh, “Ah, but time passes everything,” and then he would often add, “That’s all my girlie. You’re a good girl.”
Then I would lie down with him to take a nap. And as we lay there he would say he could see the farm now out of his window, although the farm was in another town an hour’s drive away. And when it would be snowing very hard he could see the farm even more clearly.
I hadn’t expected it to happen to me. At least, not yet. Those lines around my eyes . . . But there’s a joy in growing older. There’s so much to remember already, as if each passing year is a life in itself.
As I grow older, the self-seeking need to know who I am is waning (the conscious search, anyway). How comforting to finally acquiesce to the familiarity of self without the burning desire to be reflective at all times!
Chapel Hill, N.C.
I have been here forever. The earth turns and the moon shines as it did a thousand years ago and light that has traveled a million light years finally reaches my eyes. Light from a nearby star of which some of my body might be made. Star atoms into flesh atoms. There is no death, only change.
The more I feel a part of the one body of the universe, the less attached I am to my own. I become more aware and I know that life and death are the same. As I died to my mother’s womb upon entering the earth one chilly November morning in 1947, some day I will die into my body as I am borne into whatever comes next. Getting older, moving on.
Donna Helen Crisp
I first became aware of the difference between old age and youth when, on a walk with my father, we passed a house where the porches were filled with men and women who stared off into space and had no energy to rock the chairs in which they sat. My father explained that they were all too old to work, were without any means of support, and depended on the town to supply them with food and shelter. For a moment, I was seized with the fear that someday I might end up in similar place. I shed that tear by the specious reasoning that it was too far in the future to worry about and anyway, when the time came, I should be rich.
My mother read daily to my sister and me. She was fond of Charles Dickens. She also took me about the same time to a little red brick building that held more books than I dreamed could exist, stacked upon shelves which started at the floor and ran to the ceiling. I was fascinated with ladders which moved on rails attached to the ceiling and were the only means of access to books on the upper shelves.
The child who has just learned to walk is the perfect example of a tireless investigator intent on discovery. It is sad that familiarity dulls the fascination. To remain adventurers, we must pierce the confining horizon of the everyday world, and enter into the larger cosmic unknown where exploration is an adventure that never ends.
All of the most objectionable aspects of growing old can be avoided. It is 70 years since I listened to my mother read to me. Despite some of the physical deterioration that the years inevitably bring, I do not feel old, because of the discoveries that books and libraries continue to make possible. One never meets old age in the never-ending kingdom of adventure.
V. Craig Dyer
I used to think that beauty and youth meant being able to go camping in sub-zero temperatures, and wake up in a sleeping bag, grey and shivery, but still basically clear-eyed and rosy-cheeked. I’ve always woken up in the morning feeling that way. Lately I’ve been noticing I’m a little disheveled upon arising. I look to Visine and coffee and wait a half hour to see if my face settles into its regular appearance. I even have a bottle of that magic pink fluid Oil of Olay in the medicine cabinet. I am increasingly concerned about how often I come home after having too much to drink, at too late an hour, with a short sleep ahead, knowing that I’ll pay for it the next day. I look older. There is a strange little line in my face where I’ve been smiling for 28 years.
It’s a trade-off for the things inside that happen. I feel sometimes like a real sage. I have a more realistic attitude about what I can expect from the people in my life — the ones I love, the ones who have been loyal friends but are far away now, the ones who have let me down and allowed our ties to disintegrate. There is a calmness that comes from knowing how certain situations will probably turn out, a generosity that comes from being more centered and needing less. There is a fine line between being healthily cynical and being jaded. I am a professional career type now who still needs braids in her hair and a faded sweatshirt to wear after work. There are mood swings, lack of perspective. I am astoundingly responsible about countless issues in my life but still find myself in tears over a faulty battery cable or a jealousy attack over the man in my life describing his former girlfriend’s lithe dancer’s body. I improve, I step ahead, but I make mistakes and still panic at my old habits and psychological addictions, like eating a Twinkie after weeks of relentless dieting. Nevertheless, I don’t think there’s ever been a year in my life where I felt as grounded as I do now that I’m “older.” At last I’m dancing, without looking at my feet.
I think getting older is fun: good cheese, wine and women improve with age.
I think I am getting better. I am less ready to sit in judgment. I mellow, go with life’s flow.
Getting older means packing away the fables and fairytales alongside the one-and-onlies, all the Prince Charmings, the Masters I store in the attic. I do not need illusions now.
This past summer at the 1982 North Carolina Writer’s Conference in Chapel Hill, Roz Wolbarsht, Bernadette Hoyle and I found ourselves in a corner, talking about the seasons of women, time, age — the big enchilada. I think Bernadette’s grandmother has the last word, when she told her granddaughter: “You say you don’t want to grow old. All right, then you choose: you can grow old or die young — which do you want?” It’s difficult to argue with logic like that.
I believe getting older means being able to be as tough as whale bone and keeping a tender heart, evergreen. And it is by our loves that we shall be known and remembered.
I’m 41 now, think I’ve finished the crawling period, am learning to walk. One day, before I die, maybe I will learn to fly out every sky I am brave enough to dream into reality. I am nobody special, just a small nameless woman who has died many times and lived to sing and laugh about it: I am no one unusual. I shan’t ripple the surface of history, literary or otherwise, and that doesn’t matter. I just try to live, dream, dare my best, to live with a butterfly’s deceptively fragile wings guiding my heart. I make mistakes, repeatedly, learning, trial and error, how best to formulate a loving life, but that is all right. I am human, not a god yet. I don’t have to be perfect yet.
Getting older means being more tolerant, less bigoted. I never saw a purple cow, but I might like that particular breed of bovine if I should. I try to stay open, hospitable, to all new things, ideas, fashions, punk rock, outlaw country musicians, monks, tribes — you leave yourself terribly vulnerable, but I think the harvest justifies the maintenance drudgery.
Getting older means always learning — new ideas, languages, arts, new ways of thinking and praying — with open hands and an eager heart. I think whatever our ages, we must remember yesterday, prepare for tomorrow and live as if today were forever — because it is.
Getting older? Sweet gods, send me more of it!
Virginia Love Long