A lot of people showed up to discuss aging. Who would have guessed that this, of all topics, would draw such enthusiasm?
We enjoyed some bread and cheese, red and white wine, tea, a delicious bulgur salad brought by Setenay, and colorful cupcakes brought by Dean.
At 8:30 pm, we made our way to the living room.
1. Tom’s Presentation: A Norwegian Folk Tale and… a Musical Time Lapse
First the story. I read it most recently in Robert Bly’s book, The Sibling Society (in which he laments the increasingly youth-obsessed, horizontally-structured contemporary culture, and poses this story as a counterpoint).
Being part-Norwegian in my ancestry, I had actually stumbled upon it before with my son George, and it gave us a good laugh at the time.
It is an old Norwegian folk tale.
A traveller is lost in a snowy wood. He trudges along as the sky darkens. Just as he is almost giving up hope, he sees a small cabin ahead of him.
A man, who looks to be about 30 years old, chops wood outside of it.
“Excuse me,” says the traveller. “May I possibly stay the night with you? Night is falling, and I am far from home.”
“You must have been very worried,” says the man, leaning against a stump. “I am glad you found this house. But you will have to ask my father.” He points to the front door.
So the traveller climbs up the steps to the front door and enters.
Inside, he is met with warmth. A fire burns in the kitchen stove. He sees a man of about 60 years, crouching on the dirt floor to feed more kindling into the stove.
“Excuse me,” says the traveller. “May I stay the night with you? I am lost, you see.”
“I am glad you found this house,” says the man, “But you will have to ask my father.” He points to a room farther in.
The traveller goes in. The inner room is dark, but he can barely make out an armchair in the corner. An old man of about 80, quite shrunken, his skin so gray as to appear colorless, sits on it.
“Excuse me,” says the traveller. “May I stay the night here?”
“I understand why you asked,” says the old man. “But you will have to ask my father.” He waves a finger at the far corner of the room.
The traveller feels his way until he bumps into a small bed. On it lies a man of about 100 years, very small. The man peers up at the traveller with sunken eyes.
“May I stay the night?” asks the traveller. “I would think so,” whispers the old man, “But you will have to ask my father.”
In the corner of the room, the traveller sees a crib. Stepping closer, he sees little wrinkled man curled up inside of the crib. He bends down and says, in the gentlest voice possible, “May I spend the night in this house?”
This little old man, who looks to be no more than six inches long, answers, “You will have to ask my father.”
Following the gaze of the shrunken man below him, the traveller turns to looks up at the ceiling. He sees a hunting horn, hanging from a beam over his head. When he comes closer, he sees, sleeping on it, a very old man, about an inch long.
“May I stay the night with you in this house?” asks the traveller.
The old man looks up, the skin sagging from his face. “Yes,” he says.
The group, properly freaked out by now, let out a laugh… followed by a kind of groan. (Terror? Recognition? Hard to say.) But really, when you think about it, I said, we all have these little “fathers” and little “mothers” inside of us, our ancestors, all the time.
With that, I moved on to the next part of my presentation.
I am going to play you a familiar song, I said.
First, we will hear this song performed by the artist when he was a very young man.
Next we will hear it played after a lifetime of experiences. Same song, same words, same music. Completely different meaning.
I pushed play and Bob Dylan began singing, “The Times They Are a Changin” from his 1964 album by the same name.
After about a minute I faded the volume down. Then I played Dylan singing the same song, many years later (I played the version from his MTV Unplugged concert in 1995.)
Here is a video of him playing it at the White House as recently as 2013, almost 50 years after he released it:
Listen to how the whole perspective has shifted…
Entirely different person.
2. The Question of “Wisdom”
Lucie started us off on the right note by observing that aging is a gift. Any complaints we have are completely overshadowed by the blessing of being able to live into old age. That was a good thing to have in mind as we started getting into it.
Ken and Kristen, in quick succession, suggested that, in their experience, older people accumulate a kind of “wisdom” from which we can learn.
Kristen spoke lovingly of her grandfather, who had an intelligent and inquisitive mind and, as a result, consistentuly gave wonderful advice to her.
She recalled how, for example, in the days following 9-11, feeling completely distraught, she called her grandparents for perspective. Having lived through World War II and Hiroshima and, well, the latter half of the 20th century, her grandfather explained that he saw this event as part of the movement of history. His experience told him that people across the world would surprise her and rise to the challenges posed by terrorism; that terrible events sometimes herald a powerful response.
Ken, too, spoke of the wisdom of elders, and how we should venerate them for their varied experiences.
I explained that my starting-point for the discussion was quite different.
You see, I said, having seen Nebraska, I had developed a new understanding of what this so-called “wisdom” of age represents… The old man played by Bruce Dern in Nebraska is — let’s be clear about it — a total dick. He is selfish, obstinate, repressed, grouchy to an extreme degree, an alcoholic, quite possibly demented. We begin the movie convinced that he is nothing but a problem, certainly an almost unbearable burden on his son (who appears to be in his 4os).
Yet at the movie progresses we come to appreciate that the common notion of an inheritance, a “legacy” if you will, moving from the older generation to the younger generation, is really quite superficial, even specious. It’s true, this old man has very little to give: no insight, no kindness, certainly not any money. But the gift of a “legacy,” we come to realize, is really one that the younger generation bestows on the older one. Over the course of the movie the 40-something son first recognizes, and then chooses to honor, his father’s fully subjective, singular understanding of the world, even with all of its foibles.
Perhaps the “wisdom” of old people, then, is not an objective accumulation of knowledge or insight — they still may get it all wrong and even, on many occasions, act like total dicks. Instead, though, I learned from this film that “wisdom” is the accumulation of subjectivity. It is a kind of nutrient-rich water. An old person deserves respect by his or her very singularity.
I mentioned that seeing this movie actually changed my relationship with my own parents. I sat there on the couch, after watching it, and thought about how, as I enter this chapter of life, I am faced with a choice: complain about my parents, as so many do, or accept them as they are. I choose to honor their subjective understandings of the world (without necessarily agreeing with them). I choose to cherish, rather than judge. To me, their “wisdom” is real because it is more deeply theirs, not because they know more than anyone else.
Claudine pointed out that we can appreciate our parents — and older people generally — for the knowledge or insight that they may have, while at the same time acknowledging that they have other blind-spots and failings, as do we all. In her case, she recognizes her father’s vast array of factual knowledge and analytical skill, and she turns to him for answers when these apply. He may have very different values than she does (as she experienced on a recent vacation in her parents’ retirement community), so there are other areas that she may not turn to him for advice — for example, parenting questions about the use of digital technologies? And that’s alright.
Walden spoke up to play “devil’s advocate,” as he put it. He pointed out that many of the obstacles in the way of a more just and equitable society are put up by old people. He had two words for us: Trump voters.
So why should we defer to and venerate older people? Maybe wisdom resides in youth?
I answered that while it is true that many old people get much wrong, stuck as they are in traditional habits of mind, etc., still, they seem to have an intangible sense of things that younger people don’t. It’s not their grasp of facts, or any one experience they have tucked under their belts… It’s some kind of wily “getting-it” that seems to accrue to them over time.
I posited that even the most ill-informed, gray-haired, foul-breathed, flag-waving Trump supporter, after a day spent blabbing on about illegal immigrants and Muslim terrorists, might have… some strange, subjective insight about a relationship problem you faced, if you sat together for breakfast. The wisdom of older people may be something like a spice cabinet. You open one jar and it is empty. You open another, and you can’t believe how much you have missed that particular flavor all your life.
Walden acknowledged that it is true that older people can have surprising insights; he didn’t disagree with what I said. But his point still held, that they are sometimes apotheosized too much, considering their limitations.
3. Cultural Differences
Setenay talked about how in Turkish and Circassian cultures old people are treated very differently.
When an older person enters a room (whether that person is an uncle or a great aunt or merely a friend of your father’s), anyone younger rises. You converse with older people with a different language altogether, than you do your friends. (I imagine that even eye contact is sustained longer?)
When Setenay first moved to the United States she was horrified that her friends would even think to label their parents with run-of-the-mill adjectives: they are “really old-fashioned,” she’s so “uptight,” oh my god they were acting so “ridiculous,” my dad’s “going through a midlife crisis,” when my mom called she started getting so “picky,” and so on. She would not think of summing up the characters or behavior of her parents in this way: to a Turkish girl her parents simply are who they are, and she is not to try to pin them to a board like a collector of butterfly species.
Anne, from Germany, mentioned that Germans, too, have a sense of obligation and duty to their elders. But she said that cultural differences do not override reality. She emphasized that older people, however we may want to ignore it, do show a variety of personal traits, regardless of the cultural protections that they may be afforded.
Some may be generous and thoughtful and deserving of lifelong respect. Some — sorry, but it is undeniable — may be undeserving of much at all! They may be physically abusive, deceitful, hateful, jealous, divisive, small-minded. And in such cases, whatever the cultural construct, younger people may need to call their elders out. (I think of two amazing movies that show cases of this: Monsoon Wedding and Celebration — if you haven’t seen either of these you should, immediately — they are unforgettable.)
Yann spoke of his relationships with his French mother and Austrian father. When he was quite young he came to accept the ways in which he would have to care for them, rather than be cared for by them. Yet this did not engender bitterness or ingratitude in his case.
“Why is that?” I asked. He answered, simply, that in his early 20s he recognized that his parents were who they were — and were not capable of changing. So he came to love and accept them even with their limitations. His mother (a very impressive woman — I have come to know her) is blind, and this means that Yann has to worry for her on many occasions, but this is not a burden. He simply accepts it as part of the fabric of their life.
Some members in the group wondered, though, at how much this kind of respectful treatment of elders is made possible by having ample resources. Even Yann agreed that there may be an economic calculus at work, and as older people become less… economically valuable, they become, correspondingly, more expendable.
Anshu mentioned that in India more and more old people are all but abandoned by their children — to run-down group homes or even worse. They are simply too expensive to maintain.
Marie-José said that sometimes a person just needs the right combination of factors to sweeten the end of life. Her French father, who was often an unpleasant person when she was growing up, in recent years has made a complete turnaround. Two changes took place: first, he developed a healthy fear of death (an aneurism did that) and, second, his doctor upped his bipolar medication. The combination has made him a happy, charming man, a man whom she had rarely before seen.
We all agreed that it is so intensely individual, this aging process. Each parent, each person, accumulates physical ailments, emotional states, psychological conditions, moments of grace and ongoing torments — and the end-result is completely unpredictable.
Looking around the room, we might ask: who among us will age well in the next 30 years? Who might age poorly? We have no idea.
4. How to Age Gracefully
With one exception: Don.
I revealed to the room that Don is in his 70s. (Okay, just 70 years old… but still, impressive!) Everybody went into shock, as we all know Don to be one of the most vigorous, open-minded, bright-eyed, youthful people we know. His cheeks glow, his blue eyes flash. He is interested in… um… pretty much everything. He has many friends in their 20s, 30s, 40s. He teaches multiple classes, attends film festivals, concerts, writer’s evenings. In short, what gives, Don? How do you do it?
He said that he takes satisfaction in thinking of his life as a series of rooms. Each time he leaves a room, the doors close behind him. But he leaves it without regret. That is because he fully inhabits each room as he goes, and then is fully done with it.
At the same time, he finds that the friendships and relationships he has nurtured in these rooms do not go away! You might say that we walk with him into the next room, and the next.
So he seems to have a way of being present but not attached to the setting or the habits of each phase. Right now, for example, he is an active grandfather. What will this room hold for him? What will the next hold when the kids go off to preschool?
5. Gender Differences
Hulya spoke up to say that she wanted to hear more about the experiences of the men in the room, as we find ourselves aging. What do we fear? What are we struggling with?
Since she was the one who had sent in an article entitled “The Floppy Penis,” the men in the room knew exactly what she was getting at. But we ignored that insinuation altogether. (We will leave her to her own speculations in that regard; perhaps they will better retain their… um… form that way?)
Instead, I answered exclusively in regards to men’s mental lives. I mentioned that I have noticed my parent’s generation of men seeming to become more narrow and closed-off than the women their age, and this worries me greatly. For already, at 46, I feel the appeal of becoming more… narrow. It calls to me like a spell, like a song coming from deep in a forest…
Just do what you like, Tom.
Stop trying to please other people.
Just do what you know. What works.
There’s something appealing in this for men. (Am I right, guys?)
I can imagine myself at, say, 70, living a far more simple life, reading my books, planting a garden somewhere (if I’m lucky), driving my car around town for some errands, not giving a hoot about the larger world of demands and expectations.
This, I think, is a trap that men can fall into. They close off, narrow down, and it feels liberating, until it tips into obstinacy and isolation.
In my experience, older women, on the other hand, seem to grow ever more wide-ranging and open in their interests and affections. They sparkle and smile, and squeeze hands in secret communication. They make an effort to travel and increase their exposure to the frictions of life, all at the very same time that their husbands or other men they know seek to insulate themselves.
It seems to be a cause for much friction in old people’s relationships. We saw it represented in Stegner’s The Spectator Bird.
I explained that I want to resist this, yet I want to take the best of it too. I like the idea of honing down to the core, the movement to simplicity; I just don’t want to be an old codger.
So how do we men recognize when we are at the tipping point? When we start to “calcify”? (Don’s word — or did you say, “ossify”?) It’s a good question for men.
But there is another dilemma facing older men, I added: the question of sex. (I guess I couldn’t help myself and stumbled into the physical aspects of aging for men, after all.) It seems to me that men face a kind of binary choice in their old age. Either they… turn away, succumb, relinquish their youthful urges, soften into their old age (Hulya’s ears just pricked up at the word “soften”). Or they refuse to “go gently into that good night”! Is there a middle ground?
The poem I included by Frederick Seidel is one of many he writes in which he brazenly boasts of his triumph over Time… as a conqueror of young women. His poems are full of images of his old, gray, flabby body matched up against soft-skinned women with rosy lips and luscious hair… and more. Many older men (at least those with a modicum of financial success and status) face this choice in a way older women do not:
Do you go for it?
Or do you refuse (so as to honor other values, like loyalty, tenderness, mutuality…)?
What does it mean to “age well,” from a man’s perspective?
Indeed, you see many men in the Bay Area leave their long-term marriages, even at the cost of their devotion to their children and their network of hard-earned friendships. In effect, going for it. Are they wrong to do this?
And it’s not just Seidel. A more decorous poet like Robert Hass writes of this dilemma too (indeed, he went for it, and left his marriage for a younger woman):
In the life we lead together every paradise is lost.
Nothing could be easier: summer gathers new leaves
to casual darkness. So few things we need to know.
And the old wisdoms shudder in us and grow slack.
Like renunciation. Like the melancholy beauty
of giving it all up. Like walking steadfast
in the rhythms, winter light and summer dark.
And the time for cutting furrows and the dance.
Mad seed. Death waits it out. It waits us out,
the sleek incandescent saints, earthly and prayerful.
In our modesty. In our shamefast and steady attention
to the ceremony, its preparation, the formal hovering
of pleasure which falls like the rain we pray not to get
and are glad for and drown in. Or spray of that sea,
irised: otters in the tide lash, in the kelp-drench,
mammal warmth and the inhuman element. Ah, that is the secret.
That she is an otter, that Botticelli saw her so.
That we are not otters and are not in the painting
by Botticelli. We are not even in the painting by Bosch
where the people are standing around looking at the frame
of the Botticelli painting and when Love arrives, they throw up.
Or the Goya painting of the sad ones, angular and shriven,
who watch the Bosch and feel very compassionate
but hurt each other often and inefficiently. We are not in any painting.
If we do it at all, we will be like the old Russians.
We’ll walk down through scrub oak to the sea
and where the seals lie preening on the beach
we will look at each other steadily
and butcher them and skin them.
The myth they chose was the constant lover.
The theme was richness over time.
It is a difficult story and the wise never choose it
because it requires a long performance
and because there is nothing, by definition, between the acts.
It is different in kind from a man and the pale woman
he fucks in the ass underneath the stars
because it is summer and they are full of longing
and sick of birth. They burn coolly
like phosphorus, and the thing need be done
only once. Like the sacking of Troy
it survives in imagination,
in the longing brought perfectly to closing,
the woman’s white hands opening, opening,
and the man churning inside her, thrashing there.
And the light travels as if all the stars they were under
exploded centuries ago and they are resting now, glowing.
The woman thinks what she is feeling is like the dark
and utterly complete. The man is past sadness,
though his eyes are wet. He is learning about gratitude,
how final it is, as if the grace in Botticelli’s Primavera,
the one with the sad eyes who represents pleasure,
had a canvas to herself, entirely to herself.
This conversation topic, admittedly a distasteful one, dropped like a stone.
(Isn’t there something about an older male poet boasting of his sexual performance — especially when he compares it to stars first exploding and then “resting now, glowing” — that is particularly irritating? Or do you think I am being unfair? Is this ageism at work? Please comment.)
6. Concluding Thoughts
Much more was said, but it is beginning to blur for me, a few days out.
There were some hilarious physical gestures made by M-J, which I will not describe, some touching stories by many members of their own experiences.
At one point Dean emphasized that he has turned to living a more “juvenile” lifestyle in this latest chapter of his life. “I have absolutely nothing going on in my head,” he declared, “The lights are completely turned off.”
We all laughed, knowing full well that this is not the case (if only based on his insightful contributions to our discussions at these meetings!)
I ended by saying that I am so often aware, during these discussions, that we are merely scratching the surface of these topics. When we talk for a few hours about what it means to be animals, or how we may better understand aging, we clarify our thinking in useful ways. But after this initial clarification, like a quick soap and a rinse, we need a long soak.
I hope that we can return to these topics again, circle back, and that our discussions may, over time, become less about clarifications, less about point-counterpoint. I wonder if we can structure the meetings so that they offer opportunities for an experience almost like a meditation? What is aging to you, once we get beyond the sharing of ideas and observations? What is it in your most quiet moments?
Next time we address this topic, some suggested, perhaps we can go around the room, and everyone can take a moment to talk about how he or she would like to age? What is the vision you have for yourself in 20, 30 years? Describe the setting you imagine, the details of your life, the (hopefully varying!) routines, the persistent thoughts you hope to have…
Thanks for participating, everybody. See you next month.