"People expect old men to die,
They do not really mourn old men.
Old men are different. People look
At them with eyes that wonder when...
People watch with unshocked eyes;
But old men know when an old man dies.”
Ogden Nash - Old Men
Donald Hall has an essay in the January 23, 2012 issue of the New Yorker about the strange country of old age. At 83, he is no longer able to do much of what he loves, including write poetry. He spends his days looking out the window at birds and trees and weather, on the New Hampshire farm that has been in his family for generations, and writing about what he sees. It is a beautiful piece, tinged with humor, love, anger, and acceptance.
.“...[O]ld age is a ceremony of losses, which is on the whole preferable to dying at forty-seven [as his wife did] or fifty-two [his father]. When I lament and darken over my diminishments, I accomplish nothing. It’s better to sit at the window all day, pleased to watch birds, barns, and flowers. It is a pleasure to write about what I do.”
He says he has lost the gift of poetry, but his prose is enviable. His view out the window is illuminated by memories. He hasn’t lost the eye for detail, the wit of metaphor, the ear for assonance and alliteration. Hummingbirds “enter the horns of hollyhocks, gobble some sweet, and zig off to zag back again for another lick.” Through the seasons “...the flowers erupt and subside.”
HUMMINGBIRDS AND HOLLYHOCKS by STEPHEN A. ASCOUGH click
My mother died when I was twenty-three, and I’ve always treasured friendships with older women. I have several friends in their eighties. None of them are sitting by the window yet. But one swears she will not. She hopes to find a way out before she loses her ability to get around. Another has given up doctors as an aggravation. She refuses to spend her remaining time sitting in waiting rooms and being treated like a worthless piece of meat.
Old age is not so bad when you consider the alternative, said Maurice Chevalier. Some old people I know do consider the alternative, and think it preferable to the inexorable progress of loss, diminishment, dependency.
I think what I fear most about old age is loneliness. I am not yet at an age where the obituaries usually bring news of my friends. My father was 98 when he died. He was the last of his generation, and all the friends of his childhood and youth were gone.
The Muu Muu Mamas focus on fun and frivolity, fortified by wine, but we also count on each other in times of need and trouble. click Though we are all under seventy, I can’t help myself; I wonder how we will age. Hall says, “...However much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life....”
It would be easy to let go of old friends as their quick wit slows, or they become garrulous bores. Hall believes that kindness to the old is always condescending. He is already in that alien land, and there’s no telling how I’ll feel if I get there, but I think he’s wrong. We began our lives dependent, and if we hang around long enough, we’ll need help again. I hope my friends and I will shore each other up when we are failing, and feel no pride nor shame in it.
I think of old age as a hard part of life that I wouldn’t want to miss. As I become more needy, maybe some of my arrogance will fall away, and I will learn humility. Maybe I will gain deeper understanding as I move from loss to loss. Acceptance is not a sprint, but a lifelong marathon.
My view may be too rosy. At 64 I’ve had my troubles. Sometimes I’ve responded with anger, whining, and paralysis, sometimes soldiered on. I’m not confident that I have found the appropriate mix of howling, whimpering, and stiff upper lip. Donald Hall, sitting at the window looking out, loving the world as he prepares to leave it, encourages me.
IMAGE BY RENTON PIRATE AT PHOTOBUCKET.COM
"An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress..."
William Butler Yeats - Sailing to Byzantium
Donald Hall is still singing.
NOTE: I had thought I could link to this article, but it is only available to subscribers. If you're not a New Yorker subscriber, it's worth a trip to the library to read it, or you can go to this link to access the whole issue for $5.99. click
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