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The passages of life: not enough time? What comes after “adulthood?” “Elderhood?”
I am impatient these days: there is not time enough in this one llife. I need more lives; I have made plans already for three or four. I could easily expand to ten or twenty, all full-flavored, ardent, interesting. Full of curiosity! Looking into the sciences one after another, traveling to unexplored places, not only geographical, but psychological, social, economic; reading all the good books I do not yet know, and in all the languages; meeting every interesting human being then alive and with leisure — with leisure!– to know, to talk, to love, And to write! Time to write, and having written, to rewrite. I have enjoyed this earth; the only flaw is that my time here is too short.
David Grayson, “Under My Elm”
Ah, how true indeed, this passage from one of my favorite writers, the inestimable David Grayson, author of “Adventures in Contentment,” Adventures in Friendship,” and “The Friendly Road.” I first read his work almost 30 years ago after a very difficult period in my life when I was returning to some sense of normalcy with a new job and new apartment. His moving words in those books transported me to a realm of peace and inner contentment I have never forgotten. I can’t quite explain it as the effects of the books were so deeply personal and contingent on that particular time in my life.
Today, I can relate to what he says above as much or more than I did in the mid 1990s. I look at all my hundreds of unread books lining bookshelves and stacked on the floor and realize that I, too, would need more lives to accomplish all the reading I want to do.
I also feel time is even more precious than ever now, especially since I seem to have so little of it to devote purely to my books, for example. And even if I did have more time, I sometimes wonder if I would be able to resolve to use that time in the best way possible. Unfortunately, even late at night I am distracted by non-essential or less meaningful things on the Internet, or else I become lost in surfing and skimming numerous articles, most of which I forget as soon as I have read them. However, I feel sure kernels and nuggets of knowledge and wisdom from those articles are stored somewhere in my brain, so all is not lost. The point being that with books you take deep dives into the minds and thoughts of the authors.
And, like Grayson, I think of all the traveling I could do and all the interesting people I could meet, if I wanted to do so. But who can even think of the future, really? Travel seems like an unnecessary burden, something you almost feel obliged to do. However, it’s not as much fun and adventurous when you’re slowly, but inevitably becoming more incontinent, and you tire much more easily.
At my age I often find myself marveling at all I have packed into life thus far. I have been blessed to have had a number of interesting jobs at which I have met and known some of the most fascinating and unique people. True, the time I knew them was short, but I remember and think about them even today, 30 or 40 years later. I guess this is the kind of thing one contemplates more frequently in old age and retirement.
The encouraging thing for me is to realize that I am still as vitally curious about life and people, history, philosophy, science, religious studies, spirituality and psychology as ever before. I don’t foresee this changing. As a former journalist and teacher, and now as a writer and photographer in my spare time, I have always been interested in learning, writing about what I have learned, and photographing the world around me. The hundreds of interviews I conducted during my newspaper days — which ended in 1991 — those alone constituted an education in and of itself. The half dozen solo round trips by car across the country were another priceless education. The years spent in graduate school. Life is an endless series of learning opportunities. I can truly say that I am swamped with unending opportunities to learn each day. Thus, I should be content with whatever I can learn, savor, and enjoy in the days I have left, and which now pass so rapidly. But, like David Grayson, I feel time is short, especially since I have already lived, what to me has been a satisfyingly long life already.
Two things that keep me feeling young are my passion for photography and that insatiable curiosity I just talked about. I read all the time, mostly on the Internet, though, as mentioned, I have a huge library of books. I have so many things that interest me, artistically and intellectually, that I can’t even conceive of being bored.
I’ve been retired for six years. Now I truly know what that unfortunate word means. It means anything but retirement in the traditional sense. Maybe you’re not working anymore and you’ve retired from that biggest responsibility and time sucker of your previous life, but retirement in the most meaningful sense of the word, is the opportunity at last to re-invent and re-imagine your life with no expectations and pressures to succeed or prove yourself, or desperately look for a job so you won’t end up on the street. It’s really what living is all about, since you aren’t compelled to make a living anymore, with all the disasters and pitfalls that can entail, and as I most surely discovered over decades. Now at last, no more of that.
When I lived downtown, I hired two college kids to work on my yard and garden. They were conscientious and good kids, and when they come every two weeks it gave me a chance to actually talk to real, physical people, something I sometimes didn’t do for days or weeks at a stretch when quarantining during the pandemic. Those guys were pretty easy to talk to.
I recall one particular weekend spinning tales about the past, including those years in my youth when I had a lawn-mowing business. In that now quaint era, leaves were raked quietly, which gave you time to think and meditate, as you enjoyed the cool, crisp days of Autumn. Today, monstrously loud and obnoxious leaf blowers are employed on every street and cul-de-sac.
I briefly reminisced about how I used to get cherry Coles at the drugstore lunch counter when I was a kid. And then I regaled them with some stories about the early days of the Internet and search engines such as Alta Vista and Yahoo, and those ubiquitous AOL floppy disks and CDs for starting Internet service. They actually seemed politely interested and listened dutifully, and asked some questions of their own, knowing if they were thusly cordial and moderately attentive to the old man I. Front of them, they would get a tip to go buy a pizza that night. I asked them some questions as well. It was more or less a “dialog.” The days were long during that strange time when it was risky to even go to the grocery store, and so it was nice to chat once in awhile. Even as I tried to not seem so “ancient” but failed at that, I feel sure. But as I’d say now, “It is what it is.
Anyway, when they left that Saturday, I had to laugh because I recalled some of the countless times when I was just a few years older than they were, when in my first jobs as a reporter, I’d ask a lot of questions of the old folks I interviewed for stories at the newspapers I worked on. I always enjoyed it. I didn’t care how much they rambled on. It was interesting. It was oral history in the making. But when I was chatting with the college kids, I had to fight against a little voice in my head shouting at me in aggravation, “Oh will you just shut up. They don’t want to hear all that.” Well, I can happily say I didn’t pay the little voice any mind. Those young’ uns had to listen to that old man, or not have extra money for pizza that night.
What’s age got to do with it?
It’s funny how after a certain age, getting older seems to lend itself more and more to humor and self-deprecating comments, sly asides, and knowing nods. It’s funny, too, how people try to guess your age. One 20-something told me once after I had confessed my age, “After 40, I guess a couple of years don’t make much difference.”
We live in a society that values youth and looks, but seems to have forgotten that beauty is only skin deep.
The key point here is to try not to be embarrassed by your age, to realize that you have gotten far in life, and you are living proof that the hardships and vicissitudes experienced during a long life, can be surmounted. With aging comes a certain degree of wisdom, and the young are often the last to realize that.
e.e. cummings wrote an interesting poem titled “old age sticks.”
old age sticks
up Keep off
(old age cries
Forbid den Stop
goes right on
Yes, we are old before we know it, and even the youth of today will reach those later-life milestone decades.
Someone once told me that you don’t get old, you just gain experience. I like that. I think becoming old is the ultimate milestone, where you have reached the pinnacle of lived experiences. At a certain stage of life you have a great many stories to tell and lessons to share. But who is listening? For me it’s usually nobody, and that’s a major reason why I write so often and have for decades. I want to tell my story.
I saved this comment from a reader of my online journal about getting old, “Oh Sweetie ….. ‘Growing Old’ is amazing!!!!! I would not swap a minute of my life, to go back to my youth. I am a firm believer in ‘the older you get, the better you feel.’ Each second of our life, makes us the person we are today. Only when you have reached those beautiful ‘Golden Years’ can you experience true bliss. I am going to meet my ‘Maker’ kicking and fighting.”
To be not young and not old
Harvey Allen once said, “The only time you really live fully is from thirty to sixty. The young are slaves to dreams; the old servants of regrets. Only the middle-aged have all their five senses in the keeping of their wits.’
But I like this quote from John Burroughs better: “How beautifully leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days.”
Lilian Carter, the eternally wise mother of former President Jimmy Carter, who joined the Peace Corps at 76, said this: “The time I think that I’m getting old, and gradually going to the grave, something else happens.”
And this from the poet, Philip Larkin: “Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms inside your head, and people in them, acting. People you know, yet can’t quite name.”
I wrote this poem in 1999 when I was 48. Maybe I was better able to anticipate what growing old would be like than I realized.
Stand back, Methuselah,
I’m not ready
to get old,
or to travel too much
farther or deeper
into the night,
yet. I see crevices of age
in a mirror’s image
that doesn’t blanch
or flinch over truth-telling
like me in denial.
But I look hard at myself,
and I don’t see you, Ancient One.
this image in the mirror tells me.
No matter how many times I see it,
it always looks the same.
I’m still that youth
who even way back when
looked for signs of aging.
Youth, but now, past tense,
not on edge, but wary,
knowledgeable and experienced,
but where are the old enthusiasms?
Where is the compulsive need
to rush out and embrace life?
Maybe someone can make it reappear.
I link myself to all who’ve come before
when I contemplate where I’ve been
and how I’ve lived or not.
I haven’t lost, at least,
my keen awareness of getting older, slowly.
Aging is out there, somewhere,
just not for me.
I won’t become that old man
in white bare skin and bony legs,
hearing aid stuffed in ear to hear,
exposed, drooping a bit,
paying for his prescription,
waiting in line, like me,
but in no apparent hurry, like me.
At least he seems to be following
a safe path to his end times,
going slow, and taking no notice of me.
Oblivious, or else he doesn’t care.
Why should he?
It’s hot outside.
No need to go fast and work up a sweat
like we who bustle about
brimming with more of what
we think is life’s energy and relevance,
puffed up with the importance of our busyness
and our being here in the first place.
(Written Aug. 11, 1999)
Some final thoughts
I now find myself curiously content with most things about myself, and yet unsettled because of that, like I’m not supposed to be happy or content. There’s always going to be more suffering. There will continue to be trials, temptations, tribulations. I have some major unresolved issues. I find it extrembly difficult to forgive certain people who have crossed my path in life and treated me very badly. It’s hard to forgive toxic people.
In youth you are consistently surprised by the twists and turns along the road, undaunted by the slings and arrows of life. You pick up and move on. You have a lot of time to do so, a lot of time to make mistakes and learn from them. At 50, you just don’t seem to care as much, even though that residual fear of failure is still capable of causing great anxiety. But at last you reach your 70s and there is very little risk of failure anymore. You can’t make a horrible decision about a new job because there are no jobs to apply for or go to after retirement. You know you’re invisible to younger people, and you can’t do what you used to do, but despite it all, you’ve reached the stage in life where you finally know and accept yourself fully. And that’s probably the greatest blessing of old age.