Funny that you ask in your latest letter for new ways to label the ages we’re at, which as you (and our readers) point out, aren’t “old” by today’s standards. I have been reading, and listening to, the 81-year-old British author Penelope Lively lately, and she has some suggestions:
Fifty-five (your age, Katrina), she recently told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air,” is, “the tranquil shores of middle age.” Lucky you!
It’s also the number Lively chose when asked by a magazine to name her ideal age. Kids are meant to be settled in to their own adulthoods by then, her thinking goes, giving parents a break after a couple of decades of nonstop on-duty, and typically what may come to ail you at true old age hasn’t settled itself in yet.
a series on aging: part 3
THIS IS MY THIRD in a series of letters between me and my friend, author Katrina Kenison, on the challenges (and joys!) of aging. She’s Old (just 55) and I’m Older (facing 60 this year). Who knows where it’s going, but since the subject keeps coming up, and we’re both writers…well, you get the idea. Listen in. After reading this new letter, read her reply here (or work backwards to the letters that started the conversation starting at this link).
Lively refers to her new book, “Dancing Fish and Ammonites,” as “the view from old age,” as she is firmly in it, and able to report first-hand. “And a view of old age itself,” she continues, “this place at which we arrive with a certain surprise—ambushed, or so it can seem.”
Ambushed! Yes, or at least quite startled. If not the full-on view like Lively’s, I’d at least call my place on the timeline, and perhaps yours, “the glimpse of old age.” What we have, if not seven or eight or nine decades of first-hand expertise, is the emergence of a keener awareness that it is no longer so far ahead—no longer something easily deferred with blissful ignorance.
No; suddenly, ignorance does not work; the advance guard of consciousness has left the fort, and returned with the first reconnaissance. Uh-oh.
In the new book, Lively recalls having gone to hear a talk by Anthony Burgess—the author, composer, and critic probably best known for writing “A Clockwork Orange.” She was in her late forties at the time; Burgess was in his early sixties. What struck her was his opening line:
“For me, death is already sounding its high C.” (He lived to 76, and published at least a half-dozen more books after that lecture.)
But, ah, the early glimpse of old age (and beyond). So what is one to do when aging and its consequences begin to show themselves—whether in thought or deed? Lively admires, and adopts, a can-do approach, marching ahead as if undaunted, despite widowhood and some medical challenges.
“Make a good fist of it,” was the British-ism she used with Gross in their discussion of “Dancing Fish and Ammonites,” which has been beside me on the night table, making its way up and down the stack for the last couple of months with other older, wiser voices I seem to be drawn to.
The biologist Bernd Heinrich, who turned 74 today, has a new book, too: “The Homing Instinct.” Whether albatross or loon, salmon or human, we circle around and around “home”—a place to nest, or perhaps to winter, or to finish out our days—a place we experience in some manner through each of life’s seasons before finally coming to rest.
In the epilogue, Heinrich quotes a fragment of the poem that has been my favorite since freshman year at NYU, a bit of T.S. Eliot’s massive “Four Quartets.” The lines, from “Little Gidding” (the last of the four quarters):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Also in the bedside pile: The astonishing essay on aging from “The New Yorker” by longtime essayist and baseball writer Roger Angell (now 93)—who uses various terms for his current life stage, including “oldies,” “geezers” and “elders.” (On the latter, he asks: “What kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?”)
Me? At almost 60, maybe it will surprise you to hear that I suppose I am feeling positively adolescent lately. But not in the rising-sap way, Katrina: By adolescent, I mean that I feel as if I wake up in somebody else’s body and face—and do not find it to be an entirely comfortable fit, but rather even awkward sometimes, as if I am in little increments being betrayed.
The big difference between the original version of adolescence and now: On this end of my involuntary shapeshifting, I know what’s coming (ah, gravity: it’s all so predictably downhill!). But it somehow still feels as startling as sprouting breasts did back then, or instantly outgrowing my white clamdiggers and that orange and white striped tank top that were still practically new.
So maybe you can just refer to me going forward as being in my “inverse-adolescence”? (I even had a pimple the other day, if that helps to convince you.)
Whatever we call this time of our lives, most of all I am just glad to ruminate, find kinship, and talk about it. I thank you—and Lively, Angell, Heinrich, Burgess, and Thomas Stearns Eliot as well—for that opportunity.
(Disclosure: Book links to Amazon are affiliate links that yield a small commission.)