dear old (love, older): name that age!

Fallen leaves under copper beechDEAR OLD,

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.

9780670016556HIn 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.

homing_instinctThe 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.



(P.S. to my readers: Remember, you can find Katrina’s letter that prompted mine at this link, or circle back and read the entire conversation, now three letters apiece between us.)

(Disclosure: Book links to Amazon are affiliate links that yield a small commission.)

  1. Thank you for printing the quote from Eliot’s “Four Quartets” – one more link in our kindred spirits, Margaret. To this day the line from “Burnt Norton” runs through my head – “garlic and sapphires in the mud clot the bedded axle tree” – among others – thanks for sending me back to the poems for another look. How rich. And for those of us lucky enough to have home, hearth and health together, and a soul fine enough to appreciate all things, how about instead of “aging” we call it a time of “enriching” – because, judging from your letters and my own experience – it is.

  2. As I approach 68 in a couple of months, I’m very grateful for discussions like this.
    Reading Roger Angell’s incredible essay, I was heartened by the fact that he still writes with such verve and freshness, that in his writing, he hasn’t turned into an old geezer at all. That gave me a lot of hope for the future.

    1. margaret says:

      Wasn’t Roger Angell’s piece amazing? So glad to hear from you, Mary. Bernd Heinrich (in his 70s now — and by the way, also an elite ultra-marathoner!) seems to be publishing books nearly each year. Penelope Lively is 81 and writing like mad, too. So many of my favorites like them are just getting better. Inspiring.

  3. Laurie says:

    I’m old too, though I do like “the tranquil shores of middle age” quite a bit. I look forward to checking out the readings you mentioned. Have loved those lines from T.S. Eliot too.

  4. lynn druskat says:

    It is kind of like being in a new country and you do not know the language. But, we learn it. Then, we smile a little more often. We must be invincible.

      1. margaret says:

        Hi, Cynthia (and Penelope). My niece is about to leave for college in August, and my sister, brother-in-law and I are in shock (and also not quite sure what we will all do with ourselves — I suspect I will be babysitting the bereft parents once the nest empties!).

  5. Becky says:

    I was just talking to my sister-in-law about this last night. We met when we were 15 and 16 and are now 66 and almost 67. Her second oldest granddaughter got married yesterday and she’s a great grandmother. I have a few health challenges but still working full-time at a challenging job and enjoying my life. Alone. For the most part, 4 boys grown up and and on their own most of the time. I get a shock once in a while when I look in the mirror, and had a completely rude shock when I got my flu shot back in October. There were more questions asked and I was curious about why – and was told the “elderly” have more issues with flu vaccine sometimes. Elderly?! Geez. But I’m enjoying this stage of life, although it’s bittersweet at times, knowing I’m coming up to the end of it. Eventually. Both of my grandmothers lived to be in their mid-80’s, so I’m not giving up yet. I have quilting, and knitting, and embroidery, and crochet, and gardening still to do and I’m enjoying it all in between work and resting up. Thanks for the poetry and reading references. I need to get back into my poetry collection and read some essays, too. Take care.

    1. margaret says:

      How kind of you to write, Becky. The vaccination thing made me smile — at my annual physical recently they rattled off the various things I will “qualify” for later this year (I guess the insurance industry and medical establishment concur that at 60 certain vaccines are warranted, and “covered”) and I thought: UGH! Not me. Lucky you with a sister-in-law who has been a friend for 50-plus years. The only person I have known that long is my sister!

  6. Burndett Andres says:

    Thanks, Margaret for sharing these letters. I’m in there with you (66) and I must tell you I really love this age. Of course there are differences, physical and mental, than at any other age in one’s life, and of course there are new and different challenges, but there is such a richness about this stage of life. Life seems like a gorgeous, lush tapestry with every possible sort of thread woven into it – from garden twine to fine golden metallic – and me with the perspective now to appreciate it. Examining this ‘tapestry’ in all its glorious entirety as well as each minute detail brings me such pleasure. It’s all part of the process, I guess. Nothing new, just new to us. LOVE this age. Thanks again, Margaret. You’re a peach.

  7. hwylo says:

    I’m often drawn to Dylan Thomas’ work who sometime seems to write of nothing else but aging. Here’s one that comes to mind this morning:

    “This bread I break was once the oat,
    This wine upon a foreign tree
    Plunged in its fruit;
    Man in the day or wind at night
    Laid the crops low, broke the grape’s joy.

    Once in this wine the summer blood
    Knocked in the flesh that decked the vine,
    Once in this bread
    The oat was merry in the wind;
    Man broke the sun, pulled the wind down.

    This flesh you break, this blood you let
    Make desolation in the vein,
    Were oat and grape
    Born of the sensual root and sap;
    My wine you drink, my bread you snap.”

  8. Carole Clarin says:

    From where I sit, turning 60 does not look old since I just turned 70 last month. As my husband, also 70, and I remember our parents, we are a much “younger” 70 than they were. After raking leaves for 3 days we said to each other, “when will we be too old to do this and have to hire someone?”. I dread that day and feel far from ready but notice that I look forward to phone calls and friends passing by, so that I have more excuses to take little breaks. Today I head to the library to find at least one of the list of books I have made after reading your thoughts and being led to the authors you’ve enjoyed.

  9. Rae says:

    I have a birthday next week and felt that today’s quotes were about me. The challenges of having pain and not able to garden as I had for years is very sad. However, I will forge ahead and dream of the annuals I will purchase to add to my garden. My fairy garden awaits its rebirth for 2014. My mind and heart are still young.

  10. Linda says:

    I am 62 and feel quite happy and optimistic. Physically I am still able to garden and do pretty much everything I want. I work two days a week as a psychiatric nurse and do whatever I want the rest of the week. I am thrilled because I will become a first time grandmother in October. I don’t mind the wrinkles too much. I think about how quickly the last twenty years have passed, and wonder where I will be twenty years from now. However I don’t dwell on it and try to live in the moment.

  11. Tim says:

    Last Summer we visited my 93 year old grandfather and his ~87 year old girlfriend at their rental, at a beach in the Hamptons. After some time at the beach, and lunch, we were back at their apartment cleaning up, and she said something to him, and he said “wha”?, then she said “huh”?, then he said “wha”?, and then she said “huh”?.

    This went on for another minute or two “huh”? “wha”? “huh”? “wha”?

    Absolutely one of the most funny, adorable, and poignant moments in realizing the effects and status of age…..

  12. Carole says:

    Surprised, ambushed, startled. It’s all of that–that not quite comfortable fit is exactly the way I feel about my disconnect with what I see in the mirror. At 68, my husband and I are in the midst of a DIY kitchen renovation which has involved pulling out drywall, changing plumbing and electrical work, putting in a new floor–the works. In the spring, we vastly expanded our garden and added a 7′ high deer fence to cover 5400 square feet. Before that, we were doing even more extensive house renovations that had us taking off old siding, changing out windows, putting on a new roof. Our bodies haven’t completely betrayed us yet, but we do need recovery time these days. That’s okay as long as we can eventually get back up for the next thing. Even when we can’t, I hope we’ll have learned a few things from my now 91 year old mother, who finds joy in all the simple things and strives to enrich the lives of those around her. I treasure the life experiences under my belt and wouldn’t want to be one of those younger ages, not one little bit. The body, though? I might be willing to consider a trade-in on that.

    P. S. I got the flu questions, too. And the reference from my primary care provider that when I’m 70, she’ll need to modify some meds, etc. I thought, “No problem. That’s so far away,” until I suddenly realized she was only talking about a couple of years!. When did that happen?

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