“Old Age is like everything else.
To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young.”
It’s finally happened to me…I’m now the Biblical threescore and ten years old. I went to bed after a great meal, wonderful evening with my ever-loving wife Jody, some funny conversation, a little mystery on the telly and woke up…well, I didn’t feel any different. I did wake up, though, which is a good thing. Aside from that, I woke up early as usual and as old men are wont to do, didn’t change my technique of putting my right leg first into my shorts, managed to feed the pups without them howling, and even got my coffee made without spilling any of it as I padded to my PC to see what new catastrophe had happened in the world over night.
I think the anticipation of the big day proved more interesting than the actual clock striking the beginning of the moment seventy years ago when my sainted mother was finally able to breathe lightly again. And touch her toes. My legacy is that I think I was kind of a whiney baby, a habit I haven’t entirely outgrown.
As the moments drew down to the actual day, I began entertaining all kinds of thoughts about what this rite of passage was supposed to mean. Since I’m in good health and can still play squash, go for lengthy hikes, work outside for long periods, and manhandle large timbers in my ceaseless fascination with building something new, I didn’t feel lame, absent minded, or especially decrepit. On the down side, though, I am a bit hard of hearing, which drives Jody to distraction at times, but as I am quick to point out to the dear lady at least I don’t drool or soil my shorts. Most of the time I don’t, that is.
You often hear that we should listen to older people since they’re the ones with all the wisdom. I haven’t found that to be entirely true in a lot of cases. I do have the good fortune to mix with a great number of folks who are my senior and I have found that whatever they have to say is usually worth waiting for. There is indeed a lot of wisdom in quite a few of these geezers. But some of them who have lived long enough to fall into the “of a certain age” category are just the same old mean-spirited, bigoted, fanatics they were at forty. I recently read a short interview with Jim Harrison, the curmudgeonly elder statesman of poets, essayists, and novelists, who told Esquire magazine,
“I don’t see any evidence of wisdom accelerating as you get older. Old people will say it does, but they’re generally speaking full of shit.”
Not to put too fine a point on his delicate conclusion, I guess I share his sentiment. At least I don’t feel any wiser now that I’m seventy. I’ll let you know if there’s any change in my viewpoint if and when I get to be eighty.
If there’s no wisdom in me, there’s at least one piece of advice I feel is worth passing on. And it comes from the great baseball pitcher Satchell Paige who played in another era and left us with an impressive number of wins and a famous bit of advice:
“Never look back. Something might be gaining on you.”
Good words to keep in mind, especially if you’re retired and have little reason to be worried about any competition anyway. My sense of competition has certainly changed over the years and I look back wondering why I spent so much of my energy scurrying to get ahead and competing with my contenders for plum assignments. Right now, I’m showering my remaining drops of competition on my late father who died eons ago just a few months short of turning seventy-three. I will really feel as though I’ve passed a milestone when the old boy sees me gaining on and passing him! Now that’s my kind of competition. Both of my grandfathers died in their sixties so I’m well out ahead of them already.
As far as other competitive bouts, most of that nonsense is gone now, as I have redirected my anxieties into more positive jousts. Just recently I had the good fortune to dine and down a few with several fellow writers I had only known on-line up to then. Although we might well have had our elbows in each other’s ribs thirty years ago, I found their energy and vitality invigorating rather than threatening.
As we all settle into our own ways of life, all I’ve really learned is the importance of “avoiding loud and aggressive persons,” since “they are vexations to the spirit,” according to my copy of the Desiderata which hangs on the wall of my saloon in the basement. If you’re going to narrow down all you’ve learned over the years to just a few words, that’s not a bad formula. I can’t put enough real estate between me and the big mouths who have all the answers and are not shy about telling me which candidate I should vote for, which sermon I should listen to, or which holistic medicine I should be swallowing. Something about certitude that never went down well with me. It continues to taste bitter and I want nothing of it.
The Desiderata also tells me to “take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.” All well and good, I’m sure. But at the same time I’m not so sure I want to follow this line to the “T” since there are some things associated with the hot passions of youth that still are fun for Jody and me to get our arms and legs around. This doesn’t include bungee jumping or sky diving, though.
At seventy, I’m still keen on learning as much as possible and keeping my vocabulary honed to help me choose the best word I can muster to denigrate someone I am not particularly fond of. Right now, three of my favorites are “fustilarian”, “scullion,” and “rampallian,” all handy insults for just the right moment.
In my dotage and increasing spare time, I continue to enjoy reading, especially those writers who put a lot of emphasis on style. In my own writing, I am alert to the sound of words and their cadence. I’ll even be so bold as to share a bit of unsolicited advice–read your material aloud. After you’ve finished, listen as someone else reads it aloud, too. If either one of you stumble over any words, then go back and straighten them out. You shouldn’t necessarily want to be the literary equivalent of a Corps of Engineers supervisor and strive for the straightest and most uncomplicated of lines. All the same, though, you should always listen for the lilt of your word play and make your prose flow without impediment.
I would like to end by paying homage to the late and great poet Stanley Kunitz who became Poet Laureate in 2000 when he was in his mid nineties. He had also served in the post from 1974-1976, so he knew a thing or two about choosing his words well. About his own work, he once said:
“The poem comes in the form of a blessing–‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth. Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”
So as I blow out the candles, I would like to quote from his poem The Layers, in which he reflects on his life and urges all of us to march on despite many losses and setbacks along the way. To me, his most important bit of advice in this poem is not to get bogged down in the insignificant details along the way and miss out on the important, sometimes subtle and always richly fulfilling parts of life. In his words, he tells us,
“In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
‘Live in the layers,
not on the litter.’
Though I lack the art
to decipher it
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.”
I’m not done with mine, either.