Wednesday, 07 May 2014
How It is to Be Old
Having fallen asleep with the television on a few nights ago, I woke a couple of hours later to the fragment of a sentence just before a commercial began: “...young people wondering how it is to be old.”
Sleep for me is a fragile thing easily lost to wakefulness so I quickly turned off the TV and did, for once, get back to sleep.
When I woke the next morning, it was with that phrase, “young people wondering how it is to be old” rolling around in my head and I am now dumping it on you, dear readers, with a couple of thoughts to go with it.
There are old people who insist they feel the same as they did when they were 20 or 30 or 40 or whatever younger year they choose. Although I've never said it out loud before now, I don't believe them.
If that were true, it would mean they have learned nothing in their decades of life. That their worldview remains as it was at 20. That they have endured no heartbreak or unbounded joy, are still befuddled with youthful self-doubt and have no experience to inform their choices.
Which cannot possibly be true. Of course old age is different from youth and it should be. It is meant to be.
As I considered that sentence fragment, I did some wondering of my own: perhaps I missed a crucial lead-in to it because I don't believe the young give much thought to what it's like to be old. I didn't get around to it with any seriousness until I was into my fifties.
Recalling this set me in mind of something Penelope Lively writes in her 2013 memoir, Dancing Fish and Ammonites [emphasis is mine]:
”...not only do you know (even if it is getting a bit hazy) what it felt like to be in your twenties, or thirties, but you remember also the relative unconcern about what was to come.
“You aren't going to get old, of course, when you are young. We won't ever be old partly because we can't imagine what it is like to be old, but also because we don't want to, and - crucially – are not particularly interested.”
Lively goes on to explain that as a teen she spent a lot of time with her 70-ish grandmother who acted as a mother substitute [this time the emphasis is Lively's]:
”I was devoted to her,” she writes, “but I don't remember ever considering what it could be like to be her. She simply was; unchangeable, unchanging...
“I never thought about how it must be to be her; equally, I couldn't imagine her other than she was, as though she had sprung thus into life, had never been young.”
Although Penelope Lively is a – (sorry, can't help myself) lively and interesting writer, I don't always agree with her about aspects of aging. In this, however, I think she is correct.
When I make the effort to inhabit my younger mindset - in school days and my twenties - I recall being surprised to think of the old people I knew as my own age. When they spoke of events in their childhoods, it was impossible for me to picture them as young.
For me, Lively states it exactly as it felt for me then – they always had been as they were. And I don't think we elders should go about trying to convince young people we were once their age. Like us, they will get to it in due time.
Because I have the book off the shelf and just for fun, here is some more from Lively that speaks to me:
”Certain desires and drives have gone. But what remains is response. I am as alive to the world as I have ever been – alive to everything I see and hear and feel...
“I think there is a sea change, in old age – a metamorphosis of sensibilities. With those old consuming vigors now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in.
“Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold...People are of abiding interest – observed in the street, overheard on a bus.
“The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. “It is almost like some kind of endgame salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new.”
Exactly as it is for me these days.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Chlele Gummer: Treading the Boards