In 1985, the American poet Stanley Kunitz said he had found
"...more rewards and compensations in my mid-eighties than I ever expected.
“Just to be rid of the hang-ups and anxieties of your youth – that in itself is a lightening of the load. And then, there's an assurance that comes out of having learned so much about yourself, why you are here, what you have done, how much is left for your to do.
“There is a – I wouldn't call it serenity – but a feeling of relief that you haven't completely wasted your life. Maybe you can take a lttle pride in having triumphed over many difficulties and disasters that beset you...
“There's a kind of exaltation in waking up each day not out of an emptiness of accomplishment or of fulfullment, but out of a sense of having used your resources. Not as well as I might have hoped, but maybe well enough to feel that there is time still to justify the life.
“The persons I've know who have aged badly are the ones who don't feel justified. They can't forgive themselves for having abused or squandered their talent.”
I quote that at some length because it's hard to find that much good thinking about what it's like to grow old.
There are more than 100,000 books about ageing listed at Amazon. Based on my 20 years of reading widely on the subject, I have no doubt that 90 percent are a waste of paper and pixels.
Kunitz's thoughts, however, are from a marvelous new book that sits firmly in the other ten percent: Writers and Age: Essays on and Interviews with Five Authors.
The author, Esther Harriott, a former managing editor at The New York Public Library and a contributing book reviewer at Newsday, gives us a book rich in the thoughts and ideas of ageing from some of the 20th century's most important thinkers, along with their personal reports from the country of old age.
In addition to Kunitz, these five include V.S. Pritchett, Doris Lessing, Mavis Gallant and Russell Baker. Ms. Harriott's knowledge and understanding of their work is admirably extensive and each writer's chapter is divided into two parts: a review of their body of work as it relates to ageing and Ms. Harriott's in-person interview with each.
As I wrote to her following my first reading, “God knows I've tried many times, but Lessing has always bored me and I'm not sure I've ever finished anything of hers I've started. At least I know something more about her now but I doubt I'll go back to her works.
“Nevertheless, as with the other four, there is plenty in her section to learn about age or to nod in agreement with. In her case, especially the discussion of time and energy in old age and other little things few people think important enough to mention, but are.”
Lessing was 73 when she spoke with Harriott, one year younger than I am now and regarding energy, I agree with her (as, generally, do the other included writers):
”...I have much less energy – much, much less energy...So you don't rashly undertake things you might have rashly understaken ten years ago. You have to husband your resources a bit...
“It takes me longer to do things. Not physical things...but where it shows is the energy for writing...not ideas. I've always got too many ideas. It's the organizing of the ideas and getting down to it that takes longer. And also, energy runs out more quickly than it used to.”
Lessing also made an important point when Harriott suggested that perhaps people not engaged in creative work suffer more in old age from lacking relevant work.
”How do we judge who is irrelevant and useless?” asked Lessing. “By what criterion? That they're sitting in an office from nine to five, and doing some job that is pretty irrelevant anyway, or what? We don't know what's useful and what isn't. Who judges this?
Harriott quotes British writer and critic, V.S. Pritchett from his essay, Midnight Oil, on the death of friends as the “great distress of old age”:
”If we are not struck by mortal disease many of us in our seventies nowadays feel little different from what we were at fifty...except that we now know time is shorter. If by luck of vocation or temperament we are incurably active we have little time to think of our decline.
“But our sense of the mysteriousness of life becomes sharper and we are jarred by the more piercing grief, for the dead have taken away a part of ourselves. Indeed, it might be said that what the old learn at last is how to grieve.”
Pritchett was 90 when Harriot interviewed him in 1990, and asked about the pleasures of age.
”The way the affections increase. When you're younger, your feelings are very strong, very excited. They are constantly spending themselves. You haven't so many feelings to spend when you're older, so you think more of them. They are more lasting.
“Another pleasure is walking. I like to walk across Regent's Park and look at the trees and the changes in the sky. If I see people I might watch them or I might think, well, they're not very interesting, let's see if there's a more interesting lot somewhere else.
“I can't say I've ever had 'a great thought' or whatever they call it, walking across Regent's Park. But sometimes I've noticed things which have stuck in my mind. I think noticing is a great thing. The tendency in old age is not to notice, but to accept.”
New York Times readers of this blog might recall the many decades Russell Baker's Op-Ed column both entertained and enlightened us. Often, particularly on the topic of aging in America, he seemed prophetic back then. Harriott obviously has made a close study of Baker's evolution. Listen as she explains about his last years at the paper before he retired:
”There were occasional outbursts of moral indignation, as in his otherwise funny 'Saps of Today and Yesterday,' in which Baker wrote, 'Today's boomers now confront a world of their own making which cannot much comfort their spirits. What do they see? A society ruled by greed and moral license. A nation whose governing political theory is devil take the hindmost.'
“Then, as though to apologize for losing his temper, he immediately offered a self-deprecatory explanation. 'All of the above, I hasten to say, is the kind of highly doubtful speculation we fall into when generalizing about decades, generational antipathies and the flow of history. I hope no one will swallow it whole.'”
But of course, he expected us to do so and we did.
In one of his memoirs, Growing Up, Baker had written that there is a dividing line beteen people born before and those born after World War II. When Harriot asked him to elaborate, he jumped ahead a few decades to compare then and now and arrived at a sense that has recently been growing within me:
”I feel that now. Another generation has taken over. You're not of their world anymore. The experience of growing up in the Depression and pre-war America make you a very alien character. You have a sense of being displaced by time.”
Esther Harriot, who is in her ninth decade, is a wise woman who has written a wise book. She chose the writer and physician, Lewis Thomas, (a personal favorite of mine) for the epigraph: “To get a glimpse of what it means to be old you have to leave science behind for awhile and consult literature.”
In doing so, Harriott has produced a singularly rich, intelligent and learned book about “what it's really like to get old” written, as she explains in her introduction, not by younger people imagining old age but by people who are old.
Writers and Age is available at a variety of outlets around the internet.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Trudi Kappel: What's in a Name?