Sunday, October 16, 2016

enough life

If I were going to sell my soul, I think I'd nurture it carefully for a few years, so that it would fetch a good price.

-- Garrison Keillor*

When I was one-and-twenty
       I heard a wise man say,
“Give crowns and pounds and guineas
       But not your heart away ..."

-- A. E. Housman

I am not one-and-twenty. It's time I should give my heart away.

   My aunt, my deceased father's older sister, died in Oregon this summer. On the day before her ninety-seventh birthday, Carol and I talked to her. She was glad to hear from us; she asked how old I was becoming, and when I told her she paused and said, "That's incredible." Clear in her head, and able to laugh, she decided she had had enough of life, and declined nourishment. You can do that in Oregon.

Photo by Baldassarre Farnaccio
Why does one say, I've had enough? What is the reason of it? One can say the words bitterly, as if to say Enough! No more pain and suffering! Stop it now! We have techniques these days to relieve gross pain, but perhaps it's the trade-off between medications and side-effects, clouding of the mind or the emotions: Enough! This isn't life, I've already lost myself. Perhaps it is not gross pain but a piling on of little humiliations by the aging body, sapping the strength and souring  the joy, forbidding ordinary pleasures by which life knew itself. Enough! I've had better, why live with an inferior copy? I think my aunt said the word enough in a positive sense; she had experienced enough of the good to justify her time on the earth: decades of marriage to a kind and loving man, children and grandchildren, and ninety-seven Christmases -- perhaps it could not be improved: why stay on a ride that can only go down hill?

But the last reason of Enough! is the one I fear. I've heard it said about many old people, that "everyone she knew and loved is gone." If I felt like that, I'd want to go.

So now the time is coming when, to stay alive, I must distribute myself. You, my friends of long standing; you, the wise and witty partner of my life; you, my children; you, my siblings and their children; this is time for me to give you the attention you deserve. But there is another network of attachment that forms and reforms without stopping. There is no safety on an island of the old. It's an inverse proportion: as you get older, more of your new friends will be, must be younger than you. Old friends have a past that you can share; young ones have a future you can look forward into. A contemporary of mine said that one should have a friend for every decade, which at my age means that, if I take her advice literally, this boomer must have millennial friends -- which is to say, people some of whom could by arithmetic be my grandchildren.

That idea seems a bit comical. Old fools are generally more ridiculous than young ones. But the time is past for cultivation and protection. The heart must be broken up and pieces given away, in faith that the feeling organ still has capacity to restore itself, and there is a special intoxication in passing those pieces across the gap of age, much risk of misunderstanding and much reward. The younger may describe the reward as wisdom and mentorship; the older as renewal of life and confirmation that one is not a total fool, that one's struggle has some meaning for those who have not shared it. It's not a simple matter: as the poets have told us, when you give pieces of your heart away they can be broken, no less for the old than for the young. Old age, they say, ain't for sissies.

They call this generativity, and it's a way of staying alive until you die. In my day the gym teacher used to say no pain no gain, but not all pain is gainful, and not all gain is painful. It's more like this: no chance of pain, no chance of life.

*My paraphrase of a passage from a GK monologue

I encourage readers to leave comments, by clicking on the word "comment/s" below.

No comments: