How Does an Old Writer Write About Being Old?
Or should she ever?
I wrote this piece in early 2018; my official ‘coming out’ announcement to my readers, most of whom had no idea I was so old I could have been their mother, or their grandmother, or their great-grandmother.
It was published in a couple of places and everyone who responded couldn’t have been kinder. I wondered, of course (because I’m not so old that I don’t remember what I thought about old people when I was young), how much of it was masked indulgence, hiding a kind of horror, along with the need to dismiss anything I might ever say again.
I know many old writers who still have plenty to say and do a damn good job of saying it. Age can’t stop good writing, any more than it can stop good breathing. As long as the brain cells cooperate, we’re fine. All we need is a seat at the desk. We’re not running marathons. (In my case, I never did run marathons. And I didn’t have to transition to the desk. I’ve always been here. I like it that way.)
I have new readers now (Hi, new readers!) and I don’t know why I still think I should let them know where I am on the age scale, but I do. So here it is. Here I am. Or here I was a few years ago. And I’m thrilled to still be here!
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I’ve been eighty for five months now. In some quarters that’s ancient. I’m fine with it.
When I turned eighty, back in September, I thought I should be sad, or horrified, or at least exhausted, but it came just days after I finished 30 hits of radiation to keep the dread cancer away. Turning eighty seemed like a victory to me.
I’ve found since then that there’s something about turning eighty that begs the inevitable navel-gazing among octogenarian writers. (See below) I felt the urge myself on that auspicious day but thought better of it. What could I say that didn’t sound like bragging? Not dying beforehand is really my only contribution.
The big deal about turning an advanced-age milestone is not just the need to explore the life we’ve lived to look for something worthwhile; sometimes it’s a reminder to use the limited time left to Do Those Big Things. To this I plead guilty. I might say it’s a bad thing but I’m convinced it’s what keeps me hanging around. I have to believe I’m not done yet.
The writer Ursula LeGuin died last week. She was 88 years old. A brilliant writer who, in her later years, still had plenty to say. She wrote often about aging, no doubt because it was something she woke up to every day. (I know the feeling.)
Here she is, at 81, after answering a Harvard alumni questionnaire. One of the questions was, “What do you do in your spare time?”: (Lifted from Maria Popova’s wonderful “Brain Pickings“.)
The opposite of spare time is, I guess, occupied time. In my case I still don’t know what spare time is because all my time is occupied. It always has been and it is now. It’s occupied by living.
An increasing part of living, at my age, is mere bodily maintenance, which is tiresome. But I cannot find anywhere in my life a time, or a kind of time, that is unoccupied. I am free, but my time is not. My time is fully and vitally occupied with sleep, with daydreaming, with doing business and writing friends and family on email, with reading, with writing poetry, with writing prose, with thinking, with forgetting, with embroidering, with cooking and eating a meal and cleaning up the kitchen, with construing Virgil, with meeting friends, with talking with my husband, with going out to shop for groceries, with walking if I can walk and traveling if we are traveling, with sitting Vipassana sometimes, with watching a movie sometimes, with doing the Eight Precious Chinese exercises when I can, with lying down for an afternoon rest with a volume of Krazy Kat to read and my own slightly crazy cat occupying the region between my upper thighs and mid-calves, where he arranges himself and goes instantly and deeply to sleep. None of this is spare time. I can’t spare it. What is Harvard thinking of? I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.
In that same Brain Pickings article, Maria Popova asked: “What is it about eighty being such a catalyst for existential reflection? Henry Miller modeled it, Donald Hall followed, and Oliver Sacks set the gold standard.” What, indeed. I’m finding this stuff all over the place now. If I thought I was unique, forget about it. It’s been done.
When I was around 50 I read May Sarton’s “At Seventy, A Journal”. I remember thinking how brave she was to still be pondering and writing and worrying about her future. At seventy! I imagined, I guess, that at seventy I would be sitting in my rocking chair, wrapped in a shawl, just….sitting.
That was thirty years ago. How young and foolish that girl was!
Age, of course, means nothing. Living does. At eighty my time is probably more limited than yours, but none of us survives this world. I could waste a lot of time planning for at least another 10 years, only to throw the whole thing out of whack by being tossed out of a rollercoaster.
Today I’ll no doubt do my usual things. The time is not so precious, now that I’m eighty, that I’ll work to make every moment meaningful. That would be silly. But always in the back of my mind there’s a count-down calendar somewhere with my name on it.
This is new for me. Two things–having cancer and turning eighty–woke me up to the realities of unexpected happenstance. Fourteen months ago I was feeling pretty smug about my health; about how strong and alert I was for my age. Then came the biopsy and the diagnosis, the surgery, the chemo, the radiation. Add to that Donald Trump’s insane and unpredictable rise to power, and I should be cooked by now. Steamed to mush. Fried to a crisp.
But the truth is, I feel good. I’m not in my rocking chair wrapped in a shawl, just sitting. I’m out there fighting the good fight politically, determined to get my writing skills back to where they were pre-chemo brain. (Which could be pure delusion, but still…)
I’m traveling, I’m cooking, I’m cleaning, I’m walking the terrain. I’m writing. I’m loving the love I’m feeling from family and friends and sending it back a thousandfold.
Am I old? I can’t tell. Some days I feel pretty damned feisty. I love what Madeleine L’Engle (who also lived to be 88) said about age: “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”
Or, as George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
So I guess what I’m trying to say is, can you come play with me? It’s not dark yet. Plenty of daylight left.
More on my obsession with my age: