I’m contemplating my birthday this coming year (January), not because I want to, rather because I’m being reminded: You’ll be sixty this year, right? Wow, how does it feel?
I’m being forced into simple mathematics: How much longer do you think you want to keep working? I’ve been asked this past year. Economic outlooks suggest that I better stay healthy because I’m going to have to work for a very long time.
How much longer do you want to stay in your house? someone asked just the other day. What’s that suppose to mean? How much longer? That my house is somehow too much for me? How am I suppose to take this?
My father died when he was 82, almost 83, but he had polio and diabetes, though he lived an extremely disciplined life – much more then mine. My mother, a very independent woman, is 86 and going strong, driving around in her convertible VW, exercising, living right. You come from good stock, said my doctor recently. Now we’re down to stock – supply on hand, outstanding capital, a quantity of something (health?) accumulated for future use. But my stock has been chipped at by different stresses, more powerful forces, those that dictate our methods of negotiating with each other in this common era we like to call the age of knowledge – though I’d call it, in keeping with stresses, an age of transition, an age where we’re learning to understand that change is the most powerful constant and that what we, as humans, have done is accelerate it, though we work very hard — and get more stressed — at denying this.
Just how much of a future do I have – does anyone have? And does knowing matter?
What I have noticed are the people – some my age, some younger – that drop off. James Gandolfini was but 51. Dennis Farina was 69, a recent blood clot in his lungs, says his publicist. Notice these are men. A friend, a bit older, has but a few months to live; another, even closer to my age, Alzheimer’s and soon heading for special care. It’s hard to walk around these realities, especially since the suffering is close, so close that an entire community picks up on it. We want to ask the age old existential questions – why? what for? when? who? and so on – but we don’t dare because they seem so utterly ridiculous. We just go on. People drop off, become relegated to memory, and we move on. As W.B. Yeats says, “A terrible beauty is born.”
I find some solace in Woody Allen, 77, because he is still going strong, his latest release, Blue Jasmine, (July 26, 2013). I go back, over and over, to Henry James’s biography and re-read the chapters about his death and how, at the very last moments of his life, he was still writing, still dictating his next story to his faithful secretary. My mother says we have to die healthy. I think that’s key.
I found The Joy of Old Age, by Oliver Sachs, uplifting and hopeful. He’s still practicing at 80. “Eighty!” exclaims Sachs. “I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.” This is exactly the problem – or perhaps the quandary of aging, if done well, I think: when you do the math – what, maybe I have 25 or so years left, on good terms – I can’t believe that it’s coming eerily close to an end, fin, basta.
Psychologically, more often then not, my wife will say, You’re such a child. Will you ever grow up? To which I answer, I hope not. When I look into that damn thing we call a mirror, it’s telling the truth – white hair, almost gone; weird hair growing from the ears and too long out of the nose; shoulders and arms not as defined; paunch. And then there’s the lack of desire to exercise, though I do it, but not with gusto. Younger, sports are the exercise; the team mediates the anguish of hard, physical work. Older, you’re all alone to do this. Younger, the school bell marked the beginning of the afternoon and athletics; now you have to set your own schedule, force it upon yourself.
I’m not a joiner. I don’t like teams, clubs, groups that join up to run, bike and hike and swim. Besides, I can’t understand that strange desire to dress up like you’re in the Tour d’ France, belly over thighs, riding around with a bunch of guys, chatting it up. Just the notion of sliding into those tight, overly colorful – let’s say loud – outfits, is enough to send me running for the hills. I’m not a marathoner. I’m not a triathlete. I prefer to work alone – and I suppose that makes it even harder, to which you, fine reader, might say, Get over it. Join up. I can’t.
I’ve come to realize that part of this “stock” idea has to do with one’s very nature. By nature, I love to be alone. I love to be alone to read and to write. I love to work alone. The only great fun I have – and great interest – is to be among students and my sheep.
I live on a farm, which makes exercising easier. There’s nothing like a shovel, an axe, a mallet to build some strength; it’s natural too. There’s nothing like grabbing sheep, sitting them up, and trimming their hooves. No matter when it’s done, you’re drenched in sweat. Still, though, the question, How much longer do you want to stay in your house?, hangs over my head and sets me off wondering how much longer can I, indeed, do strenuous physical work?
I find myself studying local Vermont farmers, especially the older ones. I know a 78 year old sheep farmer with hypertension, though he’s never taken a drop of medicine. I know an 80 year old that raises Belgian horses – and if you’ve ever been close to one of these 2000 pound giants, you know you need strength and wit.
I see old farmers chopping wood; I see them on tractors, milking cows, gardening commercially. They may be a bit hunched, with gnarled hands, but they have a particular strength in their core. I take it to be a strength that comes from their commitment to stay connected to the earth, to the work of the hands, the challenges of climate change. It’s a kind of life guided by dead reckoning, I think. It’s a frontier spirit: what’s yet left to be discovered in something deep and abiding that remains ever so secret but that, nevertheless, beckons from within.
Oliver Sachs says, “I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means.” I feel the same. I feel I have yet to complete my life, whatever completion means. This is why I teach, and why in my teaching I try to be fresh year in and year out, day in and day out. Working with 18 – 22 year olds is refreshing – it can also be frustrating; in it lies a sense of life never ending though, that there’s a spiritual connection between them, my students, and me and that somehow, mystically, they’ll carry me, that they may carry me onward even after I extinguish.
While maybe forced into arithmetic calculations about duration, my hands wrapped around a shovel, digging away, and my mind and soul actively engaged in the creation of identities – not least of which is my own – enables me to keep searching for the ineffable.