A Usable Past

As in many families, mine fought to determine the lineage of each of its three children.  It was decided that I was my father’s child.  I was said to look and act like him and to have cornered a large share of his genes.  My brother was my mother’s child and my sister was a shared treasure.  My parents may have initiated the selection process but, almost from the start, others joined in—aunts and uncles, friends and business associates.  Everyone had an opinion.  “No doubt,” they said, “Barry is just like his father.”

My place on the paternal side of the ledger was established early, often, and powerfully.  If I or anyone objected to the genetic coding, for instance, we were scolded and told to get in line: “You’re blind,” they intoned.  So it was with my siblings, even though it was clear that we all shared characteristics and influences from both parents and their extended families.

I may have been fifty years old when I looked in the mirror and decided that I didn’t look anything like my father.  I didn’t act that much like him, either.  In fact, my mother seemed more familiar to me, but my brother wasn’t ready to concede his place, even though he had inherited many of my father’s traits and would have loved to claim some of the currency of being the first son.

Researchers tell us that we have amnesia for life before the age of three and a half and that the memories we have from that time on are clearer and stronger when our parents help us to organize them.  They take the fragments of our own memories and weave them into a coherent story—like the story of how I would carry on my father’s intellectual aspirations.  Even what we experience as our private memories are really collective creations.

The stories we create are not random but purposeful, and in this sense, and odd as it may sound, remembering is also purposeful.  That purpose varies from time to time and, of course, person to person.  But each person and each time includes purpose.  Some people paint sentimental pictures to comfort themselves in the present.  My father and his sister, for example, were abandoned in early childhood by their tuberculosis-plagued mother, and painted a highly romanticized portrait of her almost saintly kindness and generosity.  By painting her that way they virtually created the mother they needed when they were alone and lonely—and in addition, painted a less shameful picture to the world.

Others tell stories of harsh and painful childhoods to illustrate the difficulties they have had to overcome—or to justify the limitations they feel in the present.  By inheriting my father’s mantle, I could virtually own for myself the horror of his upbringing, and this story supported me as I struggled, feeling like a poor boy from a poor school during my first years at Harvard.

It’s not that we are inventing these stories out of whole cloth, and it’s not like we are trying to deceive anyone.  We believe the stories we tell in creating what Van Wyck Brooks once called “a usable past.”  And we learn to overlook where the stories diverge a little from memory or credibility and to weave the discrepancies back into the story.  For instance, I never thought that my childhood difficulties rivaled those of my father but I did come to believe that his problems showed up in his parenting, which in turn means that, in some way, I shared his childhood.

Even though we feel the stories we tell about ourselves are highly personal, even individual, other people’s stories are woven into them.  And large cultural themes make their way in, as well.  There is hardly an American, for instance, who has not been influenced positively or negatively by the Horatio Alger narrative about going from “rags to riches.”  We all judge ourselves according to this tale, even if we have just stayed in place.  Hence the pleasure we take in telling the story about rich people: They are born on third base and think they’ve hit a triple.  We, on the other hand, have had to earn our keep.

In traditional societies, there are ritualized ways of telling our family histories in order to create a sense of continuity and connection.  You see that in the Bible, where Adam begat Seth and so on down the line.  And there are often specific individuals in each community assigned to do so.  In modern society, we have neither the rituals nor the designated story tellers and must do so ourselves.

In fact, it’s possible that our lack of a clear path backwards as a way to explain the present, combined with a vague and general sense of social isolation, are the reason for the current mania over genealogy. Websites like Ancestry.com and TV shows like Finding Our Roots have emerged to remedy the holes created by lost rituals.  According to an ABC News report, “genealogy is the second most popular hobby in the United States, after gardening.”  Ancestry.com, alone, has over two million users and recently sold for $1.6 billion.  It seems we are all in search of a past to enhance our lives.

We may be looking backwards so much because we, as individuals and as a society as a whole, have lost faith in the future.  I don’t think that ours is a forward-looking culture.   Better to find a sentimental or proud connection to the past.  The search for our roots can build pride and confidence, but I don’t think that people are taking the next step: truly translating their heritage into a usable past, one that points energetically and optimistically in the direction they need to go.

As for myself, I believe that distance and old age have finally freed me from my family competition.  I can put aside that story about who I am and where I come from.  I don’t experience the “forces” of history, familial and societal, as strongly as I once did.  I am a person with many influences, yet distinct in myself.  Sometimes, standing alone feels less sturdy but it also feels more free.

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New wine in new bottles: the freshness of old age

The biggest surprise of old age is how new, how fresh, things feel.  Far from the prescribed cultural narrative—continual, inevitable decline or frantic efforts to reverse the decline and the fall from youthful grace—my experience is better characterized by discovery, uncertainty, ambiguity, and mystery.   As Philip Roth said, when asked about his unexpected retirement, he asserted, without resignation or sadness, “I’m in a different stage of life.”

It is a difference that makes a difference.  Simone de Beauvoir once wrote that “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.”  I take that idea literally.  In old age, we are in unexplored territory.  Being an explorer in that territory is a privilege I never expected to have.

In a previous essay, I wrote young people seek independence.  For older people, freedom comes almost unbidden when the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities take flight  Let me begin by counting some of the ways, small and large, that that freedom comes to our doorsteps.  There is the freshness of each, unscheduled day.  I can ask: What shall I do?  What do I want to do?  At last, the weather plays a role as it hasn’t since childhood.  If it’s sunny, I’ll take that walk.  If rainy, I may read more, or call a friend.  Or a friend might call me, and I can usually respond positively.  Spontaneity is my friend again.

There is the greater stillness in my body, so that I take more notice of the lilacs in bloom and the pine-scented paths on my walks, sights and smells that I had barely glanced in the rush of adult life.  The natural world is more alive to me at this stage of life.

There seems to be more uncertainty in old age.  It’s not just your schedule that’s flexible.  You can’t count on your health as much.  Friends, too.  They get ill, become infirmed, die, move away.  I mean this not so much in a sad or depressing way but as a fact of life, one that changes almost as much and as rapidly as during any time since early childhood.  It can make you anxious and unsure of yourself.  There’s a temptation to draw inward and to limit yourself in an effort to ward off bad things.  But, in the purest sense, there is change to challenge your adaptability and this can awaken you to a life painted in brighter colors.

I am surprised to be alive.  My father died at fifty and I was long filled with the kind of magical thinking common to children.  If you think a plane will crash, then it will.  I imagined that my genetic heritage would bring me down at 50.  It didn’t, and I’ve had all these extra years, years that I didn’t expect, no less deserve—years that seem a heavenly gift.  I don’t appreciate that gift each day, though I wish I would, but I do so often enough to feel the last 24 years as a bonus.

I had imagined that old age meant playing out a relatively prescribed script.  The sad part of the script—of course not the whole of it—included physical decline, nostalgia for my lost youth and vitality, and a narrowing of my social circle.  Now that I’m almost 75 see that I was wrong in so many ways.  Like others, for instance, my ideas and images about old age have continued to shift.  As a young man, 60 seemed old.  By the time I was 45, it was 70.  At 60, it was 75.  Now, at 75, I feel so much more alive than I imagined I would. The ground of expectations keeps shifting and the shifting keeps me on my toes.

Of all the things that change in old age, history seems the most unlikely.  I mean your personal history, your life story, which by this point is extraordinarily well-rehearsed, as you have told it to others and mused about it inwardly for decades.  Instead, my narrative keeps changing.  My father, who felt like such a rock, now seems such a troubled man.  My mother, who felt more like a peer, a friend, now seems like an inspiration.  I’d like to tell you that, with the perspective of years, I see them more clearly ,but it may be truer to say I see them differently.  I see them now in light of my current life.  I see them now as younger people.  I see their lives more in terms of the choices and drives and changes they faced, and less in relation to me, their child.  In ways, that makes for a more interesting story.

As my image of them changes, so does my self-imagery.  For example, I was said to be my father’s child.  Supposedly, I looked and acted like him.  I was his heir, meant to carry on his dreams.  With each passing decade, though, I discover how much I have taken on my mother’s restless energy, her defiance, her wish to explore new territory.  One day last month, I looked into the mirror and saw, not a reflection of my aging father but a dead ringer of my mother and her side of the family.  I keep “discovering” things about my childhood, my family, my neighborhood—not because they have actually changed but because I keep seeing them anew.

You can say that these aren’t such major discoveries, but they are because they shake up everything.  If I’m really more like my mother—or even equally like her—then that “realization” changes how I view the rest of my family.  It changes how I feel about gender, about my purpose in life, my destiny.  I put the word realization into quotes because I can’t be sure if my new insight is, strictly speaking, true, or if it’s just another view of the same phenomena.  But it feels new.  And when you jostle your sense of reality, it stimulates a scramble to reorganize everything.  That’s what has happened to me.  I am scrambling.

Historian that I am, I have begun to re-imagine the flow of events and relationships in my life.  Since I’m pretty comfortable with myself at this point, the project is more a source of fascination than anxiety.  I have begun to give up on the idea of a coherent narrative, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.  Like others, I have a great desire to pin down the definitive story of my life.  But there is nothing of the sort.  Rather, it is a story that has been invented and reinvented many times throughout my life.

There is freedom in this realization.  A long time ago, Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan taught me about this kind of freedom.  The more others think they know about your past, he said, the more they think they can predict your behavior in the present and future.  These predictions become expectations, and expectations limit possibilities.

When we slip off the straight jacket of cultural narratives and family expectations, of social prescriptions and proscriptions, even for a while, we enter a world of radical possibilities.  In that world, we can experience the sunshine on our faces and the scent of the forest, the smiles of friendship and the embrace of lovers as if for the first time.  That is the possibility of freedom in old age.