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.

 

Un-Tethered: Freedom in Aging

When we are young, we generally seek independence.  We want the freedom to form our own relationships, to discover and to articulate our own thoughts—to find our own way.  When we are old, freedom comes almost unbidden and the ties that bind us to activities, relationships, and communities often take flight.

As we move through our sixties and into our seventies, and as we near or enter retirement, we grow increasingly disengaged from family and work.  Our children have flown the coop, often settling in other states and regions.  We see them as often as possible—as often as they permit, we say—but they no longer fill our daily and weekly lives.  Nor does the contact define us as much as it once did.  For many of us, this includes grandchildren.  We adore them but they are elsewhere.  Even when we see them weekly, they are not the center of our lives as our children had been.

In addition to the loving contact and the intensity of relationships within families, there is an everydayness to the lives they required that gave shape to our days, weeks, and months.  The teacher conferences and the vacations, the bedtime stories and the meals to prepare—they determined the rhythm and texture of our lives.  It was easy to imagine that this, the quotidian, would be the hardest to relinquish.

The empty nest at home is joined by a comparable experience at work.  Like family, work is more than a series of activities.  It’s a community of sorts, a web of relationships.  Many of us may have spent more time within that web than with family and friends.  Who we are within that context seems to be who we are.  Our identities have been partly forged by our projects, our roles, our ambitions—or lack of ambitions—and by the relationships we cultivated.

Some of us, freed from what seemed like limiting marriages or intractable conflict, were at our best at work.  When we have been nurtured by work, it can be particularly hard to separate from it.  At the extreme, there were those among us who virtually lived at work and became virtual strangers at home.  As strangers, we lost our standing in the family, where the primary relationships were between the children and their mothers—or, in rare cases, with their father.  In such cases, leaving work meant leaving our true homes.

Broadly speaking, our sense of responsibility to people and institutions grows thinner with age.  And this isn’t just a numbers game.  It speaks to the way that the ties have held us. When we know what’s expected of us, when we know the rules by which we succeed and fail—and what will happen in both instances—when even the mostly implicit rules are known, there is a comfort in the clarity.  Paradoxically, the very clarity of the constraints and expectations make us free.

There’s another paradox here: even though you choose your work freely, day by day, you don’t choose.  You are just there, at work, within the work community, the web that holds you.  And, though deeply immersed in these webs, you are free to leave.  When you leave, the feeling of freedom and loss mingle in confusing ways.

For most of us, the power of family and work comes in good part from the sense of belonging, the virtually unsought and implicit sense of connection.  We don’t have to seek it.  We don’t have to risk rejection or embarrassment.  We are just a member.  And there is a quality of membership, hard to define, that feels larger than ourselves, larger than any group of individuals.

Unlike a contract, which is based on a quid pro quo—you do this and I’ll do that—family and work are based on a covenant or sorts.  A covenant is not a two but a three legged stool: you, me, and something larger.  It could be shared beliefs, shared goals, an almost religious sense of the ties that bind us together.  When this covenant is threatened, we are threatened.  We are un-tethered, potentially alone in a vast and uncomprehending world.

That is why you would think that old age and retirement would shake most of us to our core.  The prospect of facing ourselves without these twin holding relationships seems daunting.  Who are we in the midst of this new and puzzling freedom.  How do we nurture ourselves? Do we have only ourselves to answer to and to please?  At first—and at second—glance, that seems a flimsy basis for living.

And yet, and yet, this seems like a very good time of life, less needy and more easily filled than imagined.  I have been watching my friends bask in the freedom, which most of the time does not seem puzzling at all.  In fact, I’d say that they celebrate the freedom: freedom from pressure on the job; freedom from the fear of failure which is always present when you put yourself on the line; freedom, for the most part, from having to please other people; and freedom from having to try to control others.  What an unbelievable relief to be responsible only to ourselves and a to few others.  And for those of us who have been fortunate enough to retire with enough money to live comfortably, the time for anxious saving is done.

The empty nests mean that we have completed or mostly completed the work of parenting and the long labor to earn a living and a reputation.  We have probably taken time to assess our lives, acknowledged our limitations and found gratitude for successes.  What’s done is done and it is mostly in the past.

My friends celebrate time to read what they hadn’t had time to read, to take up photography, art, music.  To learn.  For years, it seemed like we had stopped learning.  There was too much to do.  And when we did learn, it was begrudging.  There was the need to keep up professionally, to make sure advisors weren’t taking advantage of our tax and financial positions.  These felt like chores not openings to new worlds.  Now Learning in old age becomes a source of delight and deep satisfaction.

 

My friends celebrate spontaneity.  We don’t have to run from task to task. We need sprint right home from work to make sure the kids have dinner or rides.  If we want to have dinner or drinks with a friend, we do.  Friends become more central to life than they had been since childhood.  If and when we want to take a walk, we do.  Read a book, go to a movie, take a nap—any time of day, any day of the week.  What a privilege this seems.  Sometimes it feels illicit but that hardly dims the pleasure.

Maybe the greatest and unexpected pleasure brought on by the combination of empty nests is a sense of detachment.  This is a subject that the great psychologist, Erik Erikson, talked about so eloquently.  He described our lives as passing through a number of stages, each with its own great challenge.  The challenge for the last stage (sixty-five and beyond) is to cultivate “ego integrity” over “despair.  Despair represents the fear that our lives haven’t gone the way we wished and there isn’t enough time to begin anew.

Ego integrity means embracing our sense of wholeness, a belief that life as it is, is enough.  To achieve that wholeness, people have accepted setbacks and disappointments, celebrated successes, and found meaning in both.  Those who find such meaning arrive at a sense of well being, a peaceful contemplation of their own mortality.  This, if anything, is wisdom.

Singing the Blues

The other day, my daughter, Jessica, wrote me a lovely note about my essay on very old age.  She thought it was well done but wished that I was not so preoccupied with death.  It’s easy to understand her concern.  I’m glad to know that she doesn’t want me to leave this world just yet.  But hers is not the only voice of concern.  Numbers of friends have also worried.   They take my interest in “dark” subjects to be a sign of depression or resignation.  I am a little chagrined at their angst.  I’m feeling good these days.  All this attention to illness, death, and dying  actually lifts my spirit.

I do understand the value of staying on the sunny side of the street—and I am often transported by upbeat music.  I get it that my father-in-law, Albert, when invited to watch upsetting movies, would always say “No thanks.  I get enough of that in life.  Give me a good, happy show tune and I’m a happy man.”  I love happy endings, too.  I enjoy the feel of optimism and sunshine.

But I also love the blues.  I love it straight when Billy Holiday sings Stormy Weather, and I love the way Count Basie transmutes that down and out feeling into a sense of well being.  Jazz has always been my favorite music.  Like my interest in difficult subjects, the blues has a way of “saying of things that are very painful, deep and poignant, with a feeling of ease. In the very best blues the pain changes, because of the music, into something light.”  That’s how I feel when I’m engrossed in a problem and when I’ve worked it through.  That’s how I feel with almost every essay I write for my blog.

Some of my pleasure comes from the act of making something artful out of darkness—or simply the pleasure in making something.  I have always loved making things—houses and kitchens and organizations.  The act of turning nothing into something, disorder into order, has an intrinsic delight for me.  As the critic, Alan Shapiro, says of jazz,That lightness and ease come to be because the musical form given to those feelings—in both the organization of the words and the notes—shows the world has a structure that is logical and sensible, and makes for a good time!” The pleasure of transforming sadness or fear into calm or joy ups the ante powerfully.

The very same essay that worried Jessica, brought comfort and shared relief to a number of people.  Numbers of friends of mine shared it with friends of theirs.  The shared story seems to make them feel closer.

Giving order and meaning to pain transforms it.  Here is how Alan Shapiro describes Bessie Smith singing Thinking Blues:

“… there is a wail in her voice, but there is also triumph and joy. For instance, as she sings the words “ever” and “thousand,” there is agony in her sliding blue notes, yet there is lightness, too; her voice rises on those words, giving them a lift. And as she sustains the word “old” at the start of the second verse, she sounds strong, assertive, but there is a beautiful trembling in her vibrato. Throughout, Bessie Smith’s voice is deep and bright, rich and piercing. As she sings, we feel the painful and the pleasing don’t have to fight; they can go together beautifully.”

During the years when I was most determined to understand myself,  the years I was learning to be a psychotherapist, people were talking about hallucinogenic drugs and the way they made deep explorations possible.  I avoided them, afraid that I might not be able to manage the demons within me.  A few years earlier, I had learned that a young man, who I had taken care of as a child, had blown his mind on an acid trip and had to be institutionalized.  That was not for me.  But the more familiar I grew with my demons, the less fearful I was.  Eventually, I embarked on my first journey into my darkest places in order to learn what was there.

Instead of hiding from my fears, I sought them out.  When you are tripping, fear first emerges as an atmosphere, like a dark cloudy day.  Instead of holding off  the clouds, I welcomed them.  Seeking insight, I beckoned the demons to come closer, hoping that they would stay around long enough for me to see them clearly.  I hoped that the insights gained would later help me resolve some of my fears.  But the demons just flowed by.  When you try to hold fear off, it becomes like the Tar Baby, sticking more and more.  I kept beckoning and looking and they kept flowing, which, for reasons I didn’t fully understand at the time, put me in a very light and lovely mood.  And that’s how I emerged from my hallucinatory journey.  Ever since then, I have looked upon fears in a paradoxical way: by welcoming them, learning from them,  they flow by, leaving a feeling of peace in their wake.

Some of this transformation of mood can be explained physiologically, something like the emergence of the high or the calm following hard exercise.  Let me return to music in order to explain, this time through the eyes of science.  The appeal of sad music spans historical periods and cultures.  It evokes emotions such as bliss and awe—and  sadness.  What’s more, sad and mournful music is more likely than happy music to arouse the intensely pleasurable responses referred to as chills. This response, says Kristine Batcho, is partly attributable to the release of hormones like oxytocin and prolactin, which are associated with social bonding, nurturance, and a sense of well being.

I like that the research brings together civilization’s long history of pairing pain and pleasure.  As an old rock n roller, Theresa Brewer, once sang, “you can’t have one without the other.”  It is generally pain and fear that open the heart to the richness within.  We see what we have avoided and learn that it is bearable.  This single insight—that we can bear to see almost any feeling, thought, or fantasy, that we can know ourselves without revulsion—gives us the courage to live less fearfully and more fully.

Facing our demons leads to what might be called an authentic encounter with ourselves, which then emboldens us to live more compassionately with others.  When listening raptly and entering into the lyrics of sad songs, listeners know that others have shared sorrow.  We all know about lovers who have left, parents and grandparents who have died, friends who have found other friends.  For the time that the music is playing, each of us becomes part of a of a compassionate community of listeners.  For that moment, we feel close to others and at greater ease with ourselves.

So my dear daughter, fear not.  I dwell in these dark places because they lighten my life.  Like Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in Key Largo, I am always in search of sunshine breaking through after a storm that only seems too great to survive.