On Aging

Sometimes you find yourself in what seems strange territory. One thought bleeds into another and suddenly you feel far afield, lost except that these are your thoughts, you finally and comfortably. A moment arrives when you discover you’ve been here before.

Recently I found a list of resolutions I wrote when I was 24, still burned into computer memory. In this list I promised to challenge myself, to prod myself into fresh territory, to discover all my unrealized potential. Those resolutions sing with charming naiveté.

Time presents limits. I try to find something new, and instead the familiar resurfaces, stains that can’t be suppressed, wincing memories returning. I try to soar into the ethereal, yet often feel stuck as myself. I know I’m not really that old and yet wonder what’s left, what novelty to anticipate and what variation might slide into rapture.

I hate to think only reiteration remains—personal truth stated differently perhaps, but still, at heart, familiar.

Lately I’ve been digging into the soil of childhood, excavating as an anthropologist might for clues I might have missed. All those middens might still yield treasure if I sift painstakingly through it all… what remains of it anyway. You might understand. I always wonder what’s similar in our piles of trash, what every human being knows is common, not our greatest thoughts but the shared refuse of our species.

Unfortunately, it’s so much easier to repeat my own words. Once you’ve found the proper formulation to express your thinking exactly, why look again? I sometimes discover I’m telling the same well-rehearsed stories. Anecdotes calcify into the hard rock of history. And the variations only tailor the story to the situation.

One of my 24 year-old resolutions was to “Meet people who can support you and help you with your goals.” The goals have slipped away but the first part remains. Maybe that’s the consolation of getting older. I enjoy company so much more now, not to tell my own stories but to hear others’.  The best conversations don’t elicit stories at all but the honest give and take of how we feel today, what news we have, why the world is wrong or right, and whether presently our hopes fuel us or burden us. I don’t have so many friends, but I love them so much more now. Their thoughts are new and familiar, challenge and comfort combined, confirmation we’re human.

And, though most of the books I teach are familiar to me now, they’re friends too, revealing aspects hidden from me before. I wish I had more time to read fresh texts but enjoy every encounter that extends what I can understand. If the world isn’t new, at least it’s more varied, more subtle, more rich.  Perhaps aging is supposed to work that way—experience offers you keys to new doors, even if you’ve occupied the same house all along.

Near the end of The Tempest, when Prospero reunites and forgives the people whose actions exiled him, he invites them to spend one last night on his island home in his “poor cell”:

where you shall take your rest
For this one night; which, part of it, I’ll waste
With such discourse as, I not doubt, shall make it
Go quick away; the story of my life
And the particular accidents gone by
Since I came to this isle: and in the morn
I’ll bring you to your ship and so to Naples,
Where I have hope to see the nuptial
Of these our dear-beloved solemnized;
And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.

Maybe I’m just beginning to understand Prospero, the weariness that worries he will “waste” his guests’ time with “discourse,” the bravado in their doubtless interest in the story of his life, the resolution to see his ambition of seeing his daughter married completed, and the recognition that “every third thought shall be my grave.” Ultimately, he must return to Milan. He can’t live alone, and the magic he’s made only reaffirms how finite he is.

One could do worse than being Prospero. Though he’s passed that apex when he expected more and has more ahead than behind, he remembers a great deal too. At the end of The Tempest, Prospero gives his magic up by breaking his staff and drowning his book. In doing so, he becomes human, less special, more familiar, fully himself at last.

I’m not breaking any staffs or drowning any books yet, but if his example can help me face my limits, I’ll take it. If there’s less ahead of me, perhaps there’s also more inside me still.

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12 Comments

Filed under Aging, Ambition, Doubt, Essays, Identity, Laments, life, Memory, Resolutions, Thoughts, Worry

12 responses to “On Aging

  1. I turn to the power of books, especially fiction. Reading gives me the chance to discover other people’s experiences and imagination. And those things take me to places I would never have imagined. I wish you well on your search.

    • dmarshall58

      Embarrassingly, I posted a version of this piece before it was complete, and I’ve since revised and amended it to bring it closer to what I really feel. On the bright side, your comment inspired me to think much more about reading and aging, the examples it provides me. You’re absolutely right that discovering fictional others helps. Thanks for visiting, and I hope you’ll visit again. –D

      • You made me smile at saying my comment inspired thoughts on reading and aging. When I read as a teenager, I enjoyed the thrill of books, of Hemingway’s adventures and Stephen King’s scares. With age, I’ve appreciated the rich depth of other people’s stories and experiences. I very much like what you said about enjoying company much more. To me, it’s the quality of others that I appreciate, that rich depth that they have. You’ve written a thoughtful post about your feelings on these — a pleasure to read.

      • dmarshall58

        Thanks–thanks to everyone–for being so understanding about this mis-publication and correction. Though embarrassing, it was also a chance to revise my thinking with your help and expose a little of the writing process at the same time. That can’t be bad.

        One of the pleasures of blogging is meeting new people too. Of course, we don’t really meet, but I do enjoy hearing others thoughts the same way I would if we sat down to coffee together… or at least exchanged observations at the coffee maker. Thanks for visiting. –D

  2. hhstheater

    I had the strange experience of getting to the end of your essay and refreshing the page to find that, in an instant, it had transformed. For a few moments I had that strange and wonderful sense of disorientation that comes from confronting what is new, strange, and unfamiliar. Life and experience have predisposed me to see everything as provisional, “a momentary stay against confusion,” as Frost might say. It was such a surprise to see your writing grow and change before my eyes as though it were alive and not fixed on the page/screen. It makes me wonder now what it would be like to read a whole book or blog or something that was constantly changing and rearranging and growing even as you read it.

    • dmarshall58

      Once, during an exam, I sat behind one of my more talented students as he typed away at an essay. I watched him add and subtract, change and amend, hover over words, pick up and drop phrases, and generally cogitate visibly. I thought, “Wow, if I could get a film of my students’ pages and watch them composing, I might learn so much about their habits and skills and be so much more helpful.” Of course, I’d want to watch the condensed version of of those films, but I wonder if I might finally know their dilemmas and strengths as writers.

      I’ve never heard that Robert Frost quotation, and I thought I’d heard them all. If writing is a stay, he’s right it’s momentary. For me it holds confusion back provisionally. If you could watch a film of my page, you might discover an amateur dam-maker, working and looking for seepage simultaneously. My students always say they don’t know what they’re saying until they say it, and I imagine that’s a universal experience, but I run into the most trouble when I think I’ve arrived and haven’t. That’s really what happened here. I wrote the original last weekend in a funk, returned to it midweek after my homework and discovered how estranged I felt reading it, made a few changes before I collapsed and promised myself I’d return. But I didn’t return in time. I’d already set it to appear and it had.

      This is an embarrassing situation, really, like appearing at school half-dressed, the sort of nightmare I hate. But I appreciate your putting such an interesting and thoughtful spin on it. It makes me want to say, “I meant to do that.” I hope your school year is off to a great start! –D

  3. I spend a month with my mother every summer, have for many years. This year she is 83. For the last two summers I have watched as signs of aging grow. Her mother lived to 99 and the signs of aging appeared in her early 90s.

    Applying what you say to my mother, she is very aware that she retells stories and goes to pains to tell her listeners to say if they have heard it [I never do as she is a born story-teller]. She is aware that she does not remember things quite as she should and it bothers her mind. She has started withdrawing herself.

    Yes, there is a but, a big one: reading. She stopped reading fiction almost entirely in her late 60s and when I asked why, she replied ‘because there is still so much to learn’. That struck me vividly. She continues her passion for learning. That has never left. It never left her mother. And mom’s favourite topics aren’t easy ones: space, how the world came to be, planets, how time works and her latest, the brain. She also has a friend in his 90s who sends her an envelope of cuttings on political stuff, every week, and then calls and expects her to be ready for a thorough discussion.

    She acknowledges limits, but not to her learning.
    Where am I going? I’m not sure, but your essay elicited this and I thank you.

    • dmarshall58

      What a lovely (and inspiring) meditation! My mom is about the same age as yours, and she’s also an avid reader. I haven’t talked to her about it as you have, however. It sometimes seems her reading world is an entirely different place, a parallel dimension visible only to her. I like the way reading reshapes what we know. It can make even familiar aspects like time seem new. Though I’m not sure I want to make 90, I’d like to keep rethinking everything. Thanks so much for your comment. –D

  4. I experienced the same as hhstheater in reading this entry, strange sensation seeming to reread what was reiteration only to find myself kicked into a more complex and varied examination. Feel curiously like sitting with someone, listening and having the conversation morph into a compelling analysis that I could not help but nod with in agreement. This often happens with extended conversations with older friends. With reiteration seems to arrive elaboration, and this may be how memory also works, so what we repeat shifts and reconfigures for added richness of meaning.

    One aspect of aging for me is the difficulty of being alive in a strange new now, of not understanding how it all works, and how to fit me, with all the changes experienced during 66 years of living, into the swim of the present.

    It seems entirely possible that near the end of our lives we land on the shores of the River of Life, and depending on our desire, inclination and vigour we submerge ourselves in varying stages, but don’t submit ourselves fully to the flow of the waters. Perhaps we might need to dole out our involvement in living, and each of us does it similarly, but with variations. I don’t know if this makes any sense to you, David. G

    • dmarshall58

      Oh, it makes perfect sense to me, and you put it beautifully. I sometimes feel as though I’m the only unmoving thing and sometimes feel as though I’m swimming against an irresistible current. I suppose we should all be grateful we’re not water soluble, if that makes any sense to you. Better to reiterate–with the inevitable elaboration–than to have experience disappear or dissipate in the relentless novelty that seems to arrive every moment.

      Thanks for your comment. You always spur new thinking in me! –D

  5. emily

    david,

    i love the line: “The best conversations don’t elicit stories at all but the honest give and take of how we feel today, what news we have, why the world is wrong or right, and whether presently our hopes fuel us or burden us. ” i need to reflect more on if my own hopes are fueling or burdening.

    this post also made me reminded me of some of my own struggles when i was 24… which, in many way, still remain today. i think struggles, like the goals you talked about, shift in a similar way.

    • dmarshall58

      Thanks so much for visiting, Emily! 24 is much closer for you than for me, and I might say some of those struggles are still with me too, albeit in different forms.

      The line you like took some time to word, and, out of context, I’m still not sure it’s right. The sentiment is right though–I’m sure of that much–and I’m pleased that it resonates with you. –D

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