My last chapters
I turn 79 this month, and so my 80th year begins. I used to be young, and I’ve never been this old. By some coincidence, this is also the 79th column I will have written for the Kenwood Press – and it’s certainly not the last. There are reasons why it’s called “Living Life Well.” It’s not simply about living gracefully and without unnecessary illnesses; it’s also about the nourishing well that leads to aquifers that always flow deep below, despite the changing landscapes above. These are my last chapters, plural – for how many there will be I can’t know, because this book is not yet fully written.
I’ve come to that poignant season when almost everyone I know is younger than me, and most likely will be here after I’ve gone. At times it seems I’m beginning to haunt this place, observing the world at a certain distance and finding a slightly larger perspective. I’m no longer as concerned about the events of life, which now seem to rise and fall in a rhythm that, like finite particles, drive something more infinite forward – a wave of deep significance. The Belgian poet Maeterlinck once said, “Total annihilation is impossible. We are prisoners of an infinity without outlet, wherein nothing perishes, wherein everything is dispersed but nothing is lost.”
A half century ago my grandfather asked me to be his therapist. He said “I want to know why I’m still here, and what to do about it.” We talked together many times as he began reviewing his life and his world, his mortality and his legacy. I knew at the time that my view of older people was largely ignorant – they inhabited a land as distant and strange as Utah was at that time for this West County boy. I was ignorant, but eager and curious; he spoke and I listened, closely.
During the first third of life, which we call youth, we are the children of our parents and the grandchildren of our grandparents. We are innocent apprentices of life, and our task is to learn from our elders how to be, and what to do. In the second third of life we are adults, and become parents of our own children as our parents become their grandparents. Our place in the world develops; we do what we have learned to do and, hopefully, become approximately what we have wanted to be.
Then finally, in the final third of life, we become elders. The horizon seems to shift and the climate to change, and we begin seeing things in a different light. The nest has emptied and our parents have passed away. I well remember the day my mother died and – my father having died a decade earlier – I abruptly understood that I was an orphan: no one remained that knew my whole story – only myself. My children became parents, and I a grandparent, and I began a time of contemplation and resolve as I took up the search for why I am still here.
This is not easy. Many stop, exhausted, rather than cross this threshold; they opt for convenience and comfort rather than rouse themselves to meet the challenge of a life lived well. Regrets and resentments of the past blunt their curiosity about the future, and blind them to the horizons they had dreamed of when they were younger and more courageous. They forget that they were once young, and ignore the healing insight offered by the witnessing presence of youth – that our legacy is a constant wave carried forward by the erratic events of our life.
There are examples. The blind dervish in Nacer Khemir’s film Bab’Aziz weaves through the Sahara on his way to a gathering of Sufis, guided by his spirited granddaughter, Ishtar. In his epic poem “Hojoki,” Kamo no Chomei wrote about the 10-year-old boy who accompanies his struggle to find equanimity in a quickly, radically changing world. In the final scene of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, a young girl calls out as Marcello searches for meaning at the edge of the sea; but her words are lost in the wind, as he turns away and she watches him leave.
In Jeff Brown’s Love it Forward he writes, “since my Father died, my perspective has radically shifted. Now I am even more determined to create a life that is entirely true to path… it is time to stop seeking what we already know.” We are reminded of what we once knew when we were young with a beginner’s mind, eager to inhabit and explore an ambiguous and enigmatic future of infinite possibilities.
As I grow older, my body continues to change like a fine wine, accumulating an increasing complexity that asks to be appreciated rather than resented. Wrinkles and scars tell where I’ve been and what I’ve done, and I consider these changes to be emerging qualities rather than defects – though they do involve some inconvenient complications that may someday overwhelm me. But not today.
Many of my older friends have already gone on ahead of me. There is a certain melancholy in my remembrance of them, and a caring regard for those I will someday leave behind. But this particularly sunny afternoon, as I begin the eightieth year of my life in this wonderful world, there is a deep resolve to inhabit its entirety, from youth to age, and to live that life fully and – yes – well.