When I was in my mid-thirties, my mother fell in love and got married. She and her husband enjoyed an extraordinary decade- long romance before he became ill and died. Seeing them together caused a tectonic shift in my thinking about old age. Everything moved and grumbled; cracks appeared in the structures of assumption that had been standing since my adolescence.
Jim and my mom were happy, much happier than I was in the long decline of my marriage or the flailing half-hearted sexual liaisons that followed my divorce. I often remarked, in a casual way, that I hoped I might be as lucky as they were, but the idea of a vivid, fully realized life continuing into the last decades seemed stubbornly implausible. My mother is a remarkable woman, whose passionate energy has always stunned and enchanted everyone around her. Surely, she was the exception. I look around and see unhappy people everywhere – old age just compounds the burdens and miseries of their lives. Is such drabness and despair inevitable? I don’t think so. Avoiding that fate involves a great deal of luck – the genetic luck of good health, a capacity for bliss and a naturally optimistic outlook. It depends on the worldly luck of having a place to live, the chance for a manageable retirement, a loving support-system of friends and family. I have no idea how to create an exciting, whole hearted last act for – just an example -- a dour, impoverished loner with diabetes.
But for most of us, the goal is attainable.
For young people old age remains an era of life like the blank spaces on Medieval maps: here there be dragons. Old people don’t like talking about the ‘declining years’, stigmatized as disease and senility, the long painful decline into the ruinous ash-end of existence. Apart from the occasional pithy “It’s not for sissies,” few observations leak out into the general population. No one knows what goes on there and no one wants to; it remains secret by mutual consent.
Obviously the very end is tough, fraught with a failing body and a faltering mind, but there is another era between what one might call ‘late middle age’ and the final losing bout with mortality that remains mysterious.
That mystery, that enchanted secret realm of our lives, like a open glade in a dense forest, thrives and maintains its magic precisely because no one seeks it out. This sacred place can never become a paved over sub-division because no one ever looks for it, in fact they avoid it, and each person who actually arrives there discovers it by accident.
I was walking through the Cape Cod Mall a few years ago (I was in my early fifties at the time) and a group of teen-aged girls approached me, talking on their cell-phones, texting their friends, bouncing to their iPods, talking and laughing. They must have felt some atavistic awareness of a tall masculine creature approaching. They looked up expectantly, saw the actual middle-aged man in front of them – and flinched. A couple of them just looked away, as they might reflexively turn from the sight of a cripple or an amputee; the others let the recoil show on their faces – as if they’d just smelled something awful, a whiff of sewer gas or sour milk.
Of course I found it upsetting at first, feeling my age and older than my age, some leprous ancient hermit, but I knew I might still be called ‘young’ in some situations (If I was elected President, or killed in the street by a runaway garbage truck), and eventually the other side of the issue occurred to me: in a world where privacy is being eroded at every turn and from every direction, where we are spied upon and recorded and watched and judged and gossiped about by everyone around us from the Federal Government to our nosy neighbors, I had somehow reached the Age of Privacy. No one was interested in me any more. There’s a tremendous freedom in that, an almost giddy sense of liberation. Of course it stings if you want to be seen, if you need to be young, if you can’t accept the reality of your accumulated years and experience. But if you can truly accept who and what and where you are, the possibilities open up to the horizon.
Here’s the secret: the problem of growing old isn’t death. It’s romance. We lose the romance in our lives long before life itself, or rather, we misplace it. It’s easy to do, a careless mistake with devastating consequences because romance is essential to living a life of urgency and joy at any age, and after the first firestorm of hormones it requires effort and concentration, stringency and study. I always laughed at sober-sided adults telling me that a marriage was ‘hard work’, thinking, “Maybe for you,” but I didn’t work at my marriage, and neither did my wife and it failed catastrophically. Maybe that was a good thing – some situations are just bad and need to end. We’ll never know for sure, but I do know this: I’m too old to let anything remotely like that happen again. You only get so many chances to remake yourself and re-invent your life. At age 57 I’m running out of mine. I look around me and see marriages breaking up or running on habit. I don’t want a chum and a roommate. I want a lover, I want to feel worthy of the spring air when it touches my face in April. I refuse to look outward: everything I want is right in front of me. I want to create a secret society of two in that hidden clearing in the forest and I want everyone else my age to do the same thing. It’s the ultimate subterfuge, our private joke on everyone following behind us who assume we’re already dead, emotional zombies lumbering through empty routines, tedious lectures in our mouths, formaldehyde in our veins. Hey, that’s how I thought about people over fifty when I was a kid; my generation was determined not to trust anyone over thirty.
So how do you do it? How do you organize this clandestine carnal Freemasonry of the heart, how do you actually enact the ideal?
You identify the obstacles.
First of all, there’s menopause. During the actual process, there’s not much you can do, in my experience. Synthetic hormone replacement is too dangerous; patience and humor are available without a prescription and have no disturbing side effects. Ask your doctor if humor and patience are right for you. Once the storm has passed there are various options, from Revival Soy Protein to Kegel exercises and lubricants. It can be done; I know people who did it. My mother did it. Once again, there’s work involved and, more than that, conscious effort. The consciousness is more arduous than the effort.
Second would be stress. Job stress, family stress, financial stress. Nothing turns us away from each other more effectively than the struggle and frustration of daily life. The over-all solution is reduce the stress, somehow – working toward a more satisfying job, taking meaningful steps toward improving the conditions of your life. It seems too late. It isn’t. Distance learning graduate school is a great tactic, because it fits with your normal schedule. In the meantime, carve out time away from the tension and anxiety. Take Sunday off. Vent and commiserate; don’t blame each other. It’s frightening and sad and infuriating to realize the degree to which money, or the lack of it, sets the tone of our days, manages our moods controls our lives.
The third obstacle is physical decline. This seems overwhelming but it’s actually the problem most susceptible to forces of will and concentrated effort. You’re overweight? Diet and exercise together. A long strenuous walk in the afternoon has multiple benefits: you’re doing something positive, you’re out in the world among the blooming shrubs and the red-tail hawks cruising for dinner; you’re spending time with each other -- eventually, as your wind improves, you’ll even be able to talk; and of course you’re getting fit, feeling better about yourselves and each other. And you’re reintroducing the physical into a personal world that can become increasingly mental and isolated. Again it takes some discipline. No one wants to launch into a bout of exercise after a hard day’s work. But it’s worth doing, it’s part of the regimen that creates an authentic life at the far end of living. Anything that creates intimacy is good -- cook together, read the same books, sleep naked.
I know it’s attainable: you can come together in that obscure open meadow deep in the woods, unseen and unknown, you can stand on the rabbit-cropped grass among the wild flowers, listening to the wind in the high branches, and look into each others’ eyes, and begin again.
It’s certainly worth a try.