The Pleasures of Age: Who Knew?

As one who has from the beginning taken the part of the grasshopper against the ant, I had never given much thought as to what it would be like to be old.  There is a huge literature about it, but in it you might read almost anything, all sorts of conflicting accounts and recommendations. It’s like a chorus of the blind describing not an elephant, but an entire universe. From many reports, the place seems to be filled with tribulation: aches, pains and diseases, loneliness, ungrateful or addicted children, penury, incontinence, loss of independence. Age, Matthew Arnold wrote, is not golden, but cold. Why borrow trouble? Since one would eventually, if one were lucky, see for one’s self what this universe is like, there was little point in speculating about it.

Age actually arrived, of course, as a total surprise. I remember the moment exactly: I was in a doctor’s office being treated for a back injury.

“Walk across the room,” the doctor directed. I began to stride briskly about the somewhat cramped office. “Wait, wait,” he said, “What’s the hurry?”

I was surprised. “This is the way I walk,” I explained.

The doc shook his head. “You walk like a young man,” he said. I began to preen inwardly; but he continued:  “Slow down. Start walking like an old man. You need to slow down.”

Start walking like an old man! The gate clanged shut and I emigrated to the universe next door, that mystical land of Old Age. I didn’t feel any different, but my passport had been stamped. I still walk – in fact I walk a lot – but I no longer walk like a young man. Doctor’s orders.

Since then I have gotten older and older and so have all my friends, and what we are finding, of course, is that there is a good deal more than tribulation here. There is richness, detachment, the falling away of cares. We can do pretty much as we please, and say and wear what we like. We aren’t driven by ambition and are considered more or less harmless. I find that I can really enjoy a simple pleasure like standing in the silence of a redwood grove. The children are grown. We get seats on the bus and senior rates everywhere.

All of these pleasures bring about an absence of stress that I find exhilarating, but of course, they depend on a healthy life to be truly appreciated. “To draw a high card in the lottery of life is not always a blessing,” wrote Robert Morley, the comic British actor whose puff-lipped Blimp-like character burbled through so many films of the past mid-century. Morley himself thoroughly enjoyed his old age and wrote about it frankly in a memoir, also called The Pleasures of Age and published when he was eighty. I bought it on Amazon for one cent, a single penny, a bargain for which I willingly pungled up a $6.99 shipping fee.

“The old grow ill and sometimes stay that way,” I read in Morley’s Introduction. “…[T]here may be aches, fears, and pain. I am concerned, but not in this book.”

Instead he sets down his own particular pleasures of age, which include owning a racehorse and boring dinner companions with tales of the past, and offers a few bytes of wisdom: “One of the many blessings of age is the gradual slackening of concentration… Some puzzles still remain, but your determination to solve them has slackened.”

We all see it differently. I have been blessed by genes, environment, race, and probably divine grace to have lived largely disease and accident-free. As I age, I spend more and more of my waking hours concerned with health, from working out at the gym to shopping for and cooking fresh food to flossing at night. And I have a damn good time at it. There are pleasures of age, and they deserve to be celebrated. One can walk like an old man, and still get there.

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