The Gifts and Grace of Old Age

“Age might sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.”
Penelope Lively

The gift of age is evidence of an even greater gift: life.

When he was thirty-three, Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman,” a three-stanza poem that captures what we expect old age to be like:1

“In the Junes that were warmer than these are, the waves were more gay; When I was a boy with never a crack in my heart.”

Yeats, who lived to be seventy-three, imagined old age to be a place of pain, of solitude, comforted only by memory.

Life brings a settlement into self, surely. Retrenchment of the most necessary kind. As we question our post-death existence, we withdraw a bit from the life that will soon cast us off.

And yet, I’ve found when reading what I call “views from old age” that far from being an ending, a closing, or a silencing, old age can often be the height of expression, expansion, life.

“I am now face to face with dying,” writes neuroscientist and humanist Oliver Sacks “but I am not finished with living.”

Maya Angelou agreed, and in her eighties, she welcomed a march of tomorrows: “Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude. If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow. Today I am blessed.”

Marcus Aurelius, a true philosopher king, was the last of Rome’s Pax Romana emperors. He wrote Meditations when he was about fifty-five. It offers penetrating insight into humankind, nature, and our eternal connection to a deeply spiritual universe—what Emerson would call “heavenly worlds” nearly 2,000 years later. Aurelius writes:

Your death will soon be on you: and you are not yet clear-minded, or untroubled, or free from the fear of external harm, or kindly to all people, or convinced that justice of action is the only wisdom.

As well as allowing imperfections, Aurelius urges against trying to make meaningless distinctions during life: “All that you see will soon perish; those who witness this perishing will soon perish themselves. Die in extreme old age or die before your time—it will all be the same.”

If, then, when you finally come close to your exit, you have left all else behind and value only your directing mind and the divinity within you, if your fear is not that you will cease to live, but that you never started a life in accordance with nature, then you will be a man worthy of the universe that gave you birth.

Like Aurelius, Oliver Sacks wrote a series of essays right before his death, which were collected in the slim volume Gratitude. Sacks believed that age changed the cadence of time and delivered unexpected freedom:

I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was forty or sixty. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of lifetime together.

British novelist Penelope Lively—one of my most cherished writers—longed for an unreachable child self and believed that memory anchors us in existence.2

Like Sacks and many others unable to enjoy active activity of an earlier age, Lively found what remained to her at eighty nevertheless provided vigorous comfort:

Can’t garden. Don’t want to travel. But can read, must read. For me, reading is the essential palliative, the daily fix. Old reading, revisiting, but new reading too, lots of it, reading in all directions […]. […] Reading in old age is doing for me what it has always done—it frees me from the closet of my own mind.

On the dual gifts of age, Lively offers this intelligent couplet: “Age might sideline, but it also confers a sort of neutrality; you are no longer out there in the thick of things, but able to stand back, observe, consider.”3

A removed position allows empty space necessary to gather thoughts and perspectives. Like taking moments of break and play. From that comes great energy, even vitality.

Twenty years following the end of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant penned his Memoirs while dying from esophageal cancer. They are widely considered to be the best presidential memoirs ever written, full of insightful, empathetic details. My father gave me a copy years ago, and I’ve in turn given it to so many people I’ve lost count.

The shining moment in the book is the surrender of General Lee and the end of the War. Grant begins the anecdote humbly:

I had known General Lee in the old army, and had served with him in the Mexican War; but did not suppose, owing to the difference in our age and rank, that he would remember me; while I would more naturally remember him distinctly […].

When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and, after shaking hands, took our seats. What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result and was too manly to show it. […] I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly […].

There is no bravado, no ego-boosting, and no circling the victory. Grant wrote in what Marcus Aurelius called a “language that rings true.”

I often wonder how the account might have been different if Grant had written sooner after the War, and when he wasn’t facing his own mortality. Would he have extended the same dignity and grace? Grant died a week after he completed his memoirs.

Sequoia tree "General Grant" estimated age, 1,650 years.
“General Grant” sequoia, estimated to be 1,600 years old, Sequoia National Park, California. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The humility and forgiveness of age stands even more boldly against a backdrop of considerable hardships, like Maya Angelou’s loving and confident Letter to My Daughter, written when she was eighty:

I have made many mistakes and no doubt will make more before I die. When I have seen pain, when I have found that my ineptness has caused displeasure, I have learned to accept my responsibility and to forgive myself first, then to apologize to anyone injured by my misreckoning. Since I cannot un-live history, and repentance is all I can offer God, I have hopes that my sincere apologies were accepted.

The collection is a series of letters to an imagined daughter or, rather, the collective daughters Angelou cultivated over time.4

Young Yeats believed that in old age we’d be surrounded by memories, and those memories alone would bring comfort.

When he was but twenty-eight, Yeats wrote another poem on his suspected view of old age “When You Are Old”:

“How many loved your moments of glad grace, And loved your beauty with love false or true.”

How different is this from the reality of Marilynne Robinson, who was veering towards seventy when she wrote the following:

I have reached the point in my life when I can see what has mattered, what has become a part of its substance—I might say a part of my substance. Some of these things are obvious since they have been important to me in my career as a student and teacher. But some of them I could never have anticipated. The importance to me of elderly and old American hymns is certainly one example. They can move me so deeply that I have difficulty even speaking about them.

Robinson, who has written so beautifully in her fiction on the alienation of returning home, carries an open heart to the new and even the future.

Hopefully, my own age won’t pass too quickly (there is so much more to be done!), but if it does—and it will—I intend to keep my eyes forward and extend nothing but grace to those in my past.

“There is always tomorrow.” wrote Maya Angelou when she was 80. “Today I am blessed.”

The Alienation We Feel When We Return Home

“To revisit one's roots calls from an upside-down posture which too often proves that the plant is broken.”
Laurie Lee

The gravitational force of our childhood home hooks us persistently with taught lines. Perhaps it is the promise this home will receive us. (Even if it didn’t in the past.)

Or perhaps it is because home is the place we exist in what physicist Alan Lightman calls ‘a mind of play.” (Home is where someone else does the laundry.)

Whatever it promises, home—may it be a house, a street, a city, even a country—is coiled around our existence. Maya Angelou felt this binding relationship and expresses it beautifully:

I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one’s skin, at the extreme corners of one’s eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

British novelist Graham Greene went even further, suggesting all he ever was and would be was fired and hammered by his home:

If I had known it, the whole future must be lain all the time along those Berkhamsted streets. […] Everything one was to become must have been there, for better or worse. One’s future might have been prophesied from the shape of the houses as from the lines of the hand; one’s evasions and deceits took their form from those other sly faces and from the hiding places in the garden, on the Common, in the hedgerows.

returning home
Melbourne, Australia. Photograph courtesy of American-Australian photographer Andrew Wurster.

What Angelou and Greene suggest, home is where we were forged, was more fully-developed by French academic Gaston Bachelard’s beautiful book The Poetics of SpaceSpace, published in 1957, was a systematic psychological study of the sites of our intimate lives. Home, Bachelard argues, is where that intimacy is formed and thus, remembered.

The house we were born in is more than the embodiment of home, it is also an embodiment of dreams. Each one of its nooks and corners was a resting place for daydreaming. And often the resting place particularized the daydream.

If the house/home is where we were formed, then it also must be where we are known. The streets and buildings have a memory of us; we’ve left footprints and echoes. We shake the equanimity of place, and they ripple against us in return.

Of this mutual imprinting, Angelou writes:1

What sets one Southern town apart from another, or from a Northern town or hamlet, or city high-rise? The answer must be the experience shared between the unknowing majority (it) and the knowing minority (you). All of childhood’s unanswered questions must finally be passed back to the town and answered there. Heroes and bogey men, values and dislikes, are first encountered and labeled in that early environment.

Angelou’s words reinforce a notion I’ve long believed: our primary guidance to life comes from home. How do people act towards one another? What should we expect from authority? What does pain feel like? What does our future hold? Even What does a home look like?

We answer—often unconsciously—based on our earliest memories, our earliest knowledge. To acknowledge and question those answers takes a lifetime of skill, self-awareness, and, as Maya Angelou finds, resounding forgiveness.

It’s no wonder we carry a deep longing for home and feel adrift without it. We return home in search of something. Maybe in search of everything.

When John Steinbeck set out with his dog Charley to drive across America in 1962, a few years before he died, he sought familiarity. He wrote of his westward adventure like a man lost, even homesick.

“I just want to look and listen. I have not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage.” And later in the journal he writes: “What I’ll get I need badly—a reknowledge of my own country […]. It’s long overdue—very long.

However, when Steinbeck arrives to Monterrey—the heart of his past, the place he wrote and philosophized on notions of brotherhood that informed his entire body of work—he finds they’ve renamed the downtown theater “John Steinbeck Theater.” He is devastated.

One can imagine the visceral ache of a man who often wanted nothing more than to be left undiscovered and uninterrupted.

returning home
Melbourne, Australia. Wurster’s work features unpeopled landscapes of his home town, Melbourne. Common motifs include walls, closed doors, shut windows, barred gates and striking capture of suggested – but not seen – lives. His images evoke questions of home, community, childhood and the psychic nature of place. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Wurster.

Although we long to, we cannot go home again. When we do, home feels alienating.

Why? Do we desire so much from this place it buckles under expectations? Or is it merely the inevitable clean sweep of time? We simply fail to recognize this old friend, and he us?

British poet, novelist, and essayist Laurie Lee was a profoundly elegant writer of our notions of home, its trappings, influences, and, most achingly, its disintegration into our past. After twenty years of never leaving his Cotswold Valley, Lee departed (on foot to London and abroad) and did not return for two decades.

Although he didn’t realize it immediately, his departure left an unmendable fracture:

They remember me best as I went away, more than a quarter of a century ago. I left as a turnip-faced grinning oaf, and returned last year, a bag-eyed poet […]. Of course one should never have gone in the first place. It is never really forgiven you. And to revisit one’s roots calls from an upside-down posture which too often proves that the plant is broken.

After twenty-five years I find the main changes in me and in the villagers’ view of me, but the village itself has come through the revolutions of that time with fewer abrasions than I would have expected. […] The village and its lore are still the world’s centre, the beginning and the end of truth, and everything that comes from outside is rung on the local stones before its genuineness can even be considered.

returning home
Melbourne, Australia. Wurster left Australia as a teenager to live in America but returned “home” in his 20s. Spending one’s formative years in a different country creates competing images of “home” and often means neither feels exactly right. This alienation is evident throughout his work. Photograph courtesy of Andrew Wurster.

We are drawn to home because we are drawn to the parts of home we carry. Memory, images, and precious things we keep nearby and have endowed with meaning.

Except, the home we carry doesn’t change. We keep precious reminders of who we once were and what we did. We remember fondly. When we physically “go home,” these memories pale against brilliant realness (as happens when we “house” our memories in space and objects). Lee remembered home’s warm acceptance, but he returned to find himself an outsider. Steinbeck, too, found America like he wished; he just didn’t like it.

When a fracture grows between what is remembered and what is, maybe alienation is the palliative. Like water to a wound, painful but without which injury would be mortal. A warning: Don’t come this way again.

Maybe that’s why some stay away. Home is in memory alone.

Lee, ultimately, stayed away. Although, he remained a perfect nostalgic and wrote of his childhood memories throughout his life. “Today is the winter as it always was, and when it wasn’t, it was not remembered.”

Memory isn’t everything, but sometimes it’s all we have.

Carrying the Burden of Witness

“One's witness is individual.”
John Updike

Throughout life, we sling enumerable social burdens and necessities onto our backs to protect, to love, to nurture, to dissent, and to join.

Are any more isolating than our self-imposed burden to bear witness? Among the actions that renew and revitalize our social fabric, carrying the burden of bearing witness is, as Updike wrote, individual.

Carrying the burden of witness is different than witnessing.

The latter is seeing. The former is acting. Acting as continuity between what was, what is, and what will be. Acting to bring the past into the present. Acting through testimony, written or spoken, by erecting and honoring monuments and by subverting and defying lies. Etching truth where it will be seen.1

burden of witness
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, Berlin. Memorials play a pivotal role in collective memory, they not only honor the past, they hand that past forward to generations who have no direct memory of that past. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

I cannot write about bearing witness without beginning with Night, Elie Wiesel’s ferociously honest account of his imprisonment in Auschwitz.2 Wiesel witnesses what happens when a person is reduced to a desperate, aching body. He writes of the triumph of evil “so close and yet so distant.”

Of Night’s countless lines of critical importance, this, the instance of his father’s death, is the most devastating because it is Wiesel’s own loss of self:

No prayers were said over his tomb. No candle lit in his memory. His last word had been my name. He had called out to me and I had not answered. I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears.

In 2006, Wiesel issued a new translation of Night, with an introduction speaking directly to his role as witness:

For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.

The simplest burden of being a witness is that one must act, must testify. Again and again. “Responsibility is the key word,” writes Wiesel.

burden of witness
Memorials must act as both knowledge and emotional loadstones. This Memorial has been criticized for being too abstract, that it fails to deliver knowledge necessary to engender collective memory. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

When we carry the burden of witness we invite judgment. Not only of what we say, but also of who we are. Are we reliable, truthful, relevant? Are we known or an Other?

Despite its universal truths, Wiesel’s story was so poorly received by publishers that it was accepted only after the tireless lobbying of Nobel Laureate Francois Mauriac.

It reminds me of something Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air for more than 40 years, admitted in her published collection of interviews, All I Did Was Ask. The most frequent audience question was what she looked like. The second was whether she was gay.

Gross accepted both inquiries humorously.

Those people who swear I’m a lesbian offer two ‘clues.’ The first is my short haircut, which might be described as kind of cute or kind of butch. The second is that we’ve always featured a lot of openly gay guests on Fresh Air. In fact, this used to get us into a lot of trouble with some of the stations that carried us […].

In the minds of listeners, Gross’s life choices affected her trusted witness status. This is despite the fact that, as an interviewer, she coaxes the truth from others and is determined “to keep my focus on my guests.”

To witness, Gross must be witnessed.

As others judge us, we must also judge ourselves. In his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Wiesel faces the inadequacy of bearing witness:

Do I have the right to represent the multitudes who have perished? Do I have the right to accept this great honor on their behalf? I do not. No one may speak for the dead, no one may interpret their mutilated dreams and visions.

In truth, witnesses should be scrutinized. Not their physicality or sexuality but their motivations. If they aren’t, how do we know to accept their accounts of something we have no memory of?

I have this issue with the journals of George Orwell. In the late 1920s, Orwell, already a successful writer, went to live among the poor in London and Paris. He sought to live their lives and speak their existence.

His testimony, however, was often unbelievable. Using detached, even vague language he writes of a friend raping a prostitute and then finishes the very short account with:

I describe him just to show what diverse characters could be found flourishing in the Coq d’Or quarter.

Did the event really happen? And if so, why is Orwell so detached? And pithy? The novelist devoted pages and pages to opinions on hotel dishwashers (he became one for a short time in Paris) but gave only a few lines to this?

As the audience, we can choose what to accept, what to repeat, what to question.

A witness must pursue truth through judgement. Careful and deliberate judgement. Truth that echoes in emptiness and reverberates off stone backs of indifference.

Truth that connects at the emotional level and touches our empathy.

We might understand what the ‘Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe’ means because we have memories of those who have memories of the Holocaust. But what about in 100 years? 200 years? Does the Memorial still function as intended? Should it? Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Even if we act and testify, it doesn’t mean we release the burden. In fact, the more we testify, the more we shoulder the weight. It pushes into us, becomes us. It can even destroy us.3

Consider British poet Wilfred Owen, who fought and died in World War I because he believed his purpose as a poet was to bear witness. Of this commitment, he admits: ”I shall probably be a bloody bad soldier but how can I speak to/for them without becoming one?”

Owen was highly criticized in a time when patriotism and morale influenced poetic conventions. In “Apologia Pro Poemate Meo,” he defends his poetry as witness and his choice to feel sickness – not glory – at death:

I, too saw God through the mud—
The mud that cracked on cheeks when wretches smiled.
War brought more glory to their eyes than blood,
And gave their laughs more glee than shakes a child.

Merry it was to laugh there—
Where death becomes absurd and life absurder
For power was on us as we slashed bones bare
Not to feel sickness or remorse of murder.

Owen died in combat months before the Armistice of November 11, 1918. He saw five poems published. His body of work on the sorrow and absurdity of war-brought death, however, remains an unblemished testimony.

I conceived this post to consider what it meant to bear witness. As I dipped into it, I noticed commonalities of those who witness, what they endured. The word “burden” came to mind, but I dismissed it. “Burden” is something to associate with elderly parents and grandparents who refuse to ask for help for fear of “burdening” those they love.

But of course, it is entirely the same usage. Burden is something difficult, unrelenting certainly, but not something unwanted. It is something accepted, maybe even welcomed? It just is. (Like our abiding love for elderly parents and grandparents).

Of all the burdening aspects of bearing witness, surely the futility of the effort ranks among the heaviest.

We don’t bear witness so that minds will change. We cannot ascend into anyone’s consciousness. We cannot, as Wiesel writes, presume to speak for the dead. And we cannot make anyone know. “Would they at least understand?” Wiesel finally asks, unanswered.

The burden is to remember. To testify. With strength and compassion, we carry the burden of witness and bear the scrutiny it inevitably invites.

We do it to bolster humanity’s collective memory, to prevent injustice, and I think we do so because, ultimately, deep down, we would want someone else to do it for us.