Tag Archives: aging

A Sense of Arrival

“We all end up belonging to the same category, that of the non-young.”

— Julian Barnes, A Sense of an Ending

I put off reading A Sense of an Ending for long time. It was hidden deep in the guilt pile, the stack of unread books that stares accusingly at me from the bedside table. I feared the book would be about death and aging and slipping away, another depressing pre-exit confessional. I have plenty of own darker demons and saw no reason to engage with those of others. I need no help to slink into my personal nether regions.

Then came Covid. Housebound and forced to choose between a lockdown of doom-scrolling on Twitter or reducing the number of titles on the guilt pile, I began reading. I started with the hesitancy of a toddler tiptoeing into the sea for the first time and chose books based on page count, the fewer the better. A Sense of an Ending made the list early on because Barnes told his tale in only 163 pages.

It is not an overstatement to say the book, coming as it did during a string of novels by Cormac McCarthy, Ann Patchett and Margaret Atwood, revived my fascination with good writing, which years of page-skimming, post-liking and tweet-commenting had blunted. Moreover, I found the lion-in-winter wonderings of the principal character to not be depressing, but rather inspirational, even heroic. They contained the elusive truthfulness we seek during our younger years, answers replies to those fundamental queries: Who am I? Why am I here? – and the big one – What is the meaning of life? These answers present themselves more easily in the later years, especially if we maintain our attention (easier said than done because truth is an unsparing mirror).

You may be panting for the answers – what IS the meaning of life? – but this is not a pop quiz. Your exam and mine are different. My answers are not yours. I can tell you this, though: I didn’t ask the right questions, so what I learned is not what I asked.

Were I Barnes – oh, to write with the satiny fluidity he does – I would change the title to this: A Sense of Arrival. Even Barnes hints at the logic of this change, saying through his principal character: “You get toward the end of life – no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life.” You arrive at something else.

Aging is like walking on scree. To gain firm footing requires effort, what is underfoot is unstable, and a fall is going to hurt. On days when I am well-grounded, upright and steady of gait, I am taken with this sensation, that of arriving, that I’ve gotten somewhere else – perhaps surprisingly, certainly unintentionally, maybe even inevitably (because each of us is the result of the circumstances of our lives, those we chose as well as those forced upon us by genetics, society or economics).

That is not to say I know my current location. I am like Alice, who in her wanderings through Wonderland encounters the Cheshire Cat, who, grinningly, responds to her request for directions by telling her that any road serves a traveler who has no destination, because eventually she will arrive somewhere. Without ever having passed through the looking glass, I meandered through life, guided as much by randomness as anything else. Like Alice, I eventually reached something else.

Were Dickens to author my biography, it would be titled Lesser Expectations. During my formative years – a phrase that makes me smile, as if I were putty in a factory of gnomish potters — I envisioned little for myself, and certainly nothing of imagined importance. I did not foresee great education, great wealth or great recognition. I can report with certainty from the future of that young man that I fulfilled all I foresaw: I left the university sans degree or intellectual discipline; I enter the later days of my life irreparably indebted; and a careful hand could scribble my roster of achievements on a Post-It. The beauty of low expectations is that they are easily met. By that standard, I am a success.

Neither huzzahs nor tears greet my arrival. I dock at an empty pier, pass through a vast immigration hall, hear the chunk of a metal stamp on my passport, and see on the thick paper inky evidence of my continued existence: I am here, I am free to wander about some more.

In this liberation, there is comfort. I travel in this “something else” unhampered by baggage – the striving to be more, the yearning for approbation, the flinch against opprobrium. Less fettered, I am lighter of foot and fuller of heart. I carry only the knowledge that to arrive is not necessarily to end.

Day 244 — My Father’s Son

Seven-plus months into the pandemic, most of that time spent at home or nearby, nearly none of it doing the work I am accustomed to be doing, I have two sobering realizations to share:

First, I have trouble defining myself without the work. I am not doing any journalism and precious little photography, so if I am not a journalist and if I am not a photographer, then who am I?

Second, after all the youthful years of tears, after the long era of running from my past and my family, after entanglements with the law and abuse of substances both legal and legal, something very ordinary happened to me: I ended up becoming my father’s son.

Perhaps that’s inevitable. Even a cultural revolution can’t erase the imprinting of nurture and the insistence of genetics. As much as I said to my young self that I would never be like him, I resemble him more now than I do not, especially at this age when we lions lose our fangs.

To be like my father is not a bad thing. He was a good man, a decent man, a hard-working man, loyal to his wife and family, a man who loved music, believed in God and shouldered and soldiered on with whatever befell him in life. And there was much. Of those qualities, I have an assortment, and for those I thank him. All in all, though, he was the better man. He had more to bear. My burdens are few and still I falter.

My father was not perfect, nor am I. We share many of the same imperfections. He was prone to nervousness and anxiety, as am I. He had a temper, as I do. A streak of resentment ran through him, flaring to the surface at times when he felt wronged or stewed about what might have been, as it does in me. He never said so, but I thought he focused more on what he didn’t have than what he did, just as I often do. There was more self-criticism than self-congratulation. In those moments, like many in his family, myself included, he drank too much.

Most of all, he identified himself as a man by his work, as I do as well. Through my juvenile eyes, my father and his job were synonymous. He was a self-taught accountant who worked all the time. For much of the year, he returned to the office after dinner. He never took vacation during the summer when we kids were off school. He worked most Saturdays, either in his office or at home in the living room, where he set up a folding card table and prepared tax returns. He never retired. He kept at it, as much as he could, until his body gave out. He didn’t die on the job, but he would have if he could have.

All I knew about my father as a boy was connected to his work. The stories of co-workers. The promotion he didn’t get. The boozy nights out with the boys, the laughing lunches with the girls. When my mother talked about him, she did so in the context of the job – your dad has to work, your dad is tired because of work, your dad works so much because he loves you.

Years later, when I was married and putting in long hours on a dying newspaper, I wondered why he didn’t retire. The house was paid for, the golf course was nearby, a big stack of books awaited on the bedside table. Now, I am past the age he was when I asked those questions and I know the answer: He didn’t retire because he couldn’t. The work defined him. The job was his oxygen. Retirement would have been suffocation.

Like him, I hated the very concept of retirement. I don’t want to be retired and, officially, I am not, but the corona (and a nagging injury) has thrown me off. I have time, too much of it. Take advantage, friends say. Relax. Do those things you always wanted to do. Good advice, I suppose, for those who didn’t have the opportunity. For me, though, what I most wanted to do was the photography and the journalism and I still do. I never had further ambitions.

I don’t find fulfillment in the idleness. I am not comfortable with comfort. I am not content with contentment. I miss the stress, I miss the need to solve problems, I miss being sought out for what skills I have. I miss the work.

My father would not tolerate such whinging, if that’s what this is (it can be so difficult to separate contemplation from grievance). I can’t tell you what advice he’d give because I don’t recall every receiving any from him. The work was his voice, and he spoke to me through it. Carry on. Do the necessary thing, do the responsible thing. Don’t ever stop because if you do you might not get it back.

Catching Up, Keeping Up

Down the street from me is a house in disrepair. Sections of the fence fronting the road lie on the ground, and a disheveled assemblage of vines and bramble cover what remains standing. Mold advances boldly across the wood of the garage. Scrap lumber and shards of shelving block the pathway to the front door. Most notably, a small blue car, German in make and of recent vintage, sits abandoned in the driveway, parked sideways so as to not just into the road. Four flat tires anchor it to the ground. A sunroof left ajar allows rain and pine needles and spiders to enter. No one has moved the car for several years.

It is not unusual, even in my over-priced neighborhood, to see a house gone to seed. Some people are just that way, not at all interested in gardening or maintenance or upkeep. The car, though, seemingly discarded and wedged into the driveway, was a mystery. Even the most negligent of homeowners tend to keep their vehicles running. I thought the owner might be dead – or dying – and his or her children cared little about their parents or their possessions. One day, I thought, I will walk by and the car will be gone. But there it sits still.

Not long ago, some of the mystery resolved itself. I saw an old woman, unsteady on her feet, sweeping handfuls of dirt and pine needles from the driveway into a plastic dustpan. Given the amount she was picking up she might as well have been emptying a beach of its sand with a teaspoon. I was driving and I didn’t stop to say hello. I should have because I have questions I would like answered.

I have walked past the house many times since and not seen her again. Then, just the other day it came to me. I knew what was happening. The lady, who I suspect has lived on our woodsy hill for a long time, just can’t keep up any longer. Not that she doesn’t want to. She does. The dustpan and the broom are evidence of that. She just can’t. It’s too much. The house, the garden, the repairs, the car, her health, whatever emotional amusement park ride she is on with her family – or by herself – all of it is just too much. She can’t keep up, so everything gradually falls apart.

Age does this to us. The world moves forward, and we fall further and further behind. The fence rots, the pines drop needles, the blackberry bramble roots into everything. A spouse dies, an organ fails, a family stops visiting. Onward and onward, a timeless parade of every imaginable attraction and horror of life, and our place in it inevitably and inexorably retreats toward the back until one day we find ourselves standing alone in the road, inhaling the dust of the parade as it advances into its endless tomorrows without us.

Being old is about keeping up, an ironic fact because being young is about catching up. We drop out of the chute and a doctor or a nurse practitioner or a midwife whacks us into consciousness, and we immediately begin screaming for what everyone else who arrived before us already has: food, fun, education, career, comfort, maybe even satisfaction over the long arc. We strive throughout youth to be capable of self-sustenance, however meekly or grandly each of us defines that state. We study, we work, we take risks, we fail, we love, we marry, we procreate, we divorce, we celebrate, and we suffer – all to have what we didn’t have at birth. Even as adults, many of us continue. We lust for fancier cars, bigger houses (or second ones or third ones), loftier titles. Others, less material but no less ambitious, reach for personal or social pinnacles. We are working on ourselves, we like to say. If I could just …

We do all that until we can’t. At that moment, we shift from catching up to keeping up.

The past lengthens and the future shortens. A new twenty-year roof on the house seems  unreasonable when the sell-by date on the body is five years off – or less. Physical aches increase, as do emotional ones. Old wounds once thought healed reopen, reminders that the past is inescapable. People go missing, either gone for good or absent because they simply can no longer feign interest in being with us. What once was sensible, even essential – repairing a fence, sweeping the walk, starting the car – fades into an indulgence remaindered for days when energy is high and spirits are strong, moments that lessen as the calendar advances. What matters a flat tire when there is a tumor to be dealt with? Who cares about a messy front yard when there is soul that needs mending? Why do today what you can put off until a tomorrow that might not come?

I saw the woman with the broom one more time, again as I drove by. She swept in small motions with short strokes, the bristle moving only a few inches. She is never going to clean that driveway or move that car or fix that fence. She is just trying to keep up.