That interests me of course, what happens. Actually what is happening, for I’m already 84. I have called my blog, Dans Mes Quatrevingtans, that is, in my eighties. In just six years will I call it, if alive, in my nineties? How about In my hundreds. I just read that the “oldest person” in the world, Emma Morano, an Italian in her 110s, has just died at age 117.
I do want to write about these years at the end of life, perhaps more so than I wanted to write about any earlier period. If you asked me why is that I couldn’t say. For there’s nothing exciting about my life now, although in our favor my wife and I don’t live in a retirement community where things can be dull, but rather in an active, busy residential area, in South Tampa, where there’s always a lot going on, new home construction, lots of it, and neighbors who could be us 40 or 50 years ago, mostly all young with young children (and a lot of dogs, and that’s where we see them mostly, walking their dogs).
And then right across the street from our front door is a city park, Friendship Center, our “Luco” (as we call it, from the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris), where there are always park visitors, mostly parents and their small children, talking, playing, on the swings and slides, and often celebrating using the park facilities for their get togethers with friends and their birthday parties with family members. The result is that we see a lot of the young people living in booming South Tampa but little or nothing of people our own age whom we might ask about what they’re doing in their eighties. But to hear from them to listen to their voices we would have to go South to Naples or Fort Myers.
So given our separation now in our old age from our peers, not to mention from the few friends remaining, also in their old age, but somewhere else usually far from Florida if they are still alive, our own eighties are to a large extent, unplanned and unwished for solitary experiences. Although no surprise that the young couples we meet don’t want to hear about how well we’re sleeping or whether we’re back to walking again and even riding our bikes, following a bad fall and a broken femur, the latter while walking too fast and not looking, that which we shouldn’t have been doing at all at our age.
Then just earlier today while looking over my notes and collections of my thousands of readings from earlier years, which I’ve never wanted to let go, I stumbled on this article by Lewis H. Lapham from the New York Times Magazine of October 23, 2014, “After 80, some people don’t retire. They reign.”
Lapham was himself 79 when he wrote these brief portraits of men and women in their 80s and 90s, old masters he calls them, all rich in the rewards of substantial and celebrated careers. “Why do they persist,” Lapham asked, ” the old masters, with an unceasing effort to discover or create something new? Why not rest on the laurels and the oars?”
People like Sophocles who in his early 90s wrote “Oedipus at Colonus” filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, 84, I. F. Stone who began the study of ancient Greek in his 70s, T. Boone Pickens, 86, chairman of BP Capital Management, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 81, Edward O. Wilson, naturalist and author, 85, Ginette Bedard, long-distance runner at 81, Tony Bennett, singer, 88, Christopher Plummer, actor, 84, Carl Reiner, actor, 92, Senator Dianne Feinstein, 81, and a number of others.
And then there’s Lapham himself who writes at 79 about his own writing career:
When I was 6, I delighted in the act of writing, at 12, in the expecting that by the time I turned 21, I would know how to make of it an art. The birthday came and went, and no dog showed up with the bird in its mouth. Before I was 30, I’d written seven drafts of a first novel mercifully unpublished; I consoled myself with the thought that by the time I was 40, I would know what I was doing. Another dream that didn’t come true, and so when I was 45, I began to explore the uses of the essay, the term from the French essayer (to try, to embark upon, to attempt), the form experimental and provisional, amenable to multiple shifts of perspective and tone, and therefore the best of instruments on which to practice the playing with words. The essay proceeds from the question “What do I know?” and doesn’t stay for an answer until the author finds out what he means to say by setting it up in a sentence, maybe catching it in the net of a metaphor.
On the way through my 50s I could see signs of progress, producing manuscripts that required only extensive rewriting, not the abandonment of the whole sorry mess of a dumb idea. Revisions pursued through six or seven drafts allowed for the chance to find the right word, to control the balance of a subordinate clause, to replace the adjective with a noun. I didn’t enlist the help of a computer because words so quickly dressed up in the costume of print can pretend to a meaning and weight they neither enjoy nor deserve. Writing with a pen on paper, I can feel the shape and sound of the words, and I’m better able to judge how and why one goes with another, and on approaching the age of 70 I toyed with the hope that success was maybe somewhere not far away in a manger or on the near side of a rainbow.
Now I am 79. I’ve written many hundreds of essays, 10 times that number of misbegotten drafts both early and late, and I begin to understand that failure is its own reward. It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what’s at stake isn’t a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self.
The men and women Lapham writes about are all my age. But they’ve all been creators, have done something special, extraordinary with their lives. I haven’t. They make me aware of all I haven’t done in the same number of years. Also as Lapham points out, now in their 80s and 90s they haven’t stopped, painting, acting, singing, writing, running….
Now in my 80s this is where in my own small manner I join up with them. And while I have few successes to my name, if any, comparable artistic, intellectual, athletic or other life achievements, I do share very much with them a life when I’m writing during most of time left to me, and trying to write better, to better express my thoughts, and yes, as the philosopher says, trying to better know myself, and as everyone says, trying to go on with my own lifelong education.
Lately I’ve been reading Ayn Rand, probably because of the followers she has even today among the Republican majorities, first in the Tea Party and now in the House of Representatives, led by a life-long Rand follower, Paul Ryan. I’m not a fervent follower of Ayn Rand myself. For me her views were not complete. Or rather the coin of human nature has two sides and she wrote only about the one of them, individualism but not about collectivism on the other side. They need each other, are both essential for our happiness, and she never seemed to understand that.
But now, in my 80s, I very much agree with many of her ideas, in particular with what she has Kira Argounova say to Comrade Taganov (really Ayn Rand herself) in what I think is Rand’s best book, We The Living. (In the following text I have considerably edited/altered Rand’s text but I have not altered, I trust, its meaning. To read the original text go to Part1, Chapter Five of We The Living.) or see below Continue Reading.
Kira: “Haven’t you ever wanted, Comrade, a thing for no reason save one: that you wanted it?…And then when you’ve found it, and when you think you’re right, you do that thing at any cost?
“You have your ideals, Comrade Taganov, and your Party, no matter how much it promises to accomplish, no matter what paradise it plans to bring to mankind… there’s always one false claim that you and your Party make, one that will turn your paradise into the most unspeakable hell. This is your claim that man must live for the state.
“And you ask, than this, what better purpose can man live for? Don’t you know?” Here Kira’s voice trembled suddenly in a passionate plea she could not hide. “Don’t you know that there are things in the very best of us, that must not be touched by any collective, by any number of millions? Things sacred because, and only because, one can say of them: ‘These are mine alone.’ Comrade Taganov,” she whispered, “how much you still have to learn!”
The individuals that Lewis Lapham is writing about in their 80s and 90s show us clearly there are things within each one of them that only they can know and touch. They have been living their long lives to pursue what’s deep within them, for that which is theirs by nature, theirs alone. What they have done has not been done for something that is outside of them. And to some degree aren’t their lives telling us that the very best of us live only for ourselves?
In regard to my own life I would say that to the extent that I have lived for others, for family, my students, for organizations where I have worked, I have necessarily neglected myself. This is probably how most of us live, and probably most of us see it as the way to live, no longer for the State perhaps, but for others. Balancing the individual and the collectivity, —the two sides of the coin. Not like the men and woman Lapham writes about, where there was probably little or no balance. To speak in the language of Ayn Rand we are probably not selfish enough. They were.