Recently, we’ve had a heavy rainfall of books on the virtues and pleasures, the excitement and opportunity of living after 50. We’ve seen Gloria Steinem as beautiful as ever, more beautiful perhaps now the wind has made its mark on her willow-in-the-field look. We’ve seen Erica Jong, still playful, a blend of wit and hope, blue-eyed, smiling from the back of book jackets, inviting us into her private fountain of youth. We’ve had Letty Cottin Pogrebin, thin and svelte, very satisfied with the good things she has wrought, enjoying the passage of years. We’ve had Betty Friedan tell us that our chances of ending up in a nursing home are slim, reminding us that our creative potential is just budding and the years ahead beckon like the best of travel brochures, hinting at something very special at the top of the mountain.
All this P.R. for the virtues of aging makes me grouchy. A positive attitude about life is a fine thing, of course, and for those who can manage it 24 hours a day I have only admiration and chronic envy. But I suspect I’m not alone in thinking that a crock is a crock, and lasting a long time is not an unmitigated good. In fact, it might be one of the very worst things that can happen to you. Which is why when I read that, in the not so distant future, scientists might find a way to prolong our life spans up to 150 or 175 years on average, I did not dance for joy, though I still can. I winced. “Good years,” they said, “arthritis-free, brain-clicking years,” they said. “Sure,” I thought, “a new sucker applies for Social Security every 30 seconds.”
My anxiety has nothing to do with wrinkles and sagging or trembling muscles. That’s just the book cover. I’m more concerned about the inside pages, the things that are permanently writ on the soul. As we get older, we don’t so much get wiser (whatever the sages say) as more adjusted to calamity, more weathered by event, more worn out by things that we wished for and didn’t get or things we did get and didn’t wish for. Let me be specific. When I was a child and I heard of a flood in the distant Mississippi Delta, I could weep for the homeless and I could see the mud on the living room floor and in my mind’s eye I could see the photograph album, the wedding pictures sinking among the rocks, the branches and the rapid current. I felt a kinship, a sharp keen cut, a pain for those who suffered.
However, so many floods later, so many massacres later, so many cattle cars on their way to Auschwitz, so many bodies in the Balkan snow, so many little children with stick arms and big bellies in the Sudan, so many avalanches and terrorists attacks, train derailments and muggings in the park later, so many reports of child abuse and wife-beating and border wars and famine, and my inner skin is thick like the hide of the oldest rhinoceros at the water hole.
I don’t linger over images and brood over individual stories. I skip the tears. I give a universal so-what’s-it-to-me shrug. I know the score.
Something worse will happen tomorrow. I have retreated inside the border of my private brain. I give what I can, of course, but I imagine as little as possible. Ah, what a loss of the world this is. I balance my checkbook, sort of. I count the worth of my treasury. I mourn the losses of my expectations.
I will be surprised by little except the actual pain of whatever personal disaster comes to me next. I was a sweet child and I am so sweet no longer. This partial closing of the gates of empathy, this too is age, and I would be surprised if I am alone in this.
There was something wonderful in the early days of my motherhood when I thought I could create human beings that would leap from rock to rock, like sturdy mountain goats, and soak in the sunshine and do all the right things and pass my genes like shining gems along to their descendants. I was overconfident. It was harder than I thought, and the process has wised me up.
Whatever I will do from my 100th year to my 150th year will not be as fraught with drama, with real effect, with impact on my heart as this child-birthing, child-raising thing about which the older person can only say, “Ah, well” or “But for” or “If only,” or turn on the TV news. The work itself is over. Could I actually bear to visit a grandchild in the hospital with breast cancer? Do I want to see marriages collapse and vows be broken and the poet in the family turn mute and the banker in the family lose his funds? Do I want to be there for the next 1,000 emergencies? Not exactly.
No thanks. Sure I know that graduations, birthdays, celebrations will come, too. Would they be sufficient compensation for the bad days? I doubt it. The thing about getting older is not that the sun can’t be enjoyed, or the feel of a thirst-quenching drink on a hot day won’t please, or the hand of the person you love in your hand won’t always be a good thing, but that the odds begin to swing against you, and no matter how hard you try to brave it out, worse and worser will surely come your way.
I know this is not the right thing to say. It’s not the right thing to think. A million self-help books will probably arrive in the mail. But I feel we need a little balance on this age issue before they have us all signing on for double terms, re-enlisting in an army with a track record of sending its troops into battle unprepared and unarmed. Yes to the beginning of each new day … but in proportion, with dignity or clarity, with an honest acceptance of regret that certain things are gone, certain doors are closed. Don’t chirp at me about the wonders of age. I would prefer to be born again, a second chance, and if science could actually arrange that, I wouldn’t complain. Not me. However, I do not want New Age tracts, so don’t send those on, either. I am too tough a bird for primitive magic. I do not mistake fervent wish for truth itself. We don’t in fact get better and better as we get older. We just get older.
Men search out younger women. Women daydream. Booksellers sell books. Illusion spinners spin. Me, I believe with Dylan Thomas that we should go out raging, not making nice. But enough is enough, and 150 years is too much.