What is it to be old?

What is it really to be older? What is it to be old? When we look back fondly and say such things as “when we used to care about things,” are we not really trying to return to the past, to recapture it? Or are we trying not to face now? Why wouldn’t we want to face now? Is now so much harder than then? I wonder if then was really so much easier then than it seems to be now? Is now really so much harder than then?

Remembering is selective, of course. Remembering what made us feel good then generally makes us feel good now. Remembering what made us feel bad then would probably make us feel bad now. But either way we tend to regret (a really bad feeling) that it’s not then any more: bad things were losses then and good things are lost now. We’d probably be better off not remembering.

But to reminisce, to indulge in sweet nostalgia—are we not compounding a folly by filling the gaps in fragmented memories with syrupy creations akin to dreams in reverse? When we get old, really old and stop telling people we’re not old, just older—when we reach that stage, we could well have abandoned not only dreams for the future but even an awareness of now and exist live afloat in this sea of dreamed history dotted with islets of factual memories.

Is memory, no matter how sweet and soothing, enough to be a life? At best, memory is an inaccurate recreation of past sensations, a programmatically flawed raster rendition of past inputs. Yet this is the past we are drawn to, eventually becoming a reality generated from a dementia-jumbled conglomeration of memories swimming in a jelly of backward directed hope. Over statement perhaps, but not ill-conceived. What is it to be old and to try to live our not-old lives over?

What about the everyday old, when there simply isn’t much coming in? when memories begin to rub against the ankles of our thoughts, purring their need for attention? Do we slip into the warm waters of sweet memory and quit the dry world of the living? Are we zombyized—not quite dead, yet not part of the living, sweating, noisy world?

When we dream in our sleep, we are who we are. I am 25 or so, active and passionate—outside of age, but inside of life. But these are dreams. Perhaps dreams, like memories, are pulling us back to when we believe life was good, denying the goodness of our lives now, offering us a chance to start over, do that last bit again so we can get it right.


I have been wavering back and forth on this a bit. I feel a certain obligation to the organizations and institutions I have allied with in an effort to advance social justice and advocate for human rights, on one hand. On the other hand, I have felt an increasing value in the individual relationships I build when I do something to help one person at a time, pick up one piece of litter, respond to one confused traveler’s lost look. Perhaps what encourages me is the immediacy of effect these tiny effort achieve over the delayed incremental change in the worldly field of assaults and setbacks. I know that the effort must be made in that broad arena to forestall the opposing interests. I am increasingly unsure that it must be done by me. I am not sure I have the energy or the will frankly to take on the world. Perhaps if I were a little obsessed…but I am not. I am retired and feel retiring. I want to contract my life into a much smaller orb. I want to diminish my domain, and want to feel good about my days. At the same time, I do not wish to abandon those I have given to trusting me to be there, even though I feel rather ineffectual in that trust.
Is this disinclination to the broad playing field just a form of depression? Does the scant feedback I get fail adequately to feed my ego? Is this distraction a product of aging, similar to a reduced sex drive? Is it boredom or frustration? Certainly I have been irritated by the constant reordering of events that keeps me from ordering my own life. I am irritated by the failure of others to follow through or communicate. I am irritated by bouts of reluctance, intransigence and timorousness from colleagues and compatriots. I am mostly, and most ironically, irritated by the smallness of vision held by even those considered our most global thinkers, and suspect that much of that smallness is really calculated to distract those who believe themselves to have a global perspective.
Is my attraction to one-on-one interactions just a form of control over my existence, reduced in scope and scale by the shadow of mortality? Is it an immediate need to feed my ego? Is this attraction an illusion in aging, bending my amaranthine youth to vane voyeurism? Is it manageability of my life? Certainly I am rewarded with setting my own agenda and my own schedule. I am rewarded with regular appearance of compliant individuals who tell me ahead of time when they cannot meet. I am rewarded with willing and engaged faces who offer thanks at every encounter. I am mostly rewarded by watching the smallness of individuals’ vision grow steadily if not grandly to enlarge their worlds and improve their lot in life.
Perhaps this is just my Eriksonian reflective age. Perhaps I need to consolidate my ego around an assurance that my life was meaningful. As a teacher, perhaps I am inclined to coalesce this integrity around the act of sharing my findings with future generations, attaching this end of life with the other in a sociological reincarnation. Perhaps I am simply following the natural course of the event called Jay. I can, I know, no longer set major course corrections as I sail toward the inevitable horizon. It is now only the journey itself that counts. It is a journey that will end, but without destination. Under these conditions, my journey can only be right or wrong, good or bad as it proceeds, at the moment it inhabits, without reference to whither it goeth but to what it is at each moment. I feel I must live every moment of my life now, not as if it were my last, but as my only chance to have this moment. Each moment must be complete unto itself, not as a point on a route to some destiny.

Of Cabbages-and Kings

“As the years have gone along,
Our love it seems has risen and fallen
Like the chorus of a song,
Not sadly or coldly,
Nor badly nor boldly.”
“Not so,” says she.
“There was a time when it was clear,
When love and laughter,
Like sun and rapture,
Wrapped us in warmth and good cheer.”
“Not so much,” she says.
“But this is how it seems to me.”
“The love we have is what we’ve always had.
It’s not the love that’s changed;
It’s the lover.
Not the song but the singer.”
“How can you say that?
My love is part of me,
And thine of thee.
Our sharing is blending of these.”
“No,” says she.
“Love is greater than we.
It binds us to one melody.”
“For me, that cannot be.”
“Let us speak then of truth and other things
Of cabbages—and kings.”
%d bloggers like this: