The Other Art

A maple tree in Autumn when the leaves change color to bright red and orange.

How do we deal with the inevitability of aging? How do 'the youth' perceive 'the elderly?' Credit: Creative Commons / Kloniwotski.

Two minutes ago I was a smart, opinionated, recklessly healthy thirty-something, mostly obsessing about whether there were any single, heterosexual men left in San Francisco, where the next party might be, and how to get through Sundays.

A bachelorette, I ate and drank anything. Sometimes I drank too much, soothing myself over the latest crashed romance. I'd jog the booze off next day at Golden Gate Park, then resume the cycles. Schmooze, obsess, self-medicate. Repeat.

Nothing would ever change, since I was going to live forever.

I'd been born immortal, you see. In my mind, and in the minds of my friends, we'd all simply sprung into the world fully formed like mythological gods: young, good-looking—and as a matter of fact, yes, immortal.

It was—in the words of author Martin Amis—really too bad about the others.

Those others had had the unfortunate luck, it seemed, of being born old. Well, it took all kinds, didn't it? And we, the young, pretty ones, could easily find or fake the generosity to jolly those luckless oldsters along. We could cheerfully shake their hands (only a little appalled by their soft grips, papery skin, delicate bones, faintly mildewed smell). We could chat with them, ask how they were getting on. We found ways to look interested in their answers. We listened, even if the answers bored us. Silently, however, we relegated the oldsters' thinking and experience to the Irrelevant pile.

I'm not proud of this.

It gets worse. We reckoned the old people's invisibility, their physical frailty, to be their own fault. That's right, their fault. A loss of will. Their will. Here is youth's most shocking, unthinking cruelty—one I can only surmise is ancient, perhaps animal-driven, the way some herds leave aging or wounded members behind.

Of course, that debate—about how much we decide what we become, how much body follows mind—never ends. But try to catch your own silent judgments, any hour of any day. How quickly, often uncharitably, we assume what we do!

So it was their own doing—the elders' dullness, their bodily failures. They'd dropped the reins, fallen asleep at the wheel, given up their grip.

Whereas my friends and lovers and I—well, we ran the world. We were smart and beautiful. Handily, the world tended to be as big and sparkling as we needed it to be—like a solitaire diamond we extended our hands to admire, turning it this way and that in the light.

We had forever, don't forget.

Then, like Hemingway's definition of going broke—slowly at first, and then very, very fast—a series of strange shifts occurred.

My gorgeous besties began to marry and have kids. They left the expensive city. They posted photos and newsletters on social media. Their kids were adorable, clever, exhausting.

Five minutes on, those kids were graduating high school. Thirty seconds later, they finished college. They joined the military, took jobs, and began to post their own photos from South America, Italy, Monterey, Times Square—and then from hospital birthing rooms.

Agog, I beheld my besties cradling a scrinch-faced, breadloaf-sized grandchild, sometimes crowned with feathery hair and eyebrows to match.

A black and white photograph of an elderly woman watching the photoshoot of a young model.

Credit: Jenna Rutanen, Old People-Young city.

Then I became one of them. My husband's older son and his beautiful wife produced two perfect little girls. Howdy, my husband croaked as they placed an exquisite, scowling infant, her small fists clenched as if to punch someone, into his arms.

But wait—stop this movie.

Those had been the little kids, those parents—smiling, handsome, wise, baby-making. They'd been the kids. Right?

Ah, but the movie stops for no one.

I gazed at the grandparents—my immortal besties—in the online photos. They were thinner, more brittle. Or they were doughy under aloha shirts, their hair more silver or gray. I stared at them.

I stared at myself.

What happens next is the unsexy part, the no-magic-wand part.

I've changed all the names.

Calvin has a fibrillating heart. After umpteen procedures, he's okay—for now. Raymond's grown huge, eating and drinking whatever he wants after a diagnosis of stomach cancer. Gene collapsed at his job one day, thin as a stick but suffering high blood pressure. Barry walks with a cane because his extra weight buckled his knees and ankles. Fred, who lives alone, has begun to say the same things over and over. He forgets what you've just told him.

The women fare worse.

We survivors form a colorful garden of humbugs. It takes longer to bounce back from colds and viruses. Sleep giveth one night; taketh away another. Muscle and bone rebel with no traceable cause.

Remembering is harder. Driving is no fun. Everything you put in your mouth, you feel and wear.

We're on statins. We can read lab results.

Most weirdly: people have begun to look through us, or past us.

Us! We who'd always owned the scene, created the action: we, the future's hope—we who turned heads, the sexy, spunky royalty.

It seemed to happen, I insist to you, slowly. Then very, very fast.

I am now the same age as Bonnie Raitt and Meryl Streep. Knock wood—hug wood, kiss wood—I am strong, clear-minded, fruitful.

But I have a friend who is thirteen years older than me, who lives on the other side of the country. She is a widow: a warm, gifted, articulate writer. Her three grown children visit her often. I admired a book of hers years ago, wrote a fan letter. We've been e-pen-pals ever since.

My friend just buried her older brother. Periodically I hear from her—this lively, creative, curious, modest, sturdy, uncomplaining, astute being who works out at the gym, travels, reads deeply, and makes regular pilgrimages to see theater and art. She worries that she and her (86-year-old) boyfriend are "losing intellectual ground." Their friends are starting to die, or suffer incapacitation.

I tell my husband about my friend.

(He is the man who braved odds, back during my bachelorette days, to drive the hour south to San Francisco, for a blind date with me.)

A black and white photograph of an old person's hand.

We reckoned the old people’s invisibility, their physical frailty, to be their own fault. A loss of will. They’d dropped the reins, fallen asleep at the wheel, given up their grip. Credit: Iris Vallejo.

My husband looks at me. "It's all," he notes quietly, "going in one direction."

Be clear, however. Pain and loss are not the only door prizes of aging. And contrary to popular thought, older people don't just hang out in timorous little clusters glancing at the sky every five minutes to make sure nothing's falling on them. There's a hella lot of joy. If we're lucky there are still swaths of time—time for friends (of all ages), for family, fabulous meals, art, books and music and film and stage, sports and fitness, travel.

Beauty. Heroism. Wonder.

Oh, yes: and sex.

Realer than real—if we're lucky, steadily so.

But to come full circle: when we're young, the humbug of aging seems a distant country. We avoid thinking about it, for fear it will hex us. Then, too quickly, our parents have moved there—at first, with wit and equanimity. Inevitably, of course, the people who gave us life begin to falter, and one day, vanish.

Then, somehow—we and our friends find ourselves stepping across that far country's borders, being waved through customs.

Something smells faintly mildewy.

In other words? I'm catching up with my pen-pal.

As Wendy explains to a revisiting Peter Pan, who is horrified to see that despite their vows, she has grown up: "I couldn't help it, Peter."

I sat the other morning in the warming sun with my coffee, peering up into the fluffy green Japanese maple that shades our backyard, home to generations of finches and jays and robins—robins who hold parties in that tree every spring, drunk on purple-black privet berries and swooping recklessly, cackling.

Sometimes my husband and I conduct little mock-arguments about which season we love best. We end up admitting that we love them all for different reasons, the way you love each child in your life for different reasons.

That morning I began to understand, somewhere behind my ribcage, that the amount of time between my older friend's realities and my own has shrunk. Her shocks and setbacks no longer seem exotic, random bad luck, or fallout from lapsed control. I saw that it falls to me to make, for my friend, a small effort of imagination, which may also surely be called love—the kind of love I know I will need when the same soul-crushing trials close in.

A small effort of imagination, late in the season.

The art of losing isn't hard to master, wrote Elizabeth Bishop. No man is an island, wrote John Donne. Loss may be one art—one definition of living. There are others. Every man is a piece of the continent, added Donne, a part of the main. It strikes me that at our best, as a species, when one of us loses, everyone feels it. And that despite everything, many of us, with no hesitation, flock to steady the one who has lost. It happens around us all the time: a reflex. But that reflex feels more urgently important now, a gentle mandate. A matter of the heart, taking a walk.

What might it look like, this latter-day awareness? What form might it take? Borrowing the great question of art: How, then, shall we live?

I suspect that the best answers are invented on the spot, case by case—holding tightly to that single mantra well known as the oldest of measures, the Golden Rule.

What would I want? How do I (how does anyone) long to be treated?

I would hope, first, to be heard. Playwright Arthur Miller got it right: Attention must be paid. So one listens: with care, seriousness, and if possible, with compassion—meaning nothing more nor less than that above-noted, small act of imagination.

Second, I would hope to be seen: as a living being with fertile, evolving possibilities, a being whose story is not over any more than any 30-year-old's story is not over. Forget, please, actuarial numbers. What matters is the living human before you, bearing heaven knows what extraordinary history—and still, yes, a future.

So one listens. One sees. One takes in the story. One lets the story enter the heart, and  lets it circulate through. And then one works to give back the kind of engaged response one would most like oneself to receive. If real interest and affection can flavor these transactions, terrific. But if they can't, respect can. Respect for the unilateral effortfulness, the daily heroism.

A cup of coffee. A film. A concert. An e-mail. Is someone's hearing shot? Then shout!

Finally, never least, one offers help—if only in the form of a grasped hand, an expressed wish to continue. Let's carry on. Let's talk again. Do you need anything? These guidelines do not mean reverting to facile Girl Scout tenets, or to some prissy almanac of manners.

They point only to the felt human gesture that makes us better. The other art.



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