I have a span by now

So we stood up from our comfy seats in the movie theatre the other evening and did that mental shakedown while the credits rolled, back into the real world from the reel* world of the big screen, and a sensation of giddiness and gratitude popped in me, over this one thing: I’ve lived long enough to have a span of history available to me. I can look back, and it’s a view, like from a hilltop over a valley. I mean, the valley is a decent distance and it’s a pleasure to see it.

The movie was “The Post,” and I remembered those times, remembered the people Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee and Daniel Ellsberg, and President Nixon of course, remembered reading Graham’s autobiography, Personal History, remembered from my first foray into journalism at a national Mennonite magazine how type used to be set with metal, etc. And I felt this remembering’s capacity to summon other memories alongside, and before and after. I could reach along a line.

I think I’m trying to describe a store of knowledge that seemed in that moment a possession to appreciate, to roll in my hand like a beautiful marble, not merely for nostalgia’s sake, but because it’s mine and I still have it. And not believing for a minute that this store of knowledge is thorough or detailed enough—it’s simply not ever possible to pay enough attention in the moment—but, to mix my metaphors again, there’s a span to it by now. That’s what felt happy to me, and significant.


*Note: I do know that movies don’t come on reels these days, but since my memories of movies started with film strips in junior high…

On Drabble’s “The Dark Flood Rises”

We’re about to get a lot of this, I’m thinking as I read Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises (2016). Stories full of old people, that is, as a certain generation of authors gets old. Not that literature doesn’t have elderly characters — King Lear, The Stone Angel‘s Hagar, Gilead‘s John Ames come to mind — but I can’t recall reading a novel where aging is so relentlessly the theme.

51zpQxCwB2L._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Fran, 70ish, is center of a cast of mostly older folk being older in their individual ways. She races about the country assessing care homes for the elderly on behalf of a charitable trust, another person luxuriates in bed, and so on. Not much happens, though that’s not quite true — there are two falls, one hip surgery, and two deaths, plenty of drama for those affected. But in terms of plot, these developments are inevitable and inevitability is no page turner. Flood threatens, as the title suggests, be it a migrant inundation, a potential earthquake beneath the Canary Islands, or the swell and fate of the elderly.

I admire Drabble’s work; the book has good reviews. As sociology, it rings accurate, if rather pessimistic. (“The feeble…are outweighing the hale…. It’s a dystopian science fiction scenario, a disaster movie.”) But I find myself ambivalent. Maybe I’m too much like the novel’s Jo, who teaches a poetry class “On Old Age and the Concept of Late Style,” supposing it might be “ennobling or comforting or bracing,” only to find “it threatens to be lowering, this emphasis on age… depressing.”

As “old” in fiction begins to catch my eye, what am I hoping to see? What do I want from literature for this time? Is it realistic to hold out for nobility, comfort, a brace?

She says perennial, I say old

If I want to live this stage with integrity, I’ll have to accept the words that describe it.

Senior works well for shopping discounts, reduced fares, certain kinds of residences, and moments. Like the senior’s moment I had last week when I busied myself making gravy for our family Christmas dinner, forgetting for the entire process of collecting the ham juices, whisking in flour, adding salt and pepper and water and cream, that scalloped potatoes were bubbling in their cheesy sauce in the oven; gravy was not required.

Elder has overtones of honour, carries benefits and responsibilities, though elderly seems more bent and frail.

Old is a fine word, perhaps the best, a one-syllable word that sounds good when I say it, when I hear it: the opening “o” of awe or surprise, tongue tip reaching up then for the “l” and dropping decisively for the “d”. It’s accurate, the opposite of new or young.

Old, of course, is broad. I think it’s fair to nuance older person with categories like young-old, mid-old, old-old. My current experience of aging is quite different, after all, from my 95-year-old mother’s.

A Washington Post article, “In search of a word that won’t offend ‘old’ people” by Laura L. Carstensen recently appeared in my Facebook feed. Carstensen says that decades of trying to persuade people to wear “old” proudly have failed and suggests a word coined by Maureen Conners: perennials. I’d already drafted this post and recoiled. Perennials? That’s as bad as the obituary euphemism passed for died.

I, for one, will try to use old with pride. I’ll try not to be offended by it.

The stereotypes lie within

Someone posted a picture of a stubbled (corn, I presume) field on Facebook with the sign “Maze for Old People.” Well, ha ha ha, and good grief. I plucked up courage and commented, “with respect,” that though I may be losing my sense of humor as I get older, this seemed rather ageist to me. There was no reaction from the poster, or anyone else either. My first foray into activism on behalf of my demographic ruffled no stalks at the maze.

But, to be honest, I’m having more issue with ageist attitudes within myself. For example:

  • When we moved to Tsawwassen, British Columbia, I noticed immediately—and complained about it aloud, more than once, because I didn’t like it—“There are so many seniors here!” Barely realizing the irony of my words.
  • A friendly woman in our apartment building introduced herself and suggested I check out courses at the local Eldercollege. I acted keen but thought, Eldercollege? Do I look ready for Eldercollege? I felt as if I’d been invited to hang out with the cast-off kids in the high school cafeteria.
  • We drifted into attending our children’s church almost by default and before I knew it I’d been invited to the women’s North of 60 group. (It’s not a fan club for the TV show but a monthly meeting of older women.) Did they even check if I qualified? Did the white hair signal me again? They’re terrific women, but I have to admit, I’m a bit mortified that this is my group.

Clearly, the stereotypes lie within me as much as without. Resistance to old scowls back at me from the mirror. I need to figure out why.

Writing about aging

A Sunday afternoon in December, and it’s grey, and it’s raining, and I’m afraid to begin, though I’ve been thinking for some months about doing this blog. I keep putting it off. I have my excuses. Some relate to the technicalities of blogging. Others concern readiness. Am I old enough to talk about Old? Do I really want to crawl into that niche, observe and report, write a blog about aging?

Well, I’m 67. I’m old enough. And I’m already in the niche. Looking around. Noticing.

Niche means nook or cranny, a place set into. A cavity. Or a specialized section of the population. It can also mean a suitable position, with implications of call or vocation. All seem true. So, I will begin.