“Here I am in my mid-70s, and I am wondering: Is now the time to take a final stab at unfinished business—to accomplish at long last the remaining goals on my lifetime to-do list? Or is now the time to step back, let go of my ambitions, reflect and just live?”
So wrote Daniel Klein in the Wall Street Journal a few months ago. I suspect that it’s not usually as clear cut as that. I do have one friend whose life is filled with activity. A poet and social activist, he’s also become a fine photographer and editor, a curator, an essayist, and more things than I can name–trying to get it all in before it’s too late.
Klein decides in favor of “friendship and reflection.” He’s happy to go to an island (many of us haven’t got the wherewithal to get there!) and contemplate life and death.
The new old age is the result of medical advances. We have time now to address our bucket lists; we can stay at our jobs and accomplish ambitions that would otherwise be lost to illness or death. Or we can let go and listen, think, wait.
I think most of us will probably do something of both.
WQXR in New York City is doing Bach 360 from now ‘til Easter. That means all Bach every day. It’s all wonderful and amazing. Bach is always so many more kinds of music and experience than I remember.
At the same time, I discovered two very different experiences of the composer’s music. The one is recounted on the WQXR website. At Stalin’s funeral in 1953, Sviatoslav Richter, one of the century’s greatest pianists, was asked to play the piano. He chose the longest and densest prelude and fugue from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The authorities tried again and again to interrupt him to make way for another pianist, but Richter, involved in the music, could not be distracted. He was finally removed bodily by armed soldiers, certain he would be shot.
Then I ran into the very different experience of another very different musician:
“For the past eight years I have started each day in the same manner. It is not a mechanical routine but something essential to my daily life. I go to the piano, and I play two preludes and fugues of Bach. I cannot think of doing otherwise. It is a sort of benediction on the house. But that is not its only meaning to me. It is a rediscovery of the world of which I have the joy of being a part. It fills me with awareness of the wonder of life, and a feeling of the incredible marvel of being a human being.”
- Pablo Casals, Joys and Sorrows, at the age of 93
A fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier
On occasion, when I drive from place to place in the afternoon in Vermont, I listen in an incidental way to National Public Radio. The other afternoon as I tried to pilot the car through the ruts and snowy trenches of what is almost mud season, except that another blizzard was on its way, I listened to The Story, featuring an interview with a young man who was trying to reduce gun violence in Chicago. The interviewer (Dick) was trying to get the fellow to describe high school students’ motives for acquiring guns. The kid talked about kids trying to figure out who they were in school, and needing to belong to different categories: ladies’ man, athlete, hero, nerd…. “You have to be in some category,” he explained.
The interviewer wasn’t especially interested in that construction, but I was. The secondary school assignation of categories still haunts me after all these decades. Some students were popular; some were squares; some were “cheap.” I know that breakdown varies from place to place and time to time, but it distorted and sometimes still distorts how I see myself and others. Scary to think of the harm it’s done. Hard to believe that schools can’t quash it. They might change the world.
Most of us walk around with time strapped to our wrists, and most of our watches are digital. We see only one number at a time. On the other hand, for those of us who still use a circular clock face, that number is seen in the context of many others. It’s located by moving hands. Time experienced as analogue has a wholeness and flow that digital time doesn’t.
Does this have anything to do with the fragmentation of our lives?
The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali
I and most of the people I know who are my age, or almost, forget the most familiar names with a frequency that would be more alarming if there weren’t so many of us doing it. I’ve been told, and therefore I’ve known to expect that early and childhood memories will come back with greater pungency as I age. I like to think it will make up for all those lost nouns! I hadn’t expected it to start happening quite this soon, but I do find, especially while I should be concentrating on practicing the piano, that memories of all sorts from decades ago cascade across my mind willy nilly. I may not get better at the piano, but I am enjoying the movies.
I am now 73 and still working hard at writing, still learning, still trying to form prose that says something and says it well. What gives me courage are other old artists. Take, for example, Louise Bourgeois who declared, “”I am a long-distance runner. It takes me years and years and years to produce what I do.”
Bourgeois made her greatest work after the age of 80. When she was 84, and an interviewer asked whether she could have made one of her recent works earlier in her career, she replied, “Absolutely not.” When he asked why, she explained, “I was not sophisticated enough.”
Try to put well in practice what you already know; and in so doing, you will in good time, discover the hidden things which you now inquire about. Practice what you know, and it will help to make clear what now you do not know.
- Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
Rembrandt took his own advice and painted many pictures of old age, and especially of his own aging.
Jonathan Jones, who writes about art for the Guardian, lists many painters whose attitude towards old age was either dismissive or negative. However, Rembrandt, he says, is “an artist to grow old with.”
“His unrivaled and sustained self-portraiture shows how he himself changed with time. As he ages, he sees himself more intimately: he stops pretending to himself. To compare his self-portraits at the ages of 34 and 64 is to witness someone grow in suffering and sorrow and, perhaps, wisdom. At 34 he looks proud, at 63 he simply looks human.”