I recently opened a Chinese fortune cookie and read: “You will succeed someday.”
Everyone at the table chuckled.
“After all, she’s almost 75 years old. If she hasn’t made it by now…”
“Well, that’s a nebulous promise, isn’t it? When? And at what?”
I kind of liked the message myself. After all, how many Chinese fortune cookies today contain more than vague platitudes?
Besides, there are more and more of us who keep trying to succeed at a very advanced age. What about the 105 year old woman who recently threw out the first pitch at a Marlins baseball game? What about Harry Bernstein, the fellow I mentioned in a recent post who wrote and published four really good books after the age of 96? Or composer Elliott Carter who was still composing and conducting until his death at the age of 103?
Before I go on, I guess I should try to define success. For a writer, it seems obvious that it has to mean at least some positive criticism, some significant impact on some one else who has actually read the book(s). In other words, it is made up at least partly by being known. By fame.
At least in its aspect as fame, success today has become more and more desirable. Ironically, it has also become more and more common. I mean Wikipedia alone must contain hundreds of thousands of entries. People kill for it and die for it. Most often, they reveal all for it. To be famous today is to be one of a mob.
And then, when you consider the universe Neil de Grasse Tyson has been talking about, the Cosmos seen only vaguely by science, and almost not at all by the rest of us, well, does it matter at all?
Still, the Chinese fortune cookie promised me success. And that’s kind of cool.
“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
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.
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.”
I’ve been away from this blog for several months now. The reasons are multiple.
I got caught up in the writing and marketing of two cozy mysteries. (Two more are on the way!)
I seemed to have nothing more to write about. Perhaps I had written such lengthy posts for so long, I was tired of listening to myself.
Like many other people, I’ve been caught up in the politics of our time. There are days when there’s room for almost nothing but. I don’t want to write political posts. There are far and away more of those than at any time in our history, and a lot of them are excellent. Unless I have something to say that’s truly new and important, I’d rather not indulge the urge when I feel it.
Blogging is like a lot of other things. If you stop, it’s hard to get started again.
At any rate, I’m back and hope to be for a long while.
There will be a few changes. I intend to make my posts much, much shorter. My favorite form of the essay has always been the question. I hope to post more questions and fewer answers.
I will, from time to time, tell you about my writing. You will notice that I’m putting up a website devoted to the subject. Please link to it when it happens —any day now, I think!
If you’re been around off and on, waiting for me, thank you!!!
How utterly strange, tentative and untethered our lives are. There are other words to describe our situation—many, many of them—but I won’t try to come up with them here.
Physicist and novelist Alan Lightman looks at “Our Place in the Universe” in a recent article in Harper’s magazine and tries to describe how small we are in a universe whose size is unimaginable—and growing. “Simply put, the cosmos has gotten larger and larger. At each new level of distance and scale, we have had to contend with a different conception of the world that we live in.”
How large? The most distant galaxy we know about, says the author, is approximately 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles from Earth. The average distance between galaxies is about 2 million light years. (Some of us may remember learning that a light year is the distance light travels in 6 trillion miles.) Oh, sure!
All of these are unimaginable numbers. They keep growing as astronomers are able to peer deeper and deeper into space. “A question naturally arises,” writes Lightman. “Could the physical universe be unending in size? That is, as we build bigger and bigger telescopes sensitive to fainter and fainter light, will we continue to see objects farther and farther away—like the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Yongle, who surveyed his new palace in the Forbidden City and walked from room to room to room, never reaching the end?”
Even more breath-taking, keep in mind that that distant galaxy is not only “farther and farther away” in space, it’s farther away in time. We’re looking into the past. We’re seeing the edge of the known universe as it was almost 14 billion years ago.
As Lightman points out, we can’t really understand any of this. Oh, there are people who understand it intellectually, “but our emotional reality is still limited by what we can touch with our bodies in the time span of our lives.”
The author calls attention to another bunch of figures that derive from the estimates scientists have made about the possible presence of life in other parts of the universe. They show that the fraction of stuff in the visible universe that is alive is something like one millionth of one billionth of one percent. “If some cosmic intelligence created the universe, life would seem to have been only an afterthought.”
So much for the significant human!
In the course of his article, Lightman mentions the philosopher, George Berkeley who argued that the whole cosmos is a creation of our minds and that there is no reality outside our thoughts. As a physicist, says Lightman, he “can’t accept that belief.” Largely because of science, most of us would agree with him.
But science has also concluded that the typical table is not really solid, no matter how it feels when you thump it with your fist. It’s made up of whirling electrons and other molecular whatsits. Reality is not what it seems. Something is there but it’s not exactly what we experience. It’s at least partly a construction of our minds which, by the way, would seem to apply to our incredible intellectual construct of the cosmos too.
Lightman’s conclusions are awesome, disorienting, frightening — all of that and more. But they’re far from the last word. Our relationship to reality is, I think, much more complicated than we know. We may not be George Berkeley idealists, but I’m not sure that it’s any more accurate to adhere to the materialism of science.
I remember wandering through Port Authority in New York City and wondering why, out of the thousands of people there, there seemed to be no one I knew. I’ve been convinced since then that there was someone, I just didn’t know how to go about finding them.
Last night I went to a concert of Gershwin music by six men in black, classical jazz musicians and, I would guess, almost my age. Incredible music. We all know it. It’s in our blood and maybe by now in our genes.
One of them, a trombone player, reminded me of a friend in Nevada. Nothing specific, something about the eyes and the shape of the face. According to the program notes he’d played with innumerable New York musicians and I thought, it’s not just his face, I might know someone he knows. I’d just contacted someone on facebook after years and years and she was fine, aside from some disappointment that she’d never achieved stardom. I knew she’d sung all over the city, and run a jazz club many years before, the same place I’d celebrated a birthday and moving to Vermont a quarter century ago. So, when I had an opportunity I asked him and, of course, he knew her, had known her many years ago, and played at her club. Who would have thought of it on a lovely Vermont summer evening?
That happens often. Some of my best friends in Vermont lived a few miles from me in California, and even though we didn’t know each other then, we knew the same places, felt the same sunshine, drove through the same grapevines.
It’s as if there’s a web, not the intentional one we usually talk about, but one that’s been there for decades now, that links us to nearly everyone else, at most six people apart, and often several closer.