Tag Archive | old age

How old are you?

I have often noticed and sometimes remarked on how, as I age, my self-image is different from what I see in a mirror. I’m not sure if any of us ever manage to coordinate the two. We continue to see ourselves as younger than we really are. There are a plethora of quotations from the famous and not so famous about the problem.

Said E. B. White, “Old age is a special problem for me because I’ve never been able to shed the mental image I have of myself – a lad of about 19.”

Charles Olson declared, “I remember way back when I was young, 10 years ago.”

And from Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.”

My favorite of the more recent remarks I’ve read isn’t so much about old age as just aging generally. It comes from Margaret Atwood. “I believe that everyone else my age is an adult whereas I am merely in disguise.”

The most comforting statement comes from Madeleine L’Engle:  “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”


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Nostalgia in old age

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As we age, I think many of our memories grow more poignant. We know in a way we haven’t before that the people, places and times represented by them won’t be repeated. Because they have that extra dimension, they’re more powerful. More moving. And therefore more important for art.

A utilitarian view of nostalgia.

Here we are, old. Which direction will we take?

“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.


The old and the news

Mike Wallace, June 10, 2007. Photo by Terry Ballard. Creative Commons.

Has anyone noticed lately that there seems to be a growing number of old people on television, especially in the news, and especially on CBS.  I’m reminded of that fact by the death of Mike Wallace at 93. He retired from “Sixty Minutes at 88.” Andy Rooney was well into his nineties when he left the same show. Morley Safer is in his 80s; Bob Simon is 70; Steve Kroft is 66; Charlie Rose is 69.

On the distaff side of things, Lesley Stahl is 70, and Barbara Walters, who appears mostly on ABC,  is 74.

Maybe, just maybe, the American public will get used to looking at old people doing important things on TV, even though many stations seem to have a raft of youngish women news anchors I have trouble telling apart. And I don’t mean to forget the old days and people like Walter Conkrite and Harry Reasoner.

Probably most impressive to me is Elizabeth Palmer (also CBS), who is fifty-something and who has reported from many wars in the last year or so. It’s so wonderful to see a woman reporter who looks different, who has an older woman’s voice, and who is so obviously intelligent.

As our numbers grow, some of the clichés about older people will inevitably disappear. I hope.

Remembering is so complicated, how do we do it …. ?

I’m still reading Searching for Memory:The Brain, The Mind and The Past. It’s a long book and I may be at it for some time, but never fear. That doesn’t mean that every post will be about it, especially as I’m finding it somewhat dispiriting. Most of the book is about the complexities of remembering. It’s not just that memories aren’t like the movies. They’re the product of scraps of things actually remembered, and of the hard work of reconstruction of time past—using the expectations, the imagination, the general knowledge of the self and life, and God only knows what else.  As I said, I’m still reading.

Nevertheless, Daniel Schecter, the author, does close on an uplifting note (yes, I’m one of those people who read the conclusion of a book before its middle):

On balance, however, our memory systems do a remarkably good job of preserving the general contours of our pasts and of recording correctly many of the important things that have happened to us. We could not have evolved as a species otherwise. Memory is a central part of the brain’s attempt to make sense of experience, and to tell coherent stories about it. These tales are all we have of our pasts, and so they are potent determinants of how we view ourselves and what we do. Yet our stories are built from nay different ingredients: snippets of what actually happened, thoughts about what might have happened, and beliefs that guide us as we attempt to remember. Our memories are the fragile but powerful products of what we recall from the past, believe about the present, and imagine about the future.

One more note: Schecter cites the tendency of older people to think about the past. There was a time when it was thought that “living in the past” would produce depression and despair. The attendants in nursing homes discouraged it and recommended bingo instead. Today, older people in institutional settings and without, are encouraged to tell their stories of the past.
Schecter worries that computer memory is replacing the story teller in our culture. If he were writing today instead of the 1990s he might be reassured: the many, many blogs by older writers on the internet are filled with stories of the past. The genealogy and the oral histories that it encourages are greeted enthusiastically by the culture.
Schecter argues that elderly story tellers play a major and creative role in connecting the past with the present. One of the most damaging things done to Native American societies was the discrediting of the elderly story tellers in their midst.

In today’s Time Goes By (still the premier blog for issues related to aging), Ronni Bennett talks about a New Year’s article by Oliver Sacks in the New York Times about the plasticity of the brain and how it can be rewired by most of us. He writes:

While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas—especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions—can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older.

While this is no longer news, it’s  just as exciting as it was the first day it was cited. As usual, Sacks makes the subject come alive with stories of individuals who have put it to the test. But he also poses some interesting questions: “That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? ….”

My favorite example is that of Eliza Bussey, “a journalist in her mid-50s who now studies harp at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, who could not read a note of music a few years ago. “In a letter to me,”  says Sacks,  “she wrote about what it was like learning to play Handel’s “’Passacaille:’” ‘I have felt, for example, my brain and fingers trying to connect, to form new synapese. … I know that my brain has dramatically changed.’”

And since I’ve been trying to play the piano again in my late 60s and 70s—hoping against hope that there will be no arthritis, no stroke, not anything, to stop me… Eliza Bussey’s story is one I especially like.

Photo by Jeff Greenwood. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Anna Halprin and Breath Made Visible

I’ve always been a self-conscious person—and that’s not the same thing as a conscious one. My vision of myself is no more acute than anyone else’s, rather less so, I think. I’ve seldom been at ease dancing, and in general I feel more awkward than graceful. That probably won’t change, but I’ve learned a lot about movement and the body lately, and it’s worth recounting for those who know as little as I have.

A couple of years ago I had several sessions with a practitioner of Feldenkrais, a method of increasing bodily awareness and reducing pain. I had heard that the methodology was especially beneficial for artists (in my case, a piano-player with tendinitis). I know little more about it than I did before the experience, but I did learn one very important thing: the very slightest of movements or the most ordinary change in physical positions can make a remarkable difference.

Now, as I practice the piano, I am learning that the slightest difference in pedaling, fingering, whether a note is held long enough or phrasing taken into account, makes a difference in the sound I make, and the sound I hear.

This week, I discovered Anna Halprin. For those of you who know who she is, I can only hold my head in shame. Why hadn’t I heard of her long ago, way before she was past 90 years old. While I was still in the San Francisco Bay Area! Life is so full and we miss so much!

From Breath Made Visible

Anna Halprin is called the founder of “post modern dance” but says of that description: “I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.” Back in 1955 she started the San Francisco Dancers Workshop. Not many years later, she and her company caused a scandal when they used full nudity in a dance piece—not for the sake of showing naked persons on the stage but because she was interested in exploring the ordinary movements of everyday life as art. When men and women in black pants and white shirts began to dress and undress over and over again in slow cadence, some in the audience began yelling and throwing shoes. Halprin simply brought them into the dance too.

Early on she left the proscenium stage behind and made dance happen on city streets and meadows, and especially on the outdoor deck that she and her husband (a landscape architect) helped design in a redwood grove on the steep hillside below their Marin County home on the side of Mount Tamalpais. Her dancers (who were mostly non-dancers in the professional sense), explored “working from nature,” discovering something in the woods and working from their impressions of it.

She also became deeply involved in peace and justice movements. Hers was one of the first dance groups to explore race relations in her 1969 Ceremony of Us. More recently she and her dancers created the Planetary Dance, a dance for peace that is today still celebrated annually by hundreds of people on the hills above the Pacific Ocean and in nearly fifty other places around the world.

When I started reading about her and looking at her dancing on YouTube, I was first moved by her—she’s instantly and deeply likable. Secondly, I was attracted to a quotation: “Aging is like enlightenment at gunpoint. Before I had cancer, I lived my life for my art. After I had cancer, I lived my art for my life. I’ve always said dance is the breath made visible. That covers about everything because once you stop breathing and the breath is no longer visible, you stop moving.”

That quotation deserves long and thoughtful silence.

As a cancer survivor and dancer, Anna Halprin has worked with aides patients and cancer patients. (When she first discovered she had cancer she devised a dance for her own healing. In 2004, she did the same when her husband architect Lawrence Halprin was ill.) As she’s grown older she’s also worked with elderly people. In every case, she helps people become conscious of their own movements, take them up and embrace them, and learn from their own bodies. Watch her; it’s extraordinary.

I’ve only seen moments of it on Youtube, but someday I hope to join her, probably when she’s 100 plus, and others our age and younger in Seniors Rocking, a dance she made with some 50 participants between the ages of 65 and 100 performing in rocking chairs next to a lagoon.

From the film Seniors Rocking.

P.S. There’s a new film of Anna Halprin and her work called Breath Made Visible. I intend to run, not walk, to find it and see it. Both it and Seniors Rocking are available on DVD. Check it out!

Stop the world. I want to get off!

I’m writing this a day earlier than I normally would because my computer needs a period of rehabilitation. Professional help is so expensive, I hesitate, but the poor thing isn’t getting better and there’s been no miracle though I’ve prayed for it, God knows, I’ve prayed. So this will be a short early post that I’ll put up and schedule for tomorrow while my machine is in rehab.

Sort of.
It remains problematic.

There’s a friend who won’t cost a dime and who thinks it just needs a makeover. A take it down and start over sort of thing. She promises to help. As I say, she’s cheaper and the professional costs $80 an hour.

Multiply the professional by a few hours and what do I get? Very possibly an answer to the question: would a new computer have been cheaper?
On the other hand, my friend is an amateur. A rank amateur. Multiply that by a few hours and what might I get? A nervous rash, hysteria, and again, the same unsettling question: should I have just bought a new computer? Do I still have a choice?

I really can’t afford and don’t want a new computer.

Anyway, as I explained, this will be an out-of-order, short short post, posing one of the other conundrums I’ve thought about over the years.

Rainer Marie Rilke, who was one of my favorite writers as a college student, and who never made it to old age, wrote a sketch in his youth of a man who became aware that the earth was turning under his feet. (A warning: I’ve never run across that bit of writing again, and so the way I’m addressing the problem may be at odds with his.)

Rainier Maria Rilke, 1906. Painted by Paula Modersohn Becker.

There was vertigo, of course. And a choice to be made. Should he, under the circumstances, try to keep up with it? Should he try to ignore it? Should he just sit very still and hope it stops? Or should he try to outpace it… out-turn it so to speak? Get ahead of it?

One more question: supposing someone has managed to live with this affliction into old age, is it likely to get worse or better? Might their response to it change?