It’s a journey like no other, and the only way to make it is to live it. Here, 10 writers ruminate on aspects of aging.
By: Marni Jackson
I have friends with cancer — we all do. What I’ve observed in them is not a loss of hope but a refining, a honing, of what it truly means to hope. It’s no longer about imagining some better, distant future; that’s off the table. It’s more about the task of seizing every available joy. Hope now means feasting on the possible.
One friend just flew to Lithuania to reconnect with her family roots. A colleague in his third year of Stage IV throat cancer is off to France to visit a pile of rocks that are important to him — megalithic “standing stones” whose origins and meaning remain mysterious. “In some gut-level way,” he shared on Facebook, “I think that to see and touch the stones again will dilute the terror of extinction that I live with now every day.” To me, that’s hope at work.
A third friend in remission from breast cancer organized a choir and then joined a second one, which has opened up a whole new channel of joy for her. (But don’t let me talk about “the upside of cancer.”) I recall spending time with another bedridden friend who was three days away from dying. I brought her some sprigs of lavender from her yard. She crushed them, inhaled them and feasted on their smell and feel, as if the lavender were a trip to Paris.
The famous line from a poem by Emily Dickinson describes hope as “the thing with feathers,” a bird perching in the soul. Oh really? I’d say hope is the thing with claws — it can turn on you if you are only trying to escape your reality.
So my friends with cancer have taught me something about hope, although not in the superficial sense of “dreams coming true” or “the darkness before dawn.” As we age or become vulnerable in other ways, hope is no longer a tomorrow thing; it’s about rooting ourselves in the joys of the imperfect present. Or as Leonard Cohen reminded us in his song Anthem, “Ring the bells that still can ring.” I think he would approve of another hopeful line from another poet, the Irish-American activist Lola Ridge: “You are laden with beginnings.”
By: Leanne Delap
I could regale you with the litany of the unwise youthful decisions that underpin my life story to date. But the first rule of Wisdom Club is: don’t talk about Wisdom Club. They have bouncers to keep out the braggarts and navel gazers and ruminant thinking.
The main thing about wisdom is that you gotta be cool about it. Going back to Socrates, there is a universal prohibition against claiming wisdom: “The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.”
Today all the best platitudes are busy being regurgitated on social media: a parade of hashtags embedded with ancient nuggets, disguised as showy vulnerability. Wisdom, you see, has become “aspirational content.” Which also means that it retains currency.
It makes evolutionary sense. We humans long ago mastered the alchemy to transform impulse into wisdom. It was a practical adaptation because, as we age, we found a way to retain status and purpose around the campfire by using our hearts and brains, rather than our uteruses and brawn.
Wisdom is balance. When we are young, balance is practical — saving for the future, knowing when to leave a party, getting five servings of vegetables daily. It is also boring. And when we are young, we avoid unpleasant things, reaching instead for that which provides immediate gratification, often manifested as a brooding bad boy (see above note on risqué youthful activities).
Lovers and friends come and go, children grow and leave, our bodies betray us, and bits begin to sputter. But, if we are lucky, that is also when we start to glimpse the silver lining. Making good decisions and a tangible difference in people’s lives in small consistent ways can be highly pleasurable.
The 19th-century French writer Alexandre Dumas summed up wisdom in two words: wait and hope. Hope is the secret sauce. It is easier to be hopeful when you are satisfied. Positive feedback, looped.
And older with a chance of wisdom sounds to me like a pretty nice forecast ahead.
By: Ian Brown
I once asked my father, who served on various secret missions up and down the coast of Norway during the Second World War how he had reconciled himself at the time to the fear that he might die. He was shockingly unemotional about it. “I just figured that if a bullet had my number on it, there wasn’t much I could do.” He played his odds. If he died, he died and wouldn’t know what he was missing. If he didn’t die, as he said, “it was all gravy after that.”
As he lasted into extreme old age, of course, he became less sanguine about his prospects. In his last months, terminally ill with a 98-year-old coughing heart, he cried at tables in restaurants when he needed everyone’s help to get to his seat. I thought he feared the loss of his independence, but I suspect now that his terror was deeper and more unanswerable: he suddenly saw how much people loved him and how much they would miss him, and that sweet pain made him afraid.
I never held his fear — of making others need him — against him. Fear is near the core of aging’s No. 1 lesson: that we have absolutely no control over what happens to us physically. You can pretend — you can fast on algae and give up wine and exercise until your skin and bone are one — but that’s just fear turned inside out, a tiny hedge against genetics. None of us know what is going to take us down and fail us last. But that fear is what makes us all the same and what makes us equal. It’s actually the door to liberation.
By: Will Ferguson
When Charles de Gaulle retired, the American ambassador asked the general’s wife what she was most looking forward to in the years ahead. She thought a moment and then said firmly, “A penis.” In the shocked silence that followed, Gen. de Gaulle leaned across the table and whispered, “My dear, I believe it is pronounced happiness.”
However one wishes to pronounce it, the sad fact about happiness is that it is often deferred, something we put off, something we will get to after the other items on our to-do list have been duly checked off. This can put heavy pressure on retirement. Finally, we can be happy!
I once wrote a story about a self-help book that actually works — and destroys the world. It was titled HappinessTM, the trademark sign being a symbol of what I saw as the commodification of happiness in our modern consumer society. I was convinced that happiness was an illusion, a chimera designed to sell goods. Now I’m not so sure. My cynical certainties, like my knees, have eroded over time.
When we’re young, happiness is closely tied to pleasure: food, love, music — moments. Happiness leads to joy, joy leads to ecstasy, and ecstasy by its very definition is fleeting. It dissolves like cotton candy. Then we become all serious and career-oriented, and happiness gets tangled up with ambition. Then status. Then family. Until finally, as Leonard Cohen sang, it comes round to your soul.
As I get older, I find that the meaning of happiness has changed. It’s no longer something to be doggedly pursued, nor is it something to be pushed off to a later date. It’s quieter, a state of mind, one that comes not from clinging to false hopes but from letting go, of accepting the life one has, of taking stock and feeling content with where you are and, more importantly, who you are.
By: Katherine Ashenburg
Ten years ago, in my 60s, I was a non-fiction writer with three books and hundreds of articles to my credit. I loved to sing but couldn’t read music and had never managed to learn a foreign language. Today, at 73, I’m singing in a demanding four-part choir and prattling happily away in faulty but improving Spanish. And, most importantly, after a lifetime of reading novels but never dreaming I could write one, I seem to have become a novelist.
When I told my friend, the novelist Jane Urquhart, a story about the marriage of two Swedish painters and she responded that that was the germ of my first novel, I thought she’d taken leave of her senses. But her intuition launched me on a 10-year journey in which I tried, over and over, to do justice to that story. The result, Sofie & Cecilia, was published this spring by Knopf Canada, and I’m halfway through the draft of a second novel.
I don’t mean to present myself as the poster girl for reinvention. But in my experience, the older you get, the easier it is. For one thing, we understand that time is not a renewable resource: age brings a very effective now-or-never impetus. It also brings perspective: if you want to do something for the work and joy it will involve, it’s time to stop fussing about perfection. As Montaigne said, “The journey, not the arrival, matters.” I still can’t read music at all well but I can learn the alto part of my choir’s repertoire by singing along with an alto soloist on YouTube. My Spanish is full of holes, but I decided just to jump in and keep swimming. As for writing novels, my dearest wish is for a good number of years to work at mastering my craft.
By: Anne O’Hagan
Five p.m. on a Tuesday, mid-winter. I’m sitting in the basement of St. Cyril’s Macedonian Orthodox Church in Regent Park in downtown Toronto. Teenagers drift in – by turns chatty, solemn, effusive, shy. Quickly they shed their coats to colonize the bare beat-up tables with all their energy, attitude and personal effects (mostly phones). The room is bathed in a flat fluorescent light. This is where I spend every Tuesday afternoon during the school year, tutoring high school kids whose worlds couldn’t be more different from my own. “Do you do History?” they ask. “Do” is what they call it. Yes, I say. With tutoring, I’ll take on anything. What do I have to lose? English, French, history, law, social sciences (just not my phobia subject: math).
So this is how I’ve come to read Romeo and Juliet with a 14-year-old Afghan girl, written Platonic dialogue with a 17-year-old (who had to Google Aristotle first), edited essays composed by children for whom English is a fifth language. East Indian, African, Asian kids, all new Canadians, trying to find purchase in this steep, craggy uphill scramble of life. There are kids whose ADD is worse than their English, kids who’d really rather talk about my hair and bright ones who know exactly why they’re there. If they boost their grades and qualify for a scholarship, they get a ticket out of Dodge.
To this, people react with admiration. Remarkable, they say. Every week? So generous. In Regent Park? Wow. But here’s the thing: it’s a two-way street. For every minute of my time I give these kids, unknowingly, they pay me back. Their currency is insight, appreciation, hope. These kids open my eyes, keep me sharp, make me smile. I see myself more clearly in this environment, surrounded by children who have no idea of their present and future power. That’s what “giving” is to me. I give to feel more like myself.
By Brian D. Johnson
Power used to be so simple. When I was a child in the 1950s, it was synonymous with divine progress, from the soft-touch power steering and power brakes on a V8 Impala to The Power of Positive Thinking — the bestseller that, along with How to Win Friends and Influence People,
pioneered mind control as a tool for world domination. The original self-help books. By the ’60s, the power of technology was full of infinite promise. Sure, we were the first generation to contemplate our nuclear annihilation. But a superhero would save us, a Kennedy who seemed invincible until he wasn’t.
Our own sense of power came easily. In the ’60s, we convinced ourselves that we could change the world. Power was something to be seized and celebrated — Flower Power, Student Power, Black Power, Power to the People. Power was a positive vibe, mobilized by rock ’n’ roll and magnified by a purple microdot of LSD that connected all the dots and made every molecule look good enough to eat. Steve Jobs swore by the stuff. LSD, he said, “reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money.” That from the man who created the world’s first trillion-
Now we have the connective “power” of social media, atomized into oblivion as we swipe left and right. Power is by nature political and inevitably corrupts. But it has never looked uglier, thanks to the White House Midas who turns his name to gold and the world to shit. Power is so ugly these days one hesitates to use the word without a filter. We talk of women and minorities being “empowered,” as if passively endowed. We apologize for the power of our words with trigger warnings. Meanwhile, we marvel at Marvel superheroes, munch power bars, take power naps and seek the power of self-improvement from the Goop galaxy of unguents and axioms.
We may no longer believe we have the power to change the world. But at this point, I’d settle for saving it with a some organic snake oil.
By: Kim Izzo
Love is many a desperate thing. Especially to a teenage girl in the ’80s. I had an urgent desire, an unwavering expectation that I would find everlasting love. The kind of lightning-in-a-bottle romance that would last a lifetime, a notion that no doubt came from the movies or maybe it was The Love Boat.
This youthful optimism lingered into my 20s, where the rom-coms of the ’90s promised that all a girl had to do was state her wish to the man of choice and voila! This approach was summed up by Julia Robert in Notting Hill: “I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”
Cue Pachelbel’s Canon in D.
In reality, my romantic relationships came closer to the decade’s fashion trends — grunge and minimalism, that is, messy and monochromatic. A starter marriage begun on a sunrise beach at 29, ended by divorce in a strip mall at 31, further beat down my idealistic view of love. Three disastrous relationships later and, by my mid-40s, I’d given up the pursuit altogether. It would be the solitary life for me. And I was fine with that.
As Hollywood tortured genius Orson Welles once put it, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” Given his own three failed marriages, he was an expert on the subject. But he had a point. Throughout my life, men have come and gone, there’s been undeniable rejection and heartbreak, but my friends and family have been as steady and true and happily ever after as any rom-com ending. And as I’ve entered my 50s, the love I have for these people and the love they have for me is a many splendoured thing. For as the novelist George Sand wrote, “There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.”
By: Shinan Govani
One of the inexorable things about getting older is that even though our lives get narrower — and, often, our opportunities — is that our worlds actually get roomier, more elastic.
Simply put: the notion of self is more self-ish.
When we are younger, we are, more often than not, bullet trains with room for one. Our experiences more vivid and our emotions more unregulated, we may move around with the phantasm of everything happening to us as if it being the first thing in the history of the world that has, like, ever happened. We may also give way too much authorship to our own lives, when in actuality so much of what happens to is due to happenstance and/or what we absorb from others. In the broader sense, it is as the great Oscar Wilde once tough-loved, “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
There is relief in that Wildean conceit, not just minor tragedy. It is the knowledge — paired with the self-knowledge that hopefully comes with having experienced more pain and loss as you age and having been knocked around a little by life — that we are more connected than we may have ever thought. And influenced. That the Butterfly Effect, as it were, goes back to the rock formations set by all the lives that came before you, and those that came before them. That, in the trajectory of our own existences now, we are far from individual moated island-nations — politically, for example, on a macro scale, how the hand in one nation can influence the lives of many in another, as can the environmental reach in one corner of the world send ripples elsewhere.
Long before the term “going viral” was a thing, our lives inevitably always were.
By: Elizabeth Renzetti
I have a radical solution for improving your life: think more about death. No, seriously. When you picture this earthly journey as an unending slog toward the horizon, the trivialities of the day seem insurmountable: Should I buy the full-fat yogurt? Scream at the guy who cut me off? Forgive my husband for not doing the laundry?
Now imagine that you have six months to live. The delicious yogurt is a no-brainer, isn’t it? You’d wave the driver through, thinking maybe he’s only got six months to live, too, and he’s on his way to see family. We’re so terrified of death that we train ourselves never to think about it, but thinking about the inevitable clarifies the muddy waters we swim in every day.
There is no better way to achieve that focus than to listen to the words of the dying. As the great neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in February 2015, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer, “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. … I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.” He would die, surrounded by loved ones and outlived by his books, seven months later.
When I’m pondering yogurt choices or fuming at other drivers, I try to remember the transcendent television interview the British dramatist Dennis Potter gave as he approached death in 1994. “The nowness has become so vivid that in a perverse sort of way I’m almost serene,” he said. “I can celebrate life.” He spoke with aching power about how he could finally appreciate the beauty of a plum tree in bloom outside his window: “It is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be. I can see it.”
Imagine being able to see with that kind of intensity because you knew the darkness would soon descend. It’s not easy, when we’re caught between the pain of yesterday and the unease of tomorrow. But think about it next time you’re trapped in a traffic jam. At least you have this moment, now, heart beating and eyes open. How lucky you are to have even that.