06 June 2011

Not for Sissies

There is a poster hanging in my basement from the days when my office lay on the other side of the room opposite the house furnace and the cat litter boxes. On some cold winter mornings, as I happily wrote, the air hung warm and pungent. Lining the walls of the basement were all of my books, almost organized into rather amorphous and porous subjects. The individual books themselves were alphabetized neither by title nor author, and searching for any book required that a) I had actually read the book and b) knew in approximately what category I might have placed it. Of course, there was no guarantee that the book would be found, and many precious private morning minutes were spent hunting the shelves for the absolutely necessary volume. Interestingly enough, many other unsought treasures were found in the process. 
Anyway, the poster to which I refer here pictures a shirtless, well-built older man (well, he is well past the age of fifty, I’d say), a man well used to the use of free weights and body-building apparatus and regimen. He stands in the poster staring defiantly out at me, his muscles flexed and poised, wearing a pair of tight and worn jeans, neé dungarees. And underneath him the poster pronounces, “Growing Old Is Not For Sissies.” I know that this man has been working out for years in preparation for his aging. I had purchased the poster when I was not as old as I am at present, but when I was certainly older than I was before getting older was ever an issue. 
I admire the man in the poster, but I think I require more than the caution he offers me. In fact, I want more explicit direction. Having never done this before, I don’t know how to get old, and the generation that raised me didn’t live through the Sixties, by which I mean they did not choose to experience the Sixties. Their 65 was the new 114, or thereabouts, I am told. I graduated high school in ’65. 
Oh, I know there are no rules for living, but I think I could use some signposts. For example, is the soreness in my shoulder arthritis or charley horse? Do I have costochondritis and need a regimen of Advil, or is that soreness a hint that I need a new bed mattress? Am I really overworking (as I think) or am I more tired from the same amount of work? Is what I tell my children the result of long-suffering wisdom or mere and ornery cantankerousness? What am I to make of my anxiety coming upon yet another set of stairs and the increasing frequency of urinations in what is already troubled sleep? 
Of course, these are rather silly questions, but I mean them quite seriously. It is romantic nonsense to say that I haven’t followed any maps up until this moment, so why should I be desirous of them now. Indeed, not to follow the available map is not at all to be free of maps; there are maps all about and always have been so. I marched to the beat of a different drummer, I boasted, but it was a drum that beat, nonetheless. Perhaps the issue that I consider now has more to do with the impress of time: I once behaved with a greater boldness, leisure and complacency when I permitted myself to get lost. Then I had no concern for time’s passage: time seemed illimitable and I immortal. Today that sense of abandon and have grown somewhat old and brittle. I do not move effortlessly nor with abandon. I have become more watchful. Chiron asked for death when he understood the terms of immortality. 
Montaigne says that to philosophize is to learn how to die: philosophy asks questions about the nature of living. Montaigne writes, “He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.” I am not perfectly clear what he means by this aphorism, but I suspect that to Montaigne learning to die means learning what to do in preparation for it, and that means learning to how to live. Or perhaps Montaigne wonders why anyone should bother to teach some body how to die when it would be so much more productive to teach them how to live. Death requires no teaching because it only happens once and for all. “Wherefore it is as foolish to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years from now as it is to lament that we were not alive a hundred years ago.” And so in the process of learning to die, Montaigne keeps the idea of death about him all of the time to remind him that he is not dead and that he yet lives. He must be active. I suppose this is a reason why I daily read the obituaries in The New York Times: while I read them I am not in them. “And there is nothing that I investigate so eagerly as the death of men: what words, what look, what bearing they maintained at that time, nor is there a place in the histories I note so attentively.” Their deaths teach me how to live. Because to learn how to die frees us from the slavery that fear of death imposes.” Montaigne must be about his business without ever forgetting that death occurs and will occur even to him. While I write about death I do not think of my death. To learn how to die is to remain engaged in life, for death will come when it will, and as Dylan reminds us, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” Montaigne knows full well that death is not life, and that life is action. “I want a man to act, and to prolong the functions of life as long as he can, and I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of my unfinished garden.” Whatever is unfinished remains still to do. 
So this getting old that is not for sissies seems to me to be really a willingness to keep on keeping onto continue to make mistakes and to learn from them. Learning how to die is, indeed, to learn how to live. I must go now: I have other seeds to sow.


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