“Nothing, so it seems to me,” said the stranger, “is more beautiful than the love that has weathered the storms of life…The love of the young for the young, that is the beginning of life. But the love of the old for the old, that is the beginning of—of things longer.” ~ Jerome K. Jerome, The Passing of the Third Floor Back
There were a series of robberies in Madison last week, targeting customers exiting an Apple Store with their new purchases. I learned about this watching the news that evening. The very young television reporter concluded his report by saying, “One victim was in his 80’s, and the other two were in their 50’s, so the thieves have—so far—targeted only elderly people, but all of the store’s customers should take precautions.”
I winced. It felt odd to be grouped so tightly and certainly with people three decades older than myself, all of us now and forever stamped and dismissed as “elderly.”
The next day, a friend sent me a link to poet Donald Hall’s recent essay, “Out the Window” in the January 23, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, where Hall, a former poet laureate and now 83, writes about his experience of aging and the sense of growing “invisibility” he feels. “However alert we are, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life…but most important they are permanently other…People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be good-hearted, and is always condescending. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial.” (There are excerpts from the essay and a link to Hall’s audio interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross here: http://www.npr.org/2012/02/08/146348759/donald-hall-a-poets-view-out-the-window)
I’ve already begun to sense that gradual displacement from the cultural consciousness that Hall addresses: Television shows, movies, and magazines rarely reflect the lives, interests, or concerns of people my age; however, I don’t know if this is indicative of a sociological shift or not. There’s never been a time when society’s conscious and unconscious internal imagery and preferences were projected outwardly so concretely and preponderantly as our current technology allows. I’m sure my ancestors, when they were young, preferred the companionship of their peers as well, but they pursued this in relative privacy.
I suspect that the older among us have always been invisible to the young. I know I didn’t value the wisdom, beauty, experience or presence of my elders when I was younger. Although I’ve always had friends across generations, most of my companions have been contemporaries.
This aspect of aging seems to make Hall angrier and more melancholy than I feel considering it. (But, again, he has lived a few decades longer than I, and an entirely different life. I hope I’m not cross and depressed when /if I’m 83, but I might be.) I don’t agree with him, though, that the young are “always” condescending to the old. They’re just busy doing the best they can in their current stage of life, usually with the lesser requisite experience and wisdom to do better (from our aged point of view) because they haven’t circled the sun as many times. (This is not to say that older and wiser automatically occur in partnership, but it’s what I observe in my friends and hope for myself.) With any luck and awareness, they’ll have the chances we’ve had to learn and grow and age.
I think a lot of us “freeze” our self-perception at the time we feel most vibrant and energetic in life, and carry around images of ourselves that become increasingly out-of-date with the current reality others encounter, which is one reason I’m usually startled by mirrors these days. (“Yikes! What’s wrong with that mirror?” Or “Who the hell is that old bird looking at me so intently?”) We see longtime friends and older relatives intermittently, and our inner voice confidently smirks, “Wow; s/he’s really aging…” until we see a picture of ourselves sitting beside these people and they look markedly younger than we do.
The invitations, for me, are to laugh and carry on. I try to name and celebrate the gifts of age, and develop and share humor and compassion for its miseries. There are great possibilities and freedom in being perceived as invisible, after all. Losing the self-consciousness of youth is wonderful.
And aging brings much greater gifts. I’ve always treasured antiques, old pictures, and handworn objects. Now that my relationships have gained more mileage than I once thought possible, I also increasingly value the depth and richness they offer. Sharing decades of memories, journeying together through blessing and loss, and offering each other profound peace, laughter, compassion, and true familiarity (“family”) are just some of the priceless assets of lasting relationship, and only time can offer us these.
My “old friends” inspire me. One has begun a new career. Another just earned a degree and is pursuing her many artistic gifts. One is self-employed and successful beyond anything I can imagine. One is having his first play produced. No one is about to impose age-related restrictions on these people.
Old love offers sanctuary for reflection. My dogs’ sweet faces are sprinkled with white hair, and I know every bump, scar, and worn patch on their soft bodies. Holding them, I hold as well all the years of shared adventures and their precious companionship, and I’m grateful for the countless ways their unique personalities have changed and hallowed my life.
Old love reminds us of our power and bids us to use it with tender care. I look at my husband and feel both the earned and undeserved joy of the traveler who’s found the perfect companion. We know what the other’s thinking. A look or a word can trigger laughter or pierce the heart. We rest in each other’s silences and anticipate each other’s needs. We offer balance, revitalize each other’s spirit, and value each other’s need for retreat and silence. None of this can be taken for granted; the deeper we travel into relationship, the greater the potential for damage and suffering. Hearts so profoundly merged and spirits so conjoined are never separated without endangering lives, as we’ve witnessed in our own relationships and those of others who have loved and lost.
Old love is a privilege that demands our faithfulness and worthiness, but oh, the rewards long-term relationships offer us. The idea of constancy—stability, faithfulness, reliability—is finally grasped in a love that is old.
When I was in college, I was blessed to form amazing friendships with fellow artists—as we considered ourselves and as time has proven them all to be— in the theater department. We were young, vulnerable, smart, funny, reaching, and stumbling together, co-creating the people we wanted to be. We held our own and each other’s dreams, fought, forgave, transformed, celebrated, and set out on our paths knowing these connections were forever integral to our stories.
Throughout the years (and they are now decades), we’d meet again, in two’s or three’s, to honor weddings, assist in transitions, mourn losses, and lend support. In recent years, thanks to technology, these old friendships have been renewed and strengthened. One of our friends, as I mentioned, is having a play produced, and so this week I’m traveling to New York to meet with him and many others from my merry old band of brothers and sisters, and staying with a friend I love and admire beyond words.
I cannot wait.
I know there will be the initial shock: we’re all old! And I know as well that it will pass within a few heartbeats into the deep knowing and joy that fills our being when old love welcomes us and our ageless spirits recognize, reach for, and rest in each other’s arms.
Phillip has given me the gift of this lovely journey for Valentine’s Day, assuring me we’ll celebrate with a dinner and stories when I come home; only an old love like ours knows that “things longer” are just beginning.
Happy Valentine’s Day to All!
(And something for “Old Boomer Codgers” to read while I’m away this week: http://www.alternet.org/occupywallst/153972/new_rules_for_radicals%3A_10_ways_to_spark_change_in_a_post-occupy_world)
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