|Jul/Aug 2014 Salon|
Image credit: CDC, Digital Media Database, www.genome.gov
I used to turn on the news first thing when I woke up in the morning. Not the local news or one of the TV networks, but NPR or my Pacifica affiliate. I work at home, my wife was at her own job two hours away. I needed some virtual company before I took up where I had left off work in my latest novel or short story.
Even on the more responsible stations, the news was never good, but at least it was about serious stuff, not the commercial outlets' shock-tales of tortured children and fiery car crashes. This more serious news was also gruesome—whole villages swallowed up by mud slides in the slums of Latin America, people blown to bits at a market in Pakistan by a suicide bomber who thought he was doing the will of God, my own nation's latest murderous adventures abroad. But it was real, it was my planet, and therefore my legitimate concern.
Over the years the news stories remained much the same: earthquakes and cyclones, wars and genocides. But I changed. Slowly and subtley I became more and more responsive to those horror stories delivered with my toast and tea. Until it came to a point I found myself tearing up when I heard about children smothered to death by an avalache of mud or dying of uncontrollable diarrhea thanks to "sanctions" imposed by my government.
And it only got worse. From tearing up I progressed to outright sobbing—not the best of digestives, especially at that time of day. I saw those kids dying agonizing deaths. I felt the pain of the weeping mother who had just lost child or husband to a suicide-bomber in Lahore or Baghdad. I felt responsible for the hundreds of thousands of children and adults my nation was slaughtering in the Middle East and elsewhere.
But I didn't think I had a right not to hear about these atrocities. So, I went on listening despite the distress they were causing.
Until one morning I switched it off.
I felt guilty, of course. Who was I to turn away from the world's miseries, I who lived free from want and mayhem? If I couldn't actually do something about that suffering, I could at least not forget it, not turn away from it. In any case, wasn't I reacting the way I was because I was a bit depressed, or just getting old, not because my moral sense had matured, however tardily?
In "An Elders Manifesto" (Eclectica, Salon Oct/Nov 2011) I wrote, "Who would have thought old age would be such a riot of strong feeling?" But now I began to think, Is strong feeling anything more than that? Does it indicate a heightened moral sense with all that implies and mandates, or is it just a kind of self-indulgence—tears for the unfortunate always being cheaper than actually doing something?
I suspect fiction writers and artists in general are especially susceptible to bouts of moral imperative. Unless we write mysteries or romances, we have very small audiences. Novels and short stories of the non-genre variety exist only on the margins of American culture, even among the minority who read books for anything but light entertainment. Those who dare, or are foolish enough, to contribute a new opus to the great trove of unread fiction already in existence can feel just as marginalized as their books would if books could feel. Getting involved in something that makes a difference—a cause, a movement, even an ad hoc, one-person crusade to help cure one of the world's ills—can seem much more relevant than producing yet another novel or short story only a handful of people will read. Even just keeping up with what is going on without attempting to do anything about it can seem better than willful ignorance.
But, whatever my motivations had been for listening to those morning newscasts, I stopped doing so. Chronicalling the personal lives of my fictional characters—a young woman's attempt to break away from a brilliant but oppressive husband, a clergyman's midlife crisis, a late-middle-aged widow's struggle to find the self she was denied by decades of duty to husband and child—such activity could seem petty, even selfish when a world was going to hell outsite my literary cocoon. But I had to choose. I couldn't give myself to my characters and to global warming, Darfur and police brutality. In the past, when I held 9-to-5 jobs, I not only had no energy left at day's end for fiction writing, my imagination refused to cooperate, exhausted—or, more accurately, coopted—by the demands of mind-numbing clerical work or emotionally draining social work. It was the same now if I allowed myself to become caught up in the famines and wars I was hearing about each morning. In any case, it wasn't as if I wouldn't still know what was going on in the world. I just wouldn't have to deal with it before and during the time I ordinarily devoted to my writing.
Besides, there's an unreality to that apparently real world of mayhem and atrocity. In most places, for most people, most of the time, daily life is concerned with ordinary matters of making a living, raising children, going to school, falling in love. Attending to these may be more of a struggle in most parts of the world than it is in my own, but the content of that struggle is the same. Most of us, even most Africans and Asians, don't wake up every morning to the sound of gunfire or the violent shaking of the earth. Even here in the United States, the chances of someone in my neighborhood going berserk with an AK-47 are too remote to think about.
But that's not the impression even the better news programs tend to convey. One deranged man's shooting spree paralyzes an entire nation with shock, even though such episodes are as predictable as the equinox. Ordinary events, a neighbor's heart attack, a child's graduation, someone in the family behaving badly, these are not newsworthy precisely because they're not unusual or dramatic or of public import. And even the violence that occurs in some neighborhoods does not make the typical newscast, because it's happening to so-called minorities. An innocent white man being stopped and beaten by the police is a genuine story for the news room, while the same incident occuring to a black or Latino is not.
But I still wanted company with my breakfast, not comfortable with just my own thoughts. It wasn't a physical presense I needed so much as something to distract my mind while I was appeasing the hunger in my belly.
I knew that some people meditate when they get up, but it hadn't occurred to me that staring out at the tall trees visible from from my fourth-floor aerie and letting my mind go its own way was my way of meditating. And keeping the mind free of extraneous thoughts and images while letting it wander freely is a good idea for somone who wants to call on inner resources to produce interesting narrative. It's also a good way to generate new ideas. Stuff the consciousness with the misery of the world's last 24 hours and you've put up a dam to the flow of that stream. Creativity may still flow, but it won't do so as freely as it will without that quiet time. And some days the blockage can be total.
But letting one's thoughts come as they will means having enough peace of mind not to fear those thoughts, not to mention having some confidence they will be good company. When I worked for a state drug rehabilitation agency, I was told by one of the older addicts that spending time locked up even in one of the benign facilities the agency ran was much harder for young people than it was for senior citizens like himself. That man was about the same age I was (30), so I understood what he meant when he went on to explain that at his/our age, you had plenty of material stored up with which to pass the time.
By the time I turned off the morning news, I had more than twice the days I did when I had spoken with that man. The problem was, I also had twice the bad memories, twice the remorse, guilt, and shame. At the age of 30, everything seems reparable, nothing is finished, no stupid or destructive deed can not be righted. Or, if it cannot be, there is so much going on in the present that the unpleasant and sometimes very proximate past is much more easily forgotten or at least put on a back burner to be repented of, if not corrected, another day.
Now there is no time left for major revisions. Most of the characters of 30 and 40 years ago, those still alive, are no longer part of my life in any meaningful way. The only chance for righting wrongs is to do so with those who remain close, especially those to whom I owe the most if only because of the many decades they have stuck with me. Old friends are treasured and missed beyond anything I could imagine in youth, even friends who used to get on my nerves or never seemed to understand. The ones who have survived—and it makes a mockery of the actuarial tables how many have not—can seem more family than family.
I started eating breakfast where I had a clear view of the treetops to the south. I also learned to defer some of my anxiety to later on, till after lunch at least, when I would be calmer if not placid. Life seems much more manageable in the second part of the day than it does at the outset when testosterone levels are peaking and the unconscious mind that has been in control all night has not entirely given up its dominion.
It worked. The view provides me with an object of varying spectable from day to day, minute to minute, not to mention season to season, on which my mind can lean while it gathers itself for the day ahead. And the great world beyond has not collapsed entirely as a result of my neglecting it for that hour. I know as much about it, more than I need to, as I did before, only without the emotional vulcanism its miseries used to cause me at that vulnerable part of the day. Most of all, my mind preserves whatever creative forces a night's rest has stored up without fragmenting itself hopelessly on reports of one or another atrocity.
Life is not short. It is long beyond our conception. Memory foreshortens it, eliminating almost all of what happens so our present is not burdened with an incalculable store of individual moments. This is no less true for a toddler than it is for an octogenarian, though for the toddler even one day seems endless and for his great-grandparent seems to slip away almost as soon as it's started. In each of their lives, though, is an unimaginable number of individual moments, not just Zeno-esque points of time but separate states of experience so numerous that they may as well be infinite. Almost all of them we forget.
As we get older, we forget even more, though the deep past, our childhood and youth, can seem remarkably vivid and detailed. What went on in between is a mystery. How we got to be 70 when we were just 50 the day before yesterday seems a cruel joke. We read books we read just a few years ago almost as if we had never opened them. The literature and music of our youth and middle years take on fresh meanings we were blind to in earlier decades. We start to see the bigger picture, and if we're lucky and don't accept the world's dismissal of us as yesterday's people or old fools, we share that broad view with those who have yet to achieve the perspective that long years afford us.
Of course, there's forgetting, and there's forgetting. Anyone who's watched a loved one descend into senile dementia knows the difference. We may have to make notes to remember to do things we would once have prompted ourselves to do like well-oiled alarm clocks. We may forget we have water boiling on the stove or even where we stored our summer shirts. But that is a far cry from, and not to be confused with, those who lose all recognition of what is most familiar to them, including who they are and who the owners are of those unfamiliar faces who look after them so lovingly, those strangers who insist they are children and friends.
I've seen this happen to a parent, but I've also noted that even when she no longer knew who I was, how old she was, or where she was, my mother retained her basic personality. I still could make her laugh, and she still had the same easy grace of manner she had when she was "all there." The memory had gone; the woman, at least at the core, remained. There may well be much worse cases than hers, but I felt and still feel heartened to find how much personality persists even when so much else fails. In those days we might have been speaking as strangers chance-met on a train, but had such an actual meeting occurred when she was younger and I actually had been a stranger to her, I would have been conversing with the same essential person I was talking with in the depths of her dementia.
One of the mistakes we make about old people is that we don't change even when we remain healthy, that someone at 60 is pretty much the same as that person is at 70 or ninety. Children are especially prone to seeing parents this way. They assume a parent of 60 is identical to that same person at 30 or 40, though those same children realize how much they themselves have changed between their youth and middle age. The old find themselves in the position of having to make excuses for a person they acknowledge was once themselves, but they cannot convince their offspring they have undergone an alteration since those earlier days. The statute of limitations on inadequate parenting never runs out for such children. I have listened to their bitterness about events that happened 50 or 60 years earlier as if they were fresh wounds, though the parental perpetrators are long dead and their accusing offspring are themselves octogenerians.
Of course, not all of us change, develop, deepen. Some by the age of 30 have hardened into an identity that is as solid and immutable as a petrified tree. Most of us, though, retain some degree of malleability. Some of us are capable of astounding development all the way into our nineties. An author may bloom at 75, a composer at eighty-five. And those are just the more dramatic examples of the kind of change we all undergo to some extent in old age as well as in youth. Life itself means change.
It doesn't happen in any significant way, though, without some effort and a willingness to consider a different point of view, any more than change occurred automatically in our youth once nature had done her job of forming our brains to physical maturity and affording us the basic, out-of-the-box tools of speech and other skills almost all of us are provided with. But the effort is worth making and one that shouldn't be hidden away as if we were ashamed of our continuing growth as human beings, adopting the younger generations' prejudice that old age should be a time of stasis, predictability.
So, welcome to the party if you are lucky enough to get here. And if you find yourself weeping over the world's woes, welcome to that as well. Heightened feeling is as much a part of old age as it was of adolescence. Respect it. There are worlds of joy available to you thanks to that sensitivity, along with a downside that is inevitable with strong feeling. Protect yourself from the latter, celebrate the former. Turn off the newscast if it threatens to ruin your day. But let the soul of second childhood in its best sense have full play without shame and without apology.