By Jenny White
December 31, 2010 — Today on the cusp of renewal, I read a singularly deflating article in The New York Times by Susan Jacoby who, on this sunny final day of the new year, took the opportunity to remind unsuspecting readers that we are going to get old and probably do so badly, and then die. Well, I, for one, had been planning to refashion myself in the new year — more yoga, fewer pounds, a new boyfriend, a mortgage-busting advance on my next novel. Won't work; Jacoby has that covered. It seems healthy living will not protect us from Alzheimer's, one of many left hooks the indifferent cosmos jabs in our direction. And forget that “late-in-life love affair” or “financial bonanza”. What awaits us is “unremitting struggle”, Jacoby warns, and we'd better get busy identifying a health care proxy.
But why tell us now? Why not in February, when we're sunk in darkness and cold, our backs thrown out by shoveling, primed to believe the bad news? Or November, when crumpled husks of leaves cling like forlorn bats to the naked branches. I'd be willing to contemplate mortality then. Not now when the gates are flung wide open. Of course it's important to plan for the worst. But it's just as important, I would argue, to hope and not to expect the worst. Hope lights the fire under our butts that keeps us moving, even as our energy fades to black. Yeats said it better (naturally):
Everything that man esteems
Endures a moment or a day.
Love's pleasure drives his love away,
The painter's brush consumes his dreams;
The herald's cry, the soldier's tread
Exhaust his glory and his might:
Whatever flames upon the night
Man's own resinous heart has fed.
Shall we sit and dwell on our mortality, expecting at the most some moments of grace in a wracked future? Or shall we pick up the phone and set up long-term care insurance, then open that bottle of bubbly and lap it up? The key to dying while remaining sane is to stay in the moment, the prickle of champagne on your nose, the caress of velvet against the thigh, the satisfaction of a well-wrought line of prose. Thoreau proposed that we
Pursue, keep up with, circle round and round your life, as a dog does his master's chaise. Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still.
Thoreau had people to take care of him in old age, you might argue, so he could afford to blithely run rings around his passions. On the other hand, he didn't have penicillin, so the prospect of death would have been as familiar as Christmas. Our advanced medical care has made us complacent about illness and death, Jacoby suggests, allowing us to think we can push it off indefinitely. Is Thoreau able to concentrate on his bone because he can do nothing about death? Perhaps the key to happiness (if not longevity) is to give up the illusion of control. (In that case, pass those chocolate ganache cookies!) Let's be real, none of us are in a position to deny our optimism. It's the bedrock of boomerism. We jog. We are what we eat. And by the time we get cancer, they'll have found a cure. Who moved my bone?
What to do? Is it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of decrepitude by dwelling upon them or to take arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them? Shakespeare's Hamlet thinks you might as well use your bare bodkin now to shuffle off this mortal coil and avoid “the calamity of so long life.” I propose instead that we do what we can to prepare for that long life, and then we annihilate time.
I'm not the first to think of this, although I'd gladly snatch credit from the Zen masters. Live in the moment: A sentiment overripe from use, but how many of us have actually tried it when wagging fingers insist that as responsible people we should worry about the future as well as prepare for it. The timeline is unforgiving, as we are expected to atone for our pasts as well. Adulthood is an extended act of penance (thrice-weekly gym and no cookies), and old age is your comeuppance for all those unrepented acts of wantonness. Time is society's dream of your life. It doesn't have to be your life.
One of my favorite poems, the one I reach for when slings and arrows get thick in the air and poison-tipped, is by Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I, for one, will rest in the moment allotted me, gnawing joyously on my bone.
Nothing is lost if we don't look for it.