Aging and Living

Anne Lamott’s article in O Magazine sums up some important pluses of aging and some downsides. Lamott unfailingly has something of value to offer. The article reminded me of her writing manual Bird By Bird, a truly effective aid to the struggling, defeated, depressed beginning writer. Oh the comfort she offers the writer reading with horror the first draft. And her chapter on the “enemy” perfectionism is a gem. You wouldn’t be scathing of your timid friend’s first attempts, so why treat yourself that way?

And Lamott has wise things to say of life. Living with oneself comfortably is a worthy goal. Don’t waste time with the unimportant. Live in the present, in the now as the lingo goes today.

And on that subject, the painter David Hockney had something to say in newspaper interviews this past week on the opening of his gigantic exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco. Hockney is quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “Life is a killer. We all get one lifetime. And there is only now. I believe it is not too easy to live in the now.”

And there you have it. He is right. It isn’t easy to live in the now, even though humans have long pondered it. The ancient Chinese philosopher and teacher Lao Tse, now spelled Laozi, long long ago is supposed to have said, “If you are depressed, you are living in the past; if you anxious, you are living in the future; if you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

Mom holding Jimmy age 18 months. Mom is wearing glasses and a tan sweater; her gray hair is held back by a clip. Jimmy is wearing a green jacket and green hat.

I like the thought of living in the Now with a capital letter. Sometimes, much more often than in the past, I do live in the now. In the garden, weeding and watering and planting; being with friends, exercising and lunching and laughing; walking in the neighborhood, seeing the gardens, the trees, those wonderful ridiculous palms with the long, spindly trunks, thrusting up into the sky. And when you are 90, the future offers less to be anxious about; whatever it is will be short. And while the past is long, long years that stretch out behind, still the mind and memories mellow and soften and some things happily drop out.

And those fading years make it easier to forgive oneself. What a delight it was for me to discover Wislawa Szymborska, the modern Polish poet. There are no rehearsals in this life on earth, she says. We arrive “improvised” with no chance to practice or rehearse, and we are “on” from birth to death. No dress rehearsals.

In her poem, “Life While You Wait”, Szymborska complains:

Ill prepared for the privilege of living
I can barely keep up with the pace that action demands

Words and impulses you can’t take back
Stars you’ll never get counted
Your character like a raincoat you button on the run
The pitiful results of all the unexpectedness.
If I could just rehearse one Wednesday in advance
Or repeat a single Thursday that has passed
But here comes Friday with a script I haven’t seen
Is it fair I ask?
(My voice a little hoarse
since I couldn’t even clear my voice offstage).

And whatever I do
Will become whatever I have done.

All that she says is true. We did what we could with what life offered. Still there are times and happenings to look back on that comfort and warm the spirit.

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