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The beauty of the aging brain

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Why after a lifetime of listening to rock and roll and folk music, am I brought to a state of rapture hearing classical music at sixty years of age? The Requiem in D Minor, a choral masterpiece by Mozart freezes me in my tracks and embraces me in murmurs of heavenly ascendance. Glenn Gould’s rendering of Bach’s Concerto after Alessandro Marcello in D Minor has me crying for the world’s innocents. As I listen, I imagine a black leotarded dancer here in a graceful shadow. And it is not only music that pushes me to transcendence these days. It seems my early religious training was wasted on me, the young barbarian heathen. Despite a baptism at a week old, I made my way through twelve years of Catholic school, like a pagan, resisting lessons while mimicking them like a trained monkey. If I were more open as a child, the instruction could have lifted me up. There were legions of saints and fleets of angels at the ready if I had only said the word. I could have been not just a devout contender; I could have been an early mystic. I can tell now at age 66 that I am temperamentally inclined in that direction, toward monkhood and contemplation. Instead I spent a Catholic girlhood imagining the sins I was probably committing and doubting my willingness to be burned like a steak for my faith (what we children heard when the nuns were telling the grand narrative of St. Joan).

And, it is not just music. It is babies, as well, who seemed as interesting and cuddly as individual manatees a few decades ago that now capture my deepest attention. And it is flowers and weeds. Why haven’t I added to my vocabulary the words that would allow me to describe accurately the chassis of the lacy hydrangea as it wends its way over the shed? It is insects, too, in all their frightening detail. I find them lovely and appealing even as I consider some of them dreadful but I cannot not look—or listen—nor feel. I have a lovely book of the earth’s fashion model insects rendered in watercolor by Bernard Durin that it is as mesmerizing as a catalogue of Van Gogh reproductions. My favorites are the Picasso beetle and the Harlequin beetle. Another book showcases the remarkable life and diversity of plankton, which as the basis of our lives on this planet, one would imagine we’d all know quite a bit about these creatures, but we don’t. The ways in which they survive, reproduce, move, and avoid their enemies could occupy storytellers and scriptwriters for years, if only the plankton had better publicists. Sardet’s telling of this story is as lovely and as intriguing as any explorer’s recounting of travels through the Amazon or the opening of the Silk Road.

It seems that when in an era of poisoned politics and vacant public deliberation, I should be wearing a bulletproof harness of cynicism and world-weariness. Instead, I am more vulnerable than ever, easily and joyously seduced by the beauty of creation and by the unexpected and blessed love that my fellow human beings bestow on their fellow creatures great and small. Maybe, it is emerging science that is bringing me to a new understanding. Is it not amazing that we share our genes with every living thing on the planet: 38% with earthworms, 47% with fruit flies, 84% with our dogs, and almost 98% with chimpanzees? Can it be possible that our bodies are really made up at its very essence of only ten of the elements of the universe and that most of these originated elsewhere in the cosmos? When Moby sings that we are all made of stars, can this be more than just a lovely dreamy wish and instead actual science? Can I be a late-hedonist despite my Catholic inculcation, training that I cannot shake despite years of therapy and the weight of science and experience? Can it be that my left-brain is fading, hijacked by the right sphere, overtaken and compensated for by a deeper attention to the visual? Why at my daily walk at the shore yesterday did I consider that I may never again write another piece of prose or poke my toe into the footnoted universe— instead bound to commit myself to art, photography, dance, music and poetry from this moment forward? I am as drawn to big ideas as a magnet is to iron, as a pupperfish is to coral, as a quark is to dark matter, as the human heart to sweeping music and landscape.

I have been trying to understand the brain—mine particularly—for as long as I can remember. Maybe, it was those frequent blows to the head when, as a tomboy, I fell off my bike, got beaned by fastballs, elbowed by the bigger boys, tripped over slippery rocks and tumbled out of trees, suffered multiple and never attended to injuries, experienced periods of loss of consciousness as the coin for some adventure or the other, and other travails. I never seriously thought that I may be doing some damage to my brain or body in the long run.

These days, it would take a committed child to really harm himself accidentally. This generation is buckled in, helmeted, padded and buffeted. No wonder they are on drugs for attention deficit disorder. How can such a protected childhood be interesting? Maybe, I began to pay attention to my addled brain after a serious bike crash when I lost my hearing and suffered a serious concussion; it was at that point that the potential for my racking up some critical cognitive deficits occurred to me. It was sometime before my fortieth birthday when I decided that I had done some important damage that I would pay for during the balance of my life. I relied on no other assessment than my own sense of my brain, naming myself, not a team of neurologists, as trustworthy a guide as I could have.

So, I have put my brain on something like a “suicide watch,” like they do in prison for those inmates who present warning signs. This is my metacognitive project to think about thinking. What am I observing? Averted gaze, stunned, too quiet, too excitable, talking about the end. Not that my brain speaks to me in these terms but I watch for signs of excitability, lack of interest in the world outside itself, failing to compete tasks, not showing up for work. I take tests in magazines; I enrolled in Lumosity and Brain Fitness. Recently, I learned from BlueZones that my biological age is precisely 58.6 years and my life expectancy 95.3 years. I can expect to live until I am 86 without serious diseases and that because of good habits, I have added more than ten years to my life. This sort of information is all to the good, I suppose. It renders a precision that may obtain statistically but when I think about my own life, it feels like a prediction I would get from a palm reader. So while my health is good, my cognitive power may fade. I may be too late in rescuing myself. And, of course, this vigilance could prove upsetting all by itself. No one wants to lead the over-examined life, especially with regard to their mental condition. However, it seems now that the whole society has taken up this brain watch and that neurology has become our new pastime. Neurology is the new thing like grey or bright green or teal are the new black. Our Brains, Our Selves, I suppose. I should think of writing an underground manual like those early feminists did, challenging mainstream ideas about aging and demonstrating how to navigate this stage of life in a way that is neither medicalized nor too managed by the authorities, fleshing out our own ideas about aging, not seeing it a disease but as another stage of living.

Plasticity refers to the way the brain changes and is modified by what we do and think about, by what we ask it to do, by how it has evolved as a learning machine. A recent article in the New York Times (Carey 2014) made the wonderfully assuring case that when older people cannot quickly find the word that they were looking for that it is not due to cognitive decline. Nope. Instead, it is due to their having a pile of words and associations to plow through. Any fool can quickly find a word if they only two synonyms for the idea “discuss” but when one has an above average SAT-level treasure of particular, fussy words that only will go where they are perfectly suited, well, that is another challenge indeed.

So, I am most intrigued in my sixth decade not by a fear of Alzheimer’s or losing at a memory game with children one-tenth my age. Instead, I am most curious about the brain and aesthetics. Why do some of us gain a deeper appreciation of beauty as we grow older? What leads to this phenomenon which I am calling the beauty of the aging brain? I want to understand whether it is the brain or the heart that fashions these new responses. I don’t mean to suggest such a duality—-brain or soul—but this builds a framework to piece this apart and then, perhaps, together. So big questions: Does the machinery of the brain change in later years, putting a muffler on the noisy left side, the chattering monkey mind? Does this allow the calmer, gestalt of the right side emerge, a latecomer to the party with its glorious pictures, quieter, more resolute, and more anchored in and dazzled by the moment? Or to give the heart its due, is it our existential or spiritual sense that piques the acknowledgment that all that we see before us is fleeting, that we ought to enjoy it deeply? To watch that miracle of a small child squealing at the edge of the ocean discovering that the waves come back each time, like an eternal jack-in-the-box of a surprise? To be wowed every spring when the daffodils emerge once again in their bold yellow flowers, a challenge to the receding winter colors around them? Is that knowledge that is connected to those aesthetics that make the mature person more in awe? The vast impossibility of knowing the world, of recognizing that one could stroll the same beach every day until one’s days on the planet end and still not completely appreciate and understand how it all works, how it came to be, how it will change as we leave it. Or maybe, there is something in the brain itself, that restructures the senses and the pleasure centers and the heart or perhaps, it is the heart and soul directing the brain with oxygen and good wine and fine meals and an abiding sense of the love of life, even in moments of despair and depression.

One could argue that one cannot be dazzled if the brain is too occupied. Susan Saltrick (1997) employs the term tessellation to refer to the marking out of the brain and our attention (what the young corporate types call bandwidth) into smaller and smaller bit, the fragmentation of thought and consideration. Tessellation refers to the design of flat surfaces where there are no blank spaces or overlap between shapes or tiles. Every space is tightly filled; the design may convey a story or theme or a big idea, but maybe not. Saltrick writes about the digital world where the fragmentation and speed of life–and our mad pursuit of this–pushes other experiences out of our consideration. Our brainscapes are both too occupied and too divided to make big sense of big things.

This distraction militates against deep experience. Researchers recently discovered that the experience of awe which they defined as the “emotion that arises when one encounters something so strikingly vast that it provokes a need to update one’s mental schemas” has important social impacts (Rudd, Vohs and Aaker 2014). The researchers assume that this experience is somewhat commonplace and suggest that people who experience awe are more willing to volunteer and that they value experiences over material goods. Those who experienced awe felt that they had more time and experienced a boost in life satisfaction. I am trying to see if I can find these subjects and make them my friends. Why would these results obtain? The researchers argue that awe places people in the present moment which changes one’s view of time and how it is experienced. So, maybe what I am experiencing is awe, pure and simple, and actually I don’t care if it makes me a nicer person or if it discourages me from upgrading to the new iPhone. I do care, however, about the findings about how time is perceived.

This is one of many areas where as a researcher I would fear to proceed. How does one test awe or induce it so that we can see what happens in the lab? Here the researcher exposed subjects to television commercials that showed people on the streets and in parks seeing waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space. Sort of awe by proxy. Participants were also asked to write essays about experiencing awe. All to the good. The researchers found positive outcomes on multiple measures. In the article, the researchers discuss time starvation and suggest that those awe-experiencing people have a lower sense of this. And I wonder how this works in the aging brain. We do have less time left than do the younger generations but we encounter this time differently. This, I would argue, occurs, with or without the element of awe.

We speak about aging as if this process happens overnight when; in fact, it is decades in the making and unmaking. Getting older takes much longer than does childhood. In latter, you move through the process in 12 years or so, from infancy to puberty and by most counts, in most places and through most of time, you reached adulthood by two decades and were ready to spawn your own children. Lots happens, of course. You are in a sharp learning curve. Your life is punctuated with important rituals. Every year another rite of passage–graduations, rituals to admit you to the faith of your parents, admission to schools, engagement, marriage, the birth of children. We pack all of this into a few decades and only celebrate anniversaries of these. After all of this, we finally empty our nests of the fledglings, retire and are released from the important work of our life into the netherworld of aging and the old.

It is hard to identify a point when we begin to age but let’s settle on fifty as a turning point. You can start to move into aging at fifty and take the next four decades to complete your journey. Research suggests that our ability to make decisions, to think and sort, peaks at twenty-seven; then we begin losing our edge. For discussion purposes, I am going to focus on the four decades (fifties though nineties) that we leave undistinguished, as if these were all the same. Some of us are young old, I suppose, and others middle-aged old and finally, elderly old. I know that most of the people I see in commercials that are geared for the elderly look to me to be young old, kayaking and dancing and having energetic sex, or at least flirtatious enough to hold that as a dream. Some of us move when we age—to warmer climates, lower cost real estate—another marker of aging moving to another community, maybe a Sun City development, maybe to assisted living, perhaps somewhere to be closer to your children or farther away. Most of us do what the gerontologists call “aging in place” (a term I find as funny as any) remaining in the community where we led our adult lives.

Our brains often turn in surprising ways as we age. Essays by Anne Patchett and Zadie Smith take up the experience of coming to love musical genres later in life that had no appeal to them earlier. In Patchett’s case, the love of opera takes her has her heads-over-heels in love. She writes about living in Nashville, remote from early exposure to opera and up close to country and western music, going with her parents at the Grand Ole Opry and similar settings. But, coming to opera late in life, as she puts it, “arrived after the intermission” means that her education in the form is slow. The Metropolitan Opera’s broadcasts of its productions allow her to indulge this passion where she finds supportive and enthusiastic company. She notes that she appears to be two decades younger than the rest of the audience, which raises the question of passion. How can we suggest that passion is confined to youthful exuberance when we have legions of the elderly who support great art and culture and develop their interests by passing on their legacies of treasures?

In a 2012 essay in the New Yorker, Zadie Smith examines why in a flash of attunement she embraced the music of Joni Mitchell, especially the artist’s Blue album. Mitchell had been a singer whom Smith dismissed, actively despised, as a young person. Now, Mitchell’s music sends her to tears; it renders her transparent and vulnerable. Smith suggests that this turn to affection is not a matter of cultivating taste but instead a matter of becoming open to what art may afford. The earlier versions of ourselves become mysteries to our present appreciations of who we are. She quotes a lovely passage from Wordsworth’s “Lines Written A Few Miles above Tintern Abbey” that reveals the alienating character that one’s young self may present to the one that lives now.

That time is past,

And all its aching joys are no more,

And all its dizzy raptures.

For nature then

(The coarser pleasures of my boyish days,

And their glad animal movements all gone by,)

To me was: all in all,–I cannot paint

what then I was.

Smith is on to something here. Recently, Jennifer Finney Boylan observed, “The world is full of souls who struggle to find the younger person they once were within the body of the older person they have become.” Smith suggests that the changes here are not so much a cleaving of the “callow youth” with an emergent greater man, as it is instead a deepening and I would argue, a widening. And, perhaps, this is what happens to that aging brain and heart. David Brooks offers other paths to these developments.

So much of our own understanding of our depth occurs later in life, also amid suffering….during moments of suffering, people discover they are not what they appeared to be. The suffering scours away a floor inside themselves, exposing a deeper level, and then that floor gets scoured away and another deeper level is revealed. (Brooks 2014)

Perhaps, this is the natural course of things. We may, despite our revulsion at aging and our glorification of youth culture, learn that despite our fear of uselessness, we are wiser and deeper than we were several decades earlier. Saltrick tells a story of two occasions in which Glenn Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations. The first session was occasioned by his debut album, as twenty-two year-old, rendering brilliant virtuosity, playng this Bach’s masterpieces in just under thirty-nine minutes. Returing to the studio at age fifty, Gould spends more than fifty-one minutes with the variations, with more silences and pauses, as Saltrick writes “more darkly layered now with the impasto of his life’s history.” At an older age, we have more to offer. Even if we have the mastery for speed, we learn that beauty and art and life requires time and quiet and breath.

Coming back to Smith, she notes that her attention to her chosen craft–the novel–has permitted her to ignore other areas that may have commanded her attention. She notes that her embrace of the novel and words has made her lazy and nonplussed about art, painting, and sculpture. She extends her appreciation to others who have identified and created beauty for us.

All the difficult work of attunement and acceptance has already been done by others. Smart critics, other painters, appreciative amateurs. They kicked the door open almost a century ago—all I need is walk through it.

If we need guides and informed tour leaders to point us to Picasso and Grieg, what then of the natural world? How does one ignore the arrival of birds in the spring for all of one’s life and then suddenly set the alarm so you wake with them before sunset, delighted to hear that chattering exuberance, wondering if anything in the world sounds quite as joyous. I wonder in such mornings if I could hear them forecast the weather, gossip about their mates, and worry about their children if I were so attuned.

Perhaps, the sense that the world is moving too fast, that time is moving along so quickly that one cannot process it or give it its full due and weight. The monk, Zoketsu Norman Fisher, observed, “to grow old is to gradually cease to understand the times in which you live.” But there is a shiny side to this loss of the understanding of some part of that larger world where we make our living—in classrooms, in offices, on the road, in airports, connected to screens and playing in the digital existence. There is a fresh appreciation of the world that has always been ours to claim but we have been claimed by other calls. We are, in some sense, re-born. Perhaps, that conviction that each season is the most beautiful one has ever seen, that the Asiatic lilies have never been taller or more fragrant, and that the sunset are particularly brilliant this August.

The observation that time speeds up as we age is not an original observation. William James thought that because the lives of adults are not punctuated by those memorable events that characterize the lives of children and the young that this lends a smoothing out of one season into the next, the next year into the following one. I couldn’t disagree more. Even when detached from these ritual punctuations, there are holidays, celebrations of one’s children, promotions, retirements, vacations, and so on. Richard Friedman, a professor of clinical psychology, proposes that the steep learning curve of childhood and youth changes the perception of time. “Adult life lacks the constant discovery and endless novelty of childhood,” he writes, but I wonder if that is true, if one by temperament or, in raising children and enjoying their company, seeks novelty. He suggests that learning new things slows down time, or more accurately, puts the brakes on our “internal sense of time.” To battle the sense that time is fleeting, he proposes a remedy. Learn new things, hard things; set out some challenges. Spend time in these tasks and time will slow down, he suggests. I am not certain that he is arguing for boredom but that could be implied here.

I am not certain that we need to learn computer programming or the conjugation of French verbs to gain a firm footing in the passing of time. One could also suggest that one take a new look at the familiar, to build an agenda of events and activities that one has never had the time to do. Listen to Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons out of sequence, to see if you can tell what seasons are suggested by the score and instrumentation. Just simply wonder. Why are clouds so precisely reflected in the water and a clear blue sky not? Ask questions as if you were four years old but answer them as if you had the cognitive capacity and fire in your heart to answer them.

It seems that there is a booming industry in easing us into old age. We have our own web sites, personal coaches, clinical trials, replacement parts, memory devices, mental gymnasiums, brain fitness software and other tools. We have the justifiable panic of great legions of the old old succumbing to the ravages of Alzheimer’s and the concomitant legions of scientists trying to piece apart the causes and remedies for this new plague.

There are those who see great beauty and grace in growing older. Here I want to pay special attention to Oliver Sacks and Florida Scott-Maxwell, both provide solace and inspiration. Turning eighty in July 2013, Sacks wrote a lovely essay titled The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding) for the New York Times. Sacks is the doctor who has brought our attention to the most interesting neurological cases (The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings) always written with the kindness and care that one would want in an attending physician. He doesn’t believe in an afterlife, where he will rejoin friends and family in heavenly company, except as he lives in the books he has written and the friends he has made. Sacks sees little diminishment or narrowing of himself as he passes eighty. Instead, he characterizes his time as absent obligations and the worries of the younger generations, freeing him to “explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.” This colors the situation well. The time of aging allows one the space to create, to imagine, to ask questions and consider. He also notes that a long life allows one the full measure of what life can give to and take from oneself and his colleagues. Sureties come and go; truths, the newest new thing, are tossed away with regularity. One could be unanchored without the steady ballast of age. As Sacks writes, “One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty.” No doubt.

Scott-Maxwell is a figure from an earlier time, born in 1883, who became a journalist and eventually a Jungian psychoanalyst. Scott-Maxwell was eighty-three years old when she wrote her final book, The Measure of My Days, a collection of notebook entries. Here, she muses on the nature of modern life, on the herd mentality, on the permissiveness of parents, and on the dark side of the push for equality which she worries will wipe out the genius and the individuality. Published in the middle of the twentieth century, the books reflects the concern with the numbing conformity that writers of her time warned against. She writes about the role of women, how because they don’t do the mind-numbing work of corporations may be truer to their natures. It is about aging that she is most illuminating. Hers is a far stretch from a heroic account. She writes truthfully about the demands placed upon the infirm to be cheery and uncomplaining. Scott-Maxwell finds near the end of her life, she is “myself, as never before.”   Old age is anything but a time of tranquility and ease; in fact, it is a time of “fierce energy” when the passion lies in the heart but cannot be expressed. Regrets emerge in consciousness of unrealized ambitions amped up by the suspicion that other lives could have been lived. These thoughts of life beyond one’s own playing out of it serve as balm and provocation. To be able to think about life as it continues without you is something the elderly can do.

It has no content, it seems to expand us, it does not derive from the body, and then it is gone. It may be a trigger of consciousness, which lies outside activity, and which when young we are too busy to experience.

The deep reflection can, of course, send one into a tailspin if regrets and disappointments populate one’s self-narrative. There are few people in contemporary society who are reflective on their own. Research by Timothy Wilson and other investigations by Ethan Kross found that individuals actively seek to exclude reflection from their daily activities. Individuals preferred receiving electric shocks to being alone with their thoughts not for hours but for six to fifteen minutes. Being alone with one’s thoughts swerves attention to what’s awry in one’s life—nagging worries, unresolved relationships, guilt-baiting regrets and their misery making companions. To fight this, we add cell phones, texting, eliminating downtime and empty spaces. The young cannot understand that the older person can leave his cell phone at home and fell at ease about it. Aging is the time for more silence, more listening, more and deeper sharing.

She continues to explore this theme, tagging aging as a process of bringing one’s self together, to let it go. Some of us are blessed with building that self larger and fuller in the older years, adding music, art, dancing–all those pleasures foregone with the busy work of making a life.

You need only claim the events of your life to make yourself yours. When you truly possess all you have been and done, which may take some time, you are fierce with reality. When at last age has assembled you together, will it not be easy to let it all go, lived, balanced, over!

But, she notes, there is a point at which one has taken in all she can and where the cares and concerns evaporate. One acknowledges an end–of life, of one’s capacities, of what one can know deeply–and becomes carefree, a characteristic that most of us don’t equate with old age. She says it beautifully.

Yet it is just here that imagination stirs and world on world appears for exploration. Admiration is one the chief delights of living. Interest, increasing to ardor, finding others who agree, one igniting another, and when it is certain that there is far, far too much to be taken in one reaches the bliss of being carefree. You cherish the friends and the impressions you are humble, where you are in fact your own size, and you rest in a contentment between that of a child and the sage; the former not having begun to notice difference, the latter beyond stressing it.

Scott-Maxwell suggests that the draw and comfort of sensuous pleasures grows as intellectual ones fade. Judith Graham recently reported on research that found that pleasure from ordinary experiences grows as we age and that the elderly find great solace in peace and calm, replacing a sense of newness and excitement that create more satisfaction for younger people (Graham 2014). This notion has great appeal. Some think that the elderly lose their senses of taste and smell and as a result sidle up to the bland and banal. Perhaps, we are doing the aged a disservice when we feed them as if they were babies. Maybe, their brains would be more nimble if we would allow them to enjoy that Pastrami Rueben instead of lecturing them about sodium, fat and dentures.

She provides three views of the old and how they face the world. The first characterization suggests that with the past fading paling behind them and facing a future in which they have no stake and little understanding, the present stands forward as the world they occupy. Research suggests that people grow happier as they age. The reasons for this are several. With declining time, perhaps the elderly focus on the present. Or maybe with the absence of ambition and the demands that characterize active parenthood and career chasing, the elderly can focus on what they wish to make of their days. Perhaps, as Boylan suggests, wisdom and contentment arrive when we have made peace between the past and the future. In the moment and as she writes, “sentient.” In the second approach to aging, we might live in thrall with the past, reliving those days and envisioning an exciting future ahead, with the present as a void. Or in the final scenario, these three seasons of time scarcely count as all as bins to organize experience. We live our aging the way we have lived our lives. Can we suggest that the old are completely absorbed by aging?

When Scott-Maxwell wrote this book, her health is failing. Her paean to aging sets it as a struggle–passion facing diminished powers.

But we also find that as we age we are more alive than seems likely, convenient, or even bearable. Too often our problem is the fervor of life within us…No one lives all the life of which he was capable. One finds that one has arrived at a place of release.

I am thinking here of where I would stand with regard to Sacks and others who are active and excited into their old age. A recent essay by David Brooks aims at refocusing our attention, a significant challenge given our age of distraction. He suggests we turn to children with the lessons they may teach about attention and the freedom to create and play. I am proposing here we take these points of advice for our aging flight plan. He takes his points from Adam Phillips, who writes,

There’s something deeply important about the early experiences of being in the presence of somebody without being impinged upon by their demands, and without them needing you to make a demand upon them.

The fervor of life is something that Phillips notes in children, that he sees as frightening to them, an appetite for life, or food or joy or activity. These appetites must necessarily link us to the world in ways we can’t understand nor predict. Most importantly, as he writes, “everybody is dealing with how much of their own aliveness they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.” This, to me, is a remarkable idea and perhaps, it is in aging for some of us that we move away from the narcotized being that we inhabit in our bureaucratized life.

Perhaps, there are tasks in aging, developmental milestones that are hardly noticed with the attention paid to the deteriorating body and cognitive functioning. I am drawn to aging, not in a heroic mode where I face my demons and rest serenely in my coffin, having conquered all the bugaboos that rattled my life and face disease with a smile and scarcely a complaint. That is not my plan. I am just now at age 66 searching for inspiration. I am looking for advisors and new ways our lives as older adults.

An older age is an idea time to learn much of what escaped us as young people. If you returned to college, you may not recognize the curriculum. How could we have imagined that we were educated adults at the age of 21? The arrogance of that claim, no matter who makes it, whether it is a recent graduate or an overly aspirational college branding campaign, is stunning.

And perhaps, age has nothing to do with it all. Smith is just thirty eight years old, a critically acclaimed writer and thinker, someone I am thinking of adding to my team of fantasy faculty I am organizing in the college of my senior years–great philosophers, poets, photographers, mystics, master swimmers who are competing at the age of 96. I am assembling thinkers and doers; I will be the Dean who takes care of how we teach to the elderly, who can figure out what to teach that doesn’t require memorization and long chains of numbers. This college will allow study of all the things we missed and denied ourselves along the way to practical workaday careers. The sort of liberation that privileged populations have to dream any dream they wish while the less fortunate are worrying about loans and whether too much abstract thought leads to depression and self-indulgence. So my university, unlike any university that we know, would focus on the beauty of the world, an attunement to things once ignored and dismissed because they wouldn’t or couldn’t serve a practical, economic, or political purpose. Aristotle said it perfectly, “to seek utility everywhere is entirely unsuited to people that are great-souled and free.” Let’s suggest that maturity earns one some great-soulness and build on that.  Our college would also take up those breakthroughs in physics, astronomy, genetics, paleontology and other disciplines that shake our image of ourselves to the core.

Seeing our connections to the natural world is like detecting the pattern hidden inside an optical illusion. We encounter bodies, rocks, and stars every day of our lives. Train the eye, and these familiar entities give way to deeper realities. When you learn to view the world through this lens, bodies and stars become widows to a past that was vast almost beyond comprehension, occasionally catastrophic, and always shared among living things and the universe that fostered them. (Shubin 2013, 4)

We could create flight plans for aging where our talents and interests are pursued or where a digressive wandering may be more fitting. Where are there some treasures of civilization that have escaped our educations? Twelve Years as a Slave by Solomon Northup? The World is Round by Gertrude Stein? Until last year, Gorecki’s masterpiece, Sorrowful Songs, was unknown to me. How can an education be so incomplete? An older friend of mine noted that two years ago she had realized that because her professor husband was trained as a classicist, her knowledge of the Greeks and the Romans was extensive and because of her own training in Political Theory that her knowledge of the Enlightenment and beyond was similarly well-developed. She was working on filling in the missing middle. I was completely in awe. My lack of education is so broad that I couldn’t’t identify such gaps. I don’t imagine a conspiracy here like The Mis-Education of the Negro but I suspect something else. Maybe, it was my education at public colleges. When I told my older friend who’d been schooled at the University of Chicago about my first-year education as an undergraduate at a public four-year college that primarily serves first-generation college students, she expressed surprise that barbarians like me were introduced to the Humanities–and I do mean introduced here, like people at a party you meet who don’t have anything to say to each other. We were run through the course of Western civilization–to the great works of literature and philosophy and the grand pageant of history in a fashion suited for multiple choice testing. We would remember the names and titles but we were not expected to engage grand ideas nor take up a life of the mind; those spots were set aside for better students at better schools. As an academic late in life, I always felt the shame of my incomplete breeding and rearing.

I have made a list of the all the courses that I should have taken and much of the reading that I should have done as a callow youth. Philosophy stands out singly as a field of study that I must have been too dim to pursue or perhaps at my working class state school, the choice to study philosophy would have been as well received by my hippie friends as a class in etiquette and supporting the man. But, still after rejecting the religion of my youth and snacking at the edges of Buddhism, I find my reading interests circling around big ideas. I can scarcely read a work of fiction unless the main character is like Reverend Boughton in Marilynn Robinson’s Home and Gilead musing on his life, considering his child, misunderstanding and mischaracterizing sin, both mortal and venial. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was the first book whose author seemed alive to me, observant and passionate in her learning. Earlier in my life, I used to love reading tales of family dysfunction and melancholic women. Now, I want universal life-breathing ideas and memes, books and essays with quotations that, as Adam Phillips writes, collect me.

Einstein wrote that either one lives his life as if everything is a miracle or lives it as if nothing is–this from the man who many believe upended faith-based beliefs in creation. Einstein, the physicist-philosopher, wrote about the magic of the universe and of our abiding connections to the worlds around us.

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give the same measure as I have received and am still receiving…A human being is part of a whole, called by the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest–a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. (Einstein 1954)

I like this as a flight plan—the idea of embracing the beauty around us. The plea for compassion. The sense of connection. I have created a hugely expanding life plans. I look around and find ideas abound. Each day, I dress in front of a rattan chest that holds journals that I have kept since I was a young woman. I suspect everything that I could know about me would be here. I think about this and the purpose of keeping these unindexed and uncatalogued. What shall I make of this? One eventually understands that much will remain undone in one life even if she is not part of a great sweeping movement. There is so much to do that that much is left untouched and not observed. One simply realizes that she is a member of big parade of history. Like scientists remind us, humans have just evolved, we have just stood upright, it just occurred that perhaps we are all one species and deserve the basic human rights. There is no question that the important things we may do cannot be accomplished in our lifetimes but that shouldn’t suggest we should rest back and spend our time in observation and reflection only. As Reinhold Niebuhr wrote,

Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness.

I have often wondered if Niebuhr’s observations were not only tied to great struggles for justice and human betterment, but also to our tiny solitary and communal lives when much is left unsaid and unfelt, or felt too much, weighed down and waylaid with experiences that re-cycle through over and over, great unproductive loops. Our lives, lived as best we can, must be leavened by forgiveness and lifted by love. Another goal for that aging flight plan.

Works Cited

Boylan, Jennifer Finney. 2014. I Had a Boyhood, Once. New York Times, July 20.

Brooks, David. 2014. The Art of Focus. New York Times, June 2.

Durin, Bernard. 2013. Beetles and Other Insects. Shirmer/Mosel Production.

Einstein, Albert. 1954. Ideas and Opinions. New York, Crown Press.

Fischer, Zoketsy Norman. 2014. Text of How to Survive Your Life. Commencement Address at Stanford University. Stanford Report June 14.

Friedman, Richard A. 2013. Fast Time and the Aging Mind. New York Times, July 20.

Graham, Judith. 2014, What Makes Older People Happy. New York Times, February 11.

Murphy, Kate. 2014. No Time to Think. New York Times, July 25.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pachett, Ann. 2008. The Best Seat in the House. Wall Street Journal, June 21.

Phillips, Adam. 2014. The Art of Nonfiction No. 7. The Paris Review, Spring.

Sacks, Oliver.2013.The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding). New York Times, July 6.
Sardet, Christian. 2015. Plankton: Wonders of the Drifting World. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Smith, Zadie. 2012. Some Notes on Attunement. The New Yorker, December 17.

Scott-Maxwell, Florida.1968. The Measure of My Days. New York: Knopf.


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