“For old people,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her sublime meditation on aging and what beauty really means, “beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young… It has to do with who the person is.” But who is the person staring back at us from the mirror as the decades roll by? The mystery of what makes you and your childhood self the same person despite a lifetime of changes is, after all, one of the most interesting questions of philosophy. Perhaps the greatest perplexity of aging is how to fill with gentleness the void between who we feel we are on the inside and who our culture tells us is staring back from that mirror.
That’s what beloved writer Grace Paley (December 11, 1922–August 22, 2007) addresses with extraordinary humor and intellectual elegance in a 1989 piece titled “Upstaging Time,” found in Just As I Thought (public library) — the same indispensable nonfiction collection that gave us Paley’s astute advice to writers.
Paley, at sixty-seven, writes:
A couple of years ago a small boy yelled out as he threw a ball to a smaller boy standing near me, “Hey, dummy, tell that old lady to watch out.”
What? What lady? Old? I’m not vain or unrealistic. For the last twenty years my mirror seems to have reflected — correctly — a woman getting older, not a woman old. Therefore, I took a couple of the hops, skips, and jumps my head is accustomed to making and began to write what would probably become a story. The first sentence is: “That year all the boys on my block were sixty-seven.”
Then I was busy and my disposition, which tends to crude optimism anyway, changed the subject. Also, my sister would call, and from time to time she’d say, “Can you believe it? I’m almost seventy-eight. And Vic is going on eighty. Can you believe it?” No, I couldn’t believe it, and neither could anyone who talked to them or saw them. They’ve always been about fifteen years older than I, and still were. With such a sister and brother preceding me, it would seem bad manners to become old. My aging (the aging of the youngest) must seem awfully pushy to them.
I returned to my work and was able to write the next sentence of what may still become a story: “Two years later, two of the boys had died and my husband said, ‘Well, I’d better take this old-age business a little more seriously.’”
To manifest the needed seriousness, Paley considers some of the practicalities of that old-age business:
You may begin to notice that you’re invisible. Especially if you’re short and gray-haired. But I say to whom? And so what? All the best minorities have suffered that and are rising nowadays in the joy of righteous wrath.
You are expected to forget words or names, and you do. You may look up at the ceiling. People don’t like this. They may say, “Oh come on, you’re not listening.” You’re actually trying to remember their names.
While he could still make explanations, my father explained to me that the little brain twigs, along with other damp parts of the body, dry up, but that there is still an infinity of synaptic opportunities in the brain. If you forget the word for peach (“A wonderful fruit,” he said), you can make other pathways for the peach picture. You can attach it to another word or context, which will then return you to the word “peach,” such as “What a peachy friend,” or springtime and peach blossoms. This is valuable advice, by the way. It works. Even if you’re only thirty, write it down for later.
Paley returns to the subject thirteen years later, at eighty, in a magnificent short piece titled “My Father Addresses Me on the Facts of Old Age,” originally written for the New Yorker in 2002 and included in Here and Somewhere Else: Stories and Poems by Grace Paley and Robert Nichols (public library) — a marvelous celebration of literature, love, and the love of literature by Paley and her husband, published a few months before she died at the age of eighty-five.
My father had decided to teach me how to grow old. I said O.K. My children didn’t think it was such a great idea. If I knew how, they thought, I might do so too easily. No, no, I said, it’s for later, years from now. And besides, if I get it right it might be helpful to you kids in time to come.
They said, Really?
My father wanted to begin as soon as possible.
Please sit down, he said. Be patient. The main thing is this — when you get up in the morning you must take your heart in your two hands. You must do this every morning.
That’s a metaphor, right?
Metaphor? No, no, you can do this. In the morning, do a few little exercises for the joints, not too much. Then put your hands like a cup over and under the heart. Under the breast. He said tactfully. It’s probably easier for a man. Then talk softly, don’t yell. Under your ribs, push a little. When you wake up, you must do this massage. I mean pat, stroke a little, don’t be ashamed. Very likely no one will be watching. Then you must talk to your heart.
Say anything, but be respectful. Say — maybe say, Heart, little heart, beat softly but never forget your job, the blood. You can whisper also, Remember, remember.
Complement Paley’s wholly rewarding Just As I Thought and Here and Somewhere Else with Meghan Daum on why we romanticize our imperfect younger selves, Henry Miller on growing old and the measure of a life well lived, and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, at ninety-thee, on the secret of creative vitality.