I’m Aging Really Well!

In ways you can’t imagine.

“At 60, one starts to get young,” said Pablo Picasso, “but by then it’s too late.”

I’m beginning to fathom what this French rascal meant.

Because it now takes me a good part of the morning just to rev up: to discharge all the night’s clogged phlegm, scrape off the rheumy crust from my sleepy eyes, straighten my spine, my thinning hair and unruly eyebrows, ensure all my frostbitten toes are still there, and patiently stand over the toilet bowl watching my piss trickle slower than it takes coffee to percolate. By that time, I’m already tired, a good part of the morning is shot, and I’m close to calling it a day. My biggest fear, I’ll say, is that my decaying body won’t keep pace with my youthful spirit that keeps stamping the ground like a hotblooded bull.

Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho said age only slows the rhythm of the man who never dares walk on his own two feet. In other words: the man who doesn’t live true to himself and so leads an inauthentic life. Still, while I have proven this to be true, my two feet are getting weary and are having trouble keeping up with the frenzied pace I have purposely given my life for almost eight years now.

Back then, at the start of this new chapter in my life, I took one look at the span between the end of my childhood and my present and realized that most of those thirty odd years had elapsed under the implacable weight of tedium; that hulking monster who Spanish writer Luis Landero says approaches by drumbeat in a slow parade with his ashen face and lugubrious retinue of phantoms to officially shut down a life with the death lock of monotony. In a panic, I also recognized that my hourglass was more than half empty which lent the urgency of the terminally ill to whatever time I figured I had left.

It doesn’t take much to remind me what a mayfly I am… what a soap bubble floating over a children’s party. — ‘Memento Mori’ by Billy Collins

Few people live this way. They squander their time as if death were nothing but an unfounded rumor. There you are, in your prime… late twenties, early thirties perhaps, looking ahead at half a century of wonderful experiences until a ghoul shatters your fantasy; a pandemic, say, which does not discriminate between young and old. If you are wise and humble, you are seized with a sudden terror when realizing your half century is nowhere near guaranteed.

My own anxiety flared hotter while sifting my memories and recognizing there were experiences which would never again repeat themselves.

One of the greatest betrayals of our illusion of permanence, one of the sharpest daggers of loss, is the retroactive recognition of lasts. — Maria Popova

I recalled the last time I had been spellbound by the shocking iridescence of a Blue Morpho butterfly weaving through the white-blossomed coffee trees in my native country when I was about ten years old. The last daring dive I took from a cliff into the bracing waters of the most magical lake in the world. The time my daughters last took turns on my back and rode me like a prancing pony across the living room carpet. Unrepeatable moments… the sharpest daggers of loss.

Then and there, at age 54, I vowed to fall in love again — with life — and relish every single moment and experience as if they were my last. To do that, I needed to recover my childhood’s sense of wonder, awe, and delight.

First, I knew I had to disrupt the linear relationship between expense and value, seeing I had spent fortunes in the past on stuff without deriving much meaning or delight. In this realm, children have it licked, having two advantages as says philosopher Alain de Botton: “They don’t know what they are supposed to like, and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value for them. Now, the little money I have, I invest on experiences, not things.”

Next, I needed to see the world with fresh eyes, like children and artists do, for whom everything is relevant and little goes unseen. And for that, I had to train myself to forget the names I once used to label things.

An ‘ordinary’ old tree, then, would cease to be nothing but a ‘tree,’ but also a woodland elder, whose rugged bark, under my caress, could feel like the sagging skin on my father’s back. The moon would cease to be nothing but a dead rock floating in space, but also the poetic beacon for starstruck lovers or the lighthouse of melancholy. Wind not just wind, but the lofty carrier of sighs and seeds. Everything had to become unfamiliar and extraordinarily uncommon.

The whole conception of the normal, the average, the commonplace, is due to a significant mental disease, said English author John Cowper Powys, adding that the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language is the word “commonplace”.

Along with fresh eyes, I also had to train my apathetic soul to feel anew.

“It’s useless to try to feel new things without feeling them in a new way,” said Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. “For things are what we feel they are, and the only way for there to be new things… for us to feel new things, is for there to be some novelty in how we feel them.”

I decided to move “out of my mind” to get lost in sensation. I willfully awoke my numbed senses to the world and began to savor the fresh rain inside blueberries, to imagine a sugarcane field in every spoonful, to hear a beehum in a drop of honey and taste in an apple the summer and snows, the wild welter of Earth and the insistence of sun, as poet D.H. Lawrence said was necessary to live in blissful awareness. Lovemaking became a metaphor; an erotic ritual; a ceremony; raw animal sex transfigured by my imagination. I became voracious, lustful, uninhibited, incandescent, and wild!

Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting or having sex. — Kapka Kassabova

It was as if I had awoken a caged beast inside me who clamored for release, so I decided to record his stentorian tumult and logorrheic yearnings in my Memoir:

“I want to carry thunderbolts in my hands. My blood to burn. Dance barefoot in mud while drinking rain. Pluck a slippery fish from an icy stream with bare hands and tear its flesh with my teeth. I want to swim in the ocean and not bathe for months. Push massive boulders down steep, rugged mountains. Prance and lock horns with goats in the Alps. Punch a white shark on its snout and watch it sink, cross-eyed into the abyss. I want to shoot a spear through the black heart of a crow. Women to cower when I look at them with rapacious eyes with the radiance and intensity of stars. I want orgasms like Supernovas! I want to crush pungent leaves and rub them all over my body; I don’t want to smell like soap but loam. I want to throw my shoes into a lake and never retrieve them. I want my flesh to be lacerated by branches, dirt and grime under my nails, fungus eating away at my toenails, heels like sandpaper, and yank snakes from my nostrils. I want to slap the young to wake them from their stupor and then inflame them. I want to kiss a woman wearing a plate inside her lips, have her devour my heart, spit the sinew, and swallow the bloody pulp. I want to communicate by drumbeats, walk naked into a forest fire, blow smoke onto women’s smug faces who refuse to feed their men raw meat. I want to sew bloody fangs onto every child’s cuddly teddy bear. Tumble with a girl who wears a necklace made of men’s skulls. I no longer want to tiptoe my way through life but stomp! Not whisper but bellow. I want my tumult to be heard!

But now that I’m approaching 60, my spirit and my body are out of sync and I’m afraid my moldering carcass will give out before I have sucked all the marrow out of life. There’s so much I still want to do and time’s running out. And yet, I refuse to go quietly into the night.

While I know full well there is nothing I can do against the universal law of entropy (from dust to dust), I still put my body through its paces like a war horse. I keep it lean, sturdy, prepared, just like Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said in ‘Saviors of God’:

I keep my brain wide awake, lucid, unmerciful. I unleash it to battle relentlessly.

I keep my heart flaming, courageous, restless.

I stay unsatisfied, unconforming. Whenever a habit becomes convenient, I smash it!

And to all my ills and troubles, I respond with laughter and the sense that I, and the world, are mad.

Hardly a day goes by in which I don’t strive to live rapt in wonder, awe, and delight. To see the world anew like a child. To savor every moment as if it were my last.

Genius is nothing more nor less than childhood recovered at will. — Charles Baudelaire

At age 80, writer Henry Miller said he was a far more cheerful person than he was at twenty or thirty. “What is called youth is not youth,” he scoffed, “but something like premature old age. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then, I was ready for it. I had lost many illusions, but not my enthusiasm, nor my unquenchable curiosity. With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder.”

When Picasso said we start to get young at the age of sixty but too late, he added that “only then does one start to feel free; only then has one learned to strip oneself down to one’s essential creative simplicity.”

We are doomed to decay, says Maria Popova, so we cope by creating.

Therefore, as long as I can still drag my weary carcass out of bed each morning, I’ll keep spinning my yarns as my tribute for being one of the happiest of men alive on this wondrous world.

However many pages remain in my book, I intend to fill them with tall tales of adventure so that after biting the dust, my grandchildren will one day gather by an open fire, read my tumult, and become inflamed with a burning passion for a spirited and well-lived life.


Related article:

The Purpose of Aging is to Become a Wizard

 

Age with Grace

I am midway through the autumn of my life.

Morbid thought?

Depends on how you orient yourself to the moment.

Having rushed, leaped, and tumbled down the peaks of my life’s spring and summer, my river – more serene now – flows across its valley towards its inexorable embrace with the ocean where I will lose my name.

My eyesight is failing, my eyebrows thinning, and I wear a permanent flesh skull-cap on my head. My toes turn black-and-blue in the cold, and my left fingers tingle at night. Occasionally, I am thrown off the bed by Charley Horses. My skin has the rugosity of the bark of an old tree or alligator, and the backs of my hands are splotched like a Jaguar’s pelt and wrinkled and rough as the inside of a Starbucks cup holder. If I had to date again, I’d need to first become an expert in Photoshop.

Aging is a privilege denied to many so I’m not complaining but attempting to discover what the point is.

I figure I have three options:

  1. I could try, with the desperation of a drowning man, to cling to what little remains of my youth.
  2. I could turn despondent, bitter, ornery, nostalgic, cynical, and niggardly.
  3. I could learn how to be old.

When I was young I knew what I hoped to become; but I have become what I do not know how to be: old. – Phillip Wylie

Having totaled several cars, dabbled in drugs, lived in three countries, proposed to three women, married one, divorced, fulfilled my procreative imperative (two wonderful girls), helped raise them, and made and lost fortunes, is there a purpose to this final run?

Modern-day American culture doesn’t seem to think so. Youth-enthralled, centomaniac (obsessed with the new), and thanatophobic (afraid of death), it insulates itself by either confining the elderly in retirement homes, or by ignoring, shunting, or disdaining their doddering presence and advice.

Which, in my mind, is tantamount to either locking-up or burning all history books.

Faced with such rejection, many of our elders are increasingly turning to option 1.

The United States is the country with the highest number of cosmetic procedures, growing from around 1.6 million in 1997 to almost 13.7 million in 2016. Those aged 35 to 50 account for 39 percent of all procedures on which Americans spend more than 15 billion dollars every year.

It does not surprise me that the practice gained popularity in the 1970’s in the wake of the youth revolt of the previous decade. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was one of the favorite slogans.

While granting that the senior leaders at the time were making a huge mess of things (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident), fast-forward thirty years and those once young, rebellious whippersnappers – by then at the helm and all over 30 – were leaving behind their own impressive wrecks: the Savings and Loans crisis (1986-1995), the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash (1987), the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (1989), the Dot-Com Bubble and Bust (2000), and a much warmer climate, to name just a few fuckups. Groovy dudes, thanks!

Although I engage in regular exercise (for strength, energy, clarity, and calm), I have chosen to opt out of effacing the proof of time’s passing on my body. The word ‘Character,’ I’ve learned, is derived from the Greek kharassein: to sharpen, cut, engrave. Character is the etching of life’s trials and tribulations into our faces, bodies, and souls. Think of it: if you needed serious advice, would you ask a wizened man, or one whose face was as smooth and unblemished as porcelain?

The way-station of old age, said the Persian poet Hafez, is one that must be passed cleanly. “Don’t let the urgencies of youth stain the whiteness of your hair,” he urged.

In traditional Japanese aesthetics, ‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.

‘Sabi’ is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.

An old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it. In many cases, it is a question of the selfsame childish greediness, the same fear, the same defiance and willfulness, in the one as in the other. – Carl Jung

What about Option 2?

Not really an option, but a direct result of our unwillingness to accept the conditions laid out at the moment of our birth. After all, aging and death are terminal illnesses that strike each one of us the moment we’re conceived.

I believe the reasons for the bitterness, cynicism, anger, and pessimism evinced by so many elders are twofold: they feel devalued by society, and they need the outside world to reflect what they believe is their decaying, dark reality. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” said Desiderius Erasmus.

Again, Jung:

“After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. Instead of doing likewise, many old people prefer to be hypochondriacs, niggards, pedants, applauders of the past or else, eternal adolescents – all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the Self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half of life must be governed by the principles of the Self.”

I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism. And to alter now, cleanly and sanely, I want to shuffle off this loose living randomness: people; reviews; fame; all the glittering scales; and be withdrawn, and concentrated. – Virginia Woolf

Which brings me to the matter of purpose – Option 3: Learning to Age with Grace.

I am not talking here about dignity or refinement; I am using the term ‘grace’ as it refers to the bestowal of blessings.

I agree with Jung and philosopher Hermann von Keyserling who said:

“Past are the times in which the mere acquisition of material enriched me inwardly. At one time or another, everyone reaches a critical stage, at which he can go no further in the former (material) sense, and the question presents itself: whether he is to stagnate entirely or transfer his development into a new dimension. And since life, whenever it is not exhausted, is incapable of stagnation, the necessary change of dimension takes place automatically at a certain age. Every individual, as he becomes mature, strives after greater depth and involution.”

But I believe that to stop there, basking in the glow of our increased self-awareness and hoarding the treasures obtained in our quest for greater depth, not only fortifies the dividing wall between young and old, but denies future generations the accumulated wisdom that could avoid a future crisis. It deprives the world of blessings.

When the seed is ripe, its hold upon its surroundings is loosened, its pulp attains fragrance, sweetness and detachment, and is dedicated to all who need it. Birds peck at it and it is not hurt, the storm plucks and flings it to the dust and it is not destroyed. It proves its immortality by its renunciation. – Rabindranath Tagore.

A few years ago I wrote this to my daughters as they entered adulthood:

“I know the world for you right now seems chaotic, ruthless, unjust, and fraught with danger. Imagine you’re dropped into the depth of a jungle. What would you do? How would you feed yourself? How would you know which plants to eat and which to avoid? How would you protect yourself from the elements? Now imagine that the only thing you can take with you are either tools (knife, waterjug, flint) or a survival manual written by a hunter-gatherer who lived in that same jungle years ago. Which would you choose?”

Weeks later, driving one of them home from work (berating her for something she had done – or not done) I asked her why it was that kids refused to learn from the wisdom of their parents. If we had already traversed the jungle, been battered and wounded, fought and slain tigers, and crossed victorious over to the other side, why insist on going through the same suffering? Isn’t that the value of adaptation in the process of natural selection?

In her characteristic wisdom, she responded:

“Because they wouldn’t be nor feel like our own victories. We want to have our own scars suffered in honorable combat with our own tigers.”

I was stumped…

Later reflected…

And then wrote her my response:

“There are wounds you do not want, trust me.

I am not proposing to be your North Star or compass, but simply your lighthouse, because:

An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never. – Philip Larkin

My intention is to spare you from the deadliest tigers.

In primitive, oral cultures, the young find their orientation in their world through stories and songs. They learn about their origins, how the world was created, how the human emerged, and – to my point – how to survive.

In the mythology of Aboriginal Australia there is something called ‘Dreamtime’: the dawn when the totem Ancestors first emerged from their slumber and began to sing their way across the land in search for food, shelter, and companionship. These meandering trails, or ‘Dreaming Tracks,’ are auditory as well as visible and tactile phenomena. The Ancestors were singing the names of things and places into the land as they wandered through it. The song is thus a kind of auditory road map through the wilderness. To make its way through the land, an Aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming.

In Aboriginal belief an unsung land is a dead land. If the songs are forgotten the land itself will die.

I propose that an unsung story awakens the Tiger.”

The slumber of the ancestors is the involution Keyserling wrote about; it is Jung’s withdrawal of the sun in order to illuminate itself, it is Woolf’s withdrawal and concentration.

But the purpose, to me, is not to remain in slumber, but to emerge and sing our map to the young helping them find their way through the land.

Given my track record, there is not much I can say about what the right thing to do is, but I certainly have enough scars and wounds to which I can point so they’ll know what not to do. These are the only blessings I can bestow.

My period of involution is near its end and I’ve begun to write down my ‘Dreaming Track’: the chronicle of my tribulations, my joys and sorrows, loves and disappointments, victories and defeats, and of my most exalted as well as most ignominious moments.

Writing a Memoir is not the only way. Although they don’t say it, young people (especially men) are longing to be initiated into adulthood by the elders of the tribe; they hunger for the ripened fruit of their wisdom. The bestowal of blessings can come from mentoring a young boy or girl at a school or community, reading to children in a public library, or being more present in the lives of nephews and grandchildren.

At best, we might prevent a looming calamity, or at least, have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” as we watch them getting mauled by a tiger.

“Old age, calm, expanded,

broad with the haughty

breadth of the universe.

Old age flowing free with the

delicious near-by freedom of death.

I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly

as it pours in the great sea.” – Walt Whitman


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