THE CENTER FOR THIRD AGE LEADERSHIP NEWSLETTER – OCTOBER 2015
A TRIBUTE TO ELDER ED PAUL 1917-2015
“One doesn’t always have a euphoric view at this age (after all, there is
much that needs changing!), but I CAN testify to a sense of serenity which
seems to pervade whatever one surveys… Behind the facades is a spirit!”
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
2. 9 LEARNINGS FROM 9 YEARS OF BRAINPICKINGS
3. WHAT OLD AGE IS REALLY LIKE
4. FW BEGINS WITH ELDER ED – EMAILS FROM AUGUST 2003
5. THIS MONTH’S LINKS
QUOTE OF THE MONTH – JALAD AD-DIN RUMI
On the day I die, when I’m being
carried toward the grave, don’t weep.
Don’t say, ‘He’s gone! He’s gone!’
Death has nothing to do with going away.
The sun sets and the moon sets,
but they’re not gone. Death
is a coming together.
The tomb looks like a prison,
but it’s really release
The human seed goes down in the ground
like a bucket into the well where Joseph is.
It grows and comes up full
of some unimagined beauty.
Your mouth closes here
and immediately opens
with a shout of joy there.
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
October Greetings, Dear Friends…
On October 15 my friend and mentor, Elder Ed Paul, moved beyond earthly limits.
His daughter, Janis, sent me this…
I am sorry to report that Ed died this afternoon. I was honored to spend the last two
hours with him in which he was surprisingly lucid; he went quite peacefully. Ed lived a
remarkable 98 years and 2 months. I will miss him.
So will I and many others, Jan. Thank you for keeping us connected in this last year…
What a gift Ed has been to me since 2003 when he attended our Third Age retreat in
Asheville, NC. At 86, he was our “elder of elders” and quickly became a model for us
all. The group wanted to continue meeting together, and he agreed to be the focus.
That began a correspondence between us which changed, and is changing, my life,
particularly in understanding what my Third and Fourth Ages are truly about.
For most of my 75 years I’ve been a person who always wanted to be moving at his own
pace in his own direction. I can remember being terribly frustrated when going on our
two-mile run in the morning at an Outward Bound program in 1971 by having to
continually adjust myself to the varying speeds of the group. Either I would be running
up the back of the person in front of me or feeling pushed from behind, and I
thoroughly resented both. As my family and friends can tell you, I could be a very
nasty person when my personal momentum was hindered in any way by the world, and
this ranged from being blocked by Vermont’s icy roads to smashing a telephone that
wouldn’t let me dial. Of course, I was unwilling to call these ‘childish tantrums,’ but
that’s definitely what they were, and I regularly behaved like a spoiled brat who
demanded reality adjust to his every whim. How I managed to keep family or friends is
a mystery to me now.
I’m amazed to discover that not only am I easily making adjustments to my aging, but
am actually enjoying the process. I find myself seeing each difficulty as a creative
challenge and am able to meet most with relaxed, positive energy. What a difference
this is in my approach to life from all my earlier years – and my major ‘Source’ has been
my relationship with friend and mentor, ‘Elder Ed’!
Among the many life-changing insights Ed has offered me is his simple and profound
framework of ‘Relaxing Into Participation.’ RIP (yes, like the ‘Rest In Peace’ acronym,
without negative death connotations) is Ed’s code for giving up control and
surrendering into the flow of ‘Now.’ Most spiritual traditions also place this ability at
the center of their practices, too, so if you already have language you prefer, by all
means keep it and see if RIP doesn’t add to its meaning for you.
To ‘Relax Into Participation,’ we must begin by recognizing any definition of ‘control’
that includes the notion of somehow ‘being in charge’ of life is flawed; it simply is not a
human capability. Yes, on the ego level we love to believe we can grab the reins of life
and run the show, but this is just nonsense. Nothing makes this clearer than aging, and,
for that reason, accepting and aligning with the getting older process can be truly a
The key to RIP is not resisting our natural flow of reality, but opening to and
embracing it. When we mature into this ability, whole universes of possibility we could
not glimpse previously unfold before us. Ed calls these our ‘Sources,’ and he
emphasizes the importance of their paradoxical multiplicity as advisors and guides.
He replaces the limited human notion of ‘a right way’; that reality, in our limited
perception, presents EITHER/OR contradictions. Ed says that, “When seen correctly,
our ‘Sources’ are always offering us BOTH/AND opportunities. But we have to give up
our cherished rational and linear logic to recognize these ‘Sources’ and possibilities.
Most of the Second and even Third Age world simply cannot perceive RIP and the
realities of BOTH/AND paradoxes; the deeply imprinted belief that there is always a
‘best’ or ‘right way,’ and we are to seek externally until we have found this ‘IT.’ And, of
course, whenever we believe we have ‘the right way,’ all other possibilities seem ‘wrong’
and ‘evil’ so we must use our ‘righteousness’ to oppose them.
Intellect thinks it can know everything and wants to be in control. Maturity does
neither. My growing solitude is helping me understand Ed’s suggestion of of RIP, of
surrendering the notion of being in control.
That’s a real stretch, isn’t it?
Haven’t you always sought ways to be in control? I have. And now I’m slowly giving up
and accepting that the human condition is not one of being in control. With Elder
Ed’s help I’ve experienced the power in this acceptance, and, once our egos can also
understand and accept this, they, too, are glad to give up the terrible burden of the
polarized reality they’ve been carrying for so long. It is not pleasant to strive to be
in control once you accept that’s impossible.
When you Relax Into Participation your unique Sources will speak to you; that is,
guidance and understanding will come from levels unavailable to the controlling
rational mind. We can only open to them by acknowledging we are not in control. This
is what Elder Ed has gifted me with, and I hope to share that gift with you with this
simple yet very difficult suggestion…
Whenever you’re caught in an EITHER/OR reality, try stepping back, taking a deep
breath, Relaxing Into Participation and asking another level of ‘Sources’ (or whatever
words suit you best) to help you transform the destructive EITHER/OR perception
into a releasing BOTH/AND vision that enables you to embrace and flow with your
life in that moment. This may seem very difficult when you begin, but it makes your
life so much easier as you get the hang of it!
The benefits are simple, but like most very simple truths, cannot be understood until
one has lived the experience, in this case truly surrendering our absurd attempts at
control. This process of unlearning deeply imprinted patterns in our unconscious is no
simple feat! Just to reiterate, remember it’s taken this old Father William the best
part of 76 years to do this with some consistency for himself.
2. 9 LEARNINGS FROM 9 YEARS OF BRAINPICKINGS
BY MARIA POPOVA, WWW.BRAINPICKINS.ORG, October 23, 2015
FW Note: Maria is under thirty – and yet offers me wisdom as Elder Ed has. Old FW
supports her ‘brain pickings” without reservation. Here is her latest pulling together of
nine years of “seeking out what magnifies your spirit.” There is more about her here:
REFLECTIONS ON THE REWARDS OF SEEKING OUT WHAT MAGNIFIES YOUR SPIRIT
On October 23, 2006, Brain Pickings was born as an email to my seven colleagues at
one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college. Over the years that
followed, the short weekly email became a tiny website updated every Friday, which
became a tiny daily publication, which slowly grew, until this homegrown labor of
love somehow ended up in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of
historical importance” and the seven original recipients somehow became several
million readers. How and why this happened continues to mystify and humble me as
I go on doing what I have always done: reading, thinking, and writing about
enduring ideas that glean some semblance of insight — however small, however
esoteric — into what it means to live a meaningful life.
In October of 2013, as Brain Pickings turned seven, I marked the occasion by looking
back on the seven most important things I learned from the thousands of hours spent
reading, writing, and living during those first seven years. (Seven is an excellent
numeral — a prime, a calendric unit, the perfect number of dwarfs.) I shared those
reflections not as any sort of universal advice on how a life is to be lived, but as
centering truths that have emerged and recurred in the course of how this life has
been lived; insights that might, just maybe, prove useful or assuring for others.
(Kindred spirits have since adapted these learnings into a poster and a short ﬁlm.)
As Brain Pickings turns nine, I continue to stand by these seven reflections, but the
time has come to add two more. (Nine is also an excellent numeral — an exponential
factorial, the number of Muses in Greek mythology, my favorite chapter in Alice in
Wonderland.) Here are the original seven, as they appeared in 2013:
1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.
Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the
greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions”
based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing
the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around
asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality.
It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more
rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind
about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul
Graham observed “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs
about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d
like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the
moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and
gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract
from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with
giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a
celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every
exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be
understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an
opportunity to exchange them.
4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride
your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming
even to boredom The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the
muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our
unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential
stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.
Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac sleep also
affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm and even mediates our
negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about
your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge
of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of
self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your
health and your sanity, from which all else springs?
5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe
them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are,
don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the
assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for
reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than
productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our
efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity
has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy
and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it
“how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed
from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman for it’s hard to better capture
something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy.
The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that
our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere,
the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture,
we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real
magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.
And here are the two new additions:
8. Seek out what magnifies your spirit. Patti Smith, in discussing William
Blake and her creative influences talks about writers and artists who magnified her
spirit — it’s a beautiful phrase and a beautiful notion. Who are the people, ideas, and
books that magnify your spirit? Find them, hold on to them, and visit them often.
Use them not only as a remedy once spiritual malaise has already infected your
vitality but as a vaccine administered while you are healthy to protect your radiance.
9. Don’t be afraid to be an idealist. There is much to be said for our
responsibility as creators and consumers of that constant dynamic interaction we call
culture — which side of the fault line between catering and creating are we to stand
on? The commercial enterprise is conditioning us to believe that the road to success
is paved with catering to existing demands — give the people cat GIFs, the narrative
goes, because cat GIFs are what the people want. But E.B. White, one of our last
great idealists, was eternally right when he asserted half a century ago that the role
of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — a role each of us is called
to with increasing urgency, whatever cog we may be in the machinery of society.
Supply creates its own demand. Only by consistently supplying it can we hope to
increase the demand for the substantive over the superficial — in our individual lives
and in the collective dream called culture.
In the spirit of reflection, here are my current nine favorite pieces from the first nine
years of Brain Pickings:
For more on the origin story, the ethos, and the spirit that keeps it all going, here is
my On Being conversation with the wonderful and generous Krista Tippett, for which
I remain enormously grateful:
Bringing you ad-free Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If it brings
you any joy, please consider supporting with a small donation.
3. WHAT OLD AGE IS REALLY LIKE
BY CERIDEN DOVEY, WWW.NEWYORKER.COM, JANUARY 1ST, 2014
FW: Ceriden opens volumes of elder wisdom to explore, and these are easily
available to us all. This piece is quite long, so please think of it as a resource for
many years of contemplation…
Old age is perplexing to imagine in part because the definition of it is
notoriously unstable. As people age, they tend to move the goalposts that
mark out major life stages.
What does it feel like to be old? Not middle-aged, or late-middle-aged, but one of the
members of the fastest-growing demographic: the “oldest old,” those aged eighty-
five and above? This has been the question animating me for a couple of years, as
I’ve tried to write a novel from the perspective of a man in his late eighties. The
aging population is on our collective minds; a statistic that intrigued me is that the
average life expectancy in the U.K.—and, by extension, most of the rich West—is
increasing by more than five hours a day, every day. I’m in my mid-thirties, but felt
confident that I could imagine my way into old age. How hard could it be, really?
Somewhere along the way, though, things went wrong. My protagonist became
Generic Old Man: crabby, computer illiterate, grieving for his dementia-addled wife.
Not satisfied to leave him to his misery, I forced on him a new love interest, Eccentric
Old Woman: radical, full of energy, a fan of wearing magenta turbans and handing
out safe-sex pamphlets outside retirement homes.
In other words, I modelled my characters on the two dominant cultural constructions
of old age: the doddering, depressed pensioner and the ageless-in-spirit, quirky
oddball. After reading the first draft, an editor I respect said to me, “But what else
are they, other than old?” I was mortified, and began to ask myself some soul-
searching questions that I should have answered long before I’d written the opening
The first was: Why did I so blithely assume that I had the right to imagine my way
into old age—and that I could do it well—when I would approach with extreme
caution the task of imagining my way into the interior world of a character of a
different gender, race, or class? Had I assumed that anybody elderly who might
happen to read the book would simply be grateful that someone much younger was
interested in his or her experience, and forgive my stereotyping?
The conundrum of who has the authority to write about old age is that, unlike the
subjective experience of most imagined Others, seniority is something that many of
us will eventually experience for ourselves. By contrast, I can imagine what it might
be like to be a man, for example, but won’t ever know for sure. As the literary
scholar Sarah Falcus writes, building on the work of Sally Chivers, “We may all have
a more mobile relationship to age than to other perspectives or subject positions …
because we are all aging at any one moment.” Yet just because I may, one day, know
if I got it right—perhaps, to my surprise, I will find the world of my own old age
populated entirely by grumpy old men and old women who are either lost to
dementia or sprightly and renegade—doesn’t mean that I should be cavalier about
how I imagine my elderly characters now. Of course, like any fictional representation,
old age can be done well or badly regardless of one’s own positioning as an author,
but there’s less chance of being called out on hackneyed depictions of old age, in
part because those in the know—the over-eighty-five-year-olds themselves—haven’t
historically had any cultural power.
There is no possibility of diversified, personal approaches to aging if we are
all reductively “aged by culture…”
Stereotypes of old age, whether positive or negative, do real harm in the real world,
argues Lynne Segal, the author of “Out of Time: The Pleasures and the Perils of
Ageing” (2013). She says that the biggest problem for many older people is “ageism,
rather than the process of aging itself.” There is no possibility of diversified, personal
approaches to aging if we are all reductively “aged by culture,” to use the age critic
Margaret Morganroth Gullette’s iconic phrase, from her 2004 book, “Aged by
Culture.” Gullette highlights the limitations of having only two socially accepted
narratives of aging: stories of progress or stories of decline. Neither does justice to
the “radical ambiguities” of old age, Segal says. We’re forced either to lament or to
celebrate old age, rather than simply “affirm it as a significant part of life.”
Old age is perplexing to imagine in part because the definition of it is notoriously
unstable. As people age, they tend to move the goalposts that mark out major life
stages: a 2009 survey of American attitudes toward old age found that young adults
(those between eighteen and twenty-nine) said that old age begins at sixty; middle-
aged respondents said seventy; and those above the age of sixty-five put the
threshold at seventy-four. We tend to feel younger as we get older: almost half the
respondents aged fifty or more reported feeling at least ten years younger than their
actual age, while a third of respondents aged sixty-five or more said that they felt up
to nineteen years younger.
The researchers also found “a sizable gap between the expectations that young and
middle-aged adults have about old age and the actual experiences reported by older
Americans themselves.” Young and middle-aged adults anticipate the “negative
benchmarks” associated with aging (such as memory loss, illness, or an end to
sexual activity) at much higher levels than the old report experiencing them.
However, the elderly also report experiencing fewer of the benefits that younger
adults expect old age to bring (such as more time for travel, hobbies, or volunteer
“…we are dehumanized and impoverished without our old people, for only
by contact with them can we come to know ourselves.”
These perceptual gaps between generations are large and persistent. Simone de
Beauvoir, in her exhaustive study “The Coming of Age” (published in 1970, when she
was sixty-two), wrote, “Old age is particularly difficult to assume because we have
always regarded it as something alien, a foreign species.” The anthropologist Barbara
Myerhoff, who made the documentary film “In Her Time,” about a community of
elderly Californians, when she was in her forties, believed that “we are dehumanized
and impoverished without our old people, for only by contact with them can we come
to know ourselves.”
Even more confusingly, we don’t experience old age identically. As Germaine Greer
puts it, “Nobody ages like anybody else.” The poet Fleur Adcock, who is eighty-one,
says “this great range of abilities and states of health confuses the young: they can’t
figure us out.” We age as individuals and as members of particular social contexts,
yet the shared experience of old age continues to be overstated. The eighty-two-
year-old British novelist Penelope Lively writes that her demographic has “nothing
much in common except the accretion of years, a historical context, and a generous
range of ailments.” At the same time, though, she warns that aging is such a
“commonplace experience” that nobody should “behave as though … uniquely
The actress Juliet Stevenson, who is in her late fifties, recently commented that “as
you go through life it gets more and more interesting and complicated, but the parts
offered get more and more simple, and less complicated.” The same could be said for
the dearth of good roles for old characters in literature. Lively believes that “old age
is forever stereotyped … from the smiling old dear to the grumbling curmudgeon.” In
fiction, she says, the stereotypes “are rife—indeed fiction is perhaps responsible for
the standard perception of the old, with just a few writers able to raise the game.”
I started to realize that, in creating my spunky elderly female character, I had
romanticized the version of old age that tells a story of progress, indulging a fantasy
of who I might be when I’m old. When writing her, I had been thinking of Jenny
Joseph’s “Warning,” regularly voted the U.K.’s favorite postwar poem, in which the
young speaker imagines with longing the freedoms of rebellious old age and the
prospect of making up for the “sobriety of youth.” I’m hardly a renegade now,
however, so why did I harbor the illusion that as I get older I will somehow throw off
the shackles of propriety? Most of what has been written in the sociological literature
about life in our seventies, eighties, and nineties suggests that who we are when we
are old remains pretty close to who we were when we were young. There is comfort
in the idea of some consistency of self across the decades. While sometimes
distressing, the denialism of old age—think of the sixty-three-year-old Freud’s horror
at realizing that the elderly gentleman he’s glimpsed on the train is in fact his own
reflection, or the scientist Lewis Wolpert’s lament, “How can a seventeen-year-old
like me suddenly be eighty-one?”—is also proof of our ability to remain on intimate
terms with younger versions of ourself. “Live in the layers, / not on the litter,” as the
Stanley Kunitz poem goes, and he knew what he was talking about: he became Poet
Laureate of the United States at the age of ninety-five.
“…declining to describe our lives as unified stories … is the only way we can
hope to live out our time other than as tragedy.”
Another aspect of my fantasy was that old age is a consistently satisfying bookend to
a shapely arc of a life, a time for getting things in order. But in this, I was ignoring
the fact that old people are just as vulnerable to disorder, not to mention
happenstance, caprice, and bad luck, as anybody else. Grasping for closure might be
the goal of fiction, but it is not necessarily the lived experience of old age. As Helen
Small writes in “The Long Life,” her study of the literature and philosophy of old age,
“declining to describe our lives as unified stories … is the only way we can hope to
live out our time other than as tragedy.” Lively describes the frustrations of
autobiographical memory in old age. “The novelist in me—the reader, too—wants
shape and structure, development, a theme, insights,” she writes. “Instead of which,
there is this assortment of slides, some of them welcome, others not at all, defying
chronology, refusing structure.” After reading the stories in “Stone Mattress,” by
Margaret Atwood, who is now seventy-five, I began to question my portrayal of old
age as a time for the tying up of loose ends; as one reviewer wrote, Atwood’s stories
depict “the stored-up rancour that one can amass over the years.” Many of her
characters express a desire for revenge over reconciliation.
I’m not alone, among my generation, in falling into this trap of positive stereotyping.
A friend my age who is in medical school recently chose to specialize in geriatrics,
and over drinks with some other doctors she was asked why. “Because I love old
people,” she replied. “I like hearing their stories and what they have to say about the
world.” One of the doctors made a dismissive sound. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said.
“Old people are just regular people who happen to be old.” My friend stuck with
geriatrics, but realized that she had been fostering an idealized notion of the elderly.
“At the end of the day,” she told me, “an old person can be just as trying as any
other person; just as messy, just as unthankful.” She has also become wary of her
instinctual empathy impulse when dealing with elderly patients. In this, she draws on
the academic work of Kate Rossiter, who advocates fostering “ethical responsibility”
rather than empathy in medical practitioners. “There’s something almost greedy
about empathy, because it relies on the notion that we can somehow assimilate the
other,” my friend explained. “A respectful and thoughtful distance is also part of what
enables us to respond to the other’s needs.”
“…the young know nothing directly about old age and their inquiries into
the topic must be done blind.”
A few years before he died, at the age of eighty-nine, the literary critic Frank
Kermode wrote that “the young know nothing directly about old age and their
inquiries into the topic must be done blind.” Perhaps this is why younger artists seem
to get waylaid by the same tropes: we are sometimes tempted to imagine old age as
one big, funny, wisdom-rich adventure, with the comic caper a stalwart of the form,
from the film “Grumpy Old Men” to the novel (and later film) “The Hundred-Year-Old
Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared” (one film critic has dubbed
this genre Old People Behaving Hilariously). At the other extreme are the mind-
disease psycho-dramas that we might call Old People Behaving Terrifyingly—recent
novels like “The Farm” or “Elizabeth is Missing,” or the films “Iris” or “The Iron Lady.”
As Sally Chivers argues in “The Silvering Screen: Old Age and Disability in Cinema”
(2011), “in the public imagination … old age does not ever escape the stigma and
restraints imposed upon disability.”
There are notable exceptions, of course, and too many to mention in full here. Lynne
Segal, the author who warned against the negative impact of stereotypes of old age,
admires the work of Julian Barnes. Even as a young writer, she believes, he had an
uncanny ability to write old age well. Perhaps this is because he is a “thanataphobe,”
as he puts it in his recent memoir, “Nothing to Be Frightened Of” (published when he
was sixty-two); that is, he is more afraid of death than of old age, and so his elderly
characters—in, say, “Staring at the Sun” (published when Barnes was forty)—are
void, to Segal, of “any of the customary expressions of horror accompanying the
portrayals of old age.” In this way, Barnes also manages to capture the unexpected
indifference of many old people to death; as Lively has written, “Many of us who are
on the last lap are too busy with the baggage of old age to waste much time
anticipating the finish line.”
The Scottish writer Muriel Spark has also been commended by authors who are
themselves elderly, including Lively and her fellow British novelist Paul Bailey, as
proof that a young writer can successfully make a leap into the imagined territory of
old age. Spark was only forty-one in 1959, when she published her novel “Memento
Mori,” a black comedy about a group of nursing-home residents who begin receiving
mysterious phone calls from an anonymous caller who announces portentously, as if
it were unknown to them already, “Remember you must die.” Lively lauds the book
for its “bunch of sharply drawn individuals, convincingly old, bedeviled by specific
ailments, and mainly concerned with revisions of their past.” V. S. Pritchett, in an
introduction to a 1964 edition of “Memento Mori,” praised Spark for taking on “the
great suppressed and censored subject of contemporary society, the one we do not
care to face, which we regard as indecent: old age.”
A more recent example is the thirty-seven-year-old Australian author Fiona
McFarlane’s 2013 début novel, “The Night Guest.” McFarlane’s protagonist, Ruth,
though succumbing to dementia and at the mercy of an unreliable caregiver, is
capable of seeing beauty or taking great pleasure in her present—in a sexual
encounter, for example—while also deriving equal parts enjoyment and pain from
memories of her unusual past. She is neither hilarious nor terrifying. McFarlane says
that, while writing Ruth, she thought of her as “an individual who, at seventy-five, is
the sum of years of experience, memory, opinion, prejudice, decision-making, and
But why search for depictions of old age by the young when I should instead
be seeking out narratives by natives of old age?
But why search for depictions of old age by the young when I should instead be
seeking out narratives by natives of old age? I don’t mean the rich body of work by
late-middle-aged authors, which tends to be more about the fear of aging than about
the experience of old age itself (fiction by Martin Amis, for example, or, further back,
T. S. Eliot’s poetry), but literature written by authors aged seventy-five and older.
I started off thinking that, beyond the well-known examples of Saul Bellow (whose
final novel, “Ravelstein,” was published when he was eighty-five), Thomas Mann
(who died at the age of eighty, and who supposedly claimed that old age was the
best time to be a writer), May Sarton (called “America’s poet laureate of aging,” who
died at the age of eighty-three), and John Updike (who died at the age of seventy-
six, and who, in his final story collection, has a narrator musing, “Approaching eighty
I sometimes see myself from a little distance, as a man I know, but not intimately”),
the pickings would be fairly slim. Bellow’s own biographer mused, after the
publication of “Ravelstein,” “Who are the other great writers who have done anything
like this in their eighties?”
“Those who have had actual experience of old age are likely to be dead or
very tired or just reluctant to discuss the matter with clever young
Frank Kermode summed up the problem: “Those who have had actual experience of
old age are likely to be dead or very tired or just reluctant to discuss the matter with
clever young interlocutors.” Philip Roth, for example, who is now eighty-two, decided
to retire from writing at the age of seventy-eight, after the publication of his quartet
of “Nemeses” novels, saying in an interview about fiction, “I don’t want to read any
more, write any more of it, I don’t even want to talk about it anymore … I’m tired of
all that work. I’m in a different stage of my life.”
But if you dig deeper the vista opens up, the voices multiply. My little sample may be
idiosyncratic, and biased in favor of eloquence—these are elderly writers, all over the
age of seventy-five, who clearly still have their wits very much about them. Yet their
take on old age can perhaps offset some of the delusions and fantasies of people like
me, who have not yet lived it for themselves. Each of the following three authors is
alive and still writing prolifically, and was gracious enough to answer a few questions
from me by e-mail.
The first is the British novelist Paul Bailey, who is seventy-eight, and who published
his first novel, “At the Jerusalem,” at the age of thirty. It’s set in an institution for the
elderly, and the main character, Faith, is a woman in her seventies, who Bailey says
he purposefully did not make “likeable or sympathetic,” as he didn’t want her to be
an object of pity. “I can’t begin to tell you how patronized and stereotyped the
elderly were at that time: put-upon plaster saints were the dramatic order of the
day,” he told me. Critics wondered why a young man would choose to write about the
elderly in his first novel, but Bailey says he took inspiration from two other first
novels by young male writers, also focussed on institutions of old age: Updike’s “The
Poorhouse Fair” (1959) and William Trevor’s “The Old Boys” (1964). Bailey felt
confident that his take on old age was grounded in real observation and experience,
as his parents had been advanced in age when they had him, and he was later cared
for by a much older couple. “I grew up among people who were getting on in years,
so old age was never a frightening surprise to me,” he says. “I didn’t regard
pensioners as a race apart.”
“More sentimental rubbish has been written about the ‘plight of the elderly’
than I can bear to contemplate…”
He remembers a mime class that he took when he was training to be an actor at
London’s Central School, in the mid-nineteen-fifties. “We had to pretend to be old.
Most of the students elected to bend their heads down and shuffle their feet. None of
the old people I knew, especially my forbidding grandmother, walked or moved in
this manner. My classmates were succumbing to easy caricature.” He doesn’t think
much has changed today. “More sentimental rubbish has been written about the
‘plight of the elderly’ than I can bear to contemplate,” he wrote in a preface to a
Guardian article in which he selected his top ten narratives of old age. (He praises
work by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Alice Munro, and Stefan Zweig; the readers’
comments to the article are a good resource for anybody looking for further
recommendations). And sentimentality can be pernicious. In a Paris Review
interview, the Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe, who is now eighty, mentioned Flannery
O’Connor’s warning: “She said that sentimentality is an attitude that does not
confront reality squarely in the face. To feel sorry for handicapped people … is
equivalent to hiding them.”
Bailey told me that he thinks some of the best depictions of old people “can be found
in books and plays that aren’t specifically concerned with people getting old,” citing
the memoirs of Sergei Aksakov, Maxim Gorky, and Leo Tolstoy, and the works of
Balzac, Proust, Turgenev, Dickens, and Eliot, where the “old wander in and out”—for
example, the “tender portrait” of Wemmick’s Aged Parent, in “Great Expectations.”
“I never, never thought I was tackling the ‘problem’ of old age. It was never
a fictional problem for me. It was just another aspect of being alive, and
In 2011, Bailey published the novel “Chapman’s Odyssey,” in which an elderly male
protagonist, lying ill in the hospital, is visited by people real and imagined: lovers,
dead parents, characters from literature. It was inspired by Bailey’s own extended
hospital stays, which he says he has come to enjoy “in a perverse way” because of
the interesting people he meets there, “like the man who covers his breakfast cereal
with anchovy essence.” Though the novel is about old age, he says he feels “younger
for having written it.” He helped me pinpoint where I had perhaps gone wrong in my
own imaginative attempt when he said, “I never, never thought I was tackling the
‘problem’ of old age. It was never a fictional problem for me. It was just another
aspect of being alive, and human.”
The second writer who shared her thoughts with me is Fleur Adcock. If poetry, as
Auden wrote, “might be defined as the clear expression of mixed feelings,” then the
medium seems particularly suited to capturing the ambivalence of the old toward old
age. The New Zealand-born British poet Adcock published her first collection when
she was thirty, and she is now eighty-one. Like Lively, she says that old age began
for her at the age of seventy, when she fell seriously ill for a period, though she says
“a more honest but less tidy answer might be that it has been a very gradual
process, with old age retreating and advancing unpredictably over the years.” She
does remember feeling peculiar on realizing that, in her mid-seventies, she had
outlived Yeats, whom she thought of as “that iconic ‘old poet,’ ” and who died at the
age of seventy-three.
In her recent collection “Glass Wings” (2013), the picture she paints of old age is
utterly eye-opening. Her elderly speakers are comfortable with technology but use it
in ways particular to their needs. In “Match Girl,” the speaker asks, of her little sister,
“But how can someone younger than me
have osteoporosis, and sit
googling up a substance that might
help it, or give her phossy jaw?”
In “Alumnae Notes,” the speaker laments old school friends who have died or been
lost to dementia, but then reasserts her connection to the present:
“The class photos fade. But Marie and I,
face to face on Skype in full colour
and still far too animated to die,
can see we’ve not yet turned to sepia.”
In “Mrs Baldwin,” the speaker describes the “muffled pang” of envy that clutches her
whenever she hears that someone has been given a diagnosis of cancer. In “Having
Sex with the Dead,” the speaker remembers past lovers: “The looks on their dead
faces, as they plunge / into you, your hand circling a column / of one-time flesh and
pulsing blood that now / has long been ash and dispersed chemicals.”
Adcock has known Jenny Joseph, the author of “Warning,” for many years, and says
that Joseph is “fed up” with her iconic poem, written so long ago, when she was a
young woman imagining old age (“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple /
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me,” the poem begins). Joseph is
now in her mid-eighties, and still publishing poetry. A recent poem by her, “A Patient
Old Cripple,” makes a beautiful counterpoint to the earlier, blustering tone of
“Warning” with its final lines: “I curse the world that blunders into me, and hurts /
But know / Its bad fit is the best that we can do.”
The third writer I spoke to is the eighty-two-year-old Penelope Lively, who published
her first book when she was thirty-seven, and who also often imagined elderly
characters in her fiction when she was younger (in her novel “Moon Tiger,” for
example, which won the 1989 Booker Prize). Her most recent novel, “How it All
Began” (2011), revolves around an elderly female protagonist whose broken hip
precipitates a series of random but significant collisions in the lives of others. She’s
currently working on a set of short stories, many with elderly protagonists.Lively has
also chosen to share her view from old age in a memoir, “Ammonites and Leaping
Fish: A Life in Time,” from 2013. This is not a traditional memoir but a meditation on
old age and memory. She takes pride in her right to speak of these things. “One of
the few advantages of age,” she writes, “is that you can report on it with a certain
authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.” She also highlights
the importance of the mission: “Our experience is one unknown to most of humanity,
over time. We are the pioneers.” She likes the anonymity that old age has given her;
it leaves her “free to do what a novelist does anyway, listen and watch, but with the
added spice of feeling a little as though I am some observant time-traveller.”
“One of the few advantages of age is that you can report on it with a certain
authority; you are a native now, and know what goes on here.”
She is among the first true anthropologists of old age, both participant and observer.
Many of her attitudes seem almost unimaginable to the young: for example, she’s
not envious of us, she is still as curious as she always was, she doesn’t miss travel or
holidays, she has become used to physical pain; she still has “needs and greeds”
(muesli with sheep’s-milk yogurt, the daily fix of reading), but her more “acquisitive”
lusts have faded. Most surprisingly, she insists that old age is not a “pallid sort of
place,” that she is still capable of “an almost luxurious appreciation of the world.”
It sounds to me both wonderful and terrible, a permanent contradiction in terms, but
perhaps this ambiguity is why, in her view, “memorable and effective writing about
old age is rare … a danger zone for many novelists.” She singles out Kingsley Amis’s
“Ending Up” for avoiding stereotypes of old age, by being “funny with a bleak
undertone,” and the trilogy that Jane Gardam started writing in her mid-seventies
and recently completed in her mid-eighties (“Old Filth,” “The Man in the Wooden
Hat,” and “Last Friends”).
“…memorable and effective writing about old age is rare … a danger zone
for many novelists.”
Lively is hopeful about any new interest in and awareness of old age, and thinks that,
in part, the reason younger people find old age “more interesting than daunting” is
because her demographic is “much more attuned to the times than … the old were in
the past. We have mutated, and may have one toe still in 1950 but have an outlook
very much of 2015.” The gap between generations is “closing up” in a way it wasn’t
when she was young, she says. But when I asked her about the ethical responsibility
younger authors have to depict old age realistically, she responded, “As a writer, you
have to think—am I capable of this quantum leap of the imagination? If the answer is
dubious—then don’t do it. Stereotyping is a kind of fictional abuse.”
As for what she thinks she got wrong when she was creating elderly characters as a
younger writer, she says she wasn’t quite able, back then, to imagine the less
dramatic physical aspects of being old: the constant pain from various forms of
arthritis, the slow impairment of sight and hearing, and a “kind of instability,” a loss
of balance “that would be unnerving if it came on suddenly, but, because it is
gradual, you adapt.” With the elderly protagonist Claudia, in “Moon Tiger” (written
when Lively was in her early fifties), she says, “I ducked the problem … by making
her a mind rather than a body—she is dying in hospital, but not much is made of
that, what you know of her are her thoughts and her memories.” What she believes
she got right, however, is that Claudia’s mindset in old age is much the same as
when she was young; this, she says, has been true to her own experience of getting
Why does literature about old age matter? A better question, perhaps, is one posed
by John Halliday, the editor of the old-age-themed poetry anthology “Don’t Bring Me
No Rocking Chair” (the title is taken from a Maya Angelou poem): “Who is calling the
shots when it comes to aging?” For Halliday, it is the power of poetry to offer us a
“fresh language” of old age that is so important. Lynne Segal agrees. Literature, she
says, has the potential to give us texts in which “the experiences of the old unfold
and collapse back, like concertinas, into narratives that are rarely reducible to age
itself.” After all, as Sarah Falcus writes, “Literature does not … simply mirror or reflect
a social world, but, instead, is part of and complicit in shaping that social world.”
For my part, I’m not sure I will return to my novel. It now strikes me as an exercise
in speculative showing off: look at me, so young and hard at work imagining old age!
I think I prefer to watch and learn as this “coming of old age” literature continues to
explode in scope and scale, and listen closely to artists who, in their advanced years,
“have the confidence to speak simply,” as Julian Barnes says. Forget the
bildungsroman. We are on the cusp of the age of the reifungsroman—the literary
scholar Barbara Frey Waxman’s term for the “novel of ripening.”
For my part, I’m not sure I will return to my novel. It now strikes me as an
exercise in speculative showing off…
Everywhere I look now, I seem to stumble upon new writing about old age by those
who are themselves old, personal and creative accounts of the many subcultures and
subjectivities of old age, and I feel increasingly ashamed of my earlier ignorance of
this blossoming body of work. My to-read list now includes stories by the ninety-six-
year-old Emyr Humphreys; late work by Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, and Seamus
Heaney; poetry by Elaine Feinstein, Dannie Abse, Maureen Duffy, and Ruth Fainlight;
a new novel by the seventy-three-year-old Erica Jong, “Fear of Dying”; fiction by
William Trevor, David Lodge, Kent Haruf, Toni Morrison, and Kenzaburo Oe; memoirs
by Vivian Gornick, Roger Angell, and Diana Athill. It’s an exciting time, to have a
brand-new feature of human experience—living longer—described by people as they
live it, by people who have learned with age, as the late poet Adrienne Rich said, the
year she turned eighty, to balance “dread and beauty.”
4. FW BEGINS WITH ELDER ED – EMAILS FROM AUGUST 2003
BY FATHER WILLIAM, OCTOBER 30, 2015
FW: As life-partner Donna had made very clear over the years, these exchanges are
not her cup of tea, and she insists I warn you readers as well – so consider yourselves
warned. But it is through these and our Skype chats that Ed’s patience and wisdom
have gotten through to this eternal Second Ager, and I am so much the better for
them. See what you think without be bullied by my wife…
AUG 6: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ELDER ED!
Donna and I calculate this completes your 87th year of gracing this plane, and we
thank you for the gift of you into our lives. Much love from Two Novice Third-
AUG 7: BEHIND THE FACADES IS A SPIRIT!
Thank you for your delightful commentary! One doesn’t always have a euphoric view
at this age (after all, there is much that needs changing!) but I CAN testify to a
sense of serenity which seems to pervade whatever one surveys and appears to
underscore Albert Camus’s philosophy of limits. Behind the facades is a spirit!
AUG 7: MORE ON ALBERT, PLEASE…
You’re more than welcome, Ed, and I thank you for the confirmation of Serenity and
Spirit – these will be the foundation of my Third and Fourth Ages as well, I hope.
When you have a moment, I’d like you to tell me more about Camus’s “philosophy of
limits”; it doesn’t ring a bell with me…
AUG 8: ENGAGEMENT IS ALL THAT MATTERS IN THE LONG RUN
As you recall, Camus was known primarily as a story teller of the first rank. But he
was also a product of the turmoil that existed in 20 century Algeria, France, and the
Resistance in World War II, as well as being on the periphery of the Existentialist
movement of that era. The results also show up in his writings, and the purport of
much of same is their persistent reference to the limitations of human action–but not
to the idea of involvement (the latter separates him from much of the thrust of:
Thanks for UNTIL and WHAT). Since he places such a premium on engagement, but
not on HOPE, he is usually thought of as being in the existentialist camp. But behind
the apparent negativism rises a much stronger specter, or spirit, of the statements
that our engagements are making! It is out of this spirit that I read him as having a
“philosophy of limits,” because he does not subscribe to illusions but instead shows
us the WAY of engagement as a sufficient reason for our being present in this world.
I guess you could say it is akin to the Tao (or Way). Now you can see how I have
warmed to the idea of engagement (even if it sometimes is just observation or
meditation) as the only thing we can say demonstrably matters in the long run. The
Third Age (and especially The Fourth Age) is a time of entering that “long run,” for
one has done much of his or her running already–and we are now preparing to go
beyond the running and into a fuller life!
I hope this helps. You know, Bill, that you and Donna are very stimulating persons–
it’s because of your PRESENCE that “the Retreat” works!
AUG 8: AND IT’S IRRELEVANT WHETHER THE WORLD IS REAL…
I find your thinking fascinating – so fascinating, in fact, I’m going to ramble on a bit.
A way I can paraphrase what you’re describing here is by seeing it as a paradox of
“debilitating impotence” (infinite limitation) and “never give up commitment” (total
This is different than Thich Nhat Hanh’S “engaged-detachment” which referred to
his experience in Vietnam as a Buddhist monk in the presence of napalmed villagers.
His spiritual beliefs prevented him from becoming engaged emotionally or politically,
but his humanity insisted he become engaged in helping the injured. His resolution of
this paradox was to teach his monks to become deeply engaged in healing service and
compassion but not IN judgment or anger. Easy to say but, I would imagine,
incredibly hard to do.
Back to the paradox of limitation/engagement and impotence/commitment. I’ve
struggled with this one most of my life in one form or another. I remember reading
Camus as a junior in college and his writings making enormous sense in my despair.
Whenever I get depressed (which has been quite often), the limitations-impotence
side of the paradox takes me over. “Nothing matters,” I say over and over again and
wonder why I continue at all. From this negative perspective, “Nothing matters”
means that nothing I do has or will have significance or meaning in any way
whatsoever now or in the future. So why do anything?
On the other hand, when I’m up and feeling my best about life, I say the same thing:
“Nothing matters.” From this perspective of delight and appreciation of the world,
the phrase means that whatever comes along is just what I ought to be doing – that
whatever the Great Spirit has in mind for me at this moment is just perfect. So the
content of the two perspectives is exactly the same; the only difference lies in the
mental and emotional frame I take toward them.
While this paradox has always had great impact on us depressives and bi-polarites, I
think it becomes a mainstream malady as we move into Third and Fourth Ages. Now
we’ve had enough life experience to know how hard it is to change patterns of human
behavior imprinted and reinforced over centuries. It seems that true wisdom now
lies in the Serenity Prayer:
God, Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.
The older we get, the more likely we are to believe this prayer really means “replace
action with acceptance.” We remember our youthful foibles and conclude the error
of immaturity was precipitous (and often stupid) activity. In avoiding such stupidities
now, we are likely to commit the opposite error of age (“analysis-paralysis” that
results in withdrawal from the world). Of course, neither of these is what we want.
Somewhere rattling around in my Third Age memory bank is a story of someone who
sees the almost certain futility of engaging in a loving, giving action, and, in that full
awareness, joyfully leaps again into the fray. What is that story? There’s “The Little
Engine That Could,” but that’s really a story of youth, and its power depends on
actually achieving the worldly success of getting over the mountain and delivering the
circus. The message is “positive thinking will produce results.” This is not Camus’s
message, nor is it an appropriate message for our Third and Fourth Ages. What you
and Albert lay before us is that engagement itself, and not any result that might
come from it, is the point of life – and particularly of later life.
This opens up new levels of meaning in the Serenity Prayer for me. I’ve always
thought its advice was to accept the outer world as real and unchangeable, and take
care to discern which parts of it we might bend to our will with reasonable effort.
You and Camus lay before me a new and exciting possibility, especially for this time
of life: It’s irrelevant whether the outer world is real or not – what is relevant is how
choosing to engage with it will, or will not, bring joy, vitality and delight into our lives.
This means we ask a whole different set of questions:
Not… “Can we change this?”
But… “Will we have fun engaging with this?”
Not… “How do we accept this?”
But… “Will accepting this bring us joy?”
Not… “How do we know what can and can’t be changed?”
But… “Do we even want this on our radar screen?”
What a difference in perspective on the world and how we relate to it this brings!
Thank you, my friend, for opening this up for me…
P.S. Thank you for your appreciation of our presence at the retreat. It’s a gift we’ve
both been given and isn’t ours – it comes through us, and we love to give it. If there’s
any thing we can do from a distance to help with your ongoing meetings, please give
us a call. Thank you for the great service you’re doing for us and this group.
AUG 9: LOSS OF A WAY IS NOT LOSS OF SOUL
Well, it seems like we’ve started something, Bill! I guess that means that you never
know what’s going to happen UNTIL you engage, or at least until you make your
choices about WHAT to engage.
I’m delighted with your response. I feel enlightened by your explanation of the
dilemma that depressives and bi-polarites face on an ongoing basis–thank you. But
I’m glad that you find the Camus engagement strategy an answer to not only to that
“norm” but also to the later ages’ main stream dilemma. The loss of a WAY that one
has depended on for years is certainly something that many elders face (I saw so
much of that during the time I was living in Florida for ten years–it was, frequently,
a total loss of soul or perhaps a failure to have ever developed a sense of one’s own
It may be that we don’t really learn of what engagement means until all our routines
are swept away by the tide of events. The beauty of engagement is that it depends
on what I choose–not what someone chooses for me! Not to choose (by opting out,
denial, fabrication, or whatever) is THE stumbling block. And fear of the unknown is,
of course, one reason for not making a choice because choice is daring,
unpredictable, and maybe ultimately unrewarding–and we’ve, all along, been
depending on “rewards.” The joy of engagement laughs at all these uncertainties and
even at the eventual “end” that we all think we face….it doesn’t matter, as you say,
whether it’s real or unreal. I think Camus’s The Plague, if I remember the title
correctly, illustrates perfectly what engagement can really mean.
To your postscript, Bill, with which I also fully agree: I, too, know what “a gift” is–it
COMES to us, as you say, and we freely pass it on (if we know what we’re about)
because we know it is something that receives it’s meaning only that way. Have a
great evening this Saturday, and also tomorrow.
AUG 10: THANKS FOR “UNTIL” AND “WHAT”
I am so happy with our correspondence and connection. This move to splitting my live
between New Zealand and US family has been a very difficult time for me, and just
this morning I think I glimpsed why. Here’s what I wrote in my journal:
HOW HARD TRANSFORMING TO A LIFE OF THE SPIRIT IS FOR US! We just
wondered if our focus on Third Age (and Being) has been misplaced – that what our
Soul is guiding us to do is to build a life of the Spirit, and we just weren’t able to
entertain this so directly in 2001 when we began this journey… Maybe now we can!
Your email’s opening remarks about “UNTIL” and “WHAT to engage” offer me so
much this morning! It feels so clear to me right now that my Soul’s time for
development is at hand, and the pain I’ve attributed to the move is really the very
useful pain that accompanies resisting the path Spirit has put in front of us. And
your line (“It may be that we don’t really learn what engagement means until all our
routines are swept away by the tide of events”) surely fits what this move has done
While I’ve been focusing more on my soul-life than ever before. Donna involved me in
a two-year Spiritual Guidance Training starting in Nov 2001 that just ended, and I
gave up my high status/$ consulting WAY at the same time, but I haven’t accepted
that my Soul is the “main thing.” As Howard Hanger says so well, “Make the main
thing the main thing.” So your words help me focus: the WHAT is my Soul and the
UNTIL is now! Thank you…
Of course, I’m pretty confused about how to go about this new focus, but that’s
okay. I’ll figure it out as I go. The important thing was getting over the hump of
owning up to what that focus really is, and UNTIL and WHAT gave me the push I
needed. I’d certainly appreciate your sharing any learnings from your journey…
AUG 13: THE SOUL IS NO DOPE
Sounds as if you’ve reached a major arrival point in your journey, Bill! And they are
always beginnings as well. I’ve been very lucky at such times by just waiting for
guidance, expectantly, and it always has filled in the blanks for me! The “soul,” or
Divine, is no dope–it knows when it has “a live one,” so it proceeds from there!
Since you are fully ready, it will access you I’m sure! Keep me informed!
AUG 13: I’M DOING MY BEST AT WAITING
Many thanks for your words of wisdom and encouragement, Ed – my stability is a
moment-to-moment thing right now, and I’m doing the best I’ve ever done at waiting.
Sue Monk Kidd’s “When the Heart Waits” has been another deep friend. Love, Bill
AUG 14: ATTENDING TO “THE STILL POINT”
Bill, thanks for YOUR words of encouragement–I’ve never considered myself as
being very strong in the “courage” department, and I have always been looking for
ways to fortify!
Remember “the still point”? The still point is not a time of emptiness–rather it is a
time of fullness, and a time to apprehend that fullness. When I feel empty it is
because I am already full–it’s the egg being readied to hatch! We are called to look
into the fullness that is already there and to realize that it is a time of birthing in
which we will participate as it unveils. You know this, of course, instinctively, only
you haven’t been paying attention to “instinct” lately, rather you’ve been LIVING it–
to the exclusion of “attending.” But, now you are called upon to attend. Can you do
that? Can you DEVOTE yourself to that, for this period of such consequence? There
are books, of course, but maybe now is not the time for books because they may
interfere with the attending that you need to do?
AUG 15: “DEVOTED ATTENDING”
I appreciate so much your direction and directness! And your insight and advice
seems “right on” to me. I’ve printed your email and put it up where it reminds me of
what I’m about now. Will keep you posted on what my “devoted attending” brings to
me as I unfold.
AUG 16: THE DANGER OF 2A CONCERNS CO-OPTING 3A
And once again I thank you, Bill! These accolades are precious, and I so appreciate
The Asheville Retreat Group had a good lunchtime conversation about many
“problems” of interest to some or all of the eight of us. My general impression of
same at the time was that most present were still very much co-opted by concerns of
a Second Age nature! I suppose that was to be expected because most of us are,
indeed, just entering the Third Age in many ways! I’m wondering if you two sensed
the same thing at the Retreat? Possibly you did not because of the fact that you
conducted a pretty tightly organized program? Not that it matters in the long run as
to where we go from here–which, I think, depends largely on the topics we will be
selecting prior to each meeting. It can be fun in any case but I see the potential
there as permitting a pretty wide diversion from Third Age concerns if we aren’t alert
enough to see what’s happening. We decided to meet for lunch at some restaurant
before any future discussions, and the first of same probably won’t be until October.
In the meantime we are to think about various topics. Here’s where I think the two
of you might enter the picture by suggesting some topics (or even just one topic) for
us to start with–guidance is important for us, especially at this stage!
AUG 17: “TOPICS” SEEM MORE 2A THAN 3A
I’m glad the group wants to continue and agree with your perception of there being a
“co-opting by Second Age concerns.” I personally think the notion of “topics” is
Second Age in that it presupposes focus, activity and doing are what getting
together should be about. It’s so hard for people to trust they could simply “be
together” and find it profoundly meaningful (and that’s all Donna and I really
structured – ways to be together and speak from our hearts about what truly
matters to us). I doubt “topics” will cause what’s really wanted to happen, and I’d be
happy to do some email correspondence to see if we could create a structure more
aligned with moving from doing to being. I also think the group is incredibly lucky (as
I am) to have you mentoring, and I don’t want to undermine that in any way, so please
tell me what you think will be most helpful, and I’ll be happy to do it…
AUG 17: MORE CO-OPTING OF 3A
There is a very interesting article titled “In Sudden Disability, A Chance to Refocus” in
today’s paper that I thought you might find interesting to read. It’s about some high-
powered executives who are suddenly thrust into a disability situation (the actual
disability varies with the different executives the article discusses). As I read it, they
are put very suddenly into a “Third Age World” which, of course, they are totally
unprepared for (except that they still have their Type A personalities!). How they
cope also varies, but one common denominator seems to be that they HAVE to cope!
As one might expect with such dynamos, they find their way back into the “Second
Age” (my interpretation). Of course, the truth is that they never learn to leave same-
-and I’m wondering if you would agree with me that they’ve missed a real
opportunity to find another, completely different, modus vivendi? Which, I obviously
believe, OTHERS have. Again we come down to the matter of choice.
Is there a lesson in the above for all of us? Maybe they weren’t lucky enough to have
a Donna in their lives? And, how much does the “luck” factor play in all our decision
AUG 18: FEELING 2A “HAS BEEN TAKEN” FROM US
I read the article and couldn’t agree with you more. Even though offered an
opportunity to become new people, everyone was driven more deeply back into
Second Age. My guess is that’s because they didn’t get tired of Second Age (as in
Peggy Lee’s “Is this all there is?”), but felt it was “taken” from them. For the most
part, it would take very profound therapeutic work to help people who felt robbed of
what they most valued to be able to reframe that into an opportunity, especially
when the culture so drives one to be proud of having a “Type A” personality.
I want to think about this more because there ought to be ways, if the timing is
precise enough, to help people with opportunities like this see what they’ve been
offered, but it certainly isn’t by writing articles that praise them for returning to
immaturity. This is where I have trouble with much of the advice directed toward
Third Agers; it seems to recommend Third Age as a time to do Second Age again,
only “better”. I know in my heart that’s not it – it’s about, as you say, “a real
opportunity to find another, completely different, modus vivendi”.
When you mention Donna and “luck”, you are definitely on to something. There’s no
question my opening to the influence of the feminine has been a huge factor in
whatever growth I’ve achieved in this direction, as has been my willingness to be
blown around by the winds of life (and end up feeling that almost always has been a
good thing). Both are work that requires a lot of reframing, particularly for “real
men.” I love these exchanges…
AUG 20: A SENSE OF BEING IN THE MIDST OF DOING
Me, too, Bill (“loving these exchanges”). “Living the Second Age again, only better”
amuses the hell out of me! I can’t imagine why anyone wants to repeat a phase of
their lives which did have its significance and was fulfilling but is longer pertinent–
that, to me, is an incredulity beyond compounding by yet another venture into
sameness! And especially so because it is essentially so negative about our reason
for being here. It implies a finality which is entirely automated by the lack of a higher
aspiration for the human spirit….worst of all, it presumes that there is to be no
evolving beyond the current human biology and circumstance–a notion I totally
reject! Indeed, with such a psychological and social burden how could anyone WANT
to live into a third age?
I’m very happy to have your input about where our group is (and is Not!) and I agree
with you completely about “topics” as being bogus. How about “questions,” instead?
What I mean is that, for me at least, questions open up avenues. What has been
your experience in that regard? With that in mind, I jotted down some of MY
questions (which the group may, or may not find pertinent) and I’d first like to check
them out with you to get your reaction (These are my thoughts currently):
What is your experience of a sense of BEING in the midst of DOING? Have you
sensed that what you Are is different from what you are Doing? If so, is this the
entranceway to the Third Age from the Second Age? Do we find the Third Age for
ourselves only when we start to realize that Doing is not enough, and that we have
to arrive at a sense of Being in the midst of our Doing? When does the realization of
the Third Age begin to take over our lives? Is it when there is a loss of some sort–
perhaps even just a loss of continuity in some aspect of the then-current lifestyle? Or
does it require a more definitive “fracturing” of some sort?
I very much like the idea of your doing “some email correspondence” about moving
from doing to being! Please do! Thanks so much, Bill, for staying with this thing.
AUG 20: REALIZATION OF 3A REQUIRES A VERY PERSONAL FOCUS
I like your idea of questions, Ed – maybe people could take turns coming up with a
very deep and personal “question focus” for sharing at meeting. The structure I’d
recommend is each person gets 3-5 minutes to share something from their personal
experience (note again the emphasis on “personal” as opposed to “intellectual” or
“theoretical”) until all have spoken; then a general discussion (again staying personal)
could occur. This is like the structure I use for the “Shared Review” only I take the
liberty of amplifying what people say so they and all can feel the significance more
deeply. You would be very good at that, too, if the group will allow you that position.
In my consulting, I came in as the acknowledged leader. What we wouldn’t want is
discussion breaking out too early and diffusing the uniquely personal nature of the
I particularly like your two sets of questions, too. It seems the structure of having
one overriding question amplified by a number of supporting questions would work
very well. What do you think?
#1: What is your experience of a sense of BEING in the midst of DOING?
– Have you sensed that what you Are is different from what you are Doing?
– If so, is this the entranceway to the Third Age from the Second Age?
– Do we find the Third Age for ourselves only when we start to realize that Doing
is not enough, and that we have to arrive at a sense of Being in the midst of our
#2: When does the realization of the Third Age begin to take over our lives?
– Is it when there is a loss of some sort–perhaps even just a loss of continuity in
some aspect of the then-current lifestyle?
– Or does it require a more definitive “fracturing” of some sort?
AUG 21: 3A IS NOT ‘USEFUL’ – IT’S A REVELATION OF VALUES…
Please play around with this one a little bit, Bill:
Of what does the Third Age consist? It is the time of unveiling. Much has already
been done so it is Show Time. The lights have been turned on and a tableau appears.
You are looking into the finished picture of a sea of flowers already in bloom, or
about to bloom. We are no longer talking about potentials but are looking at the
No longer are we asking what it’s useful for. It doesn’t have a purpose. Instead, it
has value, it is a revelation of values. So we can’t “do” anything with it – rather it
just hangs on the wall. Don’t like what you see? Then, how about this one over here
(this other value)?
AUG 21: IF WE DON’T LIKE WHAT WE SEE, OUR SEEING IS FLAWED
“No longer are we asking what it’s useful for. It doesn’t have a purpose. Instead, it
has value, it is a revelation of values. So we can’t “do” anything with it–rather it just
hangs on the wall…”
It just IS.
If you don’t like what you see, your seeing’s got problems. Look from a different
angle, take a different perspective, pretend it’s a different picture – whatever you
need to come home. It’s all about coming home – truly home…
Ed, I love the VALUING of IS-NESS!
AUG 21: 3A IS SELF-CREATION BEYOND THE ‘DOING’ FOCUS OF 2A
This collection you have made has real “thrust” to it….it’s a going production! We
don’t have to worry about whether it will be an instant “hit” or not because the
unfolding which it has initiated cannot be stopped. Now that we’ve completed a first
venture, I’m sure others will crop up to replace it. The flow of events will reveal.
I don’t need to add a predicate to the preceding sentence. The Third Age is engaged
in self-creation of the sort that is beyond the DOING focus of the Second Age. In a
sense, the Third Age is “automated” by reason of our inner being’s operations on a
higher level than we had acknowledged as possible when we were in the Second. The
Third is, thus, revelatory in nature – it takes a bit of getting used to it before we
start to feel comfortable, and say, “Yes, of course!” I suppose that some persons
undergoing the early stages of identification with the Third Age have a sudden urge
to seek out their therapist! Instead, they should realize that all that is needed is trust
– it takes time (maybe lots of time) to absorb what is happening, but trust does not
come easily to many of us. The rush back into the Second’s “security” that the article
in The New York Times referred to (on the part of the super-executives) is a measure
of the power of the self-preservation instinct that the Second has (like a tyrant) over
Our job, then, is to become exemplars of assurance to those being brought up to the
realization that they are entering the Third! That is our role, and that is also
“automated” in its graduated appearance. Here we go again!
AUG 22: IN 3A ‘BEING INACTIVE’ IS A VALID ACTIVITY IN ITSELF
I had a conference call this morning with Donna and other 3A colleagues about how
these e-mail dialogues might help others. As we went back and forth, I shared
something I’d written in my journal; it was part of my trying to understand what
helped me finally come out of my moving depression:
“…the real key was finally coming to a point of exhaustion where I was willing to
withdraw and wait. I decided I wasn’t doing any more work on the Vermont condo for
at least a week (thank you, guests, for that excuse!). That stopping (including not
being bothered by wires and holes and bathroom walls and ceiling) was central to my
recovery. Also essential was a rationale that allowed my conscious mind to embrace
waiting, attending and apprehending as significant activities in themselves. Colleague
Jim K’s, “We may need to feel that being ‘inactive’ is a valid ‘activity’ in itself” seems
right on target.
“How can we make “waiting” a passionate activity without believing its point is to get
a ‘message’ that will then let us be more righteously and zealously ‘active’? This
seems to be the paradox of Third Age Spiritual Waiting: We wait for direction from
God, but not so we can act upon it…”
Since we take for granted using our physical and intellectual tools for growth and
benefit, I suggested we ought to use our emotional, intuitional and spiritual tools as
well. While 1A and 2A over-train us in the first two, it isn’t until 3A that we get much
help it all with the latter three, and so it makes sense the work of 3A is in these
realms. This is what you have already learned and what I am beginning to discover.
2A Doers need models of 3A Being to offset the “life is where the action is” cultural
conditioning so we can be pulled toward developing ourselves fully. This, of course, is
just what you were putting in your e-mail at almost the same time:
“Our job, then, is to become exemplars of assurance to those being brought up to
the realization that they are entering the Third! That is our role, and that is also
‘automated’ in its graduated appearance. Here we go again!”
Isn’t synchronicity (one of our higher level operations) wonderful!
AUG 23: THE INTUITIVE GROWS EXPONENTIALLY IN 3A
Glad your conference call with colleagues went on long enough that their initial
frustrations were at least PARTLY overcome! Bill, part of the problems in any inter-
age exchange is the matter of language. Lack of mutual understanding is inevitable–
they (the others) may not stand on the same ground that we do–so, there is a mis-
under-stand-off! And language is notably inept as bridging material in the attempt to
As you well point out, the intuitive grows exponentially in the Third Age. Whether
one is an atheist or not hardly matters when intuition steps up to the plate! I
remember the differences, over time, in the results I scored on two separate
occasions when I took the Myers-Briggs Test–the first time was when I was just
entering The Third Age, the second was only about a year ago. The difference in the
results was remarkable! The second time showed a vast extension in my intuitive
factor, and the psychologist who gave me the test remarked that I was one out of a
hundred or more in the results. Obviously it was not I who changed so much as a
person as it was in my willingness to let the FULL ME register same. I had stopped
hedging, I was now fully accepting! I didn’t care for subterfuge any more! So, I “let it
all hang out.” Ah, isn’t freedom, and freeing-up wonderful?
AUG 23: INTUITION & INDIVIDUATION – 3A KEYS TO INFINITY
Okay, Elder Ed – You’ve got me on a roll. Wrote this before your email came today,
so it’s not a direct response, but it fits well enough. See what you think, my friend,
given that I want to help Second/Early Third Agers get on with finding and enjoying
what you have and I am.
As I was meditating this morning, it became clear to me that I (and perhaps most
others) can’t do Third Age without feeling a connection to something beyond the
physical and rational.
If “What-Is-Beyond” is truly infinite, then it has the capacity to be all things to all
people. So perhaps a way to resolve the conflict so many have with the notion of
spirit is to say that your connection to this Beyond will take a form entirely personal
to you (including none at all, if that is your belief). I had an image of the
Infinite/Beyond offering each of us an infinite variety of connecting points, and we,
like the AIDS virus, try to find just that connection that we’ll fit like a key into its
matching block. The work of Third Age would then be the Feeling and Intuitional
exploration of the Infinite to find our individual locks, insert ourselves and open up
new levels of Infinity to play on.
How do we do this?
How do we become “exemplars to others” of doing this?
These are the questions you are helping me understand, enter and live — and the
living of the questions is probably the only way through, for as Rainer Maria Rilke
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions
themselves…do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would
not be able to live them and the point is to live everything. Live the questions now.
Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into
This “being patient” is not 2A waiting where one is still only long enough to glimpse a
new course of action and then rushes off to do it. No, this is “passionate waiting” to
be shown the keyhole that is ours, into which we slip and fit so effortlessly no action
at all is required of us (or is appropriate). This is the waiting of Third Age, “the
hanging on the wall.” It requires being so relaxed and peaceful because our keyholes
can only be seen when there is “No place to go… no thing to do…”
This morning as I meditate this is all so clear and so simple. It’s simply not possible
for the physical and rational alone to discover our personal connection to the
Infinite. This connection requires vision that can come only with Feeling and
Intuition. In this light, Jung’s “individuation” takes on new meaning for me.
Previously, I always thought of it in 2A psychological terms, meaning I would become
more the “me” I’d known in my Physical and Intellectual realms. Now I understand it
means finding my personal connection to the Infinite, and this happens through the
process of Third Age waiting that allows Feeling and Intuition to become, as you say,
my new “modus vivendi.” For human genes laden with eons of physical and rational
fears, letting down our painstakingly constructed defense structures can be
How do we learn to do this for ourselves?
How to we become “exemplars to others” of doing this?
Clearly there is great wisdom in removing oneself from the physical world as much as
possible. Vows of poverty and celibacy are attempts to do this. So are accumulating
obscene fortunes and populous harems. Whether by needing nothing or having too
much, both are attempts to make the physical world irrelevant, and both have their
own very deep “holes in the sidewalk.” Way too many who’ve attempted either path
only increase their paranoid self-righteousness and terror. Trying to pretend the
physical world isn’t there, or that it will never run out, seem risky strategies.
Third Age offers another possibility. We could see it as a natural way of telling us
it’s time to remove ourselves from over-engagement with the Physical so something
more can emerge. The difficulty is we can only do this if we see Third Age as
forward movement (remember, the perspective of Second Age still sees the point of
life as linear advance).
This dilemma just brings us back to the paradox of “Which came first — the chicken
or the egg?” Do we have to release our addiction to “progress” to participate in Third
Age? Or do we have to participate in Third Age in order to release our addiction to
Rationality won’t help here any more than with the chicken and the egg. Somehow
the Rational and the Physical are linked together. We need to change our rational
belief systems in order to see possibilities beyond the physical, but our intellect will
only accept evidence that comes from the physical — more chicken and egg.
How do we get Mind and Body to make space for Feeling and Intuition?
How do we become “exemplars to others” of making such space?
We won’t succeed by attempting to repress Mind and Body. My overwhelming
experience with repression is that resisting anything is just a way to feed it energy
and should only be attempted as a very last resort. Much wiser, it seems to me, are
martial arts and spiritual strategies. In both, the most effective response is to see
the negative energy coming toward you (develop mature awareness of the world),
accept the negativity for what is (a painful error on the part of those originating it)
and blend with the energy so you can help it serve a larger, positive purpose (often
invisible to us in the present moment).
These approaches have been practiced by all cultures for thousands of years and are
rooted in understandings called forgiveness, love and learning. While the
mechanization of the industrial and electronic revolutions has brought Physical and
Rational surfeit, it’s offered nothing comparable in the territory of Feeling and
Intuition. This is the work of Third Age, and we are the ones who will do it!
For those looking for a Third Age vision to pull us forward, what a gift this one is!
AUG 23: IN THE UNIVERSE ARE ALL THINGS & NONE IS A NEGATION
Happy Saturday, Bill! What an achievement! I love the trend of your latest
statements–they scintillate! It’s Christmas Morning as a little kid when I read it. I’m
enmeshed in your discourse.
And it’s not ALL just scintillation–there is heart there, what you call “love.”
Appearance is not bad, just as BODY is not bad, and sex is not bad, and there is no
need to separate we and the good from them and the evil. In the universe are all
these “things,” and none of them is a negation.
When I referred to discovering the “FULL SELF” it was in the same dimension as your
infinities–there is NO division between body and infinity. All IS, and is all there is!
Please continue on “your roll!”
AUG 24: A NEW LIFE VECTOR – WHAT IS GIVEN I’VE NOT EARNED?
I’ve been musing on your dilemma in regard to writing your book on Second Age
transitioning to Third Age status. I have a theory (who doesn’t!). It goes something
like this: 2A is largely in response to societal conditioning which suggests to the
young (of most middle class parents) that if they want to “succeed” in this life they
had better start earning their laurels by working hard and following our societal
prescripts of conforming to the “norms.” It’s tantamount to a scriptural injunction
that one has to follow the dictates of the market place which call for reward
commensurate with effort. So, early on the young man (and, increasingly, the young
woman) learns to apply the nose to the grindstone. Voila, one has arrived at the
popular prescription for achieving the highest goals in life! Well and good, for the
time being, in many societies around the world.
Somewhere, say around age 50, one begins to have doubts about the total validity of
following “the norm.” Messages start to come from “outside,” one begins to intuit a
something else as a possibly new vector for living the good life. It doesn’t happen to
everyone, but a sense of dissatisfaction has begun to creep into the woodwork. You
start to ask yourself questions (maybe you read Rainer Maria Rilke for the first time,
or you pick up that musty copy from your college days). You start to think seriously
about whether you’ve been doing all that is possible to unearth the Self that you
have been burying in frenetic activity. One starts to look for that something else
which has been gnawing away at your guts for, perhaps, years. And what, exactly, IS
that “something else?”
If the maturing person is fortunate he begins to set aside time for pondering that
issue. It’s not a question any longer of EARNING, it becomes one of what is GIVEN to
me that I have not earned? And in perceiving a given (perhaps long buried) the
individual observes an alternative course for the balance of his life. How, now, do I
pursue this (or these) alternatives?
Ah! We enter The Third Age!
Being is taking precedence over Doing . . .
5. THIS MONTH’S LINKS:
WHAT MAKES AN ELDER?
ELDERS OF ALL AGES ON HOW TO AGE GRACEFULLY…
THE WISDOM OF YODA…
MARKS OF MATURITY – HOW WE CAN HELP OUR GRANDCHILDREN…
© Copyright 2015, by William R. Idol, except where indicated otherwise. All rights
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