On Turning 70

As I approached my 70th birthday last week, I realized that 70 suddenly doesn’t seem all that old any more. Of course this is not a novel observation (I know I’m not the first person to reach this age – in fact, I remember my mother saying, when she was about as old as I am now, “But I don’t feel that old.” – and of course I’m able to think it’s not so old in large part because I’m lucky enough to be relatively healthy and active. While I’m not all that bothered by turning 70, It disturbs me just a bit more to think that in just a decade I’ll be 80. Somehow that’s more difficult to swallow.

It was on or just before my 70th that I read this from Hannah Arendt, in a letter she wrote to Alred Kazin:

I began to realize how many of my very best friends are between 60 and 70, i.e., [that I] am up against the problem of ‘surviving,’ which is the vulgar version of the more serious question: How does one live with the dead? It is obvious, isn’t it, that one needs new feelings, new manners, new everything… Think of me, sitting in a corner very quiet, and pondering the problem of ‘surviving’ (Samantha Rose Hill, Hannah Arendt, p. 115).

Arendt is pondering the aging of her friends, but her comment led me to think again my own aging and even about my mortality. I’ve engaged this contemplation in the abstract for decades in my rather rudimentary meditation practice, but this seemed more immediate somehow. “Of course it’s more immediate,” I hear you (whoever you are) saying. “After all, you’re much closer to the end.” And so I am.

So I sit in the corner, pondering the problem of surviving.

But I don’t want to write about that now. (See what I did there?) I want, instead, to look backward. And here I turn to a passage from Virginia Woolf, which showed up in my reading a couple of days ago. She’s contemplating a decision she made decades earlier to stop fishing – as she put it, a decision not to pursue the fishing passion.

I ceased to wish to catch fish. But from the memory of my own passion I am still able to construct an idea of the sporting passion. It is one of those invaluable seeds, from which, since it is impossible to have every experience fully, one can grow something that represents other people’s experiences. Often one has to make do with seeds; the germs of what might have been, had one’s life been different. I pigeonhole ‘fishing’ thus with other momentary glimpses; like those rapid glances, for example, that I cast into basements when I walk in London streets (Moments of Being, p. 135).

I share with Woolf many memories of how my life might have been different, if I had chosen one path rather than another. Who and where would I be if I’d chosen to study at graduate school A instead of graduate school B, especially (but not only) because studying at graduate school B led to my meeting the woman who has been my wife for over 35 years? Since Woolf wrote novels (or, as she put it, ‘so-called novels’!) she was able to nurture some of these seeds in the lives of her almost fictional characters. I don’t write novels. I’m left to contemplate what might have been in my own life. What if I had cultivated some of those other seeds that I left to die?

I’m not thinking now of what are obviously big life-changing choices. I know that life would be radically different if I’d gone to graduate school A. I’m thinking more of friendships that I’ve lost, simply because I didn’t take the time to nurture them. I’m such an introvert, and in my day-to-day life I enjoy the time with my wife (and our adult son, when he’s around), my books, and my bicycle. I actually enjoy my alone time. But I’m thinking these days that my personality, together with our having moved around so much of our adult lives, means that I approach the pondering of problem of surviving largely alone, having left behind so many seeds of what might have been lifelong relationships.

In fact, as I think about it, I realize that those decisions are perhaps even more life-changing than the decision to go to one graduate school rather than another. Who, after all, will be left to “think of me, sitting in a corner very quiet, and pondering the problem of ‘surviving’”? I wonder if it’s too late for me to adopt “new manners” that might help to build connections with those who might think of me as I ponder.