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Friday, June 29, 2012

The Road to Dotage

-- By Tom Phillips

What a pleasure it is to run into one’s self in an unlikely place.  A few days ago I was browsing in the Northshire bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, filling time while my wife looked for a gift.   In the psychology section of the second-hand book nook, a title jumped out at me: “The Delights of Growing Old,”[1] with a cover drawing of a rakish, unmistakably Parisian gentleman, nattily attired and puffing a cigarette.   His name was Maurice Goudeket;  I’d never heard of him, but within a day he became something like an alter ego.    

Like Goudeket, I am in my early 70s, a writer and journalist, finally released from the need to seek gainful employment; comfortably retired, healthy, and happily married.   He was a Parisian and I’m a New Yorker, but we live the same way:      

“ ‘I have nothing to do today.’  This is a remark that no longer has any sort of meaning for me.  For if it should so chance that I am freed for a while from those everyday duties that by their very monotony give a feeling of emptiness, then so many activities open before me that my only difficulty is in choosing between them.   With these few free hours of mine in view, thousands of writers have written thousands of books on every conceivable subject, and hosts of artists in every age and country have brought into being a great body of work that museums have gathered together for my personal benefit..   

I get up before anyone else in my household, not because sleep has deserted me in my advancing years, but because an intense eagerness to live draws me from my bed…

Every morning my coffee has a fresh taste, and this comes as much from me as it does from the pot.  There is the paper too, which will put me in touch with the entire world; and any paper, properly read, has an almost incredible amount of astonishing, moving, ludicrous items in it…  

Eventually I emerge into the street, and of all wonders, the street is the most wonderful… always  there are faces, a sea of faces, with everything they conceal and everything they give away."

This is what they call growing old, also known as a person’s dotage.  But as an Irish landlady once confessed to me, “I like my dotage.”   On a really good morning, it is a continuum of wonder, free from anxiety or regret.  

Getting there is not guaranteed, and many people never make it.   Some die too soon, and many are broken by ill health, poverty or a lifetime of conflict.   And for those who do get there, it is not a painless process:  to gain this new life, you have to lose the old. 

For Goudeket, the delights of growing old arrived only after years of depression and struggle.  He was 65 when he lost his first wife, the novelist Colette, and he thought his life was over.   Colette was 16 years older than Goudeket and a thousand times more famous, but as he tells it, they worked and lived together for 30 years in a state of mutual adoration.    

After a period of numbness in deep mourning, he set out to make the rest of his life a memorial to their partnership – editing her posthumous publications, and dwelling in a landscape of memorabilia.  
He stayed on in their Paris apartment, looked after by the same servant, with not a stick of furniture moved.  Mentally, he tried to preserve the thoughts and feelings of his 30 years with Colette -- envisioning the rest of his life as “a long and soothing meditation on the past.”   But somehow the past began to fade.  A crack appeared in the wallpaper.  Even the fixed memories began to appear in different lights.  Re-reading Colette’s work, he found himself looking at different aspects – noticing the style more than the contents. 

His feelings also did not go according to plan.  Instead of soothing nostalgia, he found his memories brought him joy and excitement.   Meanwhile his body began to rebel:  "I was seized with ungovernable fits of impatience, a kind of muscular revolt, which obliged me to stay out until dawn:  I thought all this was caused by my unhappiness, but in fact it was nothing of the kind.  Night after night I came home at four in the morning and got up again at eight, as fresh and lively as though I had not committed any excesses at all.  I tried to damp down the blaze that was filling me to the gentle glow that my chosen life required, but I tried in vain.  I was having an attack of energy, as some people have an attack of listlessness."  

Long story short:  he married again, to the young widow of a friend, and in his 70s was father to his first-ever child, a boy.   

My own road to dotage was not as glamorous, but also begins with a loss, followed by dashed expectations, and attacks of energy.   Twenty years ago, reading the business section of the paper every day, I noticed an ominous trend.  Somehow at or around the age of 58, great movers and shakers were being brusquely removed from their prominent posts in the world.  They always vowed to “pursue other opportunities.”   None was ever heard from again.  Sure enough, when I arrived at 58 (also the age at which my own father had died) I was dismissed from my long-time post as a writer of the CBS Evening News, and sent off to pursue those elusive opportunities.   

Determined to be the exception, I scrambled to put together a second act.  I hauled out my skills as a free-lance writer, a teacher, a musician, even an actor, dreaming of re-inventing myself and confounding those who had devalued me, not that they would notice or care.  The results were piddling.  In my best year, I replaced about one-fifth of the income from my former job, and less than that of my self-esteem.   I had no idea how much my perception of myself had depended on my career, but there it was.  

My wife went to work full-time.  I stayed home to cook and clean, and confront my own inadequacies as a father.  The flip detachment I had cultivated as a prosperous head of the household didn’t work at all when I became the stay-at-home dad to three teenage daughters.  I learned a long-overdue lesson – to help someone through their trials, you have to be willing to do more than observe and kibitz.  You need to participate, and feel some pain yourself.   It took years.   

My prevailing mood was depression, complicated by unruly bursts of energy that kept me awake half the night, jumping out of my skin.    Like Goudeket, I took this as a sign of my unhappiness, but in fact it was nothing of the kind.  I was having an attack of energy, but I didn’t know what to do with it.   I poured my energy into my various comeback schemes, all of which ended in disappointment and renewed depression.  

Still, I made a promise to myself:  that at 70 it would be over.  For various socially conditioned reasons I felt it necessary to spend my allotment of threescore years and ten  in striving after worldly glory.  But after that, no one including myself would criticize me for giving it up.   So sometime around my 70th birthday, I released myself from ambition and the need to compete.   I had no idea what the results would be.   I spent the first few weeks in reflections on my own decrepitude, the ghastly realization that with every passing week, the possibility of turning back became more unlikely, more ridiculous.   

And so I allowed my dotage to begin.  Amidst what I had come to think of as the wreckage of my life, I began to experience what Maurice Goudeket called “la douceur de vieillir”..   "this continual surge of memories that comes breaking in on my inner silence, this contained and sober joy, this lighthearted music that bears me up, this wider window on the world, this spreading kindly feeling and this gentleness." 

M. Goudeket’s account of his dotage, like the account of his marriage, is obviously idealized.   He, and I, must have our bad days along with our good, like everyone else.  And I’m still a beginner at this, barely six months into my seventies.  But the state he describes is real, and it is happening.   

For me the delights of old age flow directly from the renunciation of everything I sought before.   Having exhausted my own (and the world’s) attempts to define, discover, invent or re-invent myself,  at last I have the freedom to let life show me who I am and where I'm going.  

Dotage is a time of radical discovery – but not because we have become so wise that we can “know” ourselves.  Such knowledge is impossible!  We are too deep, complex and contradictory, too subject to accidents and chance.   What will happen to us tomorrow is as unknown and unknowable as what will happen after we die.  But in this flux of incertitude we are free to discover whatever we want, about ourselves and the world -- pleasant and unpleasant, shocking and soothing.    

It’s not that we have nothing to do.   Dotage comes with duties:  to love, to forgive, to wonder, to prepare for our death.   We like to think of old age as a settled time of reflection, but in fact our lives are more fragile and volatile than ever, more subject to sudden change or sudden end.   Even now I feel things happening to me this week that I don’t understand, new patterns of sleeplessness and agitation.  Is this male menopause?  A fatal disease?   Or just another divine inspiration, a fit of madness that will push me to go places and do things I never imagined?   Only if it’s the last of these will I blog about it.  

Copyright 2012 by Tom Phillips

[1] The Delights of Growing Old  (La Douceur de Vieillir)
Maurice Goudeket  (translated by Patrick O’Brian)
Flammarion, 1965