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Donald Hall on Growing Old and Our Cultural Attitude Toward the Elderly

“When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power.”

Donald Hall on Growing Old and Our Cultural Attitude Toward the Elderly

“For old people,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in contemplating aging and the substance of our personhood, “beauty doesn’t come free with the hormones, the way it does for the young… It has to do with who the person is.” Life, Meghan Daum has written, “is mostly an exercise in being something other than what we used to be while remaining fundamentally — and sometimes maddeningly — who we are.” And yet the great tragedy of our culture of appearances is that people seem to disappear from our scope of curiosity as they grow old. Animated by our unconscious social biases, despite our best intentions, we lose interest in “who the person is” and render the elderly invisible, denying them the dignity of being seen for the immutable parts of the human spirit that remain, in Maya Angelou’s unforgettable words, “innocent and shy as magnolias.”

The felt interiority of that disconnect is what poet Donald Hall (b. September 20, 1928) explores with unparalleled insight and rhetoric verve in Essays After Eighty (public library) — a magnificent volume of reflections on art, aging, and the dialogue between the two.

Donald Hall, 2015 (Photograph by Michael Maren courtesy of Dani Shapiro)
Donald Hall, 2015 (Photograph by Michael Maren courtesy of Dani Shapiro)

Eighty seems to be a singularly contemplative turning point — Oliver Sacks wrote beautifully about the redemptive rewards of old age upon turning eighty himself, as did Henry Miller in his decidedly optimistic reflection on life at eighty a generation earlier. But contrary to Sacks and Miller’s deliberate buoyancy, Hall doesn’t shy away from the heaviness of growing old, which he addresses with equal parts wistfulness and wry wit. He weaves the curmudgeonly, the comical, and the disarmingly earnest together into a tapestry of nuanced meditations on writing, the passage of time, and the continuity of personal identity.

In a sentiment that calls to mind C.S. Lewis’s admonition against treating children as a separate species, Hall — who outlived his beloved wife, the great poet and wise-woman Jane Kenyon, by decades — cautions against doing the same with the old:

After a life of loving the old, by natural law I turned old myself. Decades followed each other — thirty was terrifying, forty I never noticed because I was drunk, fifty was best with a total change of life, sixty began to extend the bliss of fifty — and then came my cancers, Jane’s death, and over the years I traveled to another universe. However alert we are, however much we think we know what will happen, antiquity remains an unknown, unanticipated galaxy. It is alien, and old people are a separate form of life. They have green skin, with two heads that sprout antennae. They can be pleasant, they can be annoying — in the supermarket, these old ladies won’t get out of my way — but most important they are permanently other. When we turn eighty, we understand that we are extraterrestrial. If we forget for a moment that we are old, we are reminded when we try to stand up, or when we encounter someone young, who appears to observe green skin, extra heads, and protuberances.

People’s response to our separateness can be callous, can be goodhearted, and is always condescending… At a family dinner, my children and grandchildren pay fond attention to me; I may be peripheral, but I am not invisible. A grandchild’s college roommate, encountered for the first time, pulls a chair to sit with her back directly in front of me, cutting me off from the family circle: I don’t exist.

When kindness to the old is condescending, it is aware of itself as benignity while it asserts its power. Sometimes the reaction to antiquity becomes farce.

Art by Maurice Sendak for Robert Graves’s little-known children’s book

He illustrates this with an anecdote that bleeds into the grotesque — one that, were it not so heartbreaking, would be comical:

I go to Washington to receive the National Medal of Arts and arrive two days early to look at paintings. At the National Gallery of Art, Linda [Hall’s girlfriend] pushes me in a wheelchair from painting to painting. We stop by a Henry Moore carving. A museum guard, a man in his sixties with a small pepper-and-salt mustache, approaches us and helpfully tells us the name of the sculptor. I wrote a book about Moore and knew him well. Linda and I separately think of mentioning my connection but instantly suppress the notion — egotistic, and maybe embarrassing to the guard. A couple of hours later, we emerge from the cafeteria and see the same man, who asks Linda if she enjoyed her lunch. Then he bends over to address me, wags his finger, smiles a grotesque smile, and raises his voice to ask, “Did we have a nice din-din?”

(What is it about museum guards who so blatantly rattle identity?)

But buried beneath Hall’s lamentation is the assurance that the only adequate response to such dismissal — as the only adequate response to any dismissal and criticism — is to continue engaging with the creative impulse that animates our aliveness. He recounts another anecdote from the same trip:

On the day of the medal, [Linda] wheeled me from the Willard InterContinental Hotel to the White House. Waiting at the entrance to go through security, I looked up to see Philip Roth, whom I recognized from long ago. I loved his novels. He saw me in the hotel’s wheelchair — my enormous beard and erupting hair, my body wracked with antiquity — and said, “I haven’t seen you for fifty years!” How did he remember me? We had met in George Plimpton’s living room in the 1950s. I praised what he wrote about George in Exit Ghost. He seemed pleased, and glanced down at me in the chair. “How are you doing?” I told him fine, “I’m still writing.”

He said, “What else is there?”

Hall is still writing indeed: Essays After Eighty is both a product of a supreme testament to this sustaining force of creative vigor. Complement it with Grace Paley on the art of growing older, Oliver Sacks on the dignity of life’s final chapter, and legendary cellist Pablo Casals, at age ninety-three, on how working with love prolongs one’s life, then revisit Dani Shapiro’s befittingly titled manifesto for the creative life, Still Writing.

Published January 7, 2016




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