PS--I should note (pride, pride, oh fatal pride!) that all the poems I reproduce here are lines I recited from memory during the talk.
Well, as I grew older, and moved out into the world, became a teacher, I wasn't much more together than a Judd Apatow character, but I realized very quickly that I still really needed some Big People in my life—desperately so—and so I sought them out. I was extraordinarily fortunate in the earliest years of my career to work with some of the greatest teachers I would ever know. I’m going to tell you a little about just one of them:
• Eileen Kutinsky—“Mrs. K, the kids called her. She taught 6th grade science, and her room was the most alive classroom I’ve ever seen—not just in the eager interactions among the kids but in the room’s décor. Animal cages, plants, displays—things, living and otherwise, were jammed in her room (snakes-lizards-fish-cacti!); later, she brought a cow to school (she lived on a farm) and had the kids taking care of it, milking it, making cheese and ice cream. It was amazing.
But there were others—a 1st-grade teacher, an 8th-grade math teacher, a reading teacher, an art teacher, a high school English teacher. They worked the kids hard, but the kids still loved them. Learned from them. And seeing those magicians, I decided: I’m gonna steal from those people!
And when I first came here to WRA in the fall of 1979 (the fall I would turn 35—more than half my life ago), there were some towering teachers here who taught me as well as their students—you can see their pictures on the walls over in Seymour: Bob and Velia Price (French teachers), Bill Appling (vocal music), Sherwin Kibbe (history and English), Russ Hansen (biology), Bill Westfall (history). I also had the great fortune to share a home with one of my own Big People—my wife, Joyce Dyer (English), a superb teacher. Anyway, I latched onto them like a lonely leech. Learned and stole all I could.
So this is one piece of advice I’ll suggest this morning—to all of us: Never stop your search for the Big People. They’re around, wherever you are. And be alert: They may be younger than you are.
Let’s leave the young now and move on to the Old Guys—to the period, as Hamlet said, when we suffer the whips and scorns of time. Old age used to be simpler—and shorter. (Shakespeare died at fifty-two.)
In some cases you end could be grim. In his 1901 short story “The Law of Life,” Jack London (The Call of the Wild/White Fang guy) wrote about a band of Native Americans in the remote North. This tribe of nomads is moving on—and leaving behind one of the elders, a man who can no longer, well, keep up. They give him some food, some warm clothing, a campfire, a little extra firewood, then bid him a quick farewell and move on. Most of the story deals with the old man’s thoughts and memories, but near the end … the wolves arrive. They circle him.
The old man listened to the drawing in of this circle, writes London. He waved his [fire]brand wildly, and sniffs turned to snarls; but the panting brutes refused to scatter. Now one wormed his chest forward, dragging his haunches after, now a second, now a third; but never a one drew back. Why should he cling to life? he asked, and dropped the blazing stick into the snow. It sizzled and went out. The circle grunted uneasily, but held its own. … [He] dropped his head wearily upon his knees. What did it matter after all? Was it not the law of life?
Well, that’s a happy story! But be grateful: Things are a little different now … in most places. My generation—called the Baby Boomers—are now retiring, aging, looking for places to spend our final days. Recently, you’ve surely noticed that assisted-living and nursing and stages-of-care facilities are popping up everywhere—some right here in Hudson. They’re getting ready for me. I hope they have no wolves on staff. I can just see it:
ATTENDANT: Danny, how was you pudding today?
ME: Great pudding. Just great.
ATTENDANT: Danny, you have some visitors today.
ME: Visitors? How nice. [door opens]
ROAR OF WOLVES
Poet and novelists and playwrights have always written about the indignities—and fears—of old age. Take Samuel Taylor Coleridge (are you still reading about the ancient mariner in English I?). In another of his poems, “Youth and Age,” from the 1820s, Coleridge has a speaker sigh about getting older.
When I was young?—Ah, woeful when!
Ah, for the change ’twixt Now and Then!
This breathing house not built with hands,
This body that does me grievous wrong,
O’er aery cliffs and glittering sands
How lightly then it flash’d along:
Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore,
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide!
Nought cared this body for wind or weather
When Youth and I lived in’t together.
An aging Coleridge would have other things to worry about today. We all know about the acceleration of technology—and how it sometimes can leave the elderly behind. (Just today I saw a Facebook meme: It shows an old man pointing to his electronic device and saying, “I texted you several times.” And his younger companion says, “That’s a calculator.”) The last piece of technology my dad could use was a TV remote. He never learned to use a personal computer, an ATM, a cell phone—he never even learned to use a self-serve gas pump. The self-checkout over at Acme would have sent him over the edge. My mom, by contrast, was a very early and skillful computer user. She was the first to have one in our family—the mid 1970s, an Apple II. And until just a few years ago we were able to keep in touch via email. Now, sadly, she can’t remember how to turn her laptop on and off, how to navigate to her email, and her arthritic fingers just won’t cooperate. But she is a proud woman, and that old laptop still sits prominently on the table in her assisted-living unit. Rage, rage against the dying of the light, said poet Dylan Thomas in 1951.
So we’ve seen that poets have raged. Novelists have, too. The final works by America’s great Philip Roth deal with the issue over and over again—The Dying Animal (2001), Exit Ghost (2007) and The Humbling (2009)—the very titles revealing much of their subject matter. Roth, by the way, was in his late 70s when he wrote these books. He’s still alive (he just turned 83), but feeling he’s “losing it,” he no longer writes. I could stand up here all morning and tell you about other novelists who’ve written about aging—but you get the point.
Oh, okay, one more: In 1882 the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope published one of his final works, The Fixed Period. In this brief tale, he tells about a community on the fictional South Pacific island of Britannula, where the new settlers decide to establish what they call “The Fixed Period,” a law that says no one on the island can live beyond 67.5 years. They see this as a move that's both humane (no more suffering and indignities of old age) and economically responsible (it will save on medical costs!). As folks draw close to the age limit, they will be taken to a nice facility where they will live in comfort—until they’re, you know, killed. Nicely, of course. Very nicely. No wolves involved! Well, all goes well until the first few settlers begin to approach 67.5, The Fixed Period. Then, let's say, attitudes begin to change.
And in films and TV? In recent years, I’ve noticed, it’s become more and more common to show the elderly as comic characters—foul-mouthed, raunchy. You surely know about Hot in Cleveland, Bad Grandpa and Dirty Grandpa.
But you've probably noticed, too, that there are some films aimed directly at the Baby Boomers. The Most Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Lady in the Van—hey, anything with Judi Dench or Maggie Smith—or both! I loved The Lady in the Van, by the way. Stream it.
And playwrights? Well, of course Shakespeare wrote about it. (About the only subject he didn't write about was zombies! Though as you readers of Macbeth and Hamlet know, he's quite comfortable with witches and ghosts—but no hot young vampires fall in love with Juliet/Bella.) In his wrenching play King Lear—one of his last—Shakespeare wrote about an aging English king who decides he will both step down and divide his property among his three daughters.
Long story short—and I mean long: Lear ain’t no Saturday Night Live sketch. The 2008 film of Lear with Ian McKellan (Gandalf!) runs two hours and thirty-six minutes! Lear is the seventh longest of the Bard’s three dozen plays—some 3500 lines. The longest, Hamlet, by the way, comes in at 4024 lines. The shortest, The Comedy of Errors, only 1786. (I know what you’re thinking: Why can’t we read that short one in school?! I’ll tell you why: Because it’s funny—and short—and you can understand it—and that’s not what school is for!)
Anyway … King Lear’s two older daughters profoundly betray him, and the youngest, Cordelia, whom Lear initially accused of disloyalty, turns out to be the most truthful and honest and loving and loyal of all. Lear is full of horrifying moments of old age—betrayal by children (at one point he cries, How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child (1.4)), depression, madness, and loss. For that is one of the most difficult aspects of getting older. Loss. If nonage is about acquiring, dotage is about losing.
Near the end, the worst moment of all arrives—his beloved daughter Cordelia is killed offstage, and a devastated Lear carries her out into our view. And the words Shakespeare puts in Lear’s mouth at that moment? No words at all, not really, not at first. Not articulate speech. Just four sounds: Howl, Howl, Howl, Howl! Lear tenderly lays her down, uses a looking-glass to check for breath. There is none. Then he says some of the most devastating words in all of Shakespeare’s work:
Those lines resonated in a deeply personal way for Shakespeare. In 1596 he had lost his only son, Hamnet, age 11. We don’t know a thing about what happened to the boy—just the recording of his death in the local church register. But the agony of that loss would inform Shakespeare's writing for the rest of his career. You all still read Macbeth … Remember when the murderers arrive at Macduff’s castle? And the Macduffs’ little son? Imagine the typhoon of emotion in Shakespeare as he wrote that scene …
Well, I’m really making old age seem like something to look forward to, aren’t I? But there are wonders about it. The births of your grandchildren. The grandson who hands you a book to read to him, the one who admires your behind-the-back passes, the realization (or, maybe, the hope) that the good you’ve done in your life might just outweigh your failures, the touch of a loved one’s hand.
All right, we’re steaming toward the end here (no cheering! silent sighs of relief are fine). We’re now at the part about, well, about what you do when you’re occupying those years when it’s possible people will listen to you.
What do you say? And how?
First—You echo the best of what you’ve learned from the Big People in your lives. You want to be able to say—until the day you die, “I took notice and done better.”
Second—You share those ideas—maybe even truths—you’ve drawn from your own study, your career, your reflections, your experience. How has your thinking changed? Evolved!
Third—You reveal the contents of your heart … What have you stored there? How did it get there? What has love taught you? What have you learned about loss? And pain? Speak of it. Teach!
Poet Emily Dickinson called this sort of thing her “letter to the world.”
And how should you deliver your letter? Well, let’s steal some more from Miss Emily. [PAUSE]. Her grandfather Samuel Dickinson was once treasurer of Western Reserve College. Right here. He sat in this very Chapel when it was fairly new. And if you ever see his grave in the Dickinson family plot in Amherst, Mass., you’ll note that his headstone records that he died in Hudson, Ohio.
Emily Dickinson has a poem from 1862 about a novelty at the time: the railroad. (Not coincidentally, in the mid-1850s, her father had helped bring the railroad to her hometown of
Amherst.) In the poem, she compares the engine to a horse. Before I recite it, a bit about a biblical name she mentions—Boanerges. That name appears only once in the New Testament—in Mark 3:17. It’s a sort of nickname that Jesus gives to two young men, a name that means “sons of thunder,” according to the King James Version. So we assume those two dudes had loud voices.
Here we go—a train, a horse.
I like to see it lap the Miles -
And lick the Valleys up -
And stop to feed itself at Tanks -
And then - prodigious step
Around a Pile of Mountains -
And supercilious peer
In Shanties - by the sides of Roads -
And then a Quarry pare
To fit it’s sides
And crawl between
Complaining all the while
In horrid - hooting stanza -
Then chase itself down Hill -
And neigh like Boanerges -
Then - prompter than a Star
Stop - docile and omnipotent
At it’s own stable door –
Well, here’s what I say: During your middle years, when people decide you're worth listening to—or not—I urge you not to be like multi-dark Jaques and retreat to a cave. Instead, neigh like Boanerges—not necessarily bellow out in the streets, causing dogs to bark and babies to cry and neighbors to call 911. But you should neigh like Boanerges in a metaphorical sense. Get it out there. Work to become one of the Big People—one whom people want to listen to. Need to listen to. Keir Marticke did. We should too.
Oh, and even when you’re much older? Keep neighing like Boanerges—neigh like the wildest of wild horses—until you simply no longer can. A quick example, a very contemporary one—
• The retired Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, a towering figure, now 87, continues to write eloquently about the life of and threats to this planet. Just last month he published yet another book—Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. In it, he neighs like Boanerges: Meanwhile, he writes near the start, we thrash about, appallingly led, with no particular goal in mind other than economic growth, unfettered consumption, good health, and personal happiness (2). And the fate of our biosphere? To far too many people, he says, it’s just no biggie.
It’s fitting, I think, to give Keir the last word today. In her collection of poems, Through Her Window, she has one I especially love. Admire her talent—listen to her words—they’re a guide to life.
“She Who Carried Hope,” pp. 68–9 in Through Her Window
She walks alone.
Out in the rain,
And the world around her comes undone,
The ground beneath her bends and cracks
The trees split limb through limb,
Revealing insides that are dried and brittle,
And the brown leaves peel like paper from the stem,
Flayed in flight by venom winds,
Settling on the earth in a red dust shadow,
Death sweeps the barren land upon which she walks,
Where her soft feet land they falter,
Her knees buckle, head bows,
But in her work this girl is tireless.
Footfall after footfall, hour follows hour,
An orb cradled in her hands,
Callused palms, long thin fingers
Drawing warmth and strength from this small thing,